This entry is part 7 of 41 in the series In General

Grandpa (Eric)

By Eric, AKA Grandpa Growth


Producing multiple colors is easier now than it’s ever been before. In the early years of Magic, multicolor lands were rare and quite low in power level; a stark contrast to the modern trend of printing a new cycle of rare dual lands in every block and a cycle of uncommon dual lands at least half the time. Last month, in my article Is Command Tower Good for the Format?, I gave a much abridged history of mana fixing, detailing how the world of Magic has changed since Shards of Alara was released. Starting today, I’ll be expanding upon that concept and giving each set its due, so grab some popcorn and settle in. This is a tour of the important lands from every block in Magic, starting from the very beginning.


This behemoth of an article will be split into four parts to make it slightly more digestible. You can click the headings to see a list of all the lands printed in that set. Afterwards, I’ll give some context on those cards and how they affected the ongoing development of the game.


In today’s article, we’ll be covering the “wild west days”: Magic’s early years, starting with Alpha and ending just before the advent of the block structure. These sets are collectively known as Magic’s “early expansions.”



Limited edition Alpha released to incredible early success and it quickly became clear that demand for the game was much higher than the designers originally predicted. This led to Wizards scrambling to print the Beta and Revised releases shortly after. These sets were nearly identical, give or take a few minor production errors.


In the beginning, there really wasn’t such a thing as multicolor, which is good because there was no manabase upon which to build it either. You had five basic lands and nine of the original dual lands. Volcanic Island was mistakenly left out of the original printing and didn’t actually exist until the later limited edition sets went to print. Most people played in one of two ways: either they would choose a color and that was their deck or they would lump every card they owned into one big pile along with all the lands they had and they would call it macaroni.


Keep in mind, though, that things were quite different in Magic’s infancy. There was no rule of four, so there was no perceived cost to playing only dual lands in your deck. On the other hand, there was no real strategic incentive to play multicolor decks. Only a handful of cards existed and very few of them were really worth playing. There just wasn’t a big enough population of players thinking about the game to formulate anything that you could label “conventional strategy.” There was very limited card availability, particularly for rares. You might not even have enough basics to put together a deck. Heck, you might not even have known the dual lands existed, because it was very difficult to track down accurate listings of what cards were included in a set before the internet came along and gifted us Gatherer. 90s kids will remember trading rumors with their friends on the school bus about everything from the Konami Code to Mew being under a moving van. It was tough to separate the truth from fiction unless someone you knew had a subscription to The Duelist magazine.


All in all, Alpha was a critical first step. Once the game became organized enough for the players and designers to recognize the power of the dual lands to enable solid color-fixing in decks, the creators of the game immediately stepped back from the power level of certain cards in the limited edition releases. The Moxen and dual lands will always be the gold standard for Magic mana bases, but after Alpha the game went into a long dark period where good lands were tough to come by.


Arabian Nights

Arabian Nights offered us very little. In fact, it didn’t even include all five basic lands. Mountain was the only one that made it to print in this set and as a result, A.N. Mountain has become a collector’s item. The only real addition of note in this set was City of Brass.



This card had a big impact on how players saw the design of land cards. It would become the model for all future pain lands. The message was clear: two colors for free is a little too good, so maybe all five with a drawback will be more appropriate. A land that could produce all five colors was certainly something worth paying attention too, but there still wasn’t much of an incentive to play color-intensive decks because multicolor cards wouldn’t appear for another year and the concept of what constituted a good deck wouldn’t get nailed down until 1996.



This was a breakout moment for nonbasic lands. Urzatron, Strip Mine, Mishra’s Workshop, and Mishra’s Factory. Literally all of these cards still see top level competitive play to this very day. Unfortunately, not one of them even produced a single color. Antiquities was Magic’s first “artifacts matter” set and the theme was strong. The story centered around the conflict between two brothers, Urza and Mishra, and their insatiable lust for resources. This theme shined through in the card designs, showcasing how lands could be the backbone of a strategy rather than just the necessary evil you needed to cast your spells.



After a successful release with Antiquities, Magic R&D went off the rails a little bit. Something that would become a running theme for the game. The follow up release was Legends, the first set to include multicolor cards and it even went so far as to include the first three-color cards as well. Legends were singularly powerful individuals; unique creatures that you could only possess one of. These were generally much larger and much more expensive than any other threats available in the game thus far. These gigantic multicolor cards were balanced by the fact that they were hard to cast and, as noted previously, there was a severe lack of support for multicolor manabases thus far. You might think that Legends would give us the tools that we needed to cast such amazing threats…you would be wrong. Wizards didn’t deem it appropriate to include any lands that could effectively facilitate such powerhouses as Boris Devilboon. We may laugh now, but back then a legend was almost assuredly the dominant threat on the battlefield. They provided the first legitimate incentive for many players to explore the idea of a two-color deck.


