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Sorry I... Didn't Finish Your Land Cycle (Part 2)


So I thought it'd be worth taking a look back at all the "unfinished" land cycles in Magic's history and figure out which ones we really want to see again, along with which ones will have opponents calling their friends over because they can't believe you're actually playing that card. And, then you go home and throw them in a shoe box in the back of your closet, never to touch human hands again, until your mom throws them out after you leave for college—along with your fetch lands. If you missed Part 1, be sure to give it a read first.

PART 2: Modern Lands!
CHAMPIONS OF KAMIGAWA (Every bristle of your toothbrush has a toothbrush-bristle Kami living in it...and they all hate you passionately.)

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These lands are gorgeous—way, way more gorgeous than they deserve. Getting John Avon to paint your crappy-reprint-with-a-generic-name-but-they're-so-bad-we-never-used-them-again lands is like hiring Da Vinci to paint your barn...red. Just red. If you want people to look at great Magic art and put it into their decks, this is not the way to do it.

The art is definitely amazing but has a strange theme of "giant vertical pillars of light" running through it. It works fine for the lake reflection and the waterfall and maybe the ridge, but it's odd in the graveyard's mist and really odd in the Tranquil Garden. I don't know how tranquil this garden can be if you have to keep your eyes closed all the time because someone decided to summon the mothership. I could walk through a SWAT operation and experience the same kind of tranquility as you get here.

The Lantern-Lit Graveyard also raises some questions, like, is there a cemetery worker dude with an A-frame ladder who refills the lanterns with oil every hour? Some of those lanterns are hung really far out on some pretty thin and tenuous branches. Or, should we just assume "spooky ghost light" and that a whole bunch of Lantern Kami are bored enough to spend all of their time sitting inside of lanterns? And if so, why do they need physical lanterns at all instead of just hovering there, since they have multi-lantern appendages? Inquiring minds want to know.

As I said last time when reviewing the Tempest lands that these are clones of, in terms of abilities, they're probably worse and definitely much easier to screw up than just having lands that come into play tapped and gain you 1 life (thanks again, Khans...). They offer you the chance to have the land stay tapped at the wrong time several times in a game, rather than just once! Exciting stuff.

FINISH THIS CYCLE!: 4 out of 10. You now have the "generic" dual lands (e.g., Cinder Barrens) that you can always reprint at uncommon, but maybe it wouldn't hurt to have another cycle available for that purpose. These are not for constructed, where mana costs are compressed and you can rarely afford missing mana, but in limited, they're usually a bit more forgivable until they totally screw you over that one time. I could see the enemy cycle in a future set as uncommons—maybe we could do giant horizontal pillars of light, just to be different. Just use some stills from a J. J. Abrams movie to get the proper lens flare, and you'd be fine.

 

WS

COLDSNAP (Do any good sets have unfinished land cycles? News at 10.)

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OK, I admit had to look up "weald." It's Ye Olde English for "forested area." Like, pre-Shakespearean, stolen-directly-from-German-"wald" English, even. When you're so desperate to think of another word for forest that you steal from a language that hasn't been spoken since America was discovered, maybe it's time to cut back on using synonyms.com or whatever the flavor guys use on their smartphones while at the dog races doing their "jobs." At that point, you might as well have called it Highland Oi and stolen the word for forest from Mongolian. Oi! It's way more fun to say.

It's always really nice to get another land from John Avon, but Highland Weald is not his strongest work. Why are all of the trees pink? Like, bright pink for no reason? Did no one at Wizards think that was weird? Do you just accept any John Avon piece he sends and thank your lucky stars he agreed to paint something for you, even if he painted an Octopus when you wanted a Bat? Probably you do.

There's a poem (of sorts) that runs through the flavor text of all these lands. Tastes on poetry vary, but let's just say that I don't think it's going to win any eighth-grade English classroom awards anytime soon.

These lands are definitely kind of one-note. If Magic ever comes back to snow, they almost certainly would finish this cycle. If Magic doesn't, then they almost certainly will never bother.

FINISH THIS CYCLE!: 5 out of 10. I like to play the long game and figure that Magic will eventually get back around to most of its failed / so-so mechanics like snow, and so we'll get the enemy ones someday.

 

TIME SPIRAL (Only smart people like this set. At least, that's what they'll all smugly tell you.)

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These are great lands. They see some play in Commander and even occasionally in slow, controlling Modern decks, before those became rarer than a sunbathing raccoon. However, they are also kind of weird, like raccoon analogies. Time Spiral was set in the middle of an ill-defined temporal apocalypse of apocalyptic proportions, and somehow, that meant everything got covered in salt. And fungus. This is definitely weird because fungus has a really hard time growing if everything is covered in salt. Also, all of the mountains became giant pillars for some reason, I guess. The names of the other three lands could probably go in most sets if you squint, but fungus land and salt land are a little harder to plop down in most planes.

