This entry is part 4 of 41 in the series In General

Grandpa (Eric)

By Eric, AKA Grandpa Growth

 

I promised I’d be back. And I have returned!

 

Welcome back to part four of my retrospective about the lands of Magic: the Gathering. If you missed the previous segment, be sure to catch up by clicking the links below.

 

Part 1: The Early Expansions

Part 2: The Block Era

Part 3: The New World Order

 

This section will conclude the series by covering the time period “between Innistrads,” as it were.

 

After several years of strong sales growth and heightened player engagement following the adoption of the “New World Order” policies, Magic was in a great spot. It took over ten years, but the designers of the game had finally hit their stride. Every year, we got an exciting new block full of cards that we loved. Every limited environment felt unique and deep. Each block brought new planeswalkers and legendary creatures that could help carry the plot. Every set had cards that would instantly contribute to eternal formats like Commander. Every summer we were treated to a new product release tailor made for casual players. The only downside to this winning streak was that we were starting to get accustomed to it. Expectations were high.

 

We, as Magic players, had gotten greedy. We wanted more of everything and we weren’t going to take “no” for an answer. To appease the bloodthirsty masses, Wizards decide to put ice cream on pizza and give us two things they knew we would love: nostalgia and multicolor sets. Enter Return to Ravnica Block.

 

Return to Ravnica/Gatecrash/Dragon’s Maze

By now, every set was mandated to have at least a few reprints so that veteran players could have the occasional “oh hey, I remember this” moment. But when Wizards spoiled that they were reprinting not one, but all ten of the Ravnica Shock lands, people lost it. The Modern format had grown in popularity and tournament attendance climbed until it landed a consistent spot as a Pro Tour format once a year. The rising cost of entry to the format was becoming somewhat of a problem as newer players scrambled to get copies of cards that were almost ten years old. This increased secondary market pressure was a point of concern for casual Commander players as well. Eventually, Wizards caved and did the only thing they knew for sure would make us happy.

 

In addition, RTR block had a cycle of common dual lands: guild gates. Gates even featured a searchable subtype, which was a remarkable advancement in power level at the time. This lead to a surge in the paupularity of the Pauper format, as suddenly whole new color combinations were becoming viable on the back of this affordable fixing.

 

There were a smattering of other interesting lands in the block, like Rupture Spire’s gentrified cousin Transguild Promenade and Rogue’s Passage, but nothing else that critically impacted mana bases. Interestingly, the final set in the block, Dragon’s Maze, utilized a special marketing gimmick: each booster pack would contain one random land from the block. This created a surplus of shocklands that effectively squashed the entry barriers for Modern and instantly increased the quality of semi-competitive Commander decks.

 

Magic 2014

Magic 2014 didn’t have any new mana-fixing lands. In fact, the only new nonbasic was Encroaching Wastes, which saw little-to-no play in any format. There were two reprints, one of which was disappointing(Shimmering Grotto) and one was incredibly exciting (Mutavault).

 

Magic 2014 was the first core set since the New World Order regime change not to include the M10 duals. It seemed to fans that Wizards had adopted the stance that Standard didn’t always need to have perfect mana. This idea was supported by the confirmation that the upcoming Theros block would have a “mono-color matters” theme. Little did we know, the design team was just clearing the way for a double dose of dual lands starting in the fall.

 

Theros/Born of the Gods/Journey Into Nyx

Theros contained Shimmering Grotto’s somewhat obscure cousin Unknown Shores, presumably a reference to either the Greeks landing at Troy or an indie band you probably haven’t heard of. It also brought us Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx, which immediately began showing up in Commander decks and tearing apart play groups who under-utilized disruption and removal. Note: I got ninety-nine problems, but Nykthos ain’t one.

 

The most prominent lands in Theros block were the temples. Spread throughout the three sets of the block, these cards were by far the biggest splash in the dual land pond since the original Ravnica block. Temples offered industry standard mana-fixing attached to a powerful Scry effect. I for one became completely addicted to temples for a while, jamming them into decks where they had absolutely no business going. Eventually, everyone realized that having a dozen taplands in your Commander deck wasn’t a great idea and backed off that train, but you can still catch me trying to get some delicious Scry value when my personal trainer isn’t looking.

 

Journey Into Nyx would complete the cycle of temples and offer us one final golden gift: Mana Confluence. This spiritual successor to City of Brass came complete with updated templating and a flavor that made it totally incoherent with the rest of the set. Why was this in the block that was ostensibly about devotion to select colors? No one knows. #blamerosewater

 

Magic 2015

M15 brought back the enemy color Pain lands from Apocalypse, along with some fan favorites: Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth, Evolving Wilds, and Darksteel Citadel. The only new addition was the wonky Sliver Hive to go along with the artistic redesign of the classic Sliver creatures that had appeared in the Tempest, Onslaught, and Time Spiral blocks.

