It’s your turn. You’re battling with GW Humans. Your opponent is on Bant Control and has just cast their second Thragtusk. Your relevance in the game is quickly deteriorating. You draw your card.
Worse yet, it’s a basic Plains.
Basic. Freakin’. Plains.
Chalk up another loss to mana flood.
So what happens now? Maybe you trim a land from your deck. Twenty-three lands could be on the high side with four Avacyn's Pilgrim, right? Let’s try twenty-two.
How many one-landers do you mulligan before you start missing that twenty-third land? How often do you contemplate jumping all the way to twenty-four at this point?
It’s a maddening dance, and no matter how many lands you play from week to week the balance never feels quite right. A number of players even end up quitting Magic because they can’t get over the games that they lose to drawing the wrong quantity of lands. I’ve heard more than one person try to sell people on WoW TCG on account of its more stable resource system.
I’m personally way too deep into Magic to even consider such a move. I’m more inclined to put the work in to trying to find the build of a given deck that best manages the problem with lands. It’s a topic that probably doesn’t get as much direct attention as it deserves. Even still, I believe that the Magic community as a whole has gotten much better at determining how many lands to play in the past several years.
Back when I started playing competitively I would hear a lot of clamoring about wanting to build “20/20/20” style decks. Twenty lands, twenty creatures, twenty spells. This was what was believed to be “correct” in the original Ravnica block era. The idea was basically to play as few lands as possible, or rather to “cheat” on lands because drawing more spells would generally lead to winning more games.
Even the limited format back then was heavily dedicated to cheating on lands. The popular consensus was to pick up as many bouncelands as possible and to play as few as 14 lands whenever possible. Again, drawing more spells leads to more game wins.
This is a notion that has carried over from the very early days of Magic. The most influential deck along these lines is probably Dave Price’s Deadguy Red:
Price’s deck had four drops, X spells and a Hammer of Bogardan that you know that he was planning on buying back. Even still, there is no way that a deck intending to play turn two Grizzly Bears with downside is going to play more than twenty-two lands.
Spells are just stronger now. In light of this, there is an elevated importance to making land drops as the game progresses, especially when trying to go big. I will never understand a Thragtusk deck that only plays twenty-four lands. I don’t care how many Unburial Rites and Faithless Lootings are featured. I just won’t get it. Never.
When your spells are very strong, and I think it’s safe to say that Thragtusk is, just being able to curve out will win a high percentage of games.
Perhaps the most eye-opening decklist that I ever saw came from Simon Gortzen’s PT San Diego winning Jund deck:
Twenty-Seven lands. Masterful.
I had quite the Jesse’s Girl moment when I saw this list. Nothing but very powerful spells and a grip of lands to assure the casting thereof. There is beauty in simplicity, and it is showcased here in this deck. I never looked at Jund the same after this list. I even played 26 lands in Jund to the top 8 of an extended PTQ with four being the top of my curve the year after.
It is now quite common for me to add one or two lands to almost every deck that I play before even getting in a single game. Why? Because if I’m playing it I probably believe it to be the most powerful strategy. If I have the most powerful strategy then the most important thing is execution. Execution necessitates having the proper resources. The proper resources are quantities and colors of mana.
The Concrete Application of All This Theory
I wrote a few weeks back about the importance of scaling power levels, and playing more lands plays directly into a strategy intending to scale. If you play more lands you’ll make more land drops and your Sphinx's Revelation will draw more cards. When you draw more cards (and gain more life), you win more games. That’s the whole reason that people cheat on lands in the first place, right? To have a higher percentage of their draws be spells? Turns out drawing more cards accomplishes the same goal.
The counterpoint that I frequently encounter is that cards like Thought Scour make it easier for one to hit lands. This isn’t entirely false. It’s true that cantrips allow a player to draw more cards, and drawing more cards leads to drawing more lands, but I’ve already written about the problems with Thought Scour on more than one occasion. In a nutshell my counterpoint here is that jamming Thought Scours instead of lands invites an unnecessary amount of entropy into your games and also fills your deck with relatively low impact spells. You don’t beat Thragtusks with one-for-ones, and Runechanter's Pike while powerful, is undoubtedly more clunky than just burying your opponent in the card advantage acquired from higher impact spells and the ability to cast them.
So what the hell does any of this have to do with a GW aggro deck flooding? To an extent this is something of a subjective question. Do you believe that the aggressive decks can consistently beat the slower decks before they get off the ground, or do you believe that the slower decks will beat the aggressive decks simply by virtue of surviving to turn five? Is the solution to ignore the fast decks? The slow ones? To try to beat both? Is the answer to hybridize- to build a deck capable of winning quickly but equally capable of going long? Does all of this remain a static aspect of Standard or does it change weekly with the metagame? I see a lot more value leaving these as questions rather than trying to provide absolute answers. It’s not like there’s only one good answer.
The idea for this article started out as me wanting to write a love letter to the 27th land, but clearly I wasn’t able to find much focus. Now and again I think that unfocused stream of conscious thinking can be a good thing. Let me know in the comments if you found any of this interesting or thought provoking, or if you thought it was just complete trash. As always, I would love to field any questions.
Until next week, good luck; high five!
@RyanOverdrive on Twitter