Oh, when the weather outside is frightful, the synergies become so delightful!
I’m of course talking about the “snow” mechanic from Magic: the Gathering, which will be making its triumphant return next month in the upcoming Kaldheim expansion.
I’ve published at least one Magic article every single week since 2005 and today I’m proud to present my first Magic preview card ever and officially herald in the return of the snow mechanic to Standard. Without further adieu…
In today’s article I’ll be discussing not only this incredible (and spicy) new tournament staple, but will also be taking a look back at the history of the snow mechanic and its impact on Magic over the years.
So, kick back, pour a mug of hot cocoa and curl up with a comfy blanket because baby, it’s about to get cold outside.
I bought my very first booster packs of Magic’s Ice Age expansion when I was 12 years old on a warm, sunny June afternoon back in 1995. One of the things that stood out the most to me (other than some incredible Foligio artwork) was many of my cards referenced Snow-Covered Lands.
I was confused by these references to “snow-covered lands” because I didn’t have any! Are these cards that receive benefits if I have a Tundra or Taiga in play?
These lands appeared fairly “snow-covered” to me but alas, these references to snow-covered lands were not synergy cards with my favorite 3rd Edition Revised duals. Rather, these cards referenced a new subtyping of basic land that was available in the Ice Age Starter Deck packs.
Ice Age was an interesting set for a couple of reasons (and not really because of the “snow-covered land” mechanic). It was not only the first expansion to feature new basic land artwork. The previous expansions – Arabian Nights, Antiquities, Legends, The Dark and Fallen Empires – did not feature basic lands (with the exception of the bizarre addition of a singular basic Mountain, with reused artwork that replaced a rare in booster packs of Arabian Nights). Not only was Ice Age the OG to invent the staple of including new basic land art, but it also included snow-covered basics which allowed basics to count as snow lands. Basically, basic lands that were slightly different.
Ice Age is a neat and important set because, while it was designed to be played with the original core set like the previous expansions, it was the first that could be played as a standalone set without needing Revised Edition lands.
Designers sort of realized that adding abilities to basic lands was a pretty big deal and were fairly careful about not overpowering the snow mechanic. As a result, the snow cards are extremely weak outside of mono Ice Age play.
The first time I ever really saw the snow mechanic matter came with the release of Champions of Kamigawa and in the Vintage format.
Gifts Ungiven was an incredibly powerful Vintage staple for many, many years. It allows a player to search their deck for four cards with different names and have an opponent choose two to go to the graveyard and the others go into the player’s hand.
As a point of reference…
Fact or Fiction (commonly known as FoF) had long been restricted as a powerful card. Gifts was essentially a guaranteed insane FoF.
Try splitting this “Gift” of a FoF… All roads lead to: you dead!
For the first time in my memory, the fact that Snow-Covered Island and Island had different names actually mattered and so Gifts Ungiven players would typically play with a split of Snow-Covered Islands and regular Islands incase they wanted to search up some basics (typically against a deck with Wasteland and Crucible of Worlds).
Coldsnap was one of the most bizarre Magic: the Gathering sets I ever remember during the golden age. It was designed to complete Ice Age block, alongside Ice Age and Alliances, and was released 11 years after Ice Age in July of 2006. All three of these sets are set during the Magic Ice Age and Coldsnap brought back and reimagined the Snow mechanic with a more modern and, frankly, useful spin on how the mechanic should and could work.
Did people actually play Ice Age Constructed? I never did. Did people ever draft Ice Age block (Ice Age, Alliances and Coldsnap)? I did it once. However, the price tags on Alliances packs (which had been out of print for over a decade and featured the ever-popular staple Force of Will) made it difficult and expensive to do these drafts featuring two sets that had been out of print for over a decade.
The two big innovations that took snow from being something that was only applicable to Gifts-ing for basics into a better, fleshed-out mechanic for Constructed and Limited play were…
1. The inclusion of one snow-covered land in booster packs.
Drafting was not really anything more than a niche thing in 1995. By 2006 though, it had become a fixture of Magic gameplay as more sets adopted the Ice Age model of being designed to be play independently of other sets, as well as in concert with other sets.
