In Development – Which Lands Can I Run?


It’s block rotation time again, and that means all sorts of things. We say goodbye to Alara and hello again to Mirrodin. I have to admit to being pretty flat on the flavor of Mirrodin, but that’s outside the scope of In Development. Well inside that scope is the title question of today’s piece.

Which lands can I run?

With Savage Lands and friends out of the Standard picture, it’s time to once more turn our attention toward the foundation on which all our decks are built – the lands.

Today, I’m going to review our land options in the new Standard. Then I’ll do a little bit of quantitative analysis to help answer some questions about how many of the new lands we can play in our decks, what you need to do to hit your colors. I’ll close with the numbers on some potential manabases for ZendikarScars Standard, and my take-home about how good the new Scars duals really are.

The big questions

With the Standard rotation, we’re losing fifteen lands from Shards Block and one land from M10 – although in fairness, only about seven of those Shards lands saw regular Standard play. We retain seven lands from M11 and a whopping thirty-six lands from Zendikar, with an appropriately high degree of across-the-board playability, given that block’s land theme. All these numbers exclude the five basic lands, of course, leaving us with forty-three non-basic lands to work with.

To this count, Scars adds another six nonbasics, in the form of five allied-color dual lands and one Locus. We’ll set the Locus aside for now, as it’s a lovely callback to Mirrodin and might be a super fun casual card, but until someone goes broken with their [card]Glimmerpost[/card]/[card]Ruin Ghost[/card] combo deck (GhostPost?), we can safely leave it alone.

As land is the primary resource that limits our access to all other resources, our core question boils down to “What kind of decks do these lands let me play?”

The manabase trend line continues to move

We’re currently on a steady trend toward manabases that appear to require more thought if you want to support multiple colors.

During both late Time Spiral–Lorwyn Standard and subsequent Lorwyn–Alara Standard, the unholy confluence of Vivid lands and [card]Reflecting Pool[/card] presented us with a relatively simple decision point – are you willing to give up some tempo in exchange for access to all colors? Naturally, the actual decisions are more complex than that, and your specific choice of Vivids as well as subsequent in-game decisions about which counters to use, helped separate bad and good players. Still, the “tempo for color access” trade was unsubtle.

In the now defunct ShardsZendikar Standard, we were faced with a somewhat more nuanced version of this question. Tri-lands, Creature duals, and M10 duals all offered their own “tempo for color access” deals, but with more restricted access and, in the case of the M10 duals, some reigning in of the tempo hit.

The sheering off of the Alara trilands means that we’re now down to ever-more-nuanced mana decisions, especially in light of those nifty new duals that Scars has introduced.

Let’s review those options

Let’s do a quick run-through of what I think of as the major color-fixing land options available in the new Standard environment.

The fetchlands retain their powerhouse status. They offer access to basics that can subsequently remove the tempo limiter on later M10 duals, and they power landfall abilities. They have the downside of only fixing one of their two colors, but the upside of not representing a tempo hit themselves.

The creature duals continue to be ridiculously powerful, and are a reason we might want to thank the new rare / mythic divide, as they would otherwise be incredibly expensive rares under the old system. Although their tempo hit from entering tapped is non-negotiable, the upside of two-color fixing in combination with a built-in threat is amazing, and typically worth it.

As I was putting together my notes for this week, I realized how increasingly unhelpful it is to call these things “M10 duals.” If the Ice Age duals (the good ones, that is) can be “Painlands” and the Ravnica duals can be “Shocklands,” then these guys deserve their own, set-independent name. I’m going with “Buddylands,” since they need a pal to avoid their own tempo hindrance.

The removal of the Alara Tri-lands means that the Buddylands may have more basics to pal around with…but maybe not, given our next category.

The Fastlands (hopefully, the etymological impulse there is clear) from Scars seem pretty solid, just at a glance. Consequence-free color fixing for your first three land drops? Sign me up.

Unless, of course, that “fourth land drop onward” thing is a real issue. Do you suppose it is?

Breaking things down into specific questions

If our big question is “What kind of decks do these lands let me play?”, then our detailed questions are:

Which color combinations can these lands support?

How many of the current color-fixing nonbasics can I run without causing tempo problems?

Running the numbers

Some questions in Magic are mainly answered via personal preference or empirical testing. The game is intrinsically about combinatorial complexity – my cards multiplied by my cards, multiplied by my opponent’s cards, multiplied by our respective decisions, and so forth.

Other questions are a little more amenable to quantitative evaluation – running the numbers. Manabase decisions fit partially into this category, and today we’re going to take a look at a couple questions that we can address with math.

A word about numbers

Sometimes, I attach numbers to things as a conceptual tool. When we do that kind of thing, the number gives us a handle to think about a topic, but we know it’s not really quantitative. In other words, I might tell you that an American ballistic missile sub is about as long as a football field, but you wouldn’t use that to figure out how to build your own from scratch.

