The Prerelease for Kamigawa: Neon Dynasty is over, and the set is fully released on MTGO. That means it's time for testing and brewing. And hot takes. So many hot takes. This is par for the course in Magic, it's only now that the more measured and data driven results begin coming in that the real impact of a set can be measured. However, that comes with an asterisk.
And that asterisk is that nobody is fully immune from hype. It's human nature to jump on bandwagons and fall in line with the group. What's important is to not let that hype continue forever. The longer you buy into the hype, the harder it will be to escape its pull. Which is where I conveniently come in.
I've always enjoyed providing hard reality checks against hype and rhetoric, especially post set-reveal. Today will be no different. Modern got some new and unexpected toys from NEO and while they're good, they're not as good as the hype might have you believe.
A Legendary Group
In case the above linked articles aren't sufficient clue, the new legendary channel lands are the hot cards for... well, every format, frankly. However, Boseiju, Who Endures has been picked to be such a powerhouse that its arrival will be format warping. Which is quite the hot take, but when the card in question is an uncounterable Naturalize mixed with Cleansing Wildfire, I understand where the hype and excitement are coming from.
All the channel lands promise to provide useful and uncounterable effects for many decks at low cost. That's low, not no cost, despite what I've overheard some discussing. Every card that is put into the deck is taking the place of some other card. Economics 101: everything has an opportunity cost. In this case, the cost is a mono-color land (which is usually assumed to be a basic in my experience) but in exchange, decks potentially gain another spell. And that is quite good.
Two Shall Lead
Boseiju has been the most discussed of the cycle for Modern, and for good reason. Destroying artifacts and enchantments is quite important with Urza's Saga and Colossus Hammer being so heavily played. Add on the ability to destroy opposing non-basics and it's yet another nail in Tron's coffin! Which has been said so many times by now that it's lost all meaning. However, the point stands that Boseiju is likely to be relevant across the board.
The other big gain is Otawara, Soaring City. Four mana for kinda-Boomerang is too much to pay. However, when it's uncounterable and critically not a spell, suddenly it becomes a great rate. At least, for one very specific job: removing a resolved Teferi, Time Raveler on the opponent's turn. Otawara will be the first card that can do that as far as I'm aware, and could prove exceptional in control mirrors.
However, outside of that, Otawara is unlikely to be channeled often. Four mana is pricey for the effect. I know that all these lands have cost reduction. However, in my testing, that clause just isn't relevant. Ragavan, Nimble Pilferer is the only legendary creature that sees widespread play, so the channels will never be especially cheap, and even at three mana the effect is expensive.
Which is foreshadowing for my overarching point today. From what I've seen and heard, most players are heavily overestimating these cards. It's natural to see a new set with beloved effects that have never seen play before and get excited. However, that is a dangerous (and costly) road to walk. The hype is leading to unrealistic expectations and ignores the reality of playing with these lands. Especially the cost of playing them.
There have been measured takes out there, but the best one comes from Frank Karsten. As Magic's math guru, he worked out the math for these channel lands and drew some conclusions that I agree with and informed my own opinion. I realize that many readers don't have a CFB Pro subscription, so here are the saliant points for this article's purposes:
- The cost of including the first channel land is low but not zero. It is also higher than previous legendary lands because the channel lands aren't true spell lands like Pendelhaven; they're closer to MDFC's like Shatterskull Smashing // Shatterskull, the Hammer Pass. A choice must be made.
- Therefore, they must be played as lands more often than used as spells. This necessity is reduced as more copies are played.
- But given that, the risk of drawing multiples increases as more copies are played, just like with any other card. Because they're legendary, the risk of drawing only channel lands increases as a function of the number played and land count.
- The effects are solid, but not especially powerful. This reduces their playability and makes their risks more significant.
- Two should be the most common number played based on the math and risks involved.
Frank noted that all his work was theory-crafting and that actual experience might alter the conclusions. I have been testing these cards and will largely confirm his conclusions, but there are additional points I want to expand on.
The Karakas Effect
Primarily, Frank mentioned the risk of drawing only the legendary lands, but he didn't go into great detail. It's not something easily quantified, so he simply mentioned it and moved on. I'm here to say that this is the biggest problem with these lands.
I play Legacy Death and Taxes. As such, I've spent years playing with multiple copies of Karakas. Karakas is great in Legacy both as an answer to Emrakul, the Aeons Torn and Griselbrand and to protect Thalia, Guardian of Thraben, and in a format with Wasteland, playing multiples is essential. However, drawing multiples as my only lands happens, and it really hurts. In those circumstances, Karakas is just a bad Lotus Petal. Sometimes that's okay as the first gets Wasted or you have a lot of Aether Vials. However, when you actually need to make land drops to cast expensive spells, it's a nightmare.
