Building_on_a_Budget

Something JMS feels all budget deck builders need to hear.

Interlude: Investing in Real Estate

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Of all of my Building on a Budget articles so far, this one has the most controversial message and continues to stir conversation. The argument I lay out here outlines a belief that I've held for a long, long time... Perhaps as long as I've been writing articles. It was cathartic to put this idea into print, and I even wrote it several weeks early because my wife was nine months pregnant at the time and I knew this wasn't an article I wanted to write on massive sleep deprivation. I imagine that I have a few other deeply held beliefs on the topic of budget deckbuilding that will demand to become their own articles eventually, but I'll let them bubble to the surface like this one did.


The letter N!inth Edition officially has me stirred up. It is unequivocally my favorite Core Set ever, and I'm someone who's been hard on Core Set card choices. I'm completely excited about it and what it's going to do to Standard. Start the cheers! Rah rah shisboombah! Yaaaay 9th!

In addition, I'm surprised to find that 9th Edition has uncovered a deep conviction I have about Magic, and one that's sure to be controversial in this column. For a long time I thought maybe I would just keep my mouth shut, but the more I thought about it the more I felt this was a message all budget deck builders needed to hear.

Here goes:

(deep breath)

9th Edition's painlands--Adarkar Wastes, Shivan Reef, and the rest--are rare. They are not budget rares. They will be hard to get because lots of people want them. They will be expensive to trade for or buy.

And,

Even if you're on a budget,

You should get them anyway.

My Plea: You Need Good Multi-Lands

Before I start waxing enthusiastic about ten rares I believe every deckbuilder should own, let me first say that none of my decks in this column will use the 9th Edition painlands. They will always--always--show up in the “Adding Money” section no matter how much I might like to throw them into my decks. I won't ever assume that budget deckbuilders will have access to the painlands, because I admit they are pricey. It is simply my desire today to implore you to get them, no matter how long it takes.

Here is the single reason you need 9th Edition's painlands in your collection:

Put simply, good multi-lands (that is, lands that produce more than one color of mana) broaden the kinds of decks you can build. Or, more to the point, they make more of your deck ideas viable. If you are a deckbuilding enthusiast like me, good multi-lands are going to be the heart of your collection.

Don't believe me? Consider a very primitive example. Let's say you have a deck that's Black and White, with twenty-four lands and eighteen each of Black cards and White cards. For simplicity's sake, let's say you aren't using any double-mana cost cards like Horobi's Whisper or Leonin Skyhunter. Your deck is perfectly balanced between the two colors. Just to make this example pure, let's also say that the two colors are balanced in terms of cost. That is, you have the same number of 1 ManaWhite Mana cards are you do 1 ManaBlack Mana, the same number 2 ManaWhite Mana as 2 ManaBlack Mana, etc.

So, in this mythical deck, how many Plains and Swamps do you use? That's easy: Twelve Plains and twelve Swamps. Balance your land with the spells in your deck. Easy.

With such a deck, you have around an 8.7% chance of not drawing a Plains by the fourth turn (going first). That means about an 8.6% chance to have no plains and at least one white card in hand. The same thing is true for Swamps and Black, which puts your chances at color problems at somewhere around 17% (though we're obviously taking some shortcuts here on the math for sake of discussion). Your deck is going to randomly lose games a lot more than if you were playing a Monowhite or Monoblack deck.

So what happens if you have only ten Plains and ten Swamps, plus four Caves of Koilos? Now your color problems drop to about 10.74%. Better, right?

What happens if you have only eight Plains, eight Swamps, four Caves of Koilos, and four Tendo Ice Bridge? (I know it only has one counter... work with me here. If that bothers you, just switch it to some other more consistent dual land so that you're seeing 8 fixers.) Your color problems just dropped down to about 6.5%.

What happens if you want to start loading up on double-cost cards like Horobi's Whisper and Leonin Skyhunter? Without good multi-lands your deck simply isn't going to work. With Caves of Koilos and Tendo Ice Bridge, it has a chance of survival.

The more often the land you draw can produce the mana you need, the more often you will be able to cast your spells when you want to and thus play your deck how it was meant to be played. Monocolored decks (assuming they aren't using lands that can only produce colorless mana) will always be able to match the mana from their lands to the mana on their cards in hand. With every color you add to your deck, though, you decrease the chances of making your land and hand match. The result: Manascrew. And as we all know, the result of manascrew is an un-fun game and lots of frustration. I would even go so far as to say it's one of the least fun ways to lose in Magic.

If you do not own good multi-lands, you will face manascrew a lot more often than those people who do own them.