In contrast, today’s numbers are a legitimate attempt to represent the likelihood of certain events. That means that when I saw that you have a 70% chance of hitting the color green in your opener given a certain number of green-producing lands in your deck, I really mean 70%.

However, there’s a giant caveat – all these numbers are just rough, rough approximations of reality. Whenever anyone tells you that you have an N% chance of having a certain card in your opening hand, they are giving you a very raw estimate based on all possible opening hands that have that card.

That includes hands with no other lands.

That includes hands with all lands.

That includes hands with two lands and all five our your highest casting-cost cards.

There are many, many decisions that go into deciding if a hand is “good enough” to keep (and thus count) or not, and as we’ve seen, there are many, many, opinions on the topic.

So what are the numbers worth?

Well, they’re useful for relative evaluation. If the numbers say that deck configuration A is bad 20% of the time, and deck configuration B is bad 10% of the time, that relative difference matters. This comes up in biology all the time, too – we can often predict the relative difference in activity between two enzymes, for example…and that’s good enough for many of the decisions we have to make, because many of those decisions boil down to “pick the better one.”

Setting up the questions

Moving from the questions above into things that can be addressed mathematically puts us back into seventh grade, converting word problems into algebra. I was interested in asking a couple of questions this way. They were:

1) How many Fastlands can I have in a deck before they become a problem?

2) What about running Creature Duals and Fastlands in the same deck?

3) While we’re at it, how many basics do I need for those Buddylands to be good?

4) …and how many lands do I need in a color to make sure I hit that color in time?

I was originally thinking of running through the entire process by which I came up with the numbers I’m about to introduce, and then decided not to, as it’s not a snappy read and the results are really more important. The very short version is that everything here starts with hypergeometric distributions, and then moves on from there.

Learning from the numbers

Here’s what I learned from trying to quantify those questions and their answers.

On Fastlands and Creature Duals

Questions 1 and 2 actually end up being one big question – how many tempo hits can my manabase take before it becomes a problem?

Originally, I thought of this as a two-part problem, but then I realized it actually does simplify down into that question, regardless of the specific lands involved. In fact, the most interesting version of it boils down into the following question:

How many tempo-impacting lands can I run before I start missing my fourth-turn play?

I went with this question because of Fastlands. If I’m running Fastlands, they’re tempo-neutral on turns one through three (or more properly land drops one through three), and then become tempo hits afterward. Creature Duals and other lands that enter the battlefield tapped (ETBT) are always tempo hits. However, if I look at what happens on the fourth land drop, that’s a reasonable proxy for “how bad is it for me from my fourth land drop onward if I still have Fastlands left in my deck?”

In other words, is it cool to run four Raging Ravines and four Copperline Gorges? What about running four Ravines, four Stirring Wildwoods, two Gorges and two Razorverge Thickets?

Here’s your answer:

A quick explanation:

“Tempo land count” is the number of lands in your deck that represent a tempo hit on or after your fourth land drop. Fastlands, Creature Duals, and any ETBT land (e.g. Oran-Rief, the Vastwood) are tempo lands. Essentially, if a land won’t generate mana for you when you play it as your fourth land drop, it’s a tempo land.

“Badness” is my tongue-in-cheek name for the likelihood that you’ll get stuck playing a tempo land as your fourth land drop.

For example, consider a deck that runs these lands:

Approximately 5% of the time you’ll be drawing off the top for your fourth land drop, and the card you draw will be a Ravine or a Gorge, which will enter the battlefield tapped. Do not pass Go, do not cast [card]Vengevine[/card], do not collect $200.

In contrast, this deck will run into that situation about 8% of the time.

These likelihoods already account for things like throwing away certain unplayable hands (0 and 1 land) and take into account all those hands that will mean you’ve been playing Ravines, Gorges, Wildwoods, and Thickets for some portion of land drops 1-3.

For drops after the fourth land drop, the likelihood of hitting a tempo land drops off, but the relative percentages are still worth keeping in mind.

We can keep these numbers in mind for now, and think about them again when we talk about possible manabases for ZendikarScars Standard, below.

It pays to have buddies

Buddylands occupy the opposite end of the spectrum from Fastlands. Always a tragic first-turn play, we can reasonably expect them to become better and better topdecks as the game progresses. We might, however, very reasonably ask how many basic lands we need in the deck to ensure that our Buddylands will no longer be tempo killers when we want to use them.

Decks running more than one color in the prior or current Standard environments typically have about 6-10 of any one basic. In this case, we count each Fetchland that can grab a given basic as a basic of that type, so if your deck runs six Plains and four copies of [card]Arid Mesa[/card], you have ten Plains for the purpose of figuring if and when you’ll be able to power up a Buddyland.

So how does that work out for us?

“In deck” is the number of basic lands of the required type in the deck. For example, if it says “6,” then we might be talking about a deck with 6 Islands, asking whether it will have on in time for a Glacial Fortress to come in untapped.