Given the risks involved, experience suggests that players will want to severely limit how many channel lands they play. Outside of Legacy, there's little risk of losing the first one to enemy fire and Wasting yourself is never good. However, that would mean that there's little chance of ever using the lands for their effect, and players generally hate those kinds of decisions. Thus, there's considerable tension to playing these lands, more than previous legendary lands.
The Basics Problem
On that note, the opportunity cost of these lands is low, but it isn't zero. That's just how opportunity cost works. Replacing a dual land with a channel land is a very high cost because of color requirements. This means that basic lands are the most likely sacrifice as the cost to color access is lower. Which is a fair assessment, but it misses critical extra costs associated with cutting basic lands.
Namely, losing to Blood Moon. I know that Boseiju answers Moon, but that has a massive asterisk attached. By replacing basics with non-basics, the risk of getting locked out by Moon is increased. Which is the whole point of playing Blood Moon in the first place. However, the other problem with cutting basics for channel lands is that it makes Modern's fetch/shockland manabase unstable. Basics are essential for reducing the life cost of mana and channel lands can't be fetched. Having to fetch a Breeding Pool instead of Forest or Island at low life is very dangerous.
About that asterisk: Boseiju answers Moon if and only if it is in hand and there's 1G available to cast it. Moon's only really dangerous when it catches players tapped out with only non-basics. It follows that Boseiju is no better at saving unprepared players from Moon than Prismatic Ending is. Which is to be expected given Boseiju's reality rather than the expectations.
Boseiju Is Overrated
I would go further and say it is severely overrated. The rest of the cycle appears (to me) to be valued appropriately, but Boseiju gets far more credit than it deserves. It's a fine card and quite playable in Modern, but it can't live up to the hype. It's not the fault of Boseiju so much as that players have unrealistic expectations. The articles I linked in the intro believed that Boseiju will be format defining while I'm here to say that it's just a role player. It has a place in Modern and will see play. It just won't redefine the format.
The biggest problem with actually playing Boseiju for its channel effect is that the effect plays worse than expected. Path to Exile has fallen off because turning Ragavan into a mountain is not great, no matter how necessary at times. Boseiju is like Path, but worse because the destroyed artifact, enchantment, or non-basic land is replaced by any land with a basic land type. And if exchanging a creature for a basic is bad, turning Urza's Saga into Stomping Grounds is worse.
Not to say that it isn't better than the alternative. Turning a Tron land into Forest at instant speed is good (see also Field of Ruin) and getting Saga off the board may be necessary to survive. However, anything less than that feels very bad. Turning Gruul Turf into Stomping Ground is not much of a downgrade. And then there's the possibility that the opponent searches up a triome and fixes their mana. It is very difficult to color-screw opponents using Boseiju.
Which is very relevant given that many arguments for Boseiju point to it always having targets against every deck. Not every deck has artifacts or enchantments to kill, but almost all have nonbasics to destroy so there's always something to do with extra copies. And Life from the Loam and Wrenn and Six recurision can run decks out of nonbasics. Which may be true, but for that to happen the opponent would have to do nothing for a very long time so you can durdle in peace. If that's the case, you were never losing that game in the first place.
A Hostile Metagame
The other question is whether the land is more relevant than the artifact or enchantment being destroyed. Most of the ones being played right now are really cheap, easily replaceable, and recurrable via Lurrus of the Dream-Den. Again, turning Colossus Hammer into Plains may be necessary to survive, but it also accelerates the opponent toward Lurrus and getting the Hammer back. Against most artifact decks, Boseiju should be regarded as a stopgap, nothing more.
If more decks were playing more expensive artifacts or enchantments, it would be a different story. Killing a Krark-Clan Ironworks or similar would be very good, but that isn't a thing in Modern anymore. It's different in sideboard games since powerful enchantments are popular sideboard cards. Turning Rest in Peace or Ensnaring Bridge into a land sounds excellent. However, those types of cards don't see much play right now either, leaving Boseiju as a good card in the wrong metagame.
The bottom line is that the channel lands are playable, but have an unexpected amount of baggage attached to said playability. Especially compared to older legendary lands. Therefore, while they will see play, it won't be as widespread as the hype suggests. Otawara seems like it will be quite important in control decks where I'd start with two copies. The other channel lands will likely be one-ofs in the maindeck and Boseiju will likely see more copies in the sideboard. However, they're hardly going to be format redefining. Read the cards that actually exist, not the cards in your head.