Friday, September 6, 2013

In Defense of Scry Lands

Hey there everyone. It's been a while since I've written one of these things, but I feel like last night's spoiler merited me 'coming out of retirement' per se. Up until this point, I've been a huge fan of Theros. For those who don't know – I studied quite a bit of Classical history during college, and so Greek and Roman Mythology is a near and dear subject to my heart. I think that the design team has really stepped their game up with creating resonant flavor for a large portion of the cards in the set and I'm really digging the references to commonly told stories.

With that said, last night, we had a spoiler, as we are expected to during this season. It was one that people had been waiting for – the new dual lands for Theros. There were high hopes, and from the initial reaction, it doesn't seem like the public is terribly much in support of them.

For those who haven't yet seen them, here they are:

Now, I'd first like to go on the record and say that Wizards clearly did at least one thing right here, and that's the art. I am blown away by the detail in some of these pieces. I think that the Black/White one specifically hits all kinds of great resonance, and Noah Bradley has done a gorgeous job with Temple of Mystery. Luckily for us, he posted a high-resolution version of Reddit, so you can see all the majesty.

However, just looking at the internet and taking a quick temperature gauge, it would appear that there's a healthy group that is very outspoken against these Scry Lands. I disagree with them, but I do think that they're presenting their arguments in a coherent and fair manner, so it's probably worth addressing the points in a more systemic manner. I've noticed that the complaints with regards to these lands have fallen into a number of categories, and I'm going to do my best to talk about each one.

I'd like to remind everyone that my goal here isn't to change your opinion. If you don't like the lands, that is your choice. This article is meant primarily as an educational tool – to try and explain why these lands have been printed right now, and provide some broader contest in both the upcoming Standard, Limited, and design environment.

Yes. As you've all obviously noticed, these lands do not have any option to enter the battlefield untapped. You can not use them the turn that you play them – at least not for mana. This is admittedly a downside to playing them. You will most likely take a tempo hit when you play them.

Actually, let's take another look at that part. Tempo hits. I'm sure the majority of you are familiar with tempo – at least in Magic. In short, it's the momentum of the game – who's putting pressure on, who's defending. To quote a famous term – Who's the Beatdown? Playing a tapped land loses you tempo because you can't use that mana to advance your board state that turn. You've lost some of your momentum.

There's an assumption here though. It's subtle, but it's definitely present. You only lose that tempo if you were going to use the mana to begin with. While people have pointed out that you really do want to hit your 1-2-3 curve exactly, there's plenty of times that you won't be able to – or want to. If you have an overloaded slot in your hand (say, two 1-drops, but no 2-drop) then you can easily slot the land in there, allowing the downside to 'ground itself out' in a way. It doesn't affect you, and you get the free benefit of scrying away that T3 1-drop you were about to draw and hate – or the fifth land you were going to draw – or you can see that you're about to draw the awesome removal spell, so you can afford to not make a bad block this turn and save your guy.

Is entering the battlefield tapped a downside? Yes. It's clearly less good than it otherwise could be. But that downside can be mitigated through good play, which (if you're a good player) is the kind of thing you should like. (It means you'll win more often, because you make the right choice more often).

This is actually a really interesting discussion, and I'd love to have a more in depth talk about it. This seems like the kind of thing that is perfectly up the alley of /r/spikes – so maybe you guys can grab this and run with it in the comments.

First off, I hear this complaint, but I don't think it's reasonably more problematic than the Scars lands were favored towards aggro decks – that is to say, very little. Secondarily, I think it's important to note that I don't actually agree with this line of thought – and I think that is actually the more interesting debate to have.

So, are Scry lands predisposed towards Controlling (or late game oriented) decks? Well, first, let's think about why that might be. Late game decks tend to use more powerful single cards – focusing on using their general and specific answers to find one of the few cards that will eventually win them the game. Given long enough, a control deck will out-draw you, and then utilize answers to control the field, finally ending with a difficult to stop creature bashing your face in. Right now, that creature is probably an Aetherling, or a Jace, Memory Adept, but what form that death takes is frankly irrelevant.

So, what does Scry do for a control deck? It allows them to have more precise selection of the cards that they draw. This allows them to get the correct mix of answers, threats, and land that is critical to them not stumbling in the early game. That all sounds pretty good, and admittedly, Scry 1 isn't a cure-all, but it certainly wouldn't hurt.

What does it do for the aggressive player then? Well, in my opinion, it does the same thing, but with a more pronounced end. You see, filtering and library manipulation are already a part of a control deck because their answers are generally more potent. You can afford to spend two cards to find your Supreme Verdict if the one board wipe wins you the game. Aggressive decks, on the other hand, don't generally have that luxury. They need their threats to be able to go the distance from the beginning. As a result, they can't generally afford the card slots to run grade-A filtering. The result is that some minimal amount of filtering – provided for free – should actually benefit the aggressive deck.

We can see this in the design of certain mechanics. The reason that Blue looting is stronger than Red looting (Draw, then discard vs Discard, then draw) is because when they play tested both versions, it turned out that giving red the marginal extra power was having a disproportionate effect on the outcome of games.

It's possible that – in this case – the tempo loss will end up eclipsing the additional filtering, but I'm hopeful that some savvy deckbuilders will go the distance and at least test them.

This is actually one of the few arguments that has nearly nothing to do with the actual game of magic, and much more to do with the abstract needs of Wizards and set design. A lot of people seem to be under the impression that rarity is a signifier of power level, which isn't necessarily true.

