Breaking Through – Crack, Fetch, Take 2

Generally, when a new set is on the horizon, I avoid discussing the cards before the official full spoiler is up. It’s healthy and beneficial for players to develop their card evaluations, without my thoughts muddying that experience for them. As a vocal member of the community and an author, I know that my opinions hold weight for some, so to rob them of the chance to go through the process on their own is irresponsible.

That said, it is my job to make sure people aren’t missing something, but timing is everything. For those of you that do not check out other MTG related sites, I produce a full set review similar to LSV’s. The goal is to give my unique perspective on the new cards. I don’t read others’ set reviews or anything prior to writing my own, because I want to own that experience.

Even if an individual is wrong about a card, the skills they develop from making an initial read on a card are extremely valuable. Consider Limited, for example. You might have the time now to read every set review before doing your first draft of a format, but there may come a day when you don’t get that chance—yet you still need to decide what to first pick. Card evaluation skills are very important, and I like to enforce that by not souring the experience until the set is fully spoiled.

But, today I decided to blur the line a little bit. I’d like to talk about a cycle of cards that have been in Standard before, and are the backbone of Modern. Reprints don’t break my rule, and I figured that since the shocklands will have a huge impact on the format, doing some preliminary discussion is healthy.

The implication of the dual lands’ reprinting is far-reaching. These are not just Alpha dual lands. They have a real downside, making them quite dynamic in how they see play. You might see these as 4-ofs, or some decks that opt to preserve their life total and play fewer. That’s the dynamic I’d like to address.

The Price of Mana

We all have become accustomed to the knowledge that our lands are free. Sure, there are some exceptions like [card]Rupture Spire[/card], but in general, you aren’t going to have a land you can’t “cast.” But that isn’t the only price you can pay for things in Magic. Mana is the predominant resource, but hardly the only. If we look at these shocklands holistically though, we see quite a few prices to be paid. The three that stand out to me are:

They are non-basic.
They cost 2 life per land (or)
They come into play tapped

Now, obviously everyone could tell me those three things about the card, but how many people actually look at those as costs?

The most simple is the fact that these lands are non-basic. Thus, they come with a natural weakness that can sometimes be exploited. Cards like [card]Tectonic Edge[/card] and [card]Goblin Ruinblaster[/card] serve as actual threats against a non-basic-heavy or dependent list. Currently there is not a lot of non-basic hate being played, but that could change as a result of the inevitable popularity of these, or the printing of a good non-basic land death card.

Next comes entering the battlefield tapped. Now, this is the drawback of many non-basics, so you would think we know how to weigh it properly, but I don’t think that’s the case. We know what it does relative to the archetype it is found in pretty well. We all know that entering play tapped is less of a big deal for a control deck than an aggro deck, but it is a price nonetheless. But what do we know of the maximum number of lands one can play that enter play tapped? Sure, people ran 12 to 20 back in Lorwyn, but were any of those numbers correct? Can you run all enters-play-tapped lands? The theory and evidence has only been pushed so far, so it is tough to evaluate.

As a result of this, the shocklands require a great deal of playtesting. You may be able to figure out the proper mana ratio for your deck without playtesting (although some would argue that too can never be the case) but without any rigid guidelines, how can you know the number of tap lands your deck can support? Sure, you can probably guess but playtesting helps validate it for you, if nothing else. But the reason these lands need to be playtested with is owed to just more than their orientation.

Take 2!…?

Shocklands are in fact, not just lands that enter play tapped. They would likely not be good enough in that case. Instead, these beauties come with a clause that allows them to enter play untapped, costing you only 2 measly life. Right off the bat, I can tell you that that style of dual land is not more friendly toward aggro or control which is not always the case. M10 Duals were more control friendly for example, since they could afford to have a land enter play tapped every once in a while.

For shocklands, the balance comes in the choice. A control deck may be fine with a shockland or two entering play tapped. Their decks allow this to happen. Aggro decks get their way too by paying 2 life and having great mana on turn two. You may say that doesn’t seem fair, as 2 life is a bigger cost than entering play tapped. To that, I say you must look at the context.

