Even our exceptions have exceptions.
The life sciences keep reminding me of this. Although it’s not the main territory of may job, I’ve been reading a lot about the brain lately. The brain is, you’ll learn, a privileged space, blocked off from the rest of your blood stream by the blood-brain barrier. Read for a little while, and you’ll learn that this barrier is nigh invariant, letting only a select few things through.
Read a bit more than that, and you’ll learn that this certainly isn’t nearly as solid a rule as you’d imagine (for example, the blood-brain barrier around the cerebellum – in the back of the brain – lets more stuff through than the barrier in the front does).
Land is one of the exceptions in Magic – it works differently from spells in many important ways. And, like the blood-brain barrier, it has some exceptions of its own.
Today I want to check in on some ideas that are particularly pertinent to how we use lands in Modern…and some of the lands we want to keep in mind, whether it’s to use them or to avoid them at all costs.
A very special type
Lands come with a peculiar set of traits that means they have the least functional overlap of the various card types in the game. It’s these same traits that point toward why we’d want to pack some utility onto our lands if at all possible.
Very briefly, what makes lands special?
They can’t be responded to
Playing a land doesn’t use the stack and doesn’t hand priority over to your opponent. This means that the first chance your opponent has to respond to some effect from that land is when it places a trigger on the stack, or when you tap it for a non-mana ability. In essence, lands are the baby cousins of Eldrazi, being colorless permanents that get to put an effect on the stack no matter what.
They can’t be countered
Ah, so lands are tiny little cousins of Emrakul itself, seeing as neither can be countered.
This simple fact means that abilities from lands, and indeed the lands themselves, sidestep a large chunk of the resistance you’re going to run into in a Modern match. For example, about a third of the main deck of a typical CawBlade build is countermagic…and is utterly blank against a land or that land’s abilities.
They dodge point discard
The other major branch of disruption, point discard, also completely misses when it comes to land. This is significant, inasmuch as a Modern deck that relies on point discard – Jund, for example – simply can’t get that land card out of your hand or otherwise prevent you from deploying it.
They dodge removal
In a typical Modern matchup, you can expect your opponent to have creature removal in their main deck, and artifact removal in their sideboard, with a possible side helping of generic removal to deal with planeswalkers and enchantments. There’s also some incidental land destruction, but broadly speaking, your lands get to dodge must of the “kill this thing” cards your opponent’s going to be packing.
That same conceptual CawBlade deck we just checked in on packs another eight main deck removal or creature control cards, meaning that lands that don’t turn into creatures “blank” over half the deck, leaving just those four copies of Tectonic Edge to help with any problems for your lands.
Oh, hey. That’s not a positive.
The one clear downside for lands, and the reason you don’t tend to see “lands” strategies outside of Legacy and its host of broken accelerators, is that one per turn limit. Just something to keep in mind before we get too slaphappy about how awesome lands are. More specifically, this is why we need to think so carefully about the impact of lands that enter the battlefield tapped, since they sort of “eat” the value of that land drop on that one turn when we have to wait to use the land.
Despite this drawback, the upshot of all these traits is that when we can pack utility onto a land, we’d really like to.
So…what kind of utility do we have waiting for us to use out there in the lands of Modern?
The landscape of attack
First and most basic, we’d like our lands to help us actively win games. We can broadly call these “attack” lands, although many of them won’t be doing any attacking, or even damage, on their own.
The obvious case.
Although there are sixteen creature lands in Modern, the truncated selection above is intentional. The others generally have some significant limitations, some combination of tempo loss and abilities that means they don’t make the cut under any circumstances. To pick on a specific land, Faerie Conclave seems as if it might be a good fit for Faeries lists, what with becoming a Faerie and generating the correct color of mana.
But it enters the battlefield tapped, and for a deck that really wants to maintain its tempo intact, that’s a killer. Instead, you’d rather have a Mutavault, which loses the color aspect, but is still a Faerie and doesn’t cause you tempo loss.
The only creature land that’s untested in Modern, but which I’ve left in regardless is [card svogthos, the restless tomb]Svogthos[/card]. The Restless Tomb was a reasonably common one-of in Dredge decks back (way back) in the days of Standard Dredge, and I could see one making an appearance in an aggro-loam style deck living in Jund colors, where it has the potential to be a sort of late-game pseudo-Grave-Troll.
The backup case.