One snow land per pack ensured there would be at least 24 snow lands at an eight person draft table and thus a mechanic that could be built around and utilized when designing a Limited deck.
2. The addition of the “snow mana symbol”
The snow mana symbol was a game changer.
If a snow permanent makes mana, that mana counts as being “snow mana.” A card like Phyrexian Ironfoot, for instance, has an activated ability that can only be activated by tapping a snow permanent for mana.
Snow-covered lands were also given a facelift that better represented what they were.
In addition, more “snow lands” were added to the mix including, an enters-the-battlefield tapped dual land cycle:
There was also some some incredible utility lands as well.
As well as, a neat little tutor that I loved to play in my Peasant Highlander decks to search up a dual or Mouth of Ronom.
Mouth of Ronom in particular is a card I’ve gotten a ton of enjoyment with over the years. I’ve mentioned it was a great tutor target for Into the North in a format like Peasant Highlander but I also loved playing it in my Time Spiral Standard UR decks that featured Scrying Sheets, Skred and Phyrexian Ironfoot.
I also qualified for the Pro Tour playing a Orim’s Chant / Isochron Scepter deck with two copies of Mouth of Ronom. It was important in mirror matches as it was one of the only ways to deal with a resolved Teferi, Mage of Zhalfir.
It’s very fair to say that Coldsnap’s expansion of the mechanic brought the snow mechanic into the realm of being niche while making it quite good and useful in Constructed play.
Snow made another big push forward in Modern Horizons, not necessarily in terms of what the mechanic can do but rather in terms of the card pool that synergizes with the snow mechanic.
Modern Horizons was the swan song set of my days playing competitively and the very last Pro Tour I attended. Overall, I really enjoyed learning and playing the draft format and I posted a respectable 4-2 Limited record at PT Barcelona.
Again, WOTC dipped into the Coldsnap playbook of incorporating a snow-covered basic into each pack to support some snow synergies. The key impact of Modern Horizons upon snow was similar to its impact across all of Magic: it was incredibly and unapologetically broken!
The list of cards that are clearly well beyond the established baseline of cards printed before 2019 from this release are bountiful and the same can be said for cards with snow typing.
For the cost (eyeroll) of putting snow basics into a deck, a player can gain access to a Simic Baleful Strix that also has flash in Legacy or Modern. The set also featured a ton of above-the-curve Limited uncommons that rewarded players for prioritizing drafting a critical mass of snow basics.
While I would argue that Hogaak was the defining card of Modern Horizons at the onset, it was quickly banned after the Pro Tour. It was actually an innocuous little snowball that would redefine much of how the game was played, as well as the relative value of snow-covered basics to regular basics.
Astrolabe (which counts as a snow permanent) is the closest card to the uber-broken Gitaxian Probe ever printed. The “cost” of this artifact is that it can only be cast with snow mana but it provides all kinds of incidental upsides. It counts as a permanent, it filters mana into any color, draws a card, can be looped by returning it to one’s hand, can be used to improvise and counts towards affinity.
Pro Tour Hogaak left a bad taste in my mouth, especially because I had to pay my own way to travel to another continent to play a nonsensical broken format. After that, I decided that competitive play had outlived its usefulness to me as a player in terms of what I was looking to get out of playing the game going forward. I decided that I’d like to focus more on playing for fun and highlighting casual formats like Pauper, Commander and my own Battle Box format that are more about what I love about Magic: sitting down with friends and slinging some friendly games together. Compared to throwing money at the next broken money card deck like Hogaak, grinding it until it’s banned and then rebuying into the next broken fad to play competitively, the choice was clear.
