Creatureland Conundrum: A Colorless Problem

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Is Faceless Haven a good card? It was powerful enough to be banned in Standard, but I keep being frustrated playing it in Pioneer.

In the first Pioneer RCQ I played over the summer, a lot of my mulligans were because Haven was my only land. Last week, having Haven as my second land severely hurt my chances in the match against Bant Spirits. If Haven had been another Island, I would have been able to play enough creatures to be in the game rather than completely blown out. I may still have lost thanks to mana screw, but I'd have been in a much better position.

I'm not the only one who's had this problem, judging by published decklists. Though it started out as a four-of, Spirits players across the board are trimming Haven. It is absolutely critical for Mono-Blue Spirits to be able to play a threat turn one and then follow it up either with Curious Obsession and protection, or multiple creatures on the following turns. Haven makes either of those plans more difficult. This is offset by Haven being quite strong in the mid-game both on offense and defense but can make the early game feel extremely bad.

Today, we'll look at the trend of aggro decks cutting manlands in depth.

What About Mutavault?

On a related subject, I haven't been playing Mutavault at all in my Modern UW Merfolk deck. Initially, this was just because I didn't remember where they were and was in a hurry, but even after finding them again, I'm still not running Mutavaults. The extra color-producing lands I'm running instead have made curving out easier and enabled me to run more color-intensive sideboard cards.

I've been doing pretty well with this 'Vaultless Merfolk deck over the past month. It might make sense that not playing Mutavault would hurt my win percentage, but I haven't seen that happen. Having all colored sources has meant that I never need to worry about casting my double-color spells. This means that as long as I have two lands I can cast anything. This has meant that I've curved out more consistently. It would appear that whatever match percentage I've lost by removing 'Vault has been made up for with this greater consistency.

A Memory...

This reminds me of my Modern PTQ win in 2014. I was playing UW Merfolk then too, splashing for maindeck Path to Exile, and sideboard cards. I only played three Mutavault then. I also played fewer double-blue spells. The main reason was that I was running an extra land so that I could maindeck two Tectonic Edge. I even ran two more Edges in the sideboard for the Tron and Jund matchups. The former because obviously, and the latter because I always boarded out my Aether Vials and needed the extra lands. I don't remember running Cavern of Souls, but I was definitely running more truly colorless lands then than I am now.

...Triggers a Thought

That further reminds me that as I'm doing October's data for the Metagame Update, I'm seeing an uptick in Merfolk decks. Which is pretty awesome. However, some decklists I'm seeing are cutting on 'Vault. It's usually only one being cut and only occasionally, but it is definitely happening. The decks that are cutting are frequently splashing for other colors as I am, but others are just running other utility lands. That is a new development. I was the only Merfolk player who ever trimmed on Mutavault back in the day.

Now that I'm thinking, I don't think I've ever seen Mutavault in other tribal decks in Modern. Is Mutavault a Merfolk-only card? What I found when I checked was surprising. It shows up in fringe decks occasionally, but other than that, it's just Merfolk. Never in Goblins, interestingly enough.

Speaking Of...

A new version of Mishra's Factory is coming in The Brothers' War. Mishra's Foundry is strictly worse than Factory, but that's fine. Factory was the first creature land in Magic and even in its day was considered overpowered. So much so that nothing even approached its power level until Mutavault. I recall that it was a huge deal to older Magic players that there was finally something that could compete with Factory after so long.

Today though, Factory is now Modern legal thanks to Modern Horizons 2, but barely sees play. That's weird considering that on the raw rate it's still much better than other creature lands. Costing one colorless to activate and being a 3/3 on defense with no help is quite good. Factory has also been in Legacy forever but sees even less play there. What gives?

Putting it Together

Faceless Haven was bannably good in Standard but is frustrating and being trimmed in Pioneer. Mutavault used to be a requirement in Merfolk, but that isn't entirely true anymore. What's more surprising is that more tribal decks don't run Mutavault at all. Additionally, the card that set the standard for creature lands isn't seeing real play period. That all seems to be really counterintuitive based on typical theory and doctrine.

Then there's Mishra's Foundry. It will never see play in older formats, the rate isn't good enough, and/or they have access to the strictly better version. However, it will likely see a lot of play in Standard. Colorless creature lands always do because in Standard players have to work with a more limited set of tools. Formats with more choice will never pick an unequivocally weaker card. However, they're not playing the stronger version either. Why's that?

...are the colorless creature lands just kinda bad?

