The amount and type of dual lands in the current Standard format hits a sweet spot: The mana is good enough to enable a diverse set of competitive decks, but not so good that there are basically no mana-related deck building restrictions anymore. In this article, I will explain why I believe this and what I hope R&D’s approach will be for upcoming sets.
We Currently Have One Good Dual for Aggro and One Good Dual for Control
Before I can get to the nitty gritty, I have to start with some definitions.
A Good Dual for Aggro: A dual land is a “good dual for aggro” if it can produce colored mana on turn 1. Examples include Seachrome Coast, Adarkar Wastes, Port Town, Secluded Glen, and Hallowed Fountain. Such a dual is well-suited for aggro decks since it helps them cast their 1-drops on curve, but not as well-suited for control decks because of the drawback of losing life or entering tapped in the late game. Control decks will still play some of them, but they may encounter diminishing returns.
A Good Dual for Control: A dual land is a “good dual for control” if it can’t produce colored mana on turn 1 but is better than a simple tapland. Examples include Glacial Fortress, Temple of Enlightenment, Irrigated Farmland, Mystic Gate, or Celestial Colonnade. Such a dual is not very well-suited for aggro decks since it doesn’t contribute toward turn-1 colored sources, but it is well-suited for control decks since they can afford to play a tapland on turn 1 and/or because the land enters the battlefield untapped in the late game. Aggro decks will still play some of them, but they can’t afford too many if they want to be able to consistently cast their 1-drops on curve.
Note that I do not classify simple taplands like Meandering River or Evolving Wilds under “good” duals. I believe that the full set of 10 simple taplands and Evolving Wilds should always be legal in Standard, if only for budget players. But due to their drawbacks, they have no large impact for mana bases of competitive decks. (Unless they get the Gate subtype, that is.)
Consistently Cast On-Curve: The term “consistently cast on-curve” is defined in my recent article “How Many Colored Mana Sources Do You Need to Consistently Cast Your Spells? A Guilds of Ravnica Update.” For a card with converted mana cost C, these numbers guarantee at least a 90% or higher probability to have the required number of colored sources on turn C on the play after mulligans, conditional on drawing at least C lands.
Why are Two Such Duals for Every Color Pair Ideal?
Consider a typical 2-color, 24-land mana base with four good duals for aggro, four good duals for control, and eight of each basic. With this mana base, you can consistently cast 1C and 2CC spells of each color on-curve, but you cannot consistently cast C spells or 1CC spells on-curve.
If you skew the mana base toward 1 color to be able to consistently cast C and 1CC spells of that color on-curve, then you can still support 1D or 3DD spells of the other color, but you can no longer support 2DD spells of that other color. (There may be ways to accomplish it by adding more lands, non-land mana sources, or cheap card selection spells, but I’m only considering the raw mana base here.)
You can also build a consistent deck with Legion’s Landing, History of Benalia, Growth-Chamber Guardian, and Vivien Reid. But then you can’t fit Nullhide Ferox in there anymore if you want to consistently cast spells on-curve.
I believe that this hits the sweet spot of deck building restrictions that force you to make a choice but still allows lots of options.
Indeed, if you have three good duals for each color pair, then it becomes trivial to run 1CC and 1DD spells in the same deck, in which case mana cost would no longer be a real deck building restriction, and all decks of a certain color combination might start to look alike. That would be bad for diversity.
On the other hand, if you have only one good dual for each color pair, then it becomes tough to support 2CC and 2DD spells in the same deck, and it would be impossible to consistently cast cards like Golgari Findbroker on-curve. People would lose too many games to color screw, which is far from fun.
Likewise, decks with Goblin Chainwhirler or Benalish Marshal have access to two good duals in the current Standard if they want to splash a color. This gives these decks eight sources of that splash color, which forces a real choice: Do you want slight mana inconsistency in return for an increase in card power? Or do you want to stay purely mono-color?
If there were three good duals, then these decks could get 12 sources of a splash color while retaining a 100% probability to cast their CCC card on-curve. Then there’s practically no restriction at all, and it would be correct for everyone to splash in these decks. Again, this would be bad for diversity.
In my assessment, this is how it should be: the mana tension leads to enjoyable deck building, and the mana consistency leads to enjoyable games.