Moorland Haunt has been doing its damage in Standard for a while now. It’s an excellent card, and clearly the most efficient in this class as long as you have creatures in your graveyard to pitch to it.
In terms of proactive token generation that doesn’t face this kind of capacity cap, there’s basically nothing available in Modern. The two other cards featured above have obvious limitations that mean that you’d better have an overall plan that suits their abilities. I think Vitu-Ghazi is actually more plausible, since four mana to generate a token might plug into one possible late-game plan for a control build. Note that the whopping seven mana required by Urza’s Factory rules it right out of contention – after all, wouldn’t you rather spend that seven mana to tutor up an Eldrazi?
You may not have placed recursion effects on your “threat” list, but they’re an important component in quite a few proactive game plans.
Academy Ruins is the obvious choice, and was an element in the Slaver lock of Tron decks past. The Eldrazi plan is generally just better than that, but if you have a deck that can seamlessly include Academy Ruins and Engineered Explosives, that give you tremendous power over creature-based aggro opponents (except, of course, recall that Blinkmoths and Inkmoths are lands, and will cruise right past your explosion, unharmed).
Plain old direct damage
The Megaliths bring us to that interesting question of how much our aggro deck can tolerate lands that enter the battlefield tapped. ETB lands are the enemy of tempo, and that kind of deck is supposed to thrive on tempo…but a one-of Megaliths is unlikely to mess up most of your turn ones and turn twos in a typical tournament, and gives you the potential to have an inexorable long-game solution for when that CawBlade or Faeries deck has stalled you out and has the upper hand in terms of card advantage, but isn’t quickly sealing the deal.
In contrast, the story with [card stensia bloodhall]Bloodhall [/card]is pretty simple – I think it’s a fair one-of in true B/R/x control decks, where it gives you another way to incrementally silence your opposition that isn’t vulnerable to creature removal (since the Tar Pits you’re likely to be running are).
Breaking on through
As with Moorland Haunt, Kessig Wolf Run has had a big footprint in Standard of late, and I just recently advocated jamming it into Naya Trap decks as an additional win condition that can be tutored up via Primeval Titan. It’s also a fair addition to any deck that can generate the appropriate mana and that expects to swing in with reasonably big creatures into somewhat smaller blockers.
However, in Modern we also have the option of Wolf Run’s progenitor, the somewhat more limited and yet more cost effective [card skarrg, the rage pits]Skarrg [/card](also, more fun to say). Skargg lacks the open-ended nature of the Wolf Run, so no Inkmoth kills for you. However, for the same two-mana buy-in as a Kessig activation for zero, you get that +1 to power…and a crucial +1 to toughness as well. This lets you save your guys from all sorts of burn (until your opponent learns to stop wasting their spells that way) and it means you win a lot of head-to-head fights, most notably Tarmogoyf fights.
The Steppe’s offensive use is pretty straightforward. It’s usually a good choice as a one-of in a deck featuring Knight of the Reliquary.
Shizo is the first of the Kamigawa “Legendary normal” lands that I’m going to mention today. It definitely has limited scope to its utility – how many legendary creatures did you see at your last Modern PTQ? However, other than the usual issues with nonbasics, it’s essentially a cost-free 1-for-1 swap for a Swamp.
The terrain of defense
Outside of “creatures” and “making creatures,” the offensive options are kind of thin on the ground. In contrast, there’s rather more variety in terms of defense, those abilities attached to lands that let us mess with our opponent’s game plan.
If creatures are the obvious offensive case, things that remove creatures are the similarly obvious defensive case.
If you haven’t run into Arena before, I recommend taking a moment to read, and then maybe re-read, the card (actually, read the Oracle text, since it’s much cuter now that it says “Those creatures fight each other”). The important point with Arena is that it says “Tap target creature” and not “Tap target untapped creature. This means that you can swing in with your beater – say, a Knight of the Reliquary – and then once you’ve tapped your creature, use Arena to have it fight with that hapless Squadron Hawk that’s the only thing standing between the Knight and your opponent’s face.
Desert may seem too low-level to make it in Modern, but in the appropriate deck – probably something mono-colored – it actually kills a whole lot of the threats in the format. Specifically, it kills Blinkmoth and Inkmoth, the twin land-based scourges of the Affinity threat.
Mouth of Ronom is a special case that works if you’re running the snow engine…more on that later.