The Counterpoint

Except, that can't be the case because one of the best decks in Pioneer is a Mutavault deck. Mono-White Humans always runs a full set, and MTGGoldfish places Humans as the fourth-best deck in Pioneer. And it's not like Mutavault underperforms or is actively bad in Merfolk, my build just operates better with more colored sources. Power isn't the problem. Wait, power isn't the problem.

The Insight

After considerable thought, I don't think that there's anything wrong with any of the colorless creature lands in terms of power. Factory and Mutavault are as powerful now as they ever were. What has changed is the Magic ecosystem around them. The way that Wizards has been pushing the game has changed the opportunity cost of colorless lands considerably. Where Mutavault was a cheap include in tribal decks it is becoming more expensive. If things continue on this trajectory, there may be a day when non-Tron decks can't afford to run colorless lands at all.

An Economics Lesson

In economics, we say that the true cost of everything is not just the price paid for it, but the value of the next best option sacrificed. This is the concept of opportunity cost, and all things have an opportunity cost. There are no free lunches because there is no way to have everything at all times. For everything, there is a choice. The choice to forgo one option for another makes that forgone option the opportunity cost. Congratulations everyone, that's a condensed week of Econ 101.

This is relevant to today's topic because by playing colorless creature lands, players are giving up the opportunity to play a different utility land or a source of colored mana. In the past when Wizards was more cautious with power levels and tempo wasn't as all-consuming as it currently is (in Modern, anyway) the opportunity cost was relatively low. There were fewer options to discount. These days, Wizards is continuously printing new and increasingly better utility lands as well as pushing power, so the cost is rising.

Consider Just Utility

To go back to my previous example, my 2014 UW Merfolk deck played three Mutavaults, two Tectonic Edges, full sets of Seachrome Coast, and Wanderwine Hub, and some Islands. The available utility lands that I didn't play were Cavern of Souls (I think, anyway. I really don't remember), Minamo, School at Water's Edge, and Oboro, Palace in the Clouds (which didn't do anything other than protect against Choke back then), additional copies of Mutavault and Edge maindeck, Ghost Quarter, and Faerie Conclave. That's neither a lot of power being given up nor much flexibility. It isn't zero, so there was an opportunity cost. It just wasn't particularly high.

These days, choosing Mutavault means giving up on all the previous cards plus all of the new ones. These include but are not limited to Waterlogged Grove, Otawara, Soaring City, Hall of Storm Giants, Field of Ruin, and Castle Vantress. Obviously, some of those are far more desirable in Merfolk than others, but the point is that there are more options and therefore more choices to make. More choices mean higher opportunity costs.

Consider Mana Requirements

In addition, the pressure to produce colored mana has increased. Back in 2014, Merfolk spells with two blue pips in the corner were limited to the eight Islandwalk lords and Kira, Great Glass-Spinner, which was a two-of maindeck. These days I'm running those lords plus full sets of Merfolk Trickster and Svyelun of Sea and Sky plus three Unsettled Mariner. Many other Merfolk decks are also running maindeck Subtlety. That's at least double the color requirements.

The math of this situation is well known. The more colored pips on spells, the more colored sources are needed to consistently cast said spells. Double-colored spells that cost two mana are particularly demanding of a mana base and require far more colored sources than more expensive spells to avoid stumbling. Thus, there's room for colorless utility lands, but given the increase in color requirements, that room is clearly shrinking.

Consider Tempo

On the subject of stumbling, having colorless lands in a color-hungry deck is going to lead to more stumbles out of the gate, as my Pioneer experience clearly shows. This didn't use to be such a problem because mana bases were worse and there were no free spells in Modern. Wizards was also anti-cantrip, so all decks were more inconsistent. Tripping on colored mana was less punishing because it was more likely that the opponent would stumble as well.

Today, any early game stumble is magnified more than in earlier eras. The evoke elementals in Modern give any mana-screwed player the ability to get back in and the deluge of cheap interaction and threats means that missing a turn of board development makes getting back in much harder as the game goes on. Thus, the tempo risk of being unable to cast spells because of color problems is higher than before. For example, Mono-White Humans is ok adding any threat to the board and most of its threats cost a single white mana. Spirits wants to cast multiple blue spells a turn, and suffers when it can't.

Time To Reevaluate

I'm not saying that Mutavault and company are bad cards. That clearly isn't the case. What I am saying is that they're far more costly than they used to be. Players need to be aware of this as Magic continues to evolve and to take this changing landscape into account. It may not be appropriate or optimal to run colorless lands in mono-colored decks. Should Wizards continue to push creature lands, there may come a day when even tribal synergies aren't enough to run Mutavault over an aggressively priced on-color creature land.

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