Real estate is, as we old hack players always grumble about, the most important part of Magic deck design. Gas cards and tubbies to swing with are all well and good, but if you have no fuel to pay for them, they do nothing (Good day sir!) Assembling and laying out a stable and effective mana base can make or break games.
IT TAKES TWO TO TANGO
Whether you like it or not – tango, mango, schwango – there is a new flavour of non-basic land in Battle for Zendikar. (Yes, I am also a little behind the gun on talking about these pieces of colourful terrain.) I want to talk specifically about them in the Commander domain; first of all, I’d like you all to consider what makes our format of choice unique to other mainstream formats:
- We’re a singleton format; the only duplicate cards we are able to play either have a special rule to alter deck construction, or are basic lands.
- We play a 100-card format (okay…99 in the main, plus general.)
- We enjoy expanded life totals.
These elements combine to create a somewhat different environment to competitive formats.
The singleton format means that we as deck builders have to be far more crafty in our card choices in order to produce a functional mana base. The more colours we layer in to widen our toolset, the greater the sophistication we need to compensate for. If we were just in green, we could load out on a bunch of ramp spells and fish out a bunch of basics of the needed colours and quantities. It’s not that easy when you expand to multiple shades.
I’m not a fan of heavy green ramp. It’s a personal preference. I don’t enjoy watching games where the first three to four turns of each player’s game are the exact same spells. Yay! Another Harrow, whoopee, more Cultivate! I love watching four separate resolutions in a row of Explosive Vegetation…that game is the best thing ever. Regardless, I’m not going to talk about green ramp, and the ins and outs of it here. I want to look today at the way the new “Tango” lands are going to relate to our modern mana base designs.
HUNTING FOR TREASURE
There are several classes of lands. Without expanding too much, we have basics, dual and multi-lands (lands that tap for two or more kinds of mana) and utility lands. We know that basic lands can readily be tutored up by green ramp, or fetched out with the various Fetchlands. Basics, however, are narrow: they are slower to set up multiple colours with, and require greater numbers to enable a more diverse array of casting costs.
As designers and players, we value dual lands greatly. They enable us to increase the availability of colour without having to increase the percentage of overall land. As an example, if I wanted to have thirty red sources and thirty blue sources in a deck (disregarding mana rocks) using only basics, this would require sixty lands in the deck. Assuming the availability of thirty different kinds of red/blue enabled dual lands, we could achieve this with a mere thirty land slots alone. Obviously, the saving of card space is not going to be directly proportional; we do need to allocate land slots based on the statistical rate of draw that we require for a given color requirement, as well as any other utility lands, basics or mana rocks we may be packing.
Therefore, any new additions to our pool of choices are always worth analysing.
The set of five dual lands in Battle for Zendikar (Where were the five enemy variants in the second half of the block?!?!?) throw an interesting spanner in the works. Ever since the Onslaught fetch lands came onto the scene (and in the Eternal formats are recognised as some of the best lands in the game with their ability to tinker in lands from your deck with a basic land type) we have only rarely (mythically rarely) seen a print of lands which can be found by these Fetchlands. Let’s face it – a multi-colour land without some kind of drawback is a true rarity.
Back in the day, cardboard of the ilk of Underground Sea was kept in check by the likes of Boil or Tsunami. Their drawbacks for their dual nature were their vulnerabilities to this typing, while cards like City of Brass had their drawback in the form of a pain trigger. Cards we would consider to be near worthless today such as the original Painlands (Karpulsan Forest as an example) were “real money” cards – cardboard we took for granted as being “as good as it gets” for diversifying and stabilising our mana bases. The Onslaught fetch lands changed the world in the sense that the basic land typing of the Revised Dual Lands became their strongest advantage. Flooded Strand was a way to get any colour of mana we wanted.
As discussed above, the value of terrain is defined three ways: how it can be found, what it can produce/do and how quickly/painlessly it can do it. As an example, in a five-colour list, a Command Tower that comes in untapped is going to offer more value than one that comes in tapped. It is, however, better than one that comes in tapped and costs a mana not to be sacrificed (such as Rupture Spire).
This logic also extends to other lands. If one was to compare an Underground Sea with a Watery Grave and the new Sunken Hollow, we have cards that are identical in that they all have the same searchable typing (Island Swamp), and they all produce the same resources (blue or black). They are, however, different in the sense that they operate at different speeds.
We all know that there are things that allow us to bypass or lock things down to irrelevance. For the purpose of this exercise let’s assume we’re operating in an isolated environment.