Why Should Each Color Pair Have Exactly One Good Dual for Aggro?
If a color pair has two good duals for aggro, then it would be too easy to build overly powerful aggro decks that can consistently cast 1-drops from multiple colors on their first turn. I’ve been trying a variety of aggro decks lately, and my impression is that if I had been able to select the best 1-drops from multiple colors and cast them all consistently on-curve, then the resulting deck would be overpowered.
Conversely, if a color pair only has two good duals for control, then building multicolor aggro decks would become overly difficult, and a whole group of decks would disappear from the competitive metagame.
R&D Should be Extremely Careful with 5-Color Lands
So far, I have assumed that all possible relevant non-basics are 2-color dual lands. I have not yet considered 5-color lands, but I would prefer to have a Standard format without them.
When I think back on broken mana bases in previous Standard formats, they all revolve around 5-color lands. Let me give some examples.
Lorwyn-Alara Standard: Reflecting Pool and Vivid lands. Together, they allowed players to run UUU, BB, RR, WW, and GGGG cards in the same deck. Yes, it was that absurd.
Khans-Battle for Zendikar Standard: Fetchlands and battlelands. Together, they allowed players to run UU, R, B, WUR, and WBR cards in the same deck.
Aether Revolt Standard: If you consider the Standard format in early 2017, it was pretty much Aether Hub decks fighting against Spire of Industry decks. Often, these decks used cards from 4 different colors. Strategies without energy or artifacts were unable to hit their colors as effectively, which meant that they couldn’t play as many colors and would have mana problems more often. Hence, they couldn’t compete with the Aether Hub decks or Spire of Industry decks, leading to a less-than-diverse Standard.
Magic has always used color requirements as a way to balance the power level of individual cards. If it’s too easy to jam the best cards from all colors into your deck, then there are no longer any mana-related restrictions in deck building, at which point the format may lose diversity.
To guarantee format diversity, mana cost has to remain a restriction, which means that R&D should be extremely careful with 5-color lands, or basically any land that can produce more than 2 colors. As a result, I hope that fetchlands are not brought back while shock duals are still legal.
Staggering Duals, and Mixing and Matching is Fine
The gist of my view is that Standard is best when we have one good dual for aggro and one good dual for control. I wish to give two clarifications.
First, staggering duals is fine. Directly after rotation, if certain color combinations have two good duals whereas other color combinations only have one, then that’s fine. This is how it worked with Guilds of Ravnica. Likewise, Theros block had Temple lands distributed across three different sets, leading to a more dynamic Standard metagame over time. As long as we get to one good dual for aggro and one good dual for control soon enough after rotation, it’s all good.
Second, mixing and matching is fine. If some color pairs have different types of duals, then that’s okay with me. For instance, some enemy color combinations might have creaturelands and other enemy color combinations might have fastlands. That’s actually how it worked in Zendikar-Kaladesh Standard. As long as each color pair eventually ends up with one good land for aggro and one good land for control, it’s all good.
The current Standard is healthy in terms of format diversity, and I believe that part of the reason for that is because mana availability has hit the sweet spot. In this article, I argued that to ensure fun games and fun deck building in Standard, there should be one good dual for aggro and one good dual for control in every color pair, but not more than that.
I hope that for the diversity of Standard, there will be no new dual lands in War of the Spark or the set thereafter. (Reprints of shocklands would be fine, just no new lands.) Then, I hope that the fall set and/or the set thereafter will provide each color pair with exactly one new good dual land for control. These lands would replace checklands, as with the release of the fall set, Ixalan, Rivals of Ixalan, Dominaria, and Core Set 2019 will rotate out of Standard.
My personal hope is that we get the set of scrylands, like Temple of Enlightenment, with a return to Theros in the fall. I like Greek mythology, and the plane has a high likelihood of returning according to Mark Rosewater’s Rabiah scale. But they are lands that are good for control, so they would keep the mana of Standard in the sweet spot.
I’m curious to hear your thoughts on my perspective. I made a bunch of simplifications, I used my own experience, and I focused on 2-color decks to come up with a guideline, so it’s far from an end-all. Rather, I hope to inspire a discussion among people who like to think about Standard set design.