The new set previews have begun! Ninjas, Dragons, and Sagas are all pretty sweet, but I get even more excited by nonbasic lands, as mana bases are the backbone of Constructed decks. Kamigawa: Neon Dynasty introduces an awesome cycle of five rare Kamigawa legendary lands that are going to see a lot of play.
When dealing with any deck building question, it can always help to draw lessons from history. Before Kamigawa: Neon Dynasty, 66 different legendary lands had been released, including several iconic ones. Let me highlight some of the most notable ones.
In 1994, Legends introduced the first cycle of legendary lands. They were vulnerable to the likes of Blood Moon (and Wasteland when that was printed in 1997) but the first copy was generally superior to a basic land. Two of the five – Karakas and Pendelhaven – have seen several reprints and have showed up quite a bunch in non-rotating formats over the last decade.
Karakas was regularly played in Death and Taxes decks in Legacy, where it could send an opposing Griselbrand back to its owner’s hand. The gold standard, as evidenced by the Top 4 deck lists of the 2018 Team Pro Tour, was to run three copies of Karakas. It’s nice to draw one, especially in certain matchups, but it’s usually not essential, and additional copies are fairly useless. Three copies is a good compromise in that case.
Pendelhaven was regularly played in Infect decks in Modern, where it would support 1/1 Infect creatures in dishing out 10 poison counters. The gold standard, as evidenced by the Top 8 deck lists of the 2016 World Magic Cup, was to run two copies of Pendelhaven. It’s quite valuable to draw one, but an opening hand with two Pendelhaven as your only two lands would be quite awkward, and the Misty Rainforest/Inkmoth Nexus mana base did not leave much room for non-fetchable lands.
In highlighting Karakas and Pendelhaven, I selected events from recent years as a baseline because the legend rule has changed over time. Originally, only one copy of any given legend could be on the battlefield at the same time and new copies would be put into the graveyard immediately. So if your opponent controlled a legendary land, then the one in your hand effectively became useless. This was not a lot of fun. In 2004, the rule became that if multiple copies of any given legend were on the battlefield, all would be put into their owner’s graveyards immediately. So in a mirror match, a legendary land could effectively Wasteland another copy on the opponent’s side.
In 2013, the legend rule changed once again into the separate-battlefield rule we have today: any time multiple legends with the same name are controlled by a player, that player chooses one of them and the rest are put into the graveyard. Since you can choose to keep the newly played one, it means that a redundant copy of a legendary land can at least turn your land drop into a Lotus Petal of sorts – something that wasn’t possible before 2013. But let’s go back in time again.
In 1998, Urza’s Saga took a page from Legends and introduced another cycle of powerful legendary lands. They had a huge effect on Pro Tour New York 1999: the Top 8 deck lists reveal that this Urza Block Constructed event was dominated by decks with four Tolarian Academy. Backed by powerful artifacts, Tolarian Academy would often tap for three mana as early as turn three, allowing its controller to ramp further ahead. The Top 8 also featured a Mono-Green Stompy deck with a lot of cheap creatures and four Gaea’s Cradle.
The legend rule was different back then, but a general lesson still applies: if a legendary land has an absurdly powerful effect, such as tapping for more than one mana, then the upside is enormous and the downside of drawing multiples is small in comparison. You should just max out with four copies in that case. We’ve also seen this in more recent times with other legendary lands, such as Eye of Ugin in Eldrazi decks or Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx in devotion decks – these were generally four-ofs as well. It also holds for legendary lands that are part of a deck-defining combo or engine, such as Dark Depths.
In 2004, the original Kamigawa block was released. It’s crazy to think that it’s been nearly 20 years since we were last on Kamigawa – it makes me feel old – but back then Champions of Kamigawa introduced a new cycle of legendary lands that all came with an activated ability to boost a legendary creature.
The gold standard in Kamigawa Block Constructed, as you can see in the Top 8 deck lists of Grand Prix Mexico City 2005, was to run one copy of each legendary land in your colors. The first copy was almost strictly better than a basic land, but the ability was minor – you weren’t actually activating them to boost legendary creatures all that often, and the effect was small. If you would run two copies of, say, Shizo, Death’s Storehouse, then the first game where you’d draw multiples would probably happen before the first game where you’d want grant fear, and that wouldn’t be worth it. Especially since with the legend rule at the time, a second copy of Shizo could not even contribute an extra black mana for a turn.
Note that I said that the first copy was almost strictly better than a basic land. For example, my Gifts Ungiven deck list from that Top 8 does not include Minamo, School at Water’s Edge, even though it does include an Island. The reason for this is that basic Island was fetchable with Sakura-Tribe Elder but I had no desire to run another land that could only tap for blue. Similar mana base restrictions will surely play a big role for the new legendary lands from Kamigawa: Neon Dynasty as well.