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Posted by on Sep 11, 2017

The Philosophy of Earth

The Philosophy of Earth

If you take away nothing else from this article, it should be this–play more lands.

Now I’m not saying you should add 5 islands to your Merfolk deck to be extra sure that Lordy Lordy comes down on time, or that you should board in 8 basics as part of your Blood Moon package.

I’m saying that playing fewer lands is usually a concession in deck building, not a goal.

Think about it. If you could play a deck that consisted of 58 lands, and 2 spells that killed your opponent, and that deck was good against the field, you would play it. You would play it every time, and laugh at all the suckers playing 25 plains, a handful of creatures and spells, and losing.

You would play it like Beethoven played the piano. You would play it like Jordan played basketball. You would play it the way babies and puppies play with heartstrings: often and mercilessly.

Why? Well for starters (like puppies) you would almost never lose to variance (because who doesn’t like puppies?).

Second, your deck would always make its land drops on time and (presumably) would be built such that flooding was impossible (aside: this is probably one of the reasons that Lands is so good in legacy).

In other words, if your deck can deal with flooding out, and your win percentage is good against the field, then adding lands will reduce the possibility of losing to variance, and therefore make your deck better.

I know. Sounds crazy, but it’s true.

Don’t believe me? Take a look at Standard master Brad Nelson’s Abzan Aggro list from GP Toronto (2015):

Make no mistake, this is an aggro deck. Like the kind that wants to curve out 1, 2, 3 drop and beat down. The kind of deck that is supposed win by bashing creatures into peoples’ faces while they miss land drops.

Seriously. This 26 land deck is trying, paradoxically, to end games of magic as quickly as possible.

So why does this aggro deck play more lands than UR control decks from last season’s standard?

Well, one reason is that Brad’s deck was so good against the field, that missing land drops caused more losses than flooding out.

In other words, it played so many lands because it could: it had the luxury of playing a high land count and having a high win percentage.

That’s what I want to call the “Philosophy of Earth” today (stolen shamelessly from Mike Flores’ “Philosophy of Fire,” an amazing article that you should read if you haven’t).

The idea is that your ideal land count should be as high as possible to ensure that your deck does what it was designed to do, as often as possible.

A high land count is a feature, not a glitch, when it comes to deck building. You want to play as many lands as you can.

To prove it, I want to look at some deckbuilding techniques that help you carry a high land count to victory. To conclude, we’ll go over a recent and powerful deck (UR Delver in Legacy) that I think gets a lot better when you switch just a few numbers around.

Mana Sinks

I’m sure you’re all familiar with the idea of mana sinks: cards that allow you to advance your board using only mana as a resource. Recently we’ve seen cards like Walking Ballista and creature lands serving this role. Cards that have a purpose in the early game, and then scale in power depending on how much mana you put into them.

If we look at back at Brad’s decklist, we can see how important those mana sinks are to his high land count: between Rakshasa Deathdealer, Fleecemane Lion, and Warden of the First Tree, there are plenty of places to dump excess mana.

Brad’s threats need to match up to his land count because without those mana sinks, he is playing slightly-better grizzly bears. It’s all about curving out, then levelling-up the bears.

So rule #1 of the Philosophy of Earth: playing a good number of mana sinks reduces your susceptibility to variance, because it transforms draws that would lose to moderate flooding into hands that can win.

The best part? Your boring grizzly bear hands can still destroy people who stumble.

Card Draw/Selection

The other important aspect to Brad’s mana strategy are his utility lands and card draw spells.

Like mana sinks, scrylands add to your mana base early, and reduce flood later on.

Card draw spells like Abzan Charm allow you to find more spells to use your mana on, which ensures that you’re rarely out of gas.

In Legacy, this is one of the most important aspects of the blue cantrips like Ponder and Brainstorm: they allow you to mitigate flood by giving you something to do with excess lands. Rather than just drawing a random spell, you can draw ponder, and use it to find something specific.

Here’s the important part: cards like Abzan Charm and the Temples didn’t encourage Brad to lower his land count, they allowed him to raise it. The goal of charms and temples, at least in his deck, was not just to reduce mana screw, but was also to reduce flood: they allowed him to make land drops naturally, then use his great mana to draw cards, play efficiently at higher land counts, and destroying opponents whose mana was less consistent than his.

One of the best qualities you can have in a deck is good mana. No ifs ands or buts.

Which brings us to rule #2 – Card selection (and card draw) is best used to prevent flooding, not screw. You never want to use a ponder to find a land drop when you could be playing something proactive, then pondering to set up your next turn to avoid unnecessary land drops.

There will certainly be instances in which you use an Oath of Nissa to grab the plains you needed and are just over the moon about it, but it’s almost always better to make your land drops naturally.

Modern Affinity – A Case Study

Ever take a close look at affinity builds? You’d think that aggro decks want to play as few mana sources so they don’t flood out.

But Affinity, the most successful aggro deck in the history of Modern, plays a whopping 25 mana sources.

The beauty of these decks are their ability to make land drops and play their spells without flooding. This deck needs to hit its third land drop, and often its fourth, on time.

