With the reprinting of the Onslaught fetchlands in Khans of Tarkir they’ve proven themselves as the highest tier of mana-fixing in Standard. Every deck that contains two allied colors has some number of fetches in them and so playing with and against them has become extremely common.
I can safely say that the most common mistake in Standard right now is how players use their fetchlands. They do so much more for you than just turn into a basic land that makes mana.
Every single time you control a fetchland you should ask yourself a series of questions:
Do I want to draw more lands?
If so fetching sooner hurts you since there are now fewer lands left in your deck to draw.
Naturally if you want to draw fewer lands then you should fetch as soon as possible to remove lands from your deck.
Do I need the mana?
This one comes up less often, but it’s worth thinking about. Let’s say your lands are Island, Polluted Delta, Dismal Backwater, and Temple of Deceit and you’ve decided the best play is to cast an Anticipate. If you tap Island and Dismal Backwater to cast it you’ve now committed your Polluted Delta to getting a Swamp if you want to cast a Bile Blight this turn, or an Island if you want to cast Silumgar’s Scorn. If you fetch for whichever of those lands you want more first you can leave up the two dual lands and represent both at little cost.
It’s also worth remembering that if you fetch first you will know the bottom two cards of your library after an Anticipate, which gives you information about the rest of the cards in your library. If you Anticipate and then crack a fetchland your library is totally random.
I won a playtest game against a teammate once because they had four lands and a Perilous Vault in play, played a fifth land in the form of Polluted Delta and passed the turn. I attacked for lethal, they cracked their Delta, and I responded with Utter End on Perilous Vault, and that ended the game. This is a big error since if they had just cracked their fetch in their main phase I would have never had that window of opportunity. One small distinction between a fetchland and almost every other land you can play in Standard is that they don’t tap for mana.
What about when your deck is not random?
But the most interesting part about fetchlands and the reason I was inspired to write this article is that, alongside the scrylands, they lead you to ask yourself even more questions before fetching. In a much higher percentage of games than ever before in Standard your deck is not random.
The best way to explain this is to think of your deck as 60 pieces of cardboard stacked on top of one another, rather than a random mix of cards.
Let’s say you’re playing Abzan Control and on turn one on the play you play a Temple of Silence and scry Temple of Malady to the bottom of your library. Your deck is no longer 53 random cards, it’s 52 random cards and a Temple of Malady right at the bottom. So on turn two your hand contains the following cards:
It’s clear at this point you want to play turn-two Fleecemane Lion, and to do that you need to play a Forest or a Windswept Heath that gets a Forest. So what’s the correct play? To the naked eye it would seem that we already have five lands, don’t want to draw lands, and thus should fetch with Windswept Heath to thin out our deck and increase our odds of drawing a spell, right? Wrong.
If we don’t shuffle our deck, we know our bottom card is a Temple of Malady, and so we’ve already thinned our deck by one land. Fetching puts that Temple of Malady back in circulation and removes a Forest from our deck. So, if we don’t fetch, we have a better chance at drawing a Forest but an equal chance at drawing any land. If we do fetch, we have a lower chance of drawing a Forest, a better chance at drawing a Temple of Malady, and still an equal chance at drawing a land.
If you fetch, you’re changing a 1/51 chance at drawing a Forest into a 1/51 chance at drawing a Temple of Malady and all other percentages are unchanged. So the new question isn’t whether you want to thin your deck—that’s the same—it’s which land would you rather draw, and with this hand I think it’s clear that you would rather draw a Forest than a Temple, so using a fetchland here on the second turn is an error. Drawing a Forest means you can play turn-three Courser of Kruphix and turn-four Siege Rhino.
None of these reasons even speak to the possibility of using the Windswept Heath in combination with Courser of Kruphix later in the game to fix your draws.
The value here is extremely marginal, but what kind of a player are you if you aren’t looking for value in a game of Magic? Good players see those 1% edges and they take them, and if you make enough good decisions in a game and your opponent makes enough bad ones, then it could add up to turning a game from a loss into a win. It’s hard to see those games, but they exist.
These things happen much more often with the blue/black control decks which have scrylands, Dissolve, and Dig Through Time, which all put cards on the bottom of your library. The math becomes even more complicated when you know about more cards on the bottom of your library and the outs you have in a game become more varied.
If your deck is 30 total cards and you need to draw exactly Perilous Vault to survive (let’s assume you play 3 copies in your deck) but one is on the bottom of your library, do you fetch? The answer to this question depends on how many of the cards you know. If you know only one card—the Perilous Vault on the bottom—it’s clear that you should fetch. You go from having a 2/29 chance of drawing Perilous Vault off a 30-card deck where the bottom card is known, to having a 3/29 chance once you fetch to remove a land from your deck.
What if your deck is 30 cards, contains 3 Perilous Vault, and you know the bottom 15 cards of your library from varies scry effects and multiple Dig Through Times? You know there’s 1 Vault in your bottom 15 cards and 2 Vault in your top 15 cards. So if you have a 2/15 chance of drawing a Vault when you don’t fetch and a 3/29 chance of drawing Vault if you do fetch, then the correct play is clearly not to fetch.
- If you draw off your deck without using that fetchland you give yourself a 13.3% chance of drawing Perilous Vault.
- If you do fetch you give yourself a 10.34% chance of drawing Perilous Vault.
These make for great examples of when using a fetchland to thin your deck can increase your chances of winning the game, and when using a fetchland can decrease your odds of drawing the card you want.
It’s a lot of information to process and it requires practice to weigh all this information before making a decision, but it all adds up and the best players can do so very quickly. There are many more factors at play here: the cost of using a fetchland is 1 life, these lands are often in decks that contain Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth, or you’re playing against a player who might play that card. Juggle all that information in your head and try to make the best decision you can, and do so in a timely manner—you can’t agonize over micro-percentages on every turn of the game.
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