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By: RexDart, Chris J. Wynes
Mar 27 2014 11:00am
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The Top 10 Lands in the History of Tournament Magic

by RexDart

In honor of Land Week, I'll be taking a look back today at the most powerful ten lands in the history of tournament Magic.  So here they are: Underground Sea, Tundra, Tropical Island, Volcanic Island, Scalding Tarn, Misty Rainforest, Polluted Delta, Flooded Strand, Tolarian Academy, Island.  Article finished!

Okay, so maybe the list should be about lands that do more than just produce blue mana.  So, to shake things up, I will not be considering for this list any land that is powerful only because it fixes mana or produces a lot of mana quickly. With that out of the way, here we go!

10. Mishra's Factory

The original manland was an immediate success in Type 1, and 20 years later it's still easy to see why.  Manlands have almost always seen play over the years, from Stalking Stones to Mutavault to Celestial Colonnade to Inkmoth Nexus to Mutavault again.  Aggro decks play them to have beaters that survive opposing sweepers, and to mitigate the risk of flooding out.  But historically, it was control decks that first latched onto the manland as a weapon.  Control players loved the ability to have a card that developed their mana AND served as a win-condition later in the game.  This card was so popular in primitive control decks that 1994-era Zoo pilots played Argothian Pixies to fight through it!  The card has continued to see play through the years in Legacy control decks, such as this UW "Landstill" deck that Gerry Thompson took the finals of SCG Open Orlando in 2011:

 

Interestingly enough, Mishra's Factory has actually grown stronger over the years, and I don't just mean its position in the metagame.  The land has always been able to pump animated Assembly Workers, including itself, by tapping.  But under the original rules of Magic, a tapped blocker did no damage in combat.  Now that they do, a single Mishra's Factory can deal three damage as a blocker.

 

9. Maze of Ith

This card was considered so strong against creature decks that it was added to the restricted list shortly after it was released.  It effectively Fogs one blocker every turn, forever, at the cost of only a land-drop.  Whereas a removal spell trades with a creature and then is lost, Maze stays on the board and can switch to blanking a stronger creature later in the game.  You can force your opponent to over-extend to get damage past it, walking right into your Wrath of God.  And you know what's waiting for your opponent's next creature after that?  Maze of freakin' Ith.  In the early years of Magic, most creatures were valuable solely for their ability to deal damage in combat, making Maze of Ith a fantastic answer.  In the present era of Deathrite Shamans and Dark Confidants it's not quite as amazing.  But it still sees a little play in Legacy, often as a Knight of the Reliquary target, or in 43Lands.dec variants.

 

8. Valakut, the Molten Pinnacle

I still believe this was the most oppressive card in Standard during the year it was paired with Primeval Titan.  Valakut Titan suppressed every other deck that might have had any shot at fighting Caw-Blade.  There were certainly other Primeval Titan decks, the card was powerful enough that there were many ways to build around it, but Valakut was the best.  You could make a good argument for including other Prime Time targets in this list, including Eye of Ugin from the Mono-Green Eldrazi deck or Kessig Wolf Run from the SOM/INN ramp decks, but none of those were as scary as Valakut.  

When the DCI created the Modern banned list, they wanted to start by eliminating some of the most oppressive decks from previous Standard environments, and it is very telling that Valakut got the Modern ban hammer early.  The card recently came off the list and is currently paired with Scapeshift in a relatively benign Tier 2 combo deck.  Scapeshift combo is much more popular on MTGO than in paper Magic, but it did manage to get Lee Shi Tian to the semi-finals of Pro Tour Return to Ravnica with this list:

 

 

 

7. Dark Depths

 

This land began life as a casual card aiming for Timmy/Johnny appeal, but with the printing of Vampire Hexmage it became an overnight hit for tournament Spikes in the old Extended format.  "Thopter-Depths" was the consensus deck-to-beat of the format, a combo-control deck that could stall the game with Thopter Foundry/Sword of the Meek and then win in a single turn, sacrificing the Hexmage to turn Marit Lage loose from his icy prison.  In 2010, Adam Yurchick rode the deck to some amazing finishes, finishing 2nd at GP Oakland in February, and just two months later finishing in 1st place at GP Houston with this list:

 

6. The Artifact Lands

I've written extensively on the power of these cards before, in my article for Robot Week. http://puremtgo.com/articles/love-hate-and-oxidation-history-robots-competitive-magic  Not only are they insanely strong in Affinity decks, they have even seen some marginal play in Tezzeret, Agent of Bolas decks.  If you're in search of a high artifact count for whatever reason, these will forever remain a great option... except in Modern, where they're banned.

