Legendary cards aren’t a new thing in Magic. People love them – they’re usually splashy, exciting and powerful. Creatures open up sweet new Commander archetype, and planeswalkers offer new utility to midrange and control strategies. One type that’s often overlooked, however, are the humble legendary lands.
There have been 43 black-bordered legendary lands printed in Magic’s history – 44 with the arrival of Modern Horizons 2 and Yavimaya, Cradle of Growth – and all of them do pretty sweet stuff. Well, I say all of them – Tolaria, from Legends, taps to have a creature lose banding abilities, and even then only in the upkeep, as otherwise it would have been broken.
In any case, over the years, a number of these lands have become pretty famous, and today we’re going to get through the most iconic of all. Let’s get to it!
Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth (not to be confused with the card just called “Urborg”, a much worse land) is a weird one, for sure. It turns every land, including itself, into a Swamp – but as it’s not a Swamp until it hits the battlefield, it’s not like you can fetch it with a Polluted Delta. Also, what if your colour-screwed opponent is playing black? Wow, this card seems terrible. What possible upside could it have?
Turns out, a fair bit. There are creatures like Nightmare and Squelching Leeches that get huge, sure, and Corrupt and deal a lot of damage with Urborg out, but there are much spicier options. Defile and Mutilate become staggeringly powerful, your swampwalkers can’t be blocked and then there is, of course, the classic combination of Urborg plus Cabal Coffers.
Cabal Coffers – finally getting a long-awaited reprint in Modern Horizons 2 – is completely bananas with Urborg. By more or less doubling your mana, this two-card combo is one of the most powerful tools at the disposal of the mono-black mage, particularly at the Commander table where there’s always somewhere to put that mana. Torment of Hailfire for three billion, anyone?
If Urborg is a weird one, Gemstone Caverns is an even weirder one. It’s one of a very small number of cards that are played on “turn zero”, along with all the Leylines and the equally strange Serum Powder, and offers you an extra land before you even start your first turn, all for the low, low cost of losing a card from your hand. Terms and conditions apply, however: you can’t be going first.
It rarely sees play, but if you see a list with Gemstone Caverns in it, you know something either very silly or very broken is going on. It’s a very strange, almost unique effect, but one that seems to have been properly balanced so as not to be completely overpowered. Does Magic need more weird, rule-subverting effects like this? Based on how many bans there have been recently, perhaps not, but it’s still cool to see design space like this explored.
Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx saw a decent amount of play in Standard when it was printed, as some of the best decks in Theros Standard were devotion-based decks (thanks for your service, Gray Merchant of Asphodel). Since then, it makes the odd appearance in Modern, in green decks with Utopia Sprawl and Arbor Elf, but where it really shines is in Commander.
While you’re restricted to black (and usually just mono-black, to be honest) to make the most of Cabal Coffers and its best mate Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth, Nykthos goes in any color combination and can generate ridiculous amount of mana, particularly with any effect that allows you to untap it. As I said, EDH really is the perfect place for having more mana than you know what to do with, and there’s a reason Nykthos is played in most permanent-based decks that aren’t four or five colors.
Dark Depths is so good that not only was it banned in Modern, but it’s been a foundational part of a powerful Legacy deck for years and years. Why is it so powerful? Surely playing a land that doesn’t tap for mana and requires 30 mana to be dumped into it to make a 20/20 that dies to Unsummon isn’t that exciting?
It’s not so much Dark Depths itself that’s the issue there, but some of the support cast that take it to the next level. Prior to Gatecrash, Vampire Hexmage was used to remove all the ice counters that Dark Depths enters the battlefield with and wake Marit Lage from her slumber, but with the printing of Thespian’s Stage, you don’t even need the Hexmage. You play the Stage, make it into a copy of Dark Depths, and because there are no ice counters on the Stage, it gets sacrificed immediately and you get your 20/20.
Pro tip: don’t try to Stifle the Dark Depths trigger. It won’t do anything. I mean, it will counter the trigger, but another one will immediately be put back on the stack and they’ll get Marit Lage no matter what. So unless you have a hand of infinite Stifles and infinite blue mana with which to cast them, this is not a path you want to take.
The threat of Marit Lage out of Legacy lands is so great that Karakas – another legendary land, that didn’t make the list – is played to deal with it (amongst a few other things), sometimes in decks that aren’t even white! In fact, white is the best-equipped color to deal with the 20/20, as while Murder and Wrath of God don’t get rid of it, Swords to Plowshares sure does.
Without a doubt, the most famous and perhaps the most powerful legendary land ever printed is Gaea’s Cradle. If you’ve never seen this card in action, you won’t believe how much mana it can make, all in the blink of an eye. Unlike Urborg/Coffers and Nykthos, Gaea’s Cradle doesn’t need much of an elaborate setup: just play creatures.
In Legacy Elves, Gaea’s Cradle is a key part in dumping out infinite creatures alongside Glimpse of Nature, and often helps to power out the lethal Craterhoof Behemoth that will end the game then and there. At the Commander table, you better hope that someone is playing Field of Ruin, because otherwise the whole table is in trouble.
Unfortunately, due to its status as a Reserved List card and due to how sought-after it is for creature-based green decks that are interested in making a lot of mana – essentially all of them – this card is prohibitively expensive. Nonetheless, it’s difficult to argue with the fact that this card is not only iconic but also obscenely powerful, and that’s why I reckon it belongs at number one on this list.
There are so many other legendary lands that didn’t make the cut: I mentioned Karakas, of course, but it’s a shame that legendary lands like Boseiju, Who Shelters All and Pendelhaven didn’t get there (although I have no regrets about leaving Eye of Ugin off the list, that card can get stuffed). What do you think? Was Flagstones of Trokair robbed? Let me know!