Tuesday, August 16, 2011

CCDD 081711—Idyllic Castle and pay-lands

Cool Card Design of the Day
8/17/2011 - While I've played with this concept for years, I'm dead certain I'm not the only one, and probably not the first. It breaks an unspoken but fundamental rule of Magic design: Lands don't have mana costs. "Why not" is not a question—mana cost is what differentiates land from spells. "Could land have mana costs" is a question, though.

Much like the Ancient Den cycle from Mirrodin, the Early Years—Idyllic Castle (and any land cards that would follow in its path) are not spells. They're just lands*. In the case of Ancient Dens, * means they also count as artifacts. In this case, * means you have to pay mana when you play them. Apart from violently rampaging over some of our pre-conceived notions, I'm pretty sure this doesn't actually break any rules of the game.

You can still only play land once per turn, on your turn. Playing a land is still a special action that doesn't use the stack. It's just that you have to pay mana to do it in this case. Paying mana doesn't change the timing or nature of playing a land, since mana abilities also don't use the stack.

There's room for confusion around the fact that a spell with no mana cost can't be cast normally. One could wonder if we can still play lands without mana costs now that there's an alternative. Naturally the answer is 'of course,' but the potential for confusion isn't irrelevant.

Even if it's possible within the scope of the game and the rules to put mana costs on lands, that doesn't mean we should. What are the pros and cons? It does open up a lot of design space. While we're far from reaching the limit of interesting land design, it is inherently much more finite than the design space for spells simply because lands all have the same cost (your land drop for the turn). Allowing mana costs opens that up dramatically. Do we need that extra space? I'm not sure we do. In theory, anything we can do on a land we can do on an artifact for two mana more.

Mana costs on lands adds complexity to the game and could confuse casual/new players. If a player is learning Magic for the first time and starts to get that lands are resources and spells are outlets for those resources, but then he stumbles across a land that looks like a spell but says it isn't even though it plays similarly, well, that could set him back.

We must also consider compatibility. Having lands with mana costs shouldn't break any existing cards, but there are tons of spells that search for and/or put lands directly into play and those were all balanced for lands with no mana cost. These pay-lands should probably never be basic or Rampant Growth and Cultivate would become too good. Even nonbasic lands with basic land types are dangerous because of Farseek, Grixis Panorama and Arid Mesa. No precaution will prevent cards like Crop Rotation, Scapeshift and Primeval Titan—which for the most part are already plenty good—from fetching pay-lands onto the field. We could make it so that you have to pay the mana cost (if any) of a land any time it enters the battlefield, regardless of how, but that's so different from the concept of a mana cost, that you'd be better off making it an ETB ability like Scorched Ruins, Golgari Rot Farm or Rupture Spire.

All told, I don't know what the right answer is, but I lean fairly heavily against putting mana costs on land cards. If it did happen, it would probably just be for one block where it serves a very specific and worthwhile purpose. Still fun to think about though...


  1. I think Rupture Spire does this best, without messing with the actual method of playing lands (and doesn't let you cheat with land-fetching cards). Verdant Ridge is the only one of these that I actually like (if the cost was moved to an ETB trigger).

  2. Oh, another point of confusion with pay-lands is whether you can tap the land to pay for its own mana cost. You can't (because the land isn't played until all costs have been paid) but that could be unclear to some players since cards like Rupture Spire ETB tapped to avoid that confusion and cards like Lotus Vale modify the ETB event so that the 'costs' must clearly be resolved first.

  3. This leads to further merging of card types. If this goes on, soon we'll have only two permanent types, creatures and noncreatures. Isn't that exciting?

    Rupture Spire is an execution of the concept without unnecessary acrobatics with the rules. I wouldn't mind one such pay-land per block.

  4. And a Rupture-Spire-like version Verdant Ridge actually is much more attractive to me *because* you'd be able to pay for its own "mana cost," which just results in a plain old Shivan Oasis, with the alternative of paying for the cost with one color of mana and tapping the ridge for the other color, giving you no net increase in mana for the turn but letting you fix colors.

  5. Yeah, that's what made me think of the payment timing. I love that you could tap a Forest to get a red our of your Verdant Ridge immediately. That you can play it as your first land is a nicety that neither Rupture Spire nor the pay-lands with mana costs offer.

    Should you be able to play the Ridge, tap it for mana and pay for something else, letting the Ridge be sacrificed as a result? Or should the payment be totally mandatory like Lotus Vale? Seems like using your land drop and sacrificing a land is more than a fair cost for one unrestricted R/G mana production.

    New Verdant Ridge

  6. While it's a thought experiment, essentially these all just feel like artifacts now.

  7. Using up your land drop for a one-time boost of one mana is totally fine I think. Balance-wise, the card is not terribly strong but has a decent amount of flexibility.

  8. Tigt hit the nail on the head. There's no reason these shouldn't be artifacts, other than that they couldn't be hit by artifact destruction, in which case, you could make them enchantments, though tap enchantments hasn't really been done much.

    Ultimately, blurring those lines just serves to confuse players more than anything, since there's no inherent differences between card types, other than a quirky mechanical rule for lands (one per turn.) The difference between a land with Howling Mine's text, an artifact with Howling Mine's text, and an enchantment with Howling Mine's text is next to nothing unless those permanent types follow certain design rules.

  9. This could be a land with level up.

  10. Agreed. Blurring the lines between lands and artifacts/enchantments just isn't worth it.

    Thanks for the feedback, all!

  11. I believe, like others that the idea is not bad, but you need it would be more elegant to demand that you pay for it when you cast it and sacrifice it if you do not play the required cost. Also lands with activated abilities should either have very tame activated abilities, moderately good mana abilities or just have ETB abilities, in order to differentiate them from artifacts/enchantments as noted before. However, a land version of everflowing chalice would be something I would personaly enjoy.

  12. Huh. Only just noticed that I typo'd 'must' to 'may' in the last two examples.