With that said, I was in for a surprise when it came to Astrolabe! I knew the card was fantastic in Pauper, I even tweeted that I’d be shocked if it didn’t end up being banned at some point when it was spoiled, but I was blown away by how absolutely the card took over the Pauper format. In fact, there are very, very few examples I can cite from the history of Magic where a singular new card has dominated a format harder and more absolutely than Arcum’s Astrolabe did in Pauper. Maybe only Necropotence in Standard, Lurrus of the Dream-Den in everything, Arcbound Ravager in Standard and Mental Misstep in Legacy came close to having the same dominance as Astrolabe in Pauper.
It’s a very short list of cards that have been able to immediately transform the landscape of an entire format as absolutely and decisively as Arcum’s Astrolabe in Pauper. Arcum’s Astrolabe’s obvious kinship to generating too much value at not enough cost has also led to its banning in Modern and it’s on the Legacy watch list at the moment.
My prediction is that new snow-typing spells will likely lead to the banning of Astrolabe in Legacy, but not before Snowball-based decks have a moment to really highlight the power of a critical mass of new snow spells in Magic’s most popular eternal format. With Kaldheim coming early next month, we could see a preemptive ban on Astrolabe in Legacy in advance of the upcoming reinvigoration of the snow mechanic.
I’d be pleasantly shocked to see such a move by the DCI but I’ll place my bet that Astrolabe will remain legal through the release of Kaldheim in order to showcase and enable the new Snow cards in eternal formats. It’s kind of crazy to know about my preview card as well as the exciting return of the popular snow mechanic so far in advance, but not being allowed to tell anybody! Anyway, I look forward to seeing how some of these speculative predictions I’ve made well in advance of the release of Kaldheim play out as spoilers season continues.
In general, I’ve always thought the snow mechanic was extremely cool. Well, at least the fleshed out version of snow that was first encountered in 2006 with Coldsnap. It created space for the mechanic to be a relevant sub-strategy in Limited as well as expanding upon what it encompassed (the snow mana symbol as a cost and benefit of snow permanents). Snow was actually pretty lame-o in Ice Age and I tend to think of it more as a timid and careful experiment about adding onto what basic lands could be. They didn’t push it very far and that was probably a wise choice back in 1995 because basic lands are such a fundamental part of Magic.
It’s an interesting and fun mechanic because it provides tangible upsides for choosing to use a specific type of mana base to play. I’ve mentioned some examples of utilizing snow that I’ve really enjoyed in the past: draft decks, Peasant Highlander, as well as niche synergies such as Mouth of Ronom to answer opposing Teferi, Mage of Zhalfir in Extended Scepter Chant mirror matches.
So, I only have one example of a new snow card to look at but it’s a pretty fun looking card. I like that it’s serviceable without snow mana in Limited, but improves in value (and in a very unique way) when entrenched in a Constructed deck built for snow synergies.
An obvious application of a card like Tundra Fumarole would be something like a “Big Red Snow” deck that was once a popular mainstay of Modern (and even won a paper Grand Prix years ago). There’s already a snow-mana base as well as great mana sinks for the colorless mana (Ensnaring Bridge, Koth of the Hammer and Glorybringer).
At it’s best, Tundra Fumarole is a conditional, free removal spell if you cast it with all snow lands. You can tap three snow lands, fire off removal (that also hits planeswalkers, which is nice) and then gain three colorless mana mana to repurpose toward a second spell. So you can parlay Fumarole into another colorless three drop on turn three such as Ensnaring Bridge, Crucible of Worlds or a Signet. On a later turn where you have more lands in play, you can advance a Fumarole into a bigger play like a four or five cost planeswalker or Dragon.
The card also has a neat built-in clause where the mana generated from Tundra Fumarole doesn’t empty until the end of turn. Why does this matter? Well, you can blast a blocker in your precombat main phase and then use that mana at any point during the turn, including combat or post combat.
It’s sort of a better and more flexible template than other cards like Mirrodin’s Deconstruct, since the mana can be used whenever you want for the remainder of the turn. Deconstruct was a fine card and it’s far less flexible than a removal spell that can target any creature or planeswalker.