But the weirdest part is the templating of the third ability. Compare it to Mage-Ring Network:

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Because Time Spiral's theme was "designing things in the most complex way possible," they made the third ability cost one instead of tapping, in case after spending some colored mana, you later wanted additional colored mana from this land. The problem is that it just almost never happens in practice, because you know, to use the ability again, you still need to have other lands that probably provide colored mana and stuff already, so why burn a counter? If, like, 90% of the rest of your deck was colorless mana for some reason, maybe you'd need to use the ability twice in a turn once every 20 games or so. And if your deck isn't 90% colorless, then you maybe never will. This decision also makes them read quite confusingly, like some kind of mini-puzzle you have to solve every time you pick up the card.

Also, it's terrible gameplay because normally when you see a tapped land on the other side of the battlefield, you don't have to worry about what two different types of colored mana that tapped land can still provide. That's kind of important when playing in tournaments and seeing whether your opponent can counterspell you or whatever. Should you need to check every one of their lands for hidden mana abilities every single game? The added 0.01% of utility is not at all worth the multiple types of complexity it adds. They're fighting against some seriously ingrained Magic instincts here.

Wizards realized this and fixed it for Mage-Ring Network, but that leaves these lands in a kind of limbo. Do they just do a new full cycle with the better templating? Or, are they going to finish this out despite its poor templating? I imagine that's why they are still on this list—that and the fact that, as dual lands, they're (say it with me) "probably too good for Standard." They did the exact same land as all colorless and put it at uncommon, and it saw play, so these would be rares if we ever got them again in Standard. But there's yet another weird thing. Not only are they way better than the colorless version, but doing two-color ones this way doesn't leave much room for one-color storage lands, which they still haven't ever done in a not-terrible fashion. (Hello, Hollow Trees and Rushwood Grove.)

FINISH THIS CYCLE!: 8 out of 10. Although there are plenty of weird issues to solve, everyone would love to have some more storage lands. I mean, green / blue are the colors of aquariums, black / green are the colors of both cat and corpse hoarders, white / black are the colors of churches that keep elephants around, red / white are the colors of owning too many weapons, and blue / red are the colors of building a lot of unnecessary steam-powered equipment, so the enemy colors could really use some more storage space.

 

SHARDS OF ALARA (Play three colors with terrible fixing! But don't try and play wedges unless you still enjoy enormous punches to the face.)

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"Hey, we have developed these five very diverse worlds that our Creative guys have poured, like, multiple minutes into, and we really want to show the distinct shards at common on the most seen lands in the set. Let's do it by showing how the clouds look different on each shard. Just put the actual landscape really tiny at the bottom, but make sure everyone really focuses on the clouds."

This is seriously what the Magic art director decided to do. No jokes—a conversation like that must have actually taken place at Wizards at one point. Honestly, it's kind of unbelievable, but here we are eight years later, staring at a bunch of stupid clouds.

OK, Bant has fluffy clouds. Thanks for letting me know; that really gets across what the Bant shard, with its castles and hills and honor and sigils, is all about. Esper has flat-bottomed clouds. Grixis has pink clouds and some bones that are maybe turning into clouds or something. Jund is the absolute worst one. No offense to the artist, but from any distance further than your nose, it looks like someone accidentally spilled a bit of red paint onto a piece of black construction paper. Naya is OK, in that the still massive and unusually prominent clouds are mostly hidden behind some trees. I imagine the artist, after taking one look at his first attempt with all clouds, decided, "Boy, focusing on clouds really sucks," and decided to paint some trees over them. And, instead of promoting him to art director for his genius insight, they straight up fired this dude.

I'm just speculating as to what happened, but this card is the very last time he worked on a normal Magic set. He's painted a total of three Commander / Masters cards in the eight years since then, when before that, he was averaging 10 or so main-expansion Magic cards every year. I imagine he turned in the artwork with the trees painted over the clouds, the art director went ballistic because his precious clouds were partially obscured AND HOW CAN PLAYERS UNDERSTAND THE SHARDS IF THEY DON'T KNOW WHAT THEIR CLOUDS LOOK LIKE, and that's all she wrote for poor now-blacklisted Mr. Hideaki Takamura.

Ability-wise, they're basically these cards:

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...with A) a one-mana activation discount for only getting three of the five possible basics or B) a one-mana activation penalty for providing a wingdings, depending on how you look at it. This is fine for limited, but they do cause extra shuffling at common, so the enemy cycle is probably yet another candidate for a rarity bump.