In control, in the dark, paying 2 life is certainly a big cost, so the entering-play-tapped clause is a more realistic option at more points (of course both archetypes use both modes), but, to an aggro deck, that same 2 life does not mean the same thing. The aggro deck is theoretically under significantly less pressure, making life payments hurt so much less. Because this 2 life has a different value depending on what deck you are playing, the lands naturally balance themselves out.

But that brings us to a whole new topic, which is figuring out when you can afford to take damage as well as how much damage you can take from your mana base overall. But again, generalizations made about mana bases do not as easily apply to shocklands, so this comes in two phases.

The first is more of a general rule of thumb for your particular deck. Let’s say you are playing Zoo in Modern. You are ok taking 6-8 damage from your lands, as it comes with the upside of speed. Meanwhile, a deck like Grixis Control probably wants to take at most 2-5 damage from its lands, as it needs to preserve a high life total to be able to operate at full capacity, maximize card advantage, and cast its threats. If you quickly get down to 8 life from your land, whenever your opponent plays a 4-power creature you might be forced to immediately Wrath it away. If your life were at 14, you can take a hit or two and hope your opponent commits more to the board.

Two different decks with two different takes on the amount of self-damage they can inflict. You might have arrived at satisfactory numbers through theory, or playtesting, but these numbers do not reflect any specific matchup, which is where playtesting your mana base becomes huge.

If I am playing UR Control with 4 copies of [card]Steam Vents[/card], and my opponent plays a turn one [card]Vexing Devil[/card], I better have a plan and a number in mind for how much damage I am willing to deal myself. If I just try to guess, I could be totally caught off guard. Of course specific game conditions will alter things, but you still need to have matchup dependent numbers. Let me tell a little story about why this matters…

[card]Kird Ape[/card]: The Story of a Traitor

I don’t believe I have ever told this infamous story in print. The setting is the World Championships, 2009, in Rome, Italy. I had managed to pull off a 5-1 record with “Magical Christmas Land” (somehow) and followed that up with a 5-1 record in Draft. This put me in a great spot going into Day 3, as five losses would make Top 8, potentially even with a draw. Knowing that I only needed to secure two wins or so on the third day, I decided that playing the brew I showed up with was a bad idea.

The deck involved a bunch of value cards like [card]Meddling Mage[/card] and [card]Dark Confidant[/card], with some tricky action like [card]Ninja of the Deep Hours[/card] plus [card]Spellstutter Sprite[/card]. That said, I had no games of testing with the deck, so that night I thought long and hard about playing something more mainstream. I woke up and rushed to the venue to tell David Williams not to play the brew I had mentioned to him. With that I was off in search of a Zoo list.

Luckily, Ben Rubin was there and offered me a list, so I was set. The deck featured a 1-of [card doran, the siege tower]Doran[/card], a set of [card]Lightning Helix[/card], and only 2 basic lands (1 Mountain, 1 Plains). But it was Zoo, and I knew the reputation of the deck well, despite never piloting it outside of playtesting. I sleeved up and got ready for round 1.

My round 1 was against Mono-Red. After splitting a pair of games, we were off to the final game. My opponent mulliganed while I kept seven. He then mulliganed again. At this point, I was clearly excited. Mono-Red is not the type of deck that recovers well from mulligans, after all. After going into the tank about his 5 card hand—my opponent mulliganed yet again. Now at 4 cards, he was visibly frustrated as he threw back these 4 in favor of a new 3. Four mulligans from my Mono-Red opponent—someone wanted me to win right?

Here is where things get interesting. I had talked to Zoo players before, and I knew the deck well enough to know to minimize the damage I take from my lands against Burn. While normally taking 8 or 10 damage from your lands is fine, against Mono-Red that line provides them with too many free “spells”. This is where matchup dependent testing is extremely helpful. Armed with that knowledge though, I was not in quite the same situation I originally planned, as my opponent was on 3 cards.