The lands of Legends were not ideal for this task. At least the lands in Antiquities produced mana. Half of the land cards in Legends just produced Banding… dreadful. There was an important cycle of legendary lands that did produce at a single color though: Karakas and Pendelhaven would endure the coming decades with aplomb and make quite a name for themselves around tournament tables. Tolaria and Urborg were at least important to the story; laying the groundwork for many future cards that would take place in these locations. Hammerheim was forgettable and rightly earned its place in obscurity.


The Dark

At this point Magic still had no unifying story from block to block and we weren’t sure what the next set was going to bring. Legends had many lands, most of which weren’t impressive. By contrast, The Dark had four lands, all of which were pretty awesome. Only Maze of Ith would make any significant tournament impact in the years to come, but each of these cards did something unique and explored the boundaries of what a nonbasic land is capable of within the game. City of Shadows could potentially net oodles of mana and it created a model for storage lands that would show up in Fallen Empires and about a half-a-dozen times thereafter, but there were still no multicolor lands. Stay with me, things are going to get exciting around 1995.


Fallen Empires

Empires had two cool cycles of lands. The storage lands allowed you to build up counters and use them to power out a big spell later. This model would be tried again many times over the years and has produced some cool cards. The second cycle could be sacrificed to produce two mana now, effectively forgoing future mana production for a one time burst. Both these cards played well, but still only produced one color of mana. Fallen Empires did, however, include one important card: Rainbow Vale. What a doozy. I’m excited that I can produce any color of mana, but do I really have to give away my land to do it? The struggle continued for people who wanted a viable two-color deck, but thankfully that was all about to come to an end as Magic was about to get a big boost in playability and popularity.


Ice Age/Alliances

Ice Age was dynamite. It was the push that Magic needed to step out onto gaming’s main stage. Cards like Necropotence suddenly made the game exciting to play and watch. Nothing since the original Limited Editions release had even come close. Most importantly, Ice Age had two cycles of rare dual lands. One would burn in obscurity: the depletion lands like Veldt. The other cycle would shine brightly even unto modern day: the Pain Lands. City of Brass could tap for every color, but it took a life point whether you needed the colors or not, which was irritating for non-aggressive decks. Adarkar Wastes innovated on this design by allowing you to produce fewer colors, but also colorless mana. In this way, you could pay the life only when you really needed the colored mana.


By now Magic had a thriving competitive scene. It had a Pro Tour, a World Championship, and would soon be travelling all over the country. This new golden age of competitive play was built on a bold new idea: the multicolor deck. Brian Weissman’s famous Blue/White/Red brew known only as “The Deck”  took advantage of the newfound abundance of lands to piece together a powerful manabase. This gave him the flexibility to play only the best and most necessary cards in the game and consistently control the pace of play through disruption and removal. What he created was the game’s first and arguably most important control deck.


In 1996, Alliances tacked on several new nonbasics including the budget-friendly School of the Unseen and the game’s very first fetchland: Thawing Glaciers. This card was glacially slow, but back then there was nothing to compare it to. It would stay in Cubes and casual decks of all types until the printing of Terramorphic Expanse became a yearly event some fifteen years later.


Speaking of years later: Coldsnap, the third set in the Ice Age block wouldn’t be printed until 2006. Wizards, you whacky old goofballs. How’d you forget to publish an entire set for eleven years?



Players often ridicule Homelands for contributing nothing to Magic. Although it was a low point in terms of power level, this set had the distinction of introducing the first three-color filter lands. Now if only we could have moved these lands into Legends, we would get away with never talking about Homelands again.


In all seriousness, Homelands holds special place in my heart. When I was very young, I played Magic with just a shoebox of cards. I wasn’t regularly buying new cards because I had no money. I was too young to hang out around card shops and pick up gossip about the newest sets or the best decks. Everything I knew about Magic was in a single box of cards that my brothers and I had been given by a friend. It wasn’t much, maybe three hundred cards from Ice Age to Homelands, but it was all I knew.


I can’t even recall how many hours I spent organizing and cataloging that small box of junk cards. It was chock full of Homelands, but I never thought of that as a bad thing. It inspired me. It gave me a lifelong hobby that would teach me to strategize, to think critically, and to read both words and people. Because of that box I have made dozens of close friends who share my passion for the game. So the next time you start to pontificate about the weaknesses of a certain early expansion, remember that despite its lackluster mechanics, forgettable characters, and smudgy art style, Homelands still had the essence of what makes Magic great: the power of possibility. It had a profound effect on young people and that is worth celebrating.


Eric hearts Homelands


With Homelands in the history books, Mirage started to flicker on the horizon. Next week we will tackle the beginning of Magic’s three set block structure, the origins of limited, and some dude named Rosewater.


Do you remember when it was a real hassle to cast your Elder Dragon Legend? Share your thoughts in the comments below, follow us on Twitter, Facebook, and be sure to support on Patreon.



“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.

Series Navigation<< [Actually Technology]: “In General” – A Less Brief History of Mana Bases, Part 2: Mirage to Time Spiral[Strategy]: “In General” – Mr. Shuffleupagus >>