When those mana sources become obsolete, they turn into threats via Arcbound Ravager, Cranial Plating, or animation abilities.

A bit of deckbuilding genius if you ask me.

Legacy UR Delver – Another Case Study

Take a look at the following list from Magic Online by Stuuch

UR Delver

Sure, it looks good. But you know what I think?

Needs more lands (also playing Fireblast #1 over Chain Lightning #4 is suspect).

Play more lands!

Objection!

I know what you’re thinking.

1) “Objection! If we play too many lands our Delvers won’t blind flip as often!”

Correct you are, savvy reader. But do you know how much less likely you are to flip your Delver when you replace 1 spell with one land?  

The drop from 30/58, to 29/58, is a whopping 1.72%. A number that only matters in hands where a) you have a Delver , b) you can’t set Delver up via Brainstorm, and c) flipping Delver matters.

So as far as Delvers go, the math is inconsequential.

But wait! I know what else you’re thinking.

2) “Objection! RUG Delver used to play 18 lands including 4 Wastelands, so really we’re playing more real mana sources than that deck and we have more probes! That means we can play fewer lands.”

A tempting argument, to be sure, but not one that holds up.

For starters, RUG played at least a few cards where Wasteland was worth mana, including Tarmogoyf, Daze, and sideboard cards. It also helped pay for opposing Dazes. So a good % of the time, Wastelands counted towards the overall land count.

Second, RUG didn’t need to tap out every turn to build up a board. It wanted to get a single threat online ASAP, but with Stifle, Spell Pierce, and Wasteland, RUG could  extend the early game and give itself the chance to draw more lands.

The reason UR doesn’t play wasteland is because it can’t afford to take the time for disruption. It needs to play to the board every turn. If you miss your second land drop without 2 threats on board, your win% plummets. Believe me.

I know you have one last one saved up, the best one.

3) “Objection! Increasing our land count also increases our chance of mulliganing hands that have too many lands!”

This one’s tricky. I’m not an expert mathematician, but when you increase the number of mana sources in your deck, you increase both your chances to keep opening hands with enough lands, and also the chances to mulligan hands with too many.

Playing more lands means you’re both more likely to draw lands in the opener, and also more likely to draw lands later in the game when you don’t want them. The question is whether or not the trade-off is worthwhile.

Given the high cantrip count in UR Delver, and the possibility of using those cantrips to mitigate flood later, I believe that more lands makes for a better build: in the case if UR specifically, I think 17 is a minimum, with 18 being totally reasonable.

Remember: while you can ponder for your second land, you don’t want to.

Here’s my current UR Delver list for reference (the gold standard in consistency if I do say so myself):

UR Delver

This list is designed to play to its strengths (activating prowess and maintaining consistency with Preordain and a full set of Chains), while minimizing situational cards that subtract from its power level (Fireblast, Price, Force).

By adding Preordain over blanks, the deck has more opportunities to set up draws in the mid game and avoid flooding out.

Never forget, as Daniel Fournier might say: Preordain is a fluffed-up magic card.

Conclusion

Truly, the presence of a low land count is the mark of a desperate magician.

Alternatively, when you play more lands than usual, it is an extraordinary boast of confidence: it says “my deck is so powerful that I can sacrifice explosiveness for consistency, because I can win the short game and the long game.”

Here’s how to practice the Philosophy of Earth:

1) Do the math: figure out how often your deck mulligans, and see if adding mana sources will help. Can you reduce the curve? Cut tap lands? You can do much of this work through calculation, in addition to playtesting.   

2) Walk into every deck wanting more lands, not fewer: realize that while flooding feels bad, winning is the real goal. For most decks, especially aggro decks, making land drops on time and avoiding mulligans is essential. Plan accordingly.

3) Try to be realistic about the mana needs of your deck: if you’re playing a five drop that wins you the game if it comes down on time (like a Verdurous Gearhulk), try to make that as likely as possible. Many GB decks in seasons past were playing 20 lands, 4 Attune With Aethers, and 4 Gearhulks, with 8 lands that come into play tapped. I could not figure out, for the life of me, how they planned on casting them.

Similarly, I’ve seen people trimming lands form Grixis Death’s Shadow in Modern lately, and I don’t like it. Not one bit. That deck is so powerful, and so consistent, that I would rather add lands and find mana sinks rather than trying going down to 18.

If Grixis doesn’t flood, and doesn’t screw, it wins: no two ways about it (unless you run into UW humans or control, which are just miserable. Avoid whenever possible).

Fewer lands doesn’t help that equation as far as I can see, and I think 20 is almost certainly better than 18, provided we have something to do with the excess (hint: Lilliana of the Veil and Jace Vryn’s Prodigy might help here).

We all remember cases where we need to draw any spell and draw a land instead. What we don’t remember are the times we lost despite mulliganing to a good 6 when we needed 7, or when we had to Serum Visions to find a land drop rather than play it naturally.

We don’t get to play magic without making land drops. Make sure that your list is giving you the best chance to do that, and try to plan around the inevitable flood.