5. Karakas

Back in 2010, I was getting back into the game and my brother gave me his old Magic collection.  Stuck into a white weenie deck, for no apparent reason other than it was cool, was a Karakas.  At the time it was printed, the card's applications were extremely limited.  There were many legendary creatures, but most of them were vanilla creatures like this guy:

 

Why would you return him to the hand?  No good would follow from such an unsavory deed.  He's hilarious and awesome, and every turn he sits in play is a memory you should treasure forever.  But by 2010, there were legendary creatures like these guys:

 

Cheating fat, ridiculous legendary creatures into play is a consistently Tier 1 strategy in Legacy, whether by reanimation or by Show and Tell.  The intervening years also saw the rise of creatures with excellent abilities that triggered on entering the battlefield, and these combo'd nicely with Karakas.  As a result, this card costs approximately eleventy-billion times what it was worth in 1994, and is completely worth it.

 

4. Rishadan Port

 

This card was so annoying that the block after it needed TWO very strong hate cards targeted specifically to control it: Tsabo's Web and Teferi's Response.  And that still wasn't enough.  After frustrating players for much of the previous year, Jan Tomcani finished at the top of the standings in Masques-Invasion Standard at the 2001 World Championships with this Dark Fires list sporting a full set of Ports:

Dark Fires
Jan Tomcani, 2001 World Championships, Standard Event
Creatures
4 Llanowar Elves
4 Birds of Paradise
4 Blastoderm
4 Thornscape Battlemage
2 Spiritmonger
2 Flametongue Kavu
2 Kavu Chameleon
22 cards

Other Spells
4 Fires of Yavimaya
4 Saproling Burst
4 Fire///Ice
2 Urza's Rage
10 cards
Lands
8 Forest
3 Mountain
2 City of Brass
2 Llanowar Wastes
2 Sulfurous Springs
3 Karplusan Forest
4 Rishadan Port
24 cards

Fires of Yavimaya

 

After its reign of terror in Standard came to an end, the card found a home in Legacy tribal decks such as Merfolk and Goblins.  With the recent decline of those decks, the card has found a new home in Death and Taxes, the white-weenie mana-denial deck that has surged in popularity over the past year.  Also surging is the price of Rishadan Port, having become one of the five most expensive cards on MTGO thanks to the awkward rollout of Masques block online, and creeping towards three-figures in paper.

 

3. Strip Mine / Wasteland

 

It may be hard to imagine now, but Strip Mine was not on the original restricted list, and there was actually a time when you could play four of these.  Not only that, but there were no fetchlands, so playing a land always exposed you to having it Stripped.  People played very low land counts in the early years, so land destruction in general was a powerful strategy.  Thank God for Moxes!  The card incidentally improved a lot of early players' deckbuilding, because we usually counted it in our "spell slots" instead of our "land slots", thereby accidentally playing a more appropriate number of land under contemporary manabase theory.

Strip Mine was everywhere, in large part because it was originally printed at common and reprinted in 4th Edition.  Yes, WotC was eager to let as many people as possible get their hands on Strip Mines and play them in their Type 2 decks!  There's no "wrong" way to use a full playset of Strip Mines, but I suppose you could debate the most effective way.  It was at least theoretically useful to aggro decks looking to develop board advantage with small guys then stunt a control deck's development -- the role Wasteland would later play in Tempest Sligh.  It was also a nice answer to some of the other powerful game-breaking lands on this list.  But because of the abundance of artifact mana this plan had to be complemented with artifact destruction like Gorilla Shaman.  

The best deck to employ the power of unrestricted Strip Mines was a Nether Void mana denial deck.  A primitive version of today's mono-black Pox decks, the Nether Void deck could lock an opponent out of the game and proceed to slowly whittle his life away with Mishra's Factories.  Eventually the DCI decided they didn't like the card's effect on deck construction, and even in the mid-90's were already souring on land destruction in general, so the card finally made the restricted list in Type 1.

I include Wasteland here as well, because although it is the fixed Strip Mine, it has perhaps a more powerful effect on Legacy play today than Strip Mine ever did in Type 1.  Some writers remarking on this fact like to put scare quotes around "fixed" - like so - but I actually think Wasteland is an important part of Legacy that I would hate to do without.  It gives an incentive to play with a couple basics, punishes greedy mana-bases, and in an environment with Stifle and fetchlands it can be handled with smart play.  Yes, there are games where you just have two dual lands in your opening seven and get Wasted out, never drawing another land.  But maybe you should have mulled that hand if you didn't have a cantrip, or maybe your manabase could use some tweaking.  Wasteland keeps Legacy decks honest, and if I could snap my fingers and make it legal in Modern, I would.

