Before we start with this article, take a look at this picture. This is a screenshot from one of my Return to Ravnica draft videos. Your turn has just started—you haven’t done anything yet. Tell me what your play is (it’s very simple).
Done? Good. Now let’s fast forward a turn. This is the play I made, and this is what happened:
Embarrassing, isn’t it?
You could argue that I made the wrong decision in playing the Forest over the Plains. That is technically true, but not really what happened—I made no decision at all! I wanted to play a land, and I just played one. I didn’t think about whether I should have played the Plains or the Forest, I didn’t think anything.
That is usually the case when it comes to playing lands—we don’t think. Most of the time it doesn’t matter, which is why we don’t think about it. But it does matter, often in very subtle ways that we don’t notice. This is what I’m going to address today—correctly playing and using your lands. It might seem like a simple topic, but it doesn’t matter how simple a decision is if you’re never aware of the fact that you’re making one. I’ll try to show you that you can, in fact, make decisions in some situations even if it doesn’t look like you’re making them.
Playing Land Number One
Playing your first land has two impacts on the game—it changes what you’re able to play in the following turns, and it gives the opponent information. The first is vastly more important than the second. If you have, say, WW cards in your deck, even if you don’t have any in your hand, then you play the Plains, period. When you start playing a deck, especially a Sealed deck, always make sure you spare a moment to notice what your double-colored cards are, so that when the time comes, you can play the correct land turn one.
Sometimes, it’s not always clear. In Zoo decks, for example, you’re playing all five colors, you have a ton of fetchlands, you can get any combination you want, and you know that, no matter what you do, there will be a spell you won’t be able to play until turn four. In this case, you have to go beyond turns one and two. Imagine the following hand in a deck that has access to all duals:
With a hand like this, you HAVE to take a moment to see what you’re going to do—it’s impossible to play this game on autopilot. If you mess up with your lands, it will cost you a lot, so think before you do anything.
This hand hinges on three important things: that we’re able to play Kird Ape turn one, that we have a Forest turn two, and that we have UW on turn three. We don’t have a third land yet, so that might be irrelevant, but, in the ideal scenario, we will have UW on turn two already, so that we can cast Geist out of Mountain, Blood Crypt, or Stomping Grounds if we do draw those. This means that both lands we fetch, ideally, produce a blue or a white mana.
Fortunately, there is a way to do that: we start by saccing Arid Mesa to get a Steam Vents, playing Kird Ape. Then we sac Tarn, get Temple Garden, and play Tarmogoyf. Then we get a warning, because Scalding Tarn can’t search for Temple Garden—we’re forced to either search for Stomping Ground, giving up white mana altogether, or to search for Sacred Foundry or Hallowed Fountain, giving up green. In all likelihood, we lost the game because we didn’t pay enough attention to our lands. Don’t let that happen to you.
Now, imagine that you have the same hand, but your lands are both Scalding Tarns. Here you have a decision to make—you can start with Stomping Ground into Hallowed Fountain, and risk not being able to play Geist on your third land. Or, you can start with Sacred Foundry, get Breeding Pool, and then not be able to play Lightning Helix. Also, if you go with the first option, then you can’t play a full Tribal Flames until your fourth land, since you can’t get Blood Crypt with the third. There is no correct answer in this case—you have to judge what you think is more important in that particular game. Just know that it is a decision you’re making, it’s on turn one, and it’s going to affect the entire match.
The next factor—information—depends largely on what the opponent already knows from your deck. If it’s game two, then you probably don’t have a lot to hide. But if it’s game one and you think they don’t know what you’re playing, then your choice of lands can impact their early plays.
Just today I was watching a friend play Block Constructed on Magic Online, and he wondered if he should run his Troll into his opponent’s Troll when both were tapped out. I argued that he shouldn’t, because if the opponent has two creatures then he is in really bad shape (he had none), but he countered that his opponent was playing the Rakdos deck, because of a Blood Crypt he had in play, and the Rakdos deck usually does not play as many creatures as the Golgari deck, so he probably didn’t have two. In this case, playing the Blood Crypt gave my friend relevant information (which, of course, doesn’t mean it was incorrect, but still worth noting).
The semi-finals of Worlds 2010 was an interesting example of information you can gather by the lands that were played. In one of the games, Matignon played an early Tectonic Edge against me. I had a very expensive hand, which included a Creeping Tar Pit, so I was tempted to just play Spreading Seas on his Edge, but there was a problem: there was a chance it would actually help him. You see, there is no reason for him to expose his Tectonic Edge at all, unless he doesn’t have any better lands to play.
Here, his choice of land actually says a lot about his hand. In the end, I decided to accept the risk and play the Spreading Seas because I really didn’t want to lose a land with my hand. That ended up being a horrible mistake (but a conscious one), since he in fact needed more blue mana.