Look at the recent U.S. Nationals results: Of the Top 8 decks, only two decks use maindeck cards of two colors. One was Kyle Manning's using Green along with Kodama's Reach, Sakura-Tribe Elder, and Sensei's Divining Top to smooth out its mana. The other was Kyle Goodman's which uses both Tendo Ice Bridge and City of Brass to splash three cards of an off-color. Neither of these decks advanced to the semifinals. In the French Nationals, all eight top decks were monocolored. In the Italian Nationals, seven of the top eight decks were monocolored, with the eighth using Green as a base. I could go on and on.

These tournaments took place in an environment with access to Wayfarer's Bauble, Solemn Simulacrum, Talismans, Journeyer's Kite, 8th Edition taplands, City of Brass, Tendo Ice Bridge, Mirrodin's Core, and Champions' taplands. Yet they were still dominated by monocolored decks. Why? Because even with these tools, at the highest level of competition, two-color decks outside of Green are too unreliable to be competitive. None of these cards in Standard compensates for the lack of good multi-lands.

I would bet a sizeable amount of money that next year's Nationals will be filled with multicolor decks, even if Ravnica and its fabled multicolor themes never arrives. Why? For one simple reason: 9th Edition's painlands make them possible.

Of course it's not a fair bet, since Ravnica will be arriving, along with another set of great multi-lands. Standard is about to be flooded with deck possibilities that are unheard of prior to 9th Edition's release.

“Wait a minute,” you're probably thinking. “I'm a casual gamer, man. I don't need my deck to survive through ten rounds of Swiss pairings. I don't care about being a State Champion. I'm perfectly happy with Coastal Tower over Adarkar Wastes. My Black/White deck is fine with basic land. Take your painland fascism and stuff it. You must not be talking to me.”

Oh, but I am.

I honestly believe that casual gamers are just as frustrated by manascrew as their competitive brethren. I also believe that losing to manascrew is so frustrating that without good multi-lands you as a casual gamer face these options:

  • Play monocolored decks.
  • Play multicolor decks with lots of Green.
  • Scream at your deck and die several years early from stress.

It's true that your threshold of acceptance for unreliability might be higher than mine. I would contend, though, that an unreliable strategy is a lot less frustrating than unreliable mana. Not finding the cards for your Sachi, Daughter of Seshiro-Orochi Eggwatcher--Freed from the Real combo every game is one thing. Having the pieces in hand and being unable to cast them is entirely another.

The 9th Edition painlands are the most significant thing to happen to deckbuilding in recent memory. As such, you should strongly consider them as a no-lose investment. Buy four Sengir Vampires and you may be able to make two or three fun decks. Buy four Sulfurous Springs and you have just opened up an entire world of Red/Black decks.

The Wannabes

I wrote an article a while back arguing that you don't need Birds of Paradise to make good multicolor decks in Green. This doesn't take away from Birds' strengths, but there are fine non-rare alternatives if you figure out what your deck needs to do.

9th Edition's painlands are not like Birds of Paradise in this regard. Whereas many, many cards in Green can specialize to offer comparable benefits to Birds, the alternatives to 9th Edition's painlands are strictly inferior. Here's a brief recap of the non-rare multi-lands available in recent years:

8th Edition's Taplands (Coastal Tower, Elfhame Palace, Salt Marsh, Shivan Oasis, Urborg Volcano)

These are the most recent, best attempts as non-rare multi-lands. They're not horrible, either. If you can suck it up and lose a turn of mana productivity, you will then have access to both colors for free without any damage to yourself at all. That's a fair trade, right? In some decks, yes. If your deck has nothing to do on the first turn, dropping Shivan Oasis doesn't hurt you at all, for example.

What happens if your deck does have something to do on the first turn, however? Your Kird Ape has to wait until Turn 2 to appear instead of going on the offensive. This also makes you wait a turn to do whatever you would have done on Turn 2 had you cast the Kird Ape on the first turn. See the problem? In an aggressive deck, each early turn is about putting pressure on an opponent. 8th Edition's taplands simply slow aggressive decks down too much.

The taplands aren't just problematic for aggressive decks, though. What about if my critical spell needs to come down on Turn 4 but the fourth land I draw is Urborg Volcano? What if my opponent is bouncing my lands? What if I'm bouncing my own lands with a card like Blood Clock? What if my deck wants to use more than just four multi-lands? In all of these cases, the tempo loss is much more costly than whatever life I would have paid with the painlands. There comes a time when too many painlands become too much damage for your deck to absorb, but the threshold is much lower for the tempo-loss of the taplands.

There's also the obvious point that the 8th Edition lands only come in allied color pairings. If you are building a Blue/Red deck, nothing in 8th Edition will smooth your mana. 9th Edition's lands come in every two-color combination.