 

Khans of Tarkir/Fate Reforged/Dragons of Tarkir

Leading up to the release of Khans, there was a lot of hype for the set. We knew it was going to be a multicolor-themed set based around the three-color enemy wedges. This concept was right at the top of every fan’s request list since the release of Alara block. Commander players were particularly fond of it. Prior to this, there wasn’t a lot of support for wedge decks in the format and everyone was hoping to see some great new three-color cards. Because M15 had a cycle of enemy-colored dual lands, we had expected Khans to contain a cycle of ally-colored duals. Although this guess was technically correct, I was just as surprised as everyone else when Rosewater revealed the Onslaught fetchlands at the Magic Player Party following PAX 2014.

 

If you’d asked me before spoiler season, I’d have sworn off the idea that Wizards would ever reprint the Onslaught fetchlands. Legacy had all ten fetches, Modern had the five Zendikar fetches, and that is just how it was going to be. The price points for key competitive cards had come way down in recent years thanks to strategic reprintings by Wizards. Return to Ravnica and Modern Masters gave everyone excess copies of key cards for Modern. Theros boosted supplies of Thoughtseize. Vintage Masters (although it was an online only release) contained everything that you needed to get into Legacy and Vintage except Wasteland, which would be coming in 2015 with Tempest Remastered. I just didn’t think things could get any better than this. Wizards had been consistently throwing us bones for years. They had little need to pander, but we were gifted fetchlands nonetheless and lo… it was good.

 

Khans contained over a dozen significant land cards. The reprint of the ally fetchlands brought the secondary market prices back under control and put owning a playset within reach of even the most budget conscious casual players. Commander, in particular, got a big shot in the arm because of how critical these cards are to the format. Khans also brought a compliment to the uncommon Shard lands from Alara block. These new three-color wedge lands would become staples in Standard, Cube, and Commander overnight. Lastly, there were common dual lands that borrowed the intellectual property of both the Zendikar refuge lands and the Return to Ravnica Gate cycle.

 

Fate Reforged did an instant replay of these common lands with altered artwork and gave us a five-color storage land for our dragon-themed decks: Crucible of the Spirit Dragon. Dragons of Tarkir would tack on the confusingly titled Haven of the Spirit Dragon, just to make sure we were paying attention.

 

Magic Origins

In August 2014, Mark Rosewater released an article of historical significance titled, “Metamorphosis.”  He announced that the three-set block structure would be permanently retired. After more than a decade of stewarding Magic through a yearly release schedule, this tried and true model would be laid to rest in favor of two-set blocks. Each year would contain two blocks and the overall set release schedule would stay the same. The third expansion set of the calendar year would take the place of the annual core set release. Core sets would cease to be a yearly occurrence as of the release of the following year’s Magic Origins.

 

This was a major change for Magic at the time, but doesn’t have much impact on this retrospective because core sets rarely contributed new toys anyway. Magic Origins itself wasn’t quite the grand send-off we were hoping for, either, what with reprinting the now ubiquitous Apocalypse Pain lands (yet again) and giving us a new $100 Jace we could complain about not being able to afford.

 

There were two new lands, though: Foundry of the Consuls and Mage-Ring Network. While these two would make modest contributions in Limited and Standard, pedestrian lands like this wouldn’t make much of an impact in the now fully-engorged smorgasbord of Commander mana bases.

 

Battle For Zendikar/Oath of the Gatewatch

After the massive hype surrounding Rosewater’s “Metamorphosis,” the release of Battle For Zendikar was a perfect storm of player expectations. Khans of Tarkir was a hit, and it would prepare us to set sail into the uncharted territory of the two-set block. The point was stressed all around the Magic community that BFZ needed to be a hit to help convince the players that this new direction was the right way to go. To debut the new block structure in style, Wizards dug deep in their market research tanks and delivered a set that was 100% guaranteed to sell like hotcakes.

 

Battle had more marketing gimmicks than you could shake a stick at. First and foremost, it was a throwback set. We were revisiting a plane that was incredibly popular with the fans the first time around. While this had the effect of raising player expectations, it also guaranteed a certain amount of adoration from the sheer nostalgia. Just like the original Zendikar block, BFZ was going to feature the Landfall mechanic, so we knew going in that lands were going to be an important feature of the design and R&D delivered on this in a big way.

 

The original Zendikar had full-art basic lands. These would return in BFZ, but we would also get full art nonbasic lands as well. These so-called “expeditions” were ultra-super-duper rare lands that featured a full-art visual design, a unique premium foiling process, and would not be legal for Standard play. The full list of expedition cards included some of the most important lands from Magic’s history, some of which had never seen reprints before. The incredible rarity of these cards, combined with their unique aesthetics, immediately made expeditions the chase version of these cards. Fully “pimping out” your deck with expedition lands would carry a high price tag, but equally high prestige, among players.

 

As far as new lands go, BFZ had common a cycle of common nonbasics just like its predecessor, i a dozen colorless utility lands, and a new cycle called “Battle lands”: subtyped duals to search for with your Khans fetchlands. Most importantly, it completed the long enduring set of two-color manlands.