Hating out their plan
If you really want to obliterate someone’s game plan, you need to play in Legacy, where you have access to The Tabernacle at Pendrell Vale. Over in Modern, wer’e stuck with the Bog, which gives a ready solution to graveyard plans…at least, as long as you have a Knight to bring it up at instant speed.
Kabira Crossroads is okay, but its ETB nature makes it risky.
Boseiju and Oboro are both non-intuitive entries in the “hating out their plan” category, but they surely fit the bill. Boseiju is your work-around against countermagic if you have a deck that absolutely must resolve a sorcery to win. Oboro, on the other hand, is another entry in the “Legendary normal” category whose special ability is to simply run for cover when your opponent tries to kill it. Of course, it does nothing else, so your opponent is likely to target another land with their land destruction (or land death, per Conley).
On that note…let’s kill some lands!
Everyone is aware of the power of these two options. I initially favored Ghost Quarter in Modern since it’s “free” – that is, it doesn’t require any additional mana to use. That makes it a solid choice as a tutorable target for Knight of the Reliquary.
However, Ghost Quarter is card disadvantage (most of the time). You traded of one of your lands, and your opponent may have lost a land that was very special to them, but they get to replace it.
In contrast, Tectonic Edge is a straight one-for-one trade, albeit with the requirement of spending some mana and of waiting for them to hit four lands. In decks that thrive on card advantage, such as CawBlade, my preference is to stick with the Edge.
There are any number of options for buffing your creatures, either temporarily or permanently. They generally go without much comment, although keep in mind that anything that puts a +1/+1 counter on your creatures is a nice pairing with the persist ability.
As far as mentioning Swarmyard…Delver of Secrets becomes an insect human. That is all.
Odds and ends
There are a few other things you can do with lands that don’t quite fit the offense or defense paradigms.
Looks like snow
I really enjoy the design space of supertyping things. In the case of “snow” stuff, there’s not a lot of overlap between things that care about the “snow” supertype and, well, stuff that matters at all in Modern. It’s mainly a way to get extra options for a Gifts for various lands (something which, incidentally, I’ve only ever done to fuel retrace, and never because I needed the lands).
However, in a mono-colored deck, it’s plausible to run snow-covered basics of the appropriate type and build in the Scrying Sheets engine. For example, Ricard Tuduri’s Faeries deck from a recent PTQ in Spain featured 25 lands, with 18 of them being Islands. If we swapped in Snow-Covered Islands and had three copies of Scrying Sheets (the last four lands are Mutavaults), then the deck would have 21 snow cards in it. Consequently, each activation of Scrying Sheets would hit a snow card about a third of the time.
Six mana per extra card drawn seems kind of inefficient, until you consider that the Sheets can operate at end of turn, which is a nice time for a reactive deck like Faeries to have a potentially card-advantage-generating mana sink.
Emeria, Miren, dragon, go
Emeria sees play right now as the long plan for various mono-white aggro decks. It’s also seen some play in prior Extended formats as part of a slow, long-game lock featuring Miren, Emeria, and Yosei.
Another Kamigawa contribution – there are a lot of those when we look at utility lands – Mikokoro is a nice one-of when you’re convinced that your card quality exceeds those of your opponent. If it would work in a Jund mana base, for example, I might jam it in there (hint – it doesn’t).
There are a couple lands that will tempt you in the Modern format, but which you would do well to avoid. In both cases, they might work, if not for Affinity.
Contested War Zone is a deadly risk in an environment where an Affinity opponent can be clocking you for massive damage from turn two onward. Even if you can develop a board presence right away, Affinity decks pack far too much protection and evasion, and are likely to get some damage through, no matter what you do.
That said, you might be able to pack a couple copies of War Zone in your sideboard, if you think your deck can benefit from a little battle cry action.
Exotic Orchard, on the other hand, is just roundly suicidal. Sure, Modern is full of decks that can generate all sorts of mana…but you will be the world’s saddest panda when you sit down across from that Affinity player and they proceed to get all their colored mana from Springleaf Drum and Mox Opal.
Back to (non) basics
I imagine that most of you are aware of most of these land options in Modern, but hopefully this quick trip through your utility-oriented land options has sparked some ideas and kicked a few options back into your consciousness.
Lands occupy a special and powerful place in the game. They overlap only imperfectly with the routine lines of play in Magic, and as a result they are likely to operate undisrupted for far longer than creature, artifact, or planeswalker-based options.
So do you have a favorite utility land I didn’t include today? What land options have you been bringing to the table in your Modern matches?
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