Champions of Kamigawa's Taplands (Cloudcrest Lake, Lantern-Lit Graveyard, Pinecrest Ridge, Tranquil Garden, Waterveil Cavern)

All of these limitations are there but worse with the uncommon taplands from Champions of Kamigawa. They're still only in allied-color pairings. Now you lose tempo whenever you tap them for colored mana, period. I've tried these lands extensively in my own decks, and there are very few situations in which I've found the tempo loss worth it. The one exception was my Bad Religion deck, where I was willing to effectively sacrifice a turn once in order for one of my hard-to-handle fatties hit the table, and even then people screamed on the Boards it was a mistake. I suppose Blood Clock or the Soratami are much kinder to the Champions taplands than the 8th Edition taplands, but I still can't imagine a deck that wants to risk the tempo involved in order to take advantage of such a minor trick. In all ways, Tendo Ice Bridge would be a better choice for these decks.

Mirrodin's Core

The problem with Mirrodin's Core is that it requires a turn investment to get any colored mana out of it. This is similar to the investment involved with the taplands, except that now you can use colorless mana the turn the Core hits the table. The “tap for colorless” option is a nice boon, but it doesn't help out with the Kird Ape example above. Cards like Power Conduit can make Mirrodin's Core mimic a true multicolor land like City of Brass if the game goes long enough, but for the most part you would be better off with the City instead. Remember what Zvi said: Your life is a valuable resource in Magic, one the painlands and lands like City of Brass allow you to trade for mana consistency. Mirrodin's Core isn't a bad card to add for a little mana consistency, but it works best in addition to good multi-lands rather than instead of them.

Odyssey's Sacrifice Lands (Abandoned Outpost, Bog Wreckage, Ravaged Highlands, Seafloor Debris, Timberland Ruins)

You have to reach way back to Odyssey to get non-rare multi-lands before Mirrodin's Core. The good news is that these cards are common. The bad news is that they are awful. You have the same tempo loss of the taplands, and you only get one chance to get off-color mana from them. For some decks with Terravore this may be a neat trick, but even then the Onslaught fetchlands (Windswept Heath, etc.) are in every way superior.

Which is all to say that although non-rare multi-lands exist for the budget deckbuilder, the drop off in performance is severe. The fact is that good multi-lands tend to be rare and have no real analogues. You can equip an Air Elemental with Manriki-Gusari and stare down a rare Dragon. Outside of Green, you cannot mess with your land and hope for anywhere near the potency of 9th Edition's painlands.

Oh, and in case you were wondering: Every argument I make about the painlands is equally true for Ravnica's dual-lands like Temple Garden. Yes, I'm suggesting that all good multi-lands are must-have investments.

Investment Strategies

I know it's a little confusing to have me pushing so strongly for you getting expensive rares in a column entitled “Building On A Budget.” Here are three strategies I think may allow for a smaller budget and also make playing with good multi-lands possible.

Share The Wealth

You may have a small budget, and so might your friends. If each of you commits to getting some of the painlands, however, you now have a set from which you can all draw. I used to do this all of the time when I lived in the Bay Area and had a physical playgroup. When I needed Taigas, my buddy Will let me borrow them. When I was a short an Underground River, Dan would cough up a copy. If they ever decided to make a Smokestack deck, they would come to me. Play groups often pool their resources in order to give them access to many more cards than any individual would otherwise see. Online, Clans can function in much the same way.

The downsides of this strategy are twofold. First, they only allow one person in a group to use them at a time. If two friends want to make Blue/Green decks that use Yavimaya Coast, they're either using two copies each or one of them is going without. Second, there is always the danger that one member of your group will move, quit Magic, get married, have a fight with another member, or any of the other reasons that playgroups shift membership. If the guy with the Battlefield Forges moves to Alaska, you've just lost a key ingredient for your Silver Knight-Jiwari deck.

Those limitations aside, I think pooling resources is the single best strategy for budget deckbuilders to gain access to good multi-lands.

Take the Long View

Of course, you can just take my advice and treat the 9th Edition painlands as a long-term investment. Set aside some untouchable funds now, and know you'll only use them for good multi-lands later. Focus first on the colors you most often play. Get a set of Llanowar Wastes now and don't worry about the other nine lands until you hit a financial windfall. Constantly scan people's trade binders and online prices for a good deal, and don't accept anything but a good deal. As with so many things in life, if you have patience you can get everything you want.

The downside of this strategy is that it takes time. If you are passionate about a particular format--like, say, Standard--there is also the danger that you will just complete your set when the painlands are about the rotate out. I'm of the mind, though, that even if you can no longer play them in a particular format, cards like Adarkar Wastes are going to be useful broadly in your Magic decks forever.