Tundra Fumarole has snow typing which means it can be picked up from the top of the deck with a card like Scrying Sheets, which is also a neat bonus.
Tundra Fumarole kind of brings new flavor to the phrase: It’ll be a snowy day in hell…” Hehe.
Clearly, I think Tundra Fumarole is a strong Magic card and would be shocked if it wasn’t a mainstay of Constructed play. I’ve played with far less flexible three mana removal spells over the years and the fact that Tundra Fumarole has the potential (when lined up properly) to be a mana neutral play is obviously strong. The true power of this snow sorcery is creating scenarios and lines of play where it’s essentially “free” to cast because the mana it generates can be immediately repurposed into playing more spells throughout the turn.
It’s kind of cool that for my first preview card after writing weekly articles for 15 years that I got one that is actually quite good!
Snow was introduced in Magic’s first standalone expansion, Ice Age, back in summer of 1995. It was virtually unplayable (outside of the niche application of casting Gifts Ungiven to find Island & Snow-Covered Island in Vintage) until over a decade later when the snow mechanic was expanded upon in 2006’s Coldsnap. This created space for the mechanic to serve a purpose in terms of Limited play but also expanded it to be an actual card type, as well as have it’s own snow mana symbol. Coldsnap also introduced some snow cards that were objectively “good enough to play with,” i.e., Skred, Mouth of Ronom, Dark Depths, tapped dual lands, Phyrexian Ironfoot, Into the North, etc.
Nearly 15 years later, the Snow Mechanic was utilized as a subtheme of Limited play in 2019’s Modern Horizons. Snow synergies were also granted to some truly powerful cards that line up with the baseline Magic power creep of the 2019 Arena Era of Magic design. In particular, Ice-Fang Coatl comes to mind as an extremely powerful and efficient creature, but most notably Arcum’s Astrolabe (which I would argue falls into Gitaxian Probe territory in terms of providing a ton of tangible synergies and upside at virtually no cost other than playing with a subset of basics) made putting snow lands into one’s deck a huge freeroll. It even got to the point that the card was banned in both Pauper and Modern (it was never legal in Standard, Pioneer, or Historic).
Speaking of Pioneer, Historic, and Pioneer… Kaldheim will finally bring the snow mechanic into these formats. Coldsnap was the last time WOTC “let it snow” in Standard (which has slotted snow out of newer formats like Historic and Pioneer) and so it will be the first time in a long time that snow will be back (or introduced).
At the time of writing, I only know of a single card – Tundra Fumarole – that will be introduced in February’s Kaldheim release, but objectively speaking it’s a fantastic and powerful snow sorcery. I’m as excited as anybody else to see what the scope of available snow typing cards will look like come February, especially considering how strong my preview card appears to be. Removal that’s potentially mana neutral – oh wowie.
That, my friends, is the end of my tale about the history of snow in Magic thus far. What comes next is yet to be written, but I’m very much looking forward to seeing how the mechanic will play out in Kaldheim and beyond. Will Kaldheim put a new twist on snow mana like Coldnsap did? Will Kaldheim treat the mechanic like Modern Horizons and simply use Coldsnap’s innovations to make more powerful cards that trended in line with the more powerful Arena era designs? It’s impossible to tell given my singular preview card and so I’ll be watching the spoilers in anticipation the same as the rest of you. The one thing I can say, based on seeing exactly one card removed from any other context, is that Tundra Fumarole is a strong card and so it’s clear we will be getting competitive snow cards like Coldsnap or Modern Horizons and not irrelevant wishy-washy duds like the OG Ice Age “snow matters” designs.
It would never be my expectation that WOTC would make weak snow cards. I obviously expect new designs to be closer to Modern Horizons than Ice Age. However, the one thing I’m most interested to see is whether or not the mechanic will be advanced to do new things (as was the case in Coldsnap) or if the mechanic will remain static and simply powered up (as was the case in Modern Horizons).
Also… will we see a “Snow Basic Land – Wastes?” I sure hope so!