 

2. Bazaar of Baghdad

Even played honestly, with no graveyard synergies, this card wasn't bad by 1993 standards.  It DOES say "draw two cards", after all.  In a format with a restricted list, draw spells are far more powerful than in other formats, because they re-claim the very consistency that implementing a restricted list attempts to keep in check.

Actual attempts to use this land with graveyard-based strategies were few and far between during Magic's first decade.  Stephen Menendian, while writing his excellent series on the History of Vintage, uncovered a reanimation list that used the land with Hell's Caretaker to recur Triskelion, but the deck apparently wasn't popular, either because it was inconsistent or because it pre-dates widespread use of the internet to disseminate decklists.  There were a few black creatures such as Nether Shadow that returned from the graveyard, and the strategy got a big boost from Ichorid, but it remained largely a novelty act.

That all changed with the printing of the Dredge mechanic in Ravnica.  The mechanic allowed you to replace any single card draw with returning a particular card from your graveyard to hand, at the "cost" of milling your own library.  On the front-end, Bazaar gives you two draws.  On the back-end, it allows you to discard three into your graveyard.  So on turn 1, your Bazaar could be used to dump a couple Dredge creatures into your graveyard, and on later turns the "draw two cards" text gave you two additional Dredges.  The deck is brutally fast.  It doesn't rely on casting spells at all, making it a combo deck that is more or less impervious to countermagic.  And it "sees" most of its deck every game, giving it ample ways to dig for an answer to any problem.  The Dredge deck, fuelled by Bazaar of Baghdad, is so powerful that it demands several sideboard slots in almost every competitive Vintage deck to this day.

If this list were about the Top 10 Lands *today*, Bazaar would be #1.  It is considered one of the "pillars of Vintage", commands a hefty price tag, and is loved and hated like no other land in eternal Magic.  But in the whole of Magic's history, there was one land that was hailed as the most powerful land ever printed.  Perhaps the most powerful *card* ever printed, some would have argued.  It was so powerful it was once considered the de facto 10th piece of Power, and was regularly traded at or above the price of both Ancestral Recall and Timetwister.

 

1. Library of Alexandria

In my area, we called this "Library of I-Win", and the sentiment was shared by every Type 1 player I ever met.  There were several facts about early Type 1 that contributed to this, facts which no longer hold true:

* Both players drew a card on turn 1, even the player going first.  You could begin the game by playing Library, taking you down to 7 cards, draw up to 8 with Library, play a Mox or Black Lotus, and pass the turn.  You could do this little dance to easily stay at or around 7 cards most of the game.  It is now much harder to get value out of Library when you are on the play.

* Timetwister was widely played, as was Wheel of Fortune, and you could usually count on using Library to eke a bit of bonus value from both players' "Draw 7" spells.

* Type 1 was a much slower format in the 1990's than it is today.  Storm and Dredge didn't exist.  There were combo decks capable of a quick kill, but there wasn't the abundance of card-selection spells we have today, so they weren't very consistent about it -- that's one of the reason we were playing all those "Draw 7" spells to see more of our decks.

Today, all the control decks in Vintage contain two or three easily assembled combos that can win the game on the spot.  Back then, this wasn't the case, and it was possible to play a slower game where the incremental advantage from Library would let you cruise to victory.  The most enduring example of this style of play was Brian Weissman's legendary creation, known simply as "The Deck":

The Deck
Brian Weissman
Creatures
2 Serra Angel
2 cards

Other Spells
1 Black Lotus
2 Disrupting Scepter
1 Jayemdae Tome
1 Mirror Universe
1 Mox Emerald
1 Mox Jet
1 Mox Pearl
1 Mox Ruby
1 Mox Sapphire
1 Sol Ring
2 Moat
1 Ancestral Recall
2 Counterspell
4 Mana Drain
2 Red Elemental Blast
4 Disenchant
4 Swords to Plowshares
1 Demonic Tutor
1 Amnesia
1 Braingeyser
1 Timetwister
1 Time Walk
1 Recall
1 Regrowth
28 cards
Lands
4 City of Brass
4 Island
1 Library of Alexandria
3 Plains
3 Strip Mine
4 Tundra
2 Volcanic Island
21 cards

Moat

 

There were later evolutions to Brian's famous list.  Strip Mine was later restricted, Mind Twist was eventually unbanned and joined the team, Serra Angel fell out of favor as the finisher, and so on.  But the underlying principle of winning through incremental card advantage remained, and Library of Alexandria never had a more fitting home than The Deck.