Since we’re looking at them in isolation, I don’t believe it is right to compare an Underground Sea to a Drowned Catacomb. One is searchable and the other is not, one has a speed check and the other does not. To compare the value and hence playability of a Sunken Hollow to a Watery Grave, one needs to ask how often will the Sunken Hollow enter play untapped? We know the Underground Sea will always enter untapped. We also know that a Watery Grave can always enter untapped except in very extreme circumstances. The new lands, however, need to see two basics in play. Outside of a green ramp based deck, and unless your deck is flooded with higher numbers of basics, these “Tango” lands are going to enter play tapped a lot more frequently in the early game. Dropping a “Tango” land in late game, assuming the actual presence of basic land in the deck, should make it almost as reliable as a Revised Dual.
However, we need to also look at how they compare to other types of duals. These lands are probably most closely related to the “Check” lands (think Sulfur Falls) and “Fast” lands (think Seachrome Coast). The relation here is that these three lands check on other lands already in play to determine how they enter themselves. The “Tango” lands automatically have the advantage, as they can be more readily tutored (and hence can be timed to optimise their inbound tap state). In the 60-card format, Fast lands in their 4-of state have a value premise due to the odds of finding them and playing them in the first few turns. In the hundred card singleton format the probability of this is significantly lower.
We also need to look at how the Tangos shape up against a Check land. The comparison is quite interesting in that the Tango and the Check lands both care about land type. The Checks look at land types, and as such they hold synergy with Tangos, Revised Duals, Shocks and Basics, but a Tango looks only at the number of basic lands without caring what they are. With our land tutoring ability and desire to expand our colour spread solution, we should be able to easily control and almost always get a Check land into play untapped. The question that needs to be asked then is this:
How often can we time getting two basics into play before tinkering out a Tango land?
That question depends on how many basic lands people are running in their decks, and what kind of tutor package is being engaged to tinker them out. If we’re relying on a pure Fetchland package, we’re then reducing the efficiency of the expansion of our mana base and increasing the stress and workload that our tutors have to perform under. On the other hand, if we’re powering ourselves on a green-based tutor package, the packages primarily consisting of basic tinker/tutor tricks will allow us to readily access the core basics needed to meet the requirements of the Tango lands.
The corollary question is then how quickly can a Tango land be resolved as untapped, in comparison to a Check land. The Check land only cares about the subtype, so a Check land can – and frequently does – resolve untapped as a second land drop, while a Tango land can only resolve untapped as the third land at best.
HARD TAP LANDS
The thing about Hard Tap lands (like the Scry lands, Guildgates, Lifegain Duals and of course original Tap (and Snow Tap) lands) is that they are all hard-locked to come into play tapped. I’m going to state it out loud so everyone is on the same page here – they are designed with a stick and carrot. The stick is that they come in tapped and the carrot is that they all have some kind of bonus effect. Let’s be honest, if we had a choice of a vanilla X/Y dual versus the same X/Y dual that comes in tapped but does something else too, what would you choose? I’d choose the speed of the untapped entry unless I had a very specific need otherwise.
As an example, in a deck wanting to win with a Maze’s End trigger, one would pack the deck out with a complement of Guildgates to enable itself, rather than trying to rely on other similar tap duals. As an extension, in a Maze’s End deck I would therefore run Guildgates over Tango lands. Similarly, I would run Scry lands over Tango lands in a ‘top-deck matters’ list, because that ability to get free additional scry triggers becomes absurdly valuable.
Why have one Sensei’s Divining Top when I can have 11?
CORNER CASE SCENARIOS
There are always one or two. When we’re talking real estate, we’re talking a whole Jayemdae Tome of corner case scenarios. Dual lands, in comparison to Tri-lands (‘shard’ and ‘clan’) or (worse still) rainbow lands lose out on their primary advantage for play – the ability to tap for two mana. Why would you choose the ability to tap for two mana when you could tap for three or more? Why not colour-fix your whole deck in one hit compared to two? If comparing a straight up vanilla tap lands like Salt Marsh[/card ] with a Tri land like an [card]Opulent Palace, the obvious question is why would you run the Marsh over the Palace? In a two-colour deck, this wouldn’t matter; however, in three or more colours the Palace is immediately a better choice.
On the other hand though, neither is readily tinker- or tutor-able – a clear disadvantage when compared to the land typing of a Tango land. From my own experience, the further I push into optimising five-colour mana bases for my themed Child of Alara trick decks, the fewer basic lands I find I am running. As we discussed earlier, the fewer basic lands a deck is running effectively brings the speed factor of a Tango land down to a tutorable hard tap land. There are already three better options if you need to fetch out a specific colour and use it now: Revised Dual, Shock and Basic land.