“Seven cards,” “Eight cards,” and “Nine cards” refer to having seen that many cards. For example, if you’re on the play and you’re on your second turn, you’ve seen your opening hand plus one card – eight cards, total.

So, if your deck has nine Swamps and you’ve seen eight cards, then you have a 71% chance of seeing one or more of those Swamps.

It’s interesting to reflect on certain older decks in light of this table. One typical Jund deck I pulled up from my archives has four copies of [card]Dragonskull Summit[/card], two Mountains, and seven Swamps (three Swamps, four copies of Verdant Catacombs). That deck has nine activator lands, meaning that it can expect to be able to cast have an appropriate basic land in hand…

Opening hand – 70% of the time
Eight cards – 75% of the time
Nine cards – 79% of the time
Ten cards – 83% of the time
Eleven cards – 86% of the time

There are two ways we can think about this.

A 70% chance for our Dragonskull Summits to be active starting with our opening hand seems pretty decent, right?

On the other hand, notice that even ten cards into our deck, we’re still 17% to not be able to play an untapped Dragonskull Summit.

Hitting your colors

The final question is the most straightforward – how many lands that can produce a color do I need if I want to make sure I have that color in my opening hand? In my first eight or nine cards?

Once again, here’s the table:

Notice that it’s the same table, except this time “In Deck” refers to the number of lands in your deck that can produce mana of the target color.

So, for example, let’s say I’m looking at the following manabase:


There are 16 lands in this deck that can produce white mana. This means you can expect to have one or more white mana sources 90% of the time in your opening hand, 93% of the time a turn later, and 95% of the time the turn after that.

Obviously, there are more questions than “do I have at least one white source” – such as having two for Day of Judgment – but this is another handy benchmarking tool to get a general idea of whether your manabase is likely to serve your needs or not.

A transplanar tour of ZendikarScars manabases

Hopefully, all these tables will be handy little cheat sheets as you design decks for the new Standard. In the meantime, here’s a guided tour of how some of these numbers apply to the types of manabases we might want to run:

Allied colors (WU, UB, BR, RG, GW)

Allied color decks have access to Creature Duals, Fastlands, and Buddylands.

Here’s an example allied manabase from a UW Control deck, along with its numbers:

“Hit blue” is the deck’s chance of having one or more blue mana producers in the listed number of cards drawn.

The color fixing in a typical allied list is quite robust – you’ll almost always have both colors in your opening draw. At the same time, the “Badness” factor is modest, so although you will hit the occasional unfortunately timed tempo-killer as a late land drop, overall, the deck should function smoothly.

As we’d expect from a two-color allied list, of course.

Enemy colors (WB, BG, UG, WR, UR)

Enemy color decks have access to one set of Fetchlands, and potentially [card]Terramorphic Expanse[/card] and [card]Evolving Wilds[/card].

The pure enemy color list, as shown, is significantly more robust in terms of color fixing than one might intuit – of course, unlike the allied list above, it eschews any non-color-generating lands. If you wanted to replace four basic lands with Tectonic Edges, you’d see your “hit blue” percentage drop to 88% for your opening seven, which still seems reasonable.

Notably, the “badness” factor on this one is quite low…just as notably, you have no Creature Duals to work with, rendering this deck quite underpowered compared to others in the metagame.

Allied triples (WUB, UBR, BRG, RGW, GWU)

Allied triples – also known as Shards – can potentially use one set of Fetchlands, two kinds of Creature Duals, and two kinds of Fastlands.

With three colors comes the expected rise in “badness” – although the percentage is still low, it’s worth keeping in mind across many games. The likelihood of hitting the right colors has also dropped off a bit, although the ability to run eight Creature Duals might take the sting off of that a bit.

Off-brand triples (WGB, WUR, UBG, BRW, RGU)

We close out this brief tour with the non-Shard triples. A deck in this category has access to two types of Fetchlands, along with one type of Creature Dual and one type of Fastland.

Our closing example list shares the same badness rating as the allied triple, but is even worse about sticking the right mana. You’ll definitely want non-land-based fixing here, whether it’s having green in the deck Lotus Cobra and search, or using artifact-based methods in other color combinations.

Lay of the land

I personally think we have a more interesting environment when constructing manabases takes some amount of thought. The numbers and ideas in this article are a part of this equation, but nothing replaces testing and a certain amount of intuition about how your specific game plan will interact with your land choices.

My take home from all of this analysis is that the new duals from Scars are not only the real deal, but an excellent fit for a wide range of decks. Beyond that, it is simply that we will have to very carefully arrange our land choices with tempo constantly in mind, now that we’re no longer making the more obvious 1:1 trade-off between tempo and color fixing that reigned in the last two Standard environments. Adding extra colors is simultaneously less costly than we might intuit and something to tread cautiously around.

Also, Spreading Seas just might still be a good card to have around.

It’s an exciting time to pick some lands!


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