Wrap-Up
 
I don't think there's ever been a Top 10 list in history that any two people agreed upon, but I hope you enjoyed this little tour through the history of lands in tournament Magic.  Did I leave off something totally obvious and awesome??  Probably.  That's what the comments are for.  Click them, right there below this, and tell me how dumb I am!  And then pat yourself on the back for being a part of Theme Week!

9 Comments

Curious why you deliberately by xger at Thu, 03/27/2014 - 11:35
xger's picture

Curious why you deliberately set aside lands like Gaea's Cradle and Tolarian Academy? Sure they "just" generated a ton of mana, but both lead to completely ridiculous decks.

I didn't want the list to be by RexDart at Thu, 03/27/2014 - 11:58
RexDart's picture

I didn't want the list to be taken over by fast-mana and big-mana lands any more than I wanted it to be taken over by mana-fixers, because they're not very interesting to write about. If I'd only taken duals out of the mix, the Top 10 would have probably included Tolarian Academy, Gaea's Cradle, City of Traitors, Ancient Tomb, Cabal Coffers, Cloudpost, and the Urzatron lands, which is over half the list. I thought cards with utility beyond mana-production were more fun to read about.

edit: also Mishra's Workshop, which is one of the first that came to my mind when I was making this list, and a big part of the reason I wanted to exclude those kinds of lands from taking over the list, although it would have been one of the few that was at least marginally interesting to write about.

I honestly don't thin most of by TheKidsArentAlright at Fri, 03/28/2014 - 02:41
TheKidsArentAlright's picture

I honestly don't think most of those big mana lands would have made my top 10 anyway. City of Traitors and Ancient Tomb, while good cards in their own right, are more often than not used as Workshops #5-12. Tron, Cloudposts, and Coffers at least had their own decks built around them, but none of them ever dominated their respective formats. On the other hand, Tolarian Academy outright dominated every format it wasn't banned or restricted in. Mishra's Workshop, along with Mana Drain and Bazaar, is considered one of the pillars of Vintage; if you aren't running 4 copies of one of those cards, you're probably running some sort of hate deck with them directly in your sights.

I do agree with most of the other choices though, and I think my personal Top 10 (12?) would have cut Karakas and lumped Port in with Wasteland/Strip Mine, putting Academy at #1 and Workshop at #2.

Cool article, Rex. I really by romellos at Thu, 03/27/2014 - 13:10
romellos's picture
5

Cool article, Rex. I really like your top 10 choices here.

There are lots of land options to fix mana base or accelerate with huge boost. But, in the end they are linear.

I totally agree with your general point that, land becomes more when it provides some extra abilities/effects.

Regarding to Wasteland: Wizards is still trying to find a good incarnation for Wasteland for Modern format. Tectonic Edge was the closest one so far, yet it is still not close enough. I wish that one day they would print a Wasteland variant for Modern with the following ability; 1 mana tap/ or tap: destroy target non basic land with a non-mana ability or effect.

That could be interesting, a by AJ_Impy at Thu, 03/27/2014 - 17:56
AJ_Impy's picture

That could be interesting, a Tsabo's Web land. Perhaps even use stifle technology. 'Whenever a player activates a non-mana ability of a land, you may sacrifice neowasteland, if you do counter that ability, destroy that land.

What about a tapping land: by Rerepete at Thu, 03/27/2014 - 18:13
Rerepete's picture

What about a tapping land: as long as ~ remains tapped, target land does not untap. You may choose not to untap ~ during your untap phase.

Rishadan Port without the by AJ_Impy at Thu, 03/27/2014 - 18:45
AJ_Impy's picture

Rishadan Port without the cost? No.

With that wording by Kumagoro42 at Thu, 03/27/2014 - 19:50
Kumagoro42's picture

tap: destroy target non basic land with a non-mana ability or effect.

With that wording, it doesn't kill Valakut or Grove of the Burnwillows or especially Urzatron. :)

It seems hard to find the correct template to have it do what you meant for it to do, except through a very complicate or clumsy wording, like "T, sacrifice ModernWasteland: Choose target land. If that land has a rule text other than a mana ability, destroy it."

You might say, "Destroy target land with no basic types", but that would just make the shocklands even better.

Honestly if you want to put by xger at Fri, 03/28/2014 - 10:48
xger's picture

Honestly if you want to put some pressure on the ridiculous modern mana bases it would just take the reprint of a single card: Price of Progress. Decks would either have to be much more conscious of their non-basics or accept folding to a lot of red decks. It wouldn't push anything out completely but it would cause some reimagining of mana bases.