Now, let’s look at it from a different perspective—what if his hand is all lands? In this case, he could well end up playing the Tectonic Edge anyway! He knows I know he won’t expose it unless he has to, theoretically, so playing it first would be a very easy way to convince me that his hand is full of spells when it’s not. A very small play, playing Edge over Island when you aren’t going to use either this turn, but one that would have been very misleading to me.
The Lands You Have Untapped Showcase What You Might Have
Most players know that if you want to represent something, then you have to have the mana to cast it. They will never fear Counterspell, for example, if you don’t have UU open. They’ll never fear Lightning Bolt if you don’t have red. For this reason, if you’re trying to represent something, leave the right mana up.
What people don’t always do, though, is the reverse—when you want to represent that you are not going to play something, then you should make sure that you can’t cast it. Why would you want to represent that? Because either you actually have it (but don’t want to play it), or because you have something similar.
One interesting situation happened in GP Santiago. Martin Juza was playing in the Top 8 against eventual winner Igor. We all knew Igor had Bloodline Keeper in his deck (flip card, etc). The turn before Igor would get to four mana, Martin passed the turn with Frightful Delusion up—ready to catch the Vampire. Delusion is the perfect card for that, because it’s not exactly good, so people forget that it exists/that people sometimes have to play it and then just run their spells on it.
The problem? Martin left 1UU up. By doing so, he represented not Delusion, but Dissipate—a much better card in general, and one with a very iconic casting cost. His opponent, fearing Dissipate, did not play the Bloodline Keeper that turn. Martin later mentioned that, had he played another land instead of an Island, passing with, say, UBB up, then his opponent would likely have ran the Bloodline Keeper into his counterspell, and I agree that there is a very strong chance that this would have worked. In this scenario, Martin likely lost the game because he represented too much. Now, if Martin had not had the Delusion, then playing Island is infinitely better, because you don’t actually want him to cast Bloodline Keeper.
Another example, this time from the Top 8 of GP Philly—Shuhei against Luis: at some point in the match, Shuhei had a Knightly Valor that he wanted to play, a Dispel in his hand, and enough mana to play Valor and either use a Guildmage or play the Dispel—but not both. He thought keeping Dispel up was more important than using the Guildmage, but, once he has the mana to activate it and does not do it, it sends Luis a warning sign. He is clearly representing something here. The problem is that he does have that thing, so he doesn’t want to represent it. Shuhei’s solution? He tapped six mana to play Knightly Valor, leaving himself with enough mana to play Dispel but not enough mana to activate Guildmage on Luis’s turn. By doing so, he avoids representing the Dispel, because now he can’t use the Guildmage, so it doesn’t look suspicious that he doesn’t. *
*: After it happened, on Twitter, Shuhei said he had just misstapped by accident. It’s also unclear whether Luis had any options. I think that, even if Shuhei does represent the Dispel, he has to go for it, because that’s his only play. Still, even if it was an accident or wouldn’t have mattered, it’s still a very interesting scenario that showcases the importance of trying to not represent the things you do have by tapping your mana accordingly.
Be Careful What You Leave Untapped
Even though you usually want to leave up the land that represents the most possibilities, sometimes it’s unwise to do that. Imagine you have Counterspell in your hand, and the choice of leaving Tundra/Island or Island/Island up. If you leave Tundra/Island untapped, then you also represent Swords to Plowshares, but that comes with a price—if your opponent Wastelands you, then you won’t be able to cast Counterspell. If casting Counterspell is at all important, then you should probably just forget the bluff and play it safe.
Imagine you’re playing UW in Modern against a deck that potentially has Tectonic Edge. You have Hallowed Fountain, Seachrome Coast, Celestial Colonnade, Island, Plains. You want to play Path to Exile. In this case, you can’t protect a possible Cryptic Command—no matter what you do, your opponent is able to stop you from playing it once you tap down to four lands, because you don’t have four basics.
Still, there is a decision to make here, and there is actually only one that is correct—you have to tap the Colonnade. Why? Because the manland is the one he wants to kill anyway. If you leave it up, you give him everything—he gets rid of your best land and he stops you from playing Cryptic. By tapping the Colonnade instead, you force him to choose—sure, he can stop you from playing Cryptic this turn, but he is going to have to “waste” his Tectonic Edge on a dual land for that to happen.
Play Your Lands!
One of the most important things I can tell you about lands is that you should just play them. Many games are lost because people think they should play like professionals and hold their lands in their hand, but the truth is that you want to have them in play far more often than not. I’ve talked about this before, so I won’t dwell on it for very long, but keeping lands in your hand is good for three things:
• To make your opponent think you have something when you don’t.
• To protect your other cards against discard spells.
• To make it easier for you to complain about mana-flooding when you lose. Of course, if the lands are in play you can still complain, but it doesn’t have the same effect as throwing five lands from your hand on the table. That definitely says “see, I have been drawing lands for five turns straight, that’s why you beat me”.