FINISH THIS CYCLE!: 5 out of 10. No one's clamoring for it, but I wouldn't be surprised to see wedge versions happen someday. Oooh, maybe we could have them draw the bathrooms of the various Khans clans to show off each wedge! Or, maybe an art series focusing on the different welcome mats of the clans. Or, a close-up of each clan's favorite chicken dish (Temur: hand-squashed). Sadly, none of these ideas are dumber than doing clouds. But we should finish this cycle because wedges need all the help they can get—said no one anywhere, because Wedge is awesome and could kick Luke's butt.

 

ZENDIKAR (If someone's not dead by Turn 4, you're not drafting it right)

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I don't have a ton to say about these lands, except, man, Akoum got the short end of the stick. All the other "refuge" lands are nice, secure, tranquil locations. The Akoum not only live with no less than 12 giant hedrons floating right over their tents (which, two sets later, drop right onto their heads) but it appears that there's a tornado currently wrecking the town! They couldn't find enough "refuge" time to pose for a single picture without something destroying them. And, this is the safest place in all of Akoum right now? Jeez, is the air there made of fiery razorblades or something? (According to the other cards with Akoum in the title, pretty much.)

And yes, you can argue that maybe it's supposed to be a really enormous column of smoke and not a tornado, but that just means that their entire settlement is on fire, so it doesn't really help their case.

FINISH THIS CYCLE!: 0 out of 10. They did finish this cycle in Khans, with nice generic names. No chance they'll come back to these. I still don't get why the Akoum had to camp directly under the hedrons. Sure, as far back as your great-great-grandfather can remember, they've floated just fine, but maybe you don't want to put the kid's sleeping bags right under them just in case. There has to be some other spot in Akoum with slightly fewer hedrons per square foot overhead.

 

SCARS OF MIRRODIN (You like Mirrodin? You want to go back? DESTROYED! You like Tarkir? DESTROYED! You like Zendikar? DESTROYED! Innistrad? DESTROYED! It all started here...)

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WARNING: This was written in a time of unending disappointment and despair just a few weeks ago before Wizards unCONCEALED an INSPIRING SANCTUM of BLOOMING hope. Well, they're probably better than a root CANAL.

Finally got here! So, when the frickin'-frackin'-holy-unbelievable-eternity will they finally get around to printing the enemy-color ones? It's been six years now! Next year and it'll be longer than the wait to finish the fetch lands and the wait to finish the pain lands! People still actually play these lands! Argh! It's kind of insane!

We all realize that the names make it impossible to reprint the ally-colored ones on a non-Mirrodin plane. We don't care. Just finish them. We don't care if the new ones are named after Homelands legends and we get Granny Sengir's Craft Room and Veldrane's Disturbing Ceiling Mirror. Just give us these lands! Stop taunting us! Why don't you love us, Wizards? Why do yous hates the players so much?!? See, I'm lisping, I'm so upset.

FINISH THIS CYCLE!: 11 out of 10. It really scars me, deep down, that they continue refusing to finish this cycle and give us a bunch of new ally-colored cycles instead. Why? Is money so abhorrent to them?

 

BATTLE FOR ZENDIKAR (a.k.a. The Still Higher Rise of the Eldrazi! But it would sell less if we called it that, so...)

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At this point in Magic's life cycle, it's clear that all of the good dual land names have been taken, so the best you can do is grab a red-sounding word and a green-sounding word, mash them together, and hope that people might remember it. Cinder Glade. Prairie Stream. Honestly, in the past few years, the proliferation of common and uncommon duals with generic names has made it really difficult to keep all of the names straight.  I get my Drowned / Watery / Underground / Sunken / Submerged all mixed up with my Catacomb / Marsh / Cavern / Ruins / Hollow / River. Most people these days just say "the blue / black one from that one set."

These lands are good lands. Even lands that had basic types but didn't have an untapped clause would have been welcome, but these are even better. They probably won't see as much play as the shock lands, but they're a nice budget (for now) alternative and I'm really quite glad they exist. There, I'm being nice.

FINISH THIS CYCLE!: 10 out of 10. I'd be even more glad if the enemy color ones already existed, but I hope they're at least on the schedule somewhere. Wizards has forgotten to finish a ton of useful land cycles, but these are recent enough that there's a non-zero chance they'll remember to finish them before the decade's out.

 

SHADOWS OVER INNISTRAD (a.k.a. You Guys Are Still Really Pumped for More Eldrazi, Right?)