Ban

Another strategy I've seen very successful in playgroups is the banning of cards the group deems un-fun. It seems perfectly acceptable to extend this idea and decide that if most of the group can't afford 9th Edition's painlands then no one is allowed to use them. Now everyone is experiencing the same mana-frustrations and the same pull towards monocolored and Green decks. This works for online Clans, too, if they hold Clan-only events. The downside is the risk of alienating some members who actually own some painlands or who otherwise don't agree with the ban list. Other than that, feel free to ban whatever your group agrees to ban. Giving everyone the same starting point is what Magic is all about.

My Final Plea

In many ways, the 9th Edition lands aren't sexy. They aren't like the return of Hypnotic Specter or Verdant Force to 9th Edition. They're just lands, for crying out loud, and can never win you the game on their own. If you're going to spend your hard-earned money, it probably feels a lot better to blow it on Form of the Dragon than Brushland.

That said, I am absolutely convinced that good multi-lands (and, as I've said, “good” so far means “rare” when it comes to multi-lands--this article isn't touching the topic of whether good multi-lands should be rare) are the most important tool in a deckbuilder's toolbox. They are enablers, allowing you to more reliably try the deck ideas you conceive. Not only that, but they are likely to stay relevant in your collection much longer than any Specter, Elemental, or Enchantment ever could.

When a new set comes out, I first evaluate the quality of whatever multi-lands it contains. I then read other people's evaluations as a sanity check. If the multi-lands are good--like Onslaught's fetchlands, 9th Edition's painlands, or Ravnica's dual-lands--I prioritize these cards higher than any other card in the set, period. The reason I do this is because I know I have way too many deck ideas in my head, and that these ideas can only be realized with a proper mana base. I hate abandoning a deck idea because the mana is untenable, especially if an answer exists in Magic that I don't own. I can find ways around most other “chase” rares like Birds, but to me there is no scrimping when it comes to good land.

Do yourself a favor and invest in good multi-lands. As long as you continue to play Magic, you won't regret it.

So ends my painland plea.

Speaking of 9th Edition...

Not only has 9th Edition changed the face of multicolor deck possibilities, it has also now reached Magic Online. As a result, it's time to try out evolving a 9th Edition preconstructed deck into a fun, respectable deck.

The problem of course is that 9th Edition precons are only forty cards. That's twenty cards short of a “normal” constructed deck. I asked Aaron Forsythe why Core Sets had forty-card preconstructed decks instead of the usual sixty-card ones. Here is his response: “They are forty cards mainly to keep the price down. Each is a good intro to the color, and we'd like people to try several out, so we want them to be cheaper. Plus, they force you to alter them to have a legal deck, unlike our other precons.”

Force, indeed. I'm faced with a choice on how to begin this next deckbuilding foray. One option is to pick a deck and begin my experiment by adding twenty cards to the deck. Another option is to get two copies of a deck, then cull twenty cards from the list. Neither would quite be in the spirit of today's article, though, so I'm going to use a slightly different tactic. I'm going to embrace the new multicolor standard of Standard.

Today you're voting for two decks. Whichever are the top two vote-getters I'll mash together, then cut twenty cards. I'll then work on evolving my deck from the two-color Frankensteinian monster I've created.

Poll: Which two different decks would you like to see JMS mash together? (please pick a different deck on each poll!)

The Bloody Deck

Finally, today is also the day I reveal my favorites of the deck names you all proposed for my Blood Clock deck. The fact that the deck revolves around Blood Clock, Thief of Hope, and Choice of Damnations made for great naming fodder, and here were those I most enjoyed:

6. Bloody Damnation (xarinth)
5. Rock Around the Clock (Mentality)
4. Hope and Damnation (sentric)
3. Death Watch (new_yawka)
2. Poor Choices (valyn5)

And the winner just has, I think, a nice ring to it. Oddly it's one of the few that has nothing to do with Choice of Damnations... Thanks Poe for the name!

One quick note, I won't be on next week because of the holiday here in the U.S. However, since that's also the first week of Ravnica previews, the site will have new content from Mark Rosewater and the feature article slot, so don't miss the official kickoff of the Ravnica previews, and I'll see you the following week.

Think hard and have fun,

-jms


[Editor's note: As readers of the message boards already know, I was out of the office the beginning of last week after stepping on a nail at the beach and doing a generally bad job of getting it out. When I came back to work on Wednesday, I had an email from JMS that started as follows:

Scott,

Sorry to hear about your foot. Sarah's in labor, so here's my article for next week...

Now that's dedication to making a deadline!

For all those that have been emailing us and posting their best wishes, I'm happy to announce that JMS and his wife are now the happy parents of Lily Kaia Salazar, born August 23rd and weighing 8 lbs. 5 oz. Congratulations to the whole family! – Scott Johns]

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