At this point, I decided to be a little too clever. Staring down at a [card]Stomping Ground[/card] and a [card]Kird Ape[/card] in my hand, I began to think. Since my opponent was down to 3 cards, it was clear he did not have enough damage to kill me in his hand. Every draw step the Mono-Red player gets yields him some amount of damage. Between [card]Lightning Bolt[/card]s, [card]Hellspark Elemental[/card]s, etc., balanced with lands, you probably can expect every draw step to yield the opponent 3 damage or so. In my mind then, if I could rob the opponent of draw steps by killing him faster, I would essentially be gaining life. So instead of making the traditional play of [card]Stomping Ground[/card] tapped, go, I decided that would literally put me an entire turn behind where I wanted to be, netting him “3 damage” while only costing me 2 life. So I went to 18 and played Kird Ape.

My opponent led with [card]Teetering Peaks[/card] and passed. I attacked, broke a fetchland for a basic land, and played a [card]Tarmogoyf[/card].

At this point:
Me – 17 life, 2 lands, Kird Ape, 1-power Tarmogoyf in play.
Him – 18 life, 3 cards in hand, 1 land.

I passed the turn and he played a [card]Blinkmoth Nexus[/card], which he used to cast a [card]Hellspark Elemental[/card]. At this point, my ‘Goyf only had 2 toughness, so blocking was a bad idea. I took the damage and he passed the turn back. I drew [card]Molten Rain[/card], and my eyes grew wide. At this point, my opponent had 2 mana in play and 2 cards in hand. I had a Jotun Grunt in hand that I needed white mana for anyway, so it seemed like breaking a fetchland immediately would be optimal. I would be cutting my opponent’s resources in half, while growing my Tarmogoyf in the process. I cast Molten Rain on his Blinkmoth and attacked in.

At this point:
Me – 11 life, 3 lands, Kird Ape, and a 3-power ‘Goyf in play.
Him – 11 life, 1 land, 2 cards in hand, Hellspark Elemental in graveyard.

On his turn he played a Mountain and unearthed the Elemental, dropping me to 8 life, with 2 cards in hand and 2 mana. I attacked and played [card]Jotun Grunt[/card], with [card]Lightning Bolt[/card] available.

At this point:
Me – 8 life, lethal damage in play.
Him – 7 life, 2 cards in hand, 2 lands in play.

Even if he killed a creature of mine, the Bolt gave me lethal the following turn. My opponent untapped and a sudden rush of silence and disgust hit me as I watched his face begin to glow. Then, within a split second, it was over. He slammed down a [card]Great Furnace[/card], tapped it and the [card]Teetering Peaks[/card] to [card]Shrapnel Blast[/card] me for 5, sacrificing the artifact land. He then immediately tapped his final Mountain to throw a [card]Lightning Bolt[/card] at me, ending the match in his favor.

I obviously sat there, shocked for a minute. Had my theory been incorrect? Did I just play bad? Did my opponent get lucky? In reality, it was a combination of those 3 things. Nonetheless, as I fell into a bracket where I would play against All-In-Red 3 rounds in a row, losing to a turn 1 [card]Blood Moon[/card] in many of those games, I had to look back and think that I had my chance but blew it.

The Shocking Conclusion

Obviously anecdotal evidence is more for entertainment than for statistics, but I think that story does demonstrate a fundamental requirement when it comes to playing with shocklands. You need to accept that there are costs associated with them and figure out how those costs best fit into the strategy you are playing. While I only did 6 damage to myself in the above scenario, had I managed to hold back on even a single fetchland, I walk away a winner and potentially have another Top 8 under my belt.

Mono-Red versus Zoo might seem like a cop-out, as it is the most prominent time that shocklands need to be played differently, but the fact that it is an extreme and so many decks are somewhere in the middle is just further reason to actually test with these lands as opposed to theory crafting around them. You can never know for certain where along the spectrum you should lie, but having a better idea doesn’t seem like it can hurt much. Thanks for reading!

Conley Woods


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