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You know, they're kind of annoying. I mean, they're clearly better than just normal old comes-into-play-tapped lands in the same way that Ancient Amphitheater is: You could have a Giant in your hand, right? No one knows for sure! In the same way, you could have an Island or Swamp in your hand, and maybe even more often than a Giant...but I just never seem to. I topdeck them late when I've played my lands, or I draw both of them in my opening hand. While they're not nearly as suicidal as the old Odyssey lands, I get that same vibe. The more you put into your deck, they worse they are since you have less Islands and Swamps to make them playable.

The Magic 2010 lands like Dragonskull Summit just feel a lot better, even though they still have some of the same problems (having more of them makes each one worse overall). But for them, just one basic land will "turn them on" for the rest of the game, and that basic land is where you wanted it—on the battlefield. Holding a basic land in your hand for the rest of the game is not where you want your lands to be, unless you're playing Saviors of Kamigawa. (And if you are, O-Kagachi help you. O-Kagachi help us all.) They're fine, but they're just kind of a feel-bad land cycle. Also, apparently between Battle for Zendikar and this set is when they realized that they've completely run out of dual land names that make sense, and now, they're just assigning random cities and buildings and bridges to the colors. 

FINISH THIS CYCLE!: 7 out of 10. Eh, I'm sure they will finish this someday, but this is a cycle we could all wait a few years to finish. They've got no chance in Modern. They're fine for Standard but really unexciting. Serious card riots are likely to break out if they finish this cycle before the Battle for Zendikar lands or the Scars of Mirrodin lands: people burning their Foreboding Ruins in giant bonfires, effigies of Jace dancing in the wind, barricades made of last draft picks, etc.

 

So, thank you for joining me on this whirlwind (uh, or has it been 5,000 words?) tour of the unfinished land cycles of Magic. Just to review, here's everything that's 6 or higher (i.e., really worth doing):

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INVASION—6 out of 10
SHADOWS OVER INNISTRAD—7 out of 10
TIME SPIRAL—8 out of 10
MIRAGE—9 out of 10
BATTLE FOR ZENDIKAR—10 out of 10
SCARS OF MIRRODIN—11 out of 10

As a final note, I was among many who were totally convinced that Shadows over Innistrad would actually complete the land cycle from Battle for Zendikar. Instead, we got yet another new type of dual land and yet another unfinished cycle where we only have the ally-color pairs. You may have noticed when going through the list, but not a single land cycle is missing either the ally or shard colors. In fact, Magic has never in its entire existence had an actual land cycle where we waited for the five ally-color lands to arrive. There's still a gross imbalance to be rectified here.

So, I was a bit annoyed, but as I was writing this, Sam Stoddard replied to a mail question with something very much on point, which I'll quote here:

"Why new lands for Shadows over Innistrad and not complete an existing cycle? Well, for one, we needed the lands in Shadows to be ally colors, not enemy, which would make printing enemy fast lands pretty difficult. We also generally try to find new land cycles if we can, rather than go straight for reprint land cycles. In the past four years, Magic 2013, Return to Ravnica, Magic 2015, Khans of Tarkir, Magic Origins, and Battle for Zendikar all had either reprint lands or completed land cycles. If we keep that pace up, we won't have any cycles to finish within a few years! At the same time, I really liked what the scry lands did to Standard. Not every new cycle we do will end up being something we're happy with (see the battle lands/fetch lands), but it's important to try and make the Standard mana bases feature new lands when we can.

The truth is, there are only so many good cycles of dual lands that can enter the battlefield untapped on turn one, and we'd rather try new ones before we go straight to reprints. Sometimes we want to use the reprint cycles for straightforward reasons (like seeding the fetch lands a year before BFZ), but we usually at least try something new first. The shadow lands went through a lot of iterations before we ended up with the current designs. And in the end, we were pretty happy with these designs. If they work out, and people still enjoy them in a year, we can look at having another cycle to complete in the future."

Two points I have some issues with:

1) You're in absolutely zero danger of running out of land cycles to complete. Assuming you complete one cycle a year and do a new half-finished one every year, it'll take nine years just to get all of the ones people care about done. So, it's not quite infinite, but it's long enough for someone to watch the movie Seven Years in Tibet 35,000 times—not that anyone would still be alive after the first hundred! We've been waiting on some of these cycles for more than 20 years. Would it help if we beg?

2) So, the Shadows over Innistrad lands went through a lot of iterations before the current happy-with designs? OK...sure. Um, people had been talking about these exact lands since at least Lorwyn introduced "reveal from hand to keep untapped" with Ancient Amphitheater, and then talked about them again quite a bit once the Magic 2010 lands like Dragonskull Summit hit. Seems to me like this cycle is one of the more obvious low-hanging fruits left on the dual land tree, but maybe that's just me and the rest of the Internet for the past 10 years.

Anyway, thanks for reading! I'll be back in a few months.


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