That's not to say that rares aren't powerful, but it's not the reason that the cards are at rare. There are powerful cards at every rarity – Delver of Secrets and Lightning Bolt at common, Wasteland and Lingering Souls at Uncommon, Birds of Paradise and Varolz, the Scar-Striped at Rare, and Geist of St. Traft and Elspeth, Knight Errant at Mythic. Those are just the first ones that came to mind – I'm sure if you thought for a while, you could fill every rarity with quality, competitive, playable cards. I'm positive that if you thought for a moment, you could think of plenty of Rares and Mythics that weren't remotely playable (Archangel's Light – here's looking at you.)

If it isn't power level dictating what rarity things are at, what is it? Recently, one of the prime answers has been complexity. With the onset of the New World Order (a design term coined by Mark Rosewater) the design teams have been extremely cognizant of how complex a card is at any given rarity. This is why we don't see repeatable combat tricks terribly often at common. It's why we don't see many persistent, static effects at uncommon. Each set has a given number of complexity points to spend at the lower rarities – and no doubt the majority of those were spent on Bestow in this set.

However, I don't believe that complexity alone would have pegged these as rare. For that, you're going to want to go to a deeper reason – one that underpines the entire set.

This isn't a multicolored set. It just isn't. Uncommons are the most important slots in a given set for helping to shape the way that a Limited environment plays out. It's where you can place some complexity, while still ensuring that there is a reasonable chance of someone opening it during a draft. Uncommons are the limited heavy-lifters, and spending five slots there is a difficult thing to justify for lands that seem to directly conflict with the strong mono-colored theme that is being communicated by Theros.

So, why even have dual lands? If they wanted to promote a mono-colored environment, why bother to include them. Ultimately, that comes down to the other balance point of a set – Constructed formats. (In this case, Standard.) We saw this previously, where despite Innistrad block supporting Allied colors – the lands were Enemy Color Checklands. This was because Development noted in their playtests that those lands needed to be in Standard to achieve some noted goal. We can assume, therefore, that Scry lands are critical to some goal in the development of the Standard environment. Perhaps they're trying to slow the format down. Perhaps they're trying to reduce variance when playing with high-variance card types like Auras.

Also, I know this is going to be difficult to believe, but this is actually good for Standard and Limited. These lands will have a constant and high demand for the full two years they exist in standard. Having that constant demand in packs will make the prospect of opening 3 packs for a draft every week into a less-terrible prospect from a value standpoint. By ensuring at least 5 more rares with value, Wizards helps to protect against a bad set from a sales perspective, while also providing constant, even value to players.

Ask yourself – if there had been a new cycle of color fixing lands in M14, would you have been more likely to buy a box?

When this question was asked to Mark Rosewater, who was the head designer on the set, he had this to say:

“Plain come-into-play tapped lands (meaning that’s all they do) are default uncommon. That’s the baseline. Then depending on the set things can move around a little.
In Return to Ravnica, we had the gates. The gates were common because in a multicolor block it’s crucial for limited that the mana fixing show up high in as-fan (as-fan talks about how many of something you get in each booster taking rarity into account) so to match the needs of the block we pushed the cards down a rarity.
The scry lands are the tap-lands plus. (Yes, the gates had the gates subtype but that mattered, especially in constructed, very little.) I know some of you don’t value scry 1 highly, but as I think time will show, in both constructed and limited, it’s more significant than it might seem at first blush. This pushes them to somewhere between uncommon and rare.
To figure out which way they fall, we look at the set they are in and the needs of the set. Theros limited is the opposite of Return to Ravnica. There is a little multicolor but mostly at higher rarities and mana fixing is way less important in Theros limited. This means that the momentum pushes the opposite way. Uncommon is very valuable space for making limited have longterm replay value and we would rather have five other cards there than the dual lands so the environment pushes them upwards instead of down.
There are obvious numerous other factors, but this is the impact that each set had on the decision about where to put its dual lands.”

I hope that this post helped some of you think about the Scry lands in a slightly less negative manner. I know they aren't the Nimbus Maze cycle, or the Horizon Canopy cycle, or even a cycle of Fetches like some were speculating. I hope that those of you who are dismissing them as 'just guildgates' will actually give them a try. Scry is deceptively powerful, and I, personally, am looking forward to trying them out.

Until next time everyone,


  1. Mark Rosewater has also admitted dual lands are printed at Rare to sell more booster packs.

  2. My problem with the scry lands in general is that they are too close to functional reprints of the guildgates. Not that gates get run in many standard decks, but for the non-maze's end ones, now we all have to go get a playset of rares, cause scrys are so close to strictly-better-than the gates. SCG is preselling most of them at 6-7 bucks.

    Also, it's going to make no difference to color fixing available in Standard. For all of Theros, we'll still have RTR with it's shocks and gates available. After RTR rotates, if the next block is again a multicolored block, Wizards will print better multicolor lands to support it. If it's not, then we definitely won't need a cycle of multicolored lands. So they're redundant, even with scry 1 stapled to them.

    If Wizards really wants this block to be single-colored, maybe they should have printed mono-color lands at rare that do something with the devotion mechanic - there's so many ideas I can think of that are thematic, fun, format-slowing, and better than scry-gates that they could have put at rare. Now, we've just got another cycle of slightly worse duals to collect. Yippee.