That’s basically it. Other than that, you should just play them. The mistake most people make is overvaluing the first situation—Your opponent is not an idiot, if you aren’t doing anything, then he knows you don’t have anything. A creature you would have played, a removal you would have played, a counterspell you would have used—what can you have? Holding three cards or two cards there is not going to make a difference, he’s not going to think “well those can’t all be land.” In this case, you should probably just play the lands, especially when you have card draw spells or Guildmages in your deck.
Fetch, Crack, Take 2
Fetchlands receive a special section because they are, well, special. Fetchlands have a variety of uses:
• They find colored mana.
• They shuffle your deck.
• They thin your deck.
• They fill your graveyard.
• They trigger landfall.
My biggest advice regarding fetchlands is “do not crack them.” Unless you need to, that is. Most of the mistakes I see are cracking them too early—before they know what colors they need, for example. Imagine that you have Volcanic Island and Tropical Island in play, and a fetchland. If you sacrifice it to get a second Volcanic, then they might Wasteland your Tropical, and you’re left without green mana.
If you keep the fetchland in play, then you’re protected from that. In Legacy especially, fetchlands play the very important role of shuffling after you’ve played Brainstorm (or [card sensei's divining top]Topped[/card]). Even if you don’t have Brainstorm in your hand, the possibility that you will draw it means far, far more than the small deck thinning you get by sacrificing them (more on this later), so you should just keep them there for as long as you can.
Make Sure You Have the Land You Want to Fetch!
It is not that uncommon for a person to sacrifice a fetchland, and only then find out that the land they were intending to get is not there. It happened to me not long ago, at the Players Championship. I sacrificed a land with the intention of getting a Sacred Foundry, but I had not realized we didn’t have one in our deck, because every other Zoo deck I’d ever played had one.
At Worlds 2010, there was a game in which I tapped all my lands except for two—Scalding Tarn and Island. I was at 6 life, and my opponent tapped out to play Cruel Ultimatum. I sacrificed my land, with the intention of casting Negate—except there were no more Island or Mountain in my deck. I not only had to let his Cruel resolve, but I also died on the spot, because sacrificing my fetchland put me to 5 life.
Those two cases are exclusively due to lack of attention on my part, but it doesn’t have to be so. In our testing with Dredge, for example, there were times in which someone would play a fetchland, mill three with Hedron Crab, and then sacrifice the fetchland—done in this order because they wanted to get back a potential Bloodghast. At some point, though, someone ended up milling the land they wanted to get—prompting us to sacrifice the fetch with the Crab trigger still on the stack when getting a specific land.
Deck Thinning is Not as Useful as You Think It Is
One of the biggest misconceptions about fetchlands is that you should use them to help thin your deck whenever you can. Sure, they do help thinning, but sometimes it’s not as significant as the life point you spend. I’m no scientist, but let’s look at some simple numbers:
Say you have 45 cards left in your deck, and you’re looking for a specific 4-of. Normally, your chances of drawing it in one draw step are 8.89% (4/45). If you sacrifice a fetchland, then it becomes 9.09% (4/44). This means that, in a thousand games, you are expected to draw the card you need 89 times in one scenario, and 91 times in another. That’s a difference of 2 games—in 1000.
In every one of those games, you’ll have to lose a point of damage—so that you draw the card you need in TWO of them. Now, you have to wonder how important the one point of damage is—do you think it’s going to make you lose the game more than two times out of a thousand? I can’t give you an answer to that, but it really puts things in perspective as to how little the deck thinning actually helps you (though obviously if you are dead no matter what then do it).
Of course, if you are drawing multiple cards, then the math gets a little more complicated, and it becomes a little better to use fetchlands for deckthinning. The point here is not to give you exact percentages in every scenario—it’s just to show you that, in all likelihood, removing a land from your deck has a way smaller impact on the game than you think it does, and might not be as important as the 1 point of life, or the versatility of just having a fetch around in case you need to shuffle or to find a specific color.
It’s also worth noting that, sometimes, you think you’re increasing the density of relevant cards in your deck, but you aren’t. This is very common with Scapeshift, because of Peer Through Depths. Imagine that you played Peer and sent four lands (or irrelevant spells) to the bottom. If you actively don’t want a land, then it’s like those four are not in your deck already. If you have 45 cards left, the chance you’ll draw a relevant spell (say a 12-of) is 12/41. If you shuffle, even if you remove a land, it becomes 12/44. You should not only not fetch but even not cast Farseek, for example, if you really cannot use the extra land. In this scenario, only the fifth land you search is actually helping your threat density.
Well, this is it for today; hopefully I’ve managed to convince you that there is actually a lot more to playing lands than appears at first glance. I hope you’ve enjoyed it, see you next week!