Karoo (Boros Garrison), Storage (Dreadship Reef) and Man lands (Celestial Colonnade) are other types of land I have seen people bring into discussions to try to compare them with Tango lands. Do they present a particular corner case scenario? Do they exist in a deck to do a specific task? All three of these land classes have their sticks and carrots. Karoo come in tapped and bounce a land as their stick, while their carrot is their higher rate of mana production in the form of tapping for both colours at once (ignoring the mono-colour nature of the Visions Karoos). The Man lands have the ability to dodge mass board sweepers or locks and go mano-a-mano into the redzone, and the Storage lands have the ability to fill up and spill out excess mana when it is really needed. If your deck was using these as just dual lands, then a case could be made that replacement with Tango lands is a viable decision. However, I doubt that many deck designers would be actively making the specific decision to include those types of cards without the intent to use and abuse their carrots.
Tribal duals (Auntie’s Hovel) and Tainted lands (Tainted Field) are definitely a corner case scenario. Both cases present narro- band scenarios that where they apply, where they present options nearly as good as or exceeding some of the higher class lands on our list. In the case of Tainted lands like Tainted Isle, black-centric mana bases (especially ones running land type addition effects similar to Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth) are easily creating a functional equivalent to a running Drowned Catacombs. Similarly, Wanderwine Hub in a tribal Merfolk list is close to a Glacial Fortress or nearly a Tundra. These classes of land in those scenarios are almost certain to offer a greater speed consistency than a Tango land; however I would not be dismissing a Tango land outright in these scenarios as there are other slots that they could fill.
Aside from the obviously terrible options of Slow and Pain lands, which unless you have built specifically around abusing them are bluntly terrible choices in comparison to the plethora of joy discussed above (recurring pokes really suck the fun out of tapping one’s lands), the last land class I want to poke my nose into are Filter lands. Filter lands are not true dual lands, and as such it is difficult to compare them on a like-for-like basis with other true duals. While they output two mana, they cannot be compared to a Karoo as they require mana to power up.
What does a filter land do, then? It certainly doesn’t actively expand our mana base. Playing a filter could render it simply tappable for one colourless mana. Playing a dual like a Tango at least allows us access to one of two colours next turn. Playing a dual to power the filter the following turn is little different to playing an additional dual, but there is a difference. Playing additional duals offers us the choice to expand our colour availability. Playing two duals can have four colours accessible. Playing a filter and a dual only allows a maximum of three colours available. On the flip side of that coin, the filter allows for more flexibility in playing a spell requiring a harder mana cost earlier – that is to say it is much easier to cast a Cryptic Command with a Cascade Bluffs in play than without.
THE MAZE’S END
Will these new lands find a home in our beloved format? What decks will they find a home in? I can’t say specifically for sure. What I can tell you is that they will be played. I doubt there will be a great up-take of these new lands in the five-colour deckbuilders of our community. As I noted earlier, the much lower level of basic lands in a five-colour base reduces the efficiency of these lands. They are competing for space with Revised Duals, Shocks, Fetches, five-colour lands and other utility lands. There is only so much space available.
In the optimisation of two and three-colour mana bases, Tango lands may well have a home. This potential home is going to depend on a few factors:
- The number of Fetch lands being run
- The number of available basic lands in deck
- The number of sub-optimal duals already in the deck
A deck with a higher number of Fetchlands is going to prioritise fishing out the Revised Duals and the Shocks first, and then it will fish out the Tango lands as a tertiary choice. For decks that are already doing this, I do not see them increasing their numbers of fetches to do it more. Decks that are not presently doing this, especially with the recent reprinting of fetches (making them monetarily more available), will likely look at adding these tactics to their design. Where money has been a factor, those designers are likely to consider Shocks to sit in the Revised Dual slots and Tangos in the Shock slots. These changes are likely to slide out those lower grade hard-tap lands to the binders, leading to a slight homogenisation of dual and tri-colour mana base design.
While I don’t want or expect everyone to agree with me, I hope that my ramblings have brought a few additional points to consider to the table. If so, my job is done. If you want to discuss philosophy on this topic further, hit me up in the comments or on twitter.
Love and Velociraptors.
Note: To answer the question Dave posed to us all here, my order is as follows:
5 Colour Mana bases:
Specific Job Corner Case Scenarios
2 or 3-Colour Mana bases:
Drawbackless Rainbow lands (e.g. Command Tower)
Specific Job Corner Case Scenarios