Reminiscing About the “Weird Lands” of Early Magic

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When looking for inspiration for article topics, a website I frequently browse is I typically browse their Interests page, navigating to the “Market” pricing tab to focus on card prices of cards that actually sold, rather than the prices listed. I find these datasets to be far more accurate, particularly when dealing with older cards.

My eyes naturally gravitate to the cards with that little asterisk symbol (*), denoting the card is on the Reserved List (and therefore old). Just a few cards down the weekly list, I found something that stirred up fond memories for me, and immediately gave me my topic for this week.

My Early Magic Experience

I’ve mentioned before that I began playing Magic in 1997, around the time Fifth Edition and Visions were released. During that time period, my friends and I were strictly casual players, combatting powerhouses like Ashiok, Nightmare Muse, Force of Nature, and Shivan Dragon with removal spells like Delayed Blast Fireball and Dark Banishing. Our strategies were linear and simple, but it was some of the most fun I've ever had playing Magic.

One thing we neglected to an embarrassing extent back then was our mana bases. Our rule was simple: a deck with sixty cards should include twenty basics. That was the fixed ratio, and we rarely deviated unless we literally didn’t own enough basic lands, in which case we stretched things even further.

The idea of including nonbasic utility lands was foreign to our ways of thinking. I do remember including cards like Ruins of Trokair and Crystal Vein because they offered a simple-to-understand benefit: accelerating mana. For the most part, though, we viewed nonbasic lands as “weird.”

No, I’m not being opaque or simplistic for effect. I literally had a small stack of cards that I classified as “weird lands.” If I had to put a definition around the term, I’d describe “weird lands” as nonbasic lands that had abilities of varying oddness unrelated to producing mana.

Noteworthy Weird Lands

There were several “weird lands” from that time period, of various power levels. Ice Age and Alliances had some strange ones, including Halls of Mist, a card that has climbed nearly 70% in market price over the past week, putting it towards the top of the Interests list.

 I remember liking this card as a kid because of how disruptive it was, but we shied away from actually playing it for two reasons: First, the cumulative upkeep meant it couldn’t stick around for long. The second, and more important reason (for us), was that Halls of Mist didn’t tap for mana. The only land at the time that didn't tap for mana that I knew was worth playing was Maze of Ith. I knew about Maze because my stepbrother had a copy. I could never afford one myself.

Of course, this was a time before I knew that cards like Library of Alexandria and The Tabernacle at Pendrell Vale even existed. This week's retrospective isn’t to talk about cards that people already know about. I’m focusing on “weird lands” that people may not even know exist unless they played heavily back during that time period.

Ice Age Weird Lands

Beyond Halls of Mist, some other Ice Age weird lands I remember include Ice Floe and Glacial Chasm. These are nonbasic lands that don’t tap for any mana but do offer somewhat unique defensive abilities. I don’t think Ice Floe was ever any good, which is a shame because I seemed to open them consistently from booster packs of Fifth Edition.

Glacial Chasm, on the other hand, is a potential combo piece—combine it with Solemnity, and the upkeep cost can’t accumulate; use with Crucible of Worlds and Zuran Orb to have Glacial Chasm’s effect indefinitely; win via brute force by combining with Heartless Hidetsugu. It’s no wonder the uncommon land is worth a few bucks!

Alliances Weird Lands

While Ice Age and Fifth Edition had some noteworthy “weird lands,” I found that Alliances was the biggest source of bizarre and variably powerful lands.

A quick search reveals eight nonbasic lands from Alliances. A full cycle of five color-centric cards is included that tap for colored mana or provide some unique benefit at an additional cost. The five lands, in dollar value order, are:

  1. Black: Lake of the Dead - $100
  2. White: Kjeldoran Outpost - $15
  3. Blue: Soldevi Excavations - $15
  4. Red: Balduvian Trading Post - $5
  5. Green: Heart of Yavimaya - $2

I love the artwork on Lake of the Dead. I distinctly remember appreciating the flavor associated with the card, even then. It offered such raw power in mana acceleration, but at a steep cost—classic black.

My favorite of the five above though has to be Kjeldoran Outpost. I distinctly remember my stepbrother playing it against me and combining it with Akroan Crusader.

The five lands above are relatively straightforward and relatively well-known. There are three other nonbasic lands from Alliances though, that are slightly more obscure.

The Obscure Alliances Lands

While obscure today compared to the five lands above, in its day, Thawing Glaciers, was one of the defining cards of the Standard format of its day. It even helped power Magic great Jon Finkel to a fifth-place finish at the 1997 US Nationals. The Glaciers allow you to tutor out basic lands from your deck once every other turn. It’s odd having to return the Glaciers to your hand at the end of the cleanup step and not upon activation—I guess if you had ways of untapping lands, you could use the ability multiple times in a turn.

The next Alliances “weird land” is Sheltered Valley, a card I’ve never seen in play in my life. Without looking the card up, I couldn't even tell you what it does. Reading the card now, I realize its ability is pretty poor given the cost. You gain one measly life each upkeep as long as you control no more than three lands—are you kidding me? Life gain tends to be weak as it is, but holding yourself to just three lands to net that life gain is egregious. Sheltered Valley is rare though, so even though it's bad, the card is still worth a buck or two.

The third and final Alliances weird land is worth even less because it’s equally bad but also uncommon. I’m talking about School of the Unseen.

This isn’t a complicated card—not by any stretch. It’s a land that taps for a colorless or can filter two mana to give you one of any color. That’s it. No weird “return to your hand” effects, no upkeep costs, and no combat interference. Why is it so cheap? My guess is that Commander players have access to strictly better cards, including Shimmering Grotto, Unknown Shores, and Painted Bluffs. Why pay two mana for something that one mana can buy you, in redundancy?

Sorry School of the Unseen, you are not only outclassed, but you’re also boring. At least Sheltered Valley offers a unique ability.

Last, But Not Least

While I'm keeping this article short this week, I'd be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge a few other “weird land” favorites from my childhood.

Fallen Empires introduced Storage Lands, as well as the cycle of lands that entered the battlefield tapped and could be sacrificed for two mana of their respective color. Homelands had one of my favorite land cycles—filter lands for three colors. They’re not powerful, but they’re flavorful and I love their artwork.

Visions had a bunch of nonbasic lands that didn’t involve colored mana—perhaps seeing all of these is what inspired me to start collecting nonbasic lands in the first place. Undiscovered Paradise, Griffin Canyon, and Quicksand all come to mind, with the latter being plentiful in my booster packs.

If we’re evaluating cards strictly on the artwork, however, then some of my all-time favorite “weird lands” must be the cycle of “bands with other legends” lands from Legends.

The lands themselves are some of the worst ever printed. Their artworks, however, are some of the best, with a classically dark aesthetic. I appreciate these so much that I recently purchased a set of five for my collection. For those following my articles, you’ll know this is a big deal as I have been striving to reduce my collection significantly, not add to it. These Legends classics were too cool to pass up, even though I admit I didn’t know about their existence until years into my time with the hobby.

Wrapping It Up

Hopefully, this walk down memory lane gave you a feel for the kinds of nonbasic lands we had access to back in 1997, and why we didn’t play with most of them. The cards were either too niche, too weak, or both. Those that weren’t, were often expensive. Granted, “expensive” for me back in 1997 meant $10 because I was a poor middle school kid without a bankroll. This was a significant barrier. As a result, we played our Ice Floes, our Halls of Mists, and our Aysen Abbeys and we loved every minute of it. What about you? What weird lands from the past do you have fond memories of? Let me know in the comments or on Twitter.

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