 

The enemy-color manlands immediately found their way into decklists in every format, but everything else has been quite underwhelming. Even the searchable dual lands–once the scourge of wallets everywhere–were now little more than novelties for Standard players. Unlike the early days of Magic, there’s now a sufficient pool of superior alternatives to ensure that the Battle lands rarely show up in eternal formats.

 

The most significant addition to mana bases came from a strange new colorless basic land: Wastes. The concept of “Barry’s land” had been toyed around with in design for years; after shifting in and out of design files for over a decade, it was finally granted a real printing. This meant that a budget-friendly version of the Eldrazi tribal Commander deck was readily available to casual Commander players and the deck has been quite popular in recent months

 

Oath of the Gatewatch concluded the enemy-color manland cycle and added five uncommon dual lands that were spiritual reprints of the original cycle from Invasion. The were a number of subthemes within BFZ block: Allies and Eldrazi each got their own support lands, and even the Devoid mechanic got a five-color land. Imagine that, a mechanic that specifically turns colored cards colorless needs a land that produces all five colors to cast its spells effectively. Do I live in the twilight zone? No, not Forks, Washington–the one from the sixties.

 

Oath had nonbasic lands at every rarity, but the most interesting offerings showed up at the back of the booster pack. Sea Gate Wreckage and Ruins of Oran-Rief showed what iconic locations on Zendikar looked like after corruption by the Eldrazi titans and Mirrorpool promised strategic depth that could be used in any type of deck.

 

Shadows Over Innistrad

Battle For Zendikar was a sales success. Despite a shallow Limited format, and a complete Eldrazi takeover of the Modern metagame at Pro Tour Oath of the Gatewatch, the set served as an effective launching pad for the new block paradigm. To insure the success would continue into 2016, the follow-up block was planned as a retro set throwback as well: Shadows Over Innistrad. The original Innistrad was a flavorful set based around the classics of the fantasy horror genre and Shadows promised to deliver on everything that was great about the original.

 

Shadows has a cycle of uncommon dual lands that produce enemy color pairs, which  complements the cycle from Oath of the Gatewatch so that the current Standard environment has a full ten dual lands at uncommon. SOI also offers a backup set of Ally dual lands that enter the battlefield tapped unless you can reveal a corresponding basic land type of their respective colors.

 

These “Shadow lands” play very well with Battle lands, which can be revealed to let your Shadow land come down untapped in the early turns. Later in the game, though, Shadow lands will come in tapped since you have fewer lands in hand to reveal. Fortunately, Battle lands will start to enter the battlefield untapped later in the game as you have more opportunities to put basic lands in play. These contrasting abilities allow a careful player to plan out his land deployments to ensure he can have untapped lands at critical points on the mana curve. Together they create a consistent, albeit somewhat slow mana base that will likely remain inexpensive for casual players in the near future.

 

And that, as we say, is that. Over twenty years of magical landscapes, each set with something new and exciting to offer… except for Legions. Silly Legions, lands are for real sets. Magic has come a long way since its haphazard beginnings and it is safe to say that nowadays, the design team has a much better handle on the state of the game. Product releases are much higher in quality and fan appeal, more strategically balanced, and consistently meet player expectations. That is high praise from a culture critic like me, but in all seriousness I think Magic is in a great spot and I’m looking forward to several more decades of awesome lands to come. So after four weeks of remembering how janky the past was, I think it’s high time that I got back to the grind and built some new decks with all the fancy manabase tech that I’ve been collecting all these years.

 

There are also two colorless utility lands in Shadows Over Innistrad: Warped Landscape, which is the creepy cousin of Terminal Moraine, shifted down to common rarity, and the Constructed powerhouse Westvale Abbey. This card doesn’t come into play tapped, it can make tokens to block or pick up equipment, and in the right board state it can go completely over the top to transform into a game-ending threat. It’s no wonder why the Abbey had a breakout performance in its first showcase at Pro Tour Shadows Over Innistrad.

 

Looking into the future, we have a number of exciting new releases on the calendar that sure to impact the manabase of your favorite deck in some way: Eldritch Moon (Conspiracy part two: electric boogaloo), Eternal Masters, and a new Commander product release coming in the fall. That’s a lot to look forward to and, if everything goes well, I may have to reopen this series sometime in the future, but for now it’s time your old Grandpa got some rest.

 

What did you think of the series? How do you feel about the state of Magic set design? Are you optimistic about the future? Share your thoughts in the comments below, follow us on Twitter, Facebook, and be sure to support Commandercast.com on Patreon.

 

-GG

“In General” is the place where I share my ideas on unconventional topics that are often only tangentially related to Magic. This column is a mixed bag where I collect and present ideas that don’t have a home anywhere else. If you want a column about strategy, psychology, design, economics, philosophy, internet culture, and referential humor, you have come to the right place.

 

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