This is the second part of a series where I talk about lands in Next Level Cubes. You can find the first part here.
In this part, I will look at „two-colored“ lands – and boy, is there a lot! Not only took it Wizards endlessly to get those just right (instead of way too weak or too strong); they also consciously print new cycles every few sets, so that constructed (mostly, standard) players are forced to spend money again and again just to have competitive manabases. With a few exceptions, this means that constructed-level non-basic lands are rare and expensive, which is, of course, also a concern for cube-builders. That will be glaringly obvious from the very beginning of the lists in this entry.
Remember: I mark cards I use in my Limited Card Pool with an asterisk (*). Oh, and „couples“ are friendly color pairs, while „crosses“ are enemy pairs.
Good manafixing cycles entering the battlefield (potentially) untapped
The Badlands cycle (couples and crosses)
The Blood Crypt cycle (couples and crosses)
The Clifftop Retreat cycle (couples and crosses) *
The Adarkar Wastes cycle (couples and crosses) *
The Cascade Bluffs cycle (couples and crosses)
The Arid Mesa cycle (couples and crosses) *
The Blackcleave Cliffs cycle (only couples)
(For the sake of this entry, a land „cycle“ is one where it is immediately obvious from looking at one card what exactly the other members of this cycle do. There are a couple other, clearly recognizable cycles I will adress separately.)
The members of this group all provide good manafixing, some even TOO good. Almost all of these cycles span both couples and crosses – only the Cliffs cycle is incomplete. Also, these lands are all at least moderately up to incredibly expensive.
The Badlands cycle doesn’t belong in a cube, but in a museum… err, I mean, you simply shouldn’t tie up that much money in a few cube cards unless you’re a millionaire! Apart from that, they are actually too powerful for any Next Level Cube (remember, these are supposed to play like limited, not constructed, in contrast to MTGO cubes and their ilk). While I always stress the importance of giving drafters access to good manafixing, there still needs to be some real (gameplay) cost involved to prevent draft decks from degenerating into multicolor goodstuff. The original duallands impose no such cost whatsoever, apart from a possible slightly enhanced vulnerability as non-basic lands.
Even the Blood Crypt cycle is still a bit on the strong side – each of its disadvantages by itself would make it weak, albeit still playable manafixing, but giving players the option to choose between them goes a long way towards cancelling their cost completely! They might still have made my Limited Card Pool, but they’re also a bit expensive, and – the dealbreaker for me – they possess basic land types, which means they have a lot of unwanted interactions with other cards (mainly with the Blood Crypt cycle, but there are many others). If players want, for example, to run a nominally Azorius-affiliated land to get access to black mana, this defeats the very purpose of using „two-colored“ manafixing in your cube in the first place! Whenever I see a cube where fetchlands can get duallands, I know that I won’t enjoy drafting that cube too much.
As for the Clifftop Retreat cycle: That’s much more like it! With their disadvantage being cancelled by the presence of basic lands, these cards disencourage players from going too deeply into multicolor-land. They’re not too cheap either, but I recommend them as default duallands for a cube.
The Adarkar Wastes cycle is significantly more affordable, and it is also completely fine. The damage once again disencourages drafters from cramming too many of them into a deck. While they are somehow similar to the fetchlands, always providing you with the choice of mana makes them different enough that I am happy to run both at the same time (probably not the full cycles though, but I often design cubes where a few color pairs feature especially prominently and need deeper manafixing support).
For a while I used to have the Cascade Bluffs cycle in my pool, and it played reasonably well. I especially liked that those lands didn’t fix your mana if you didn’t already have at least one of their types. I wasn’t too happy that they provided you with double-colored mana in one card, though, and I also didn’t like their price tag, which is why I gave the nod to the painlands I just described. However, if you want to use them, there isn’t really anything wrong with them!
And then, the fetchlands (Arid Mesa and its ilk): To be honest, a major reason that I use them is that I already possess them – this is another expensive land cycle, testament to the greed of a soulless company hypocritically pretending that they care for their gaming customers! However, these lands are just PERFECT (if they cannot fetch duallands): Their disadvantage is minor, they require you to run basic lands to get (making it difficult to get too greedy with your colors), and they provide so many synergies (landfall, shuffling, filling your graveyard…) Okay, sometimes you might explicitly not want to support these synergies with your lands (which is why, technically, the painlands are my default dual cycle number two, although I tend to use the fetchlands way more often). If you would need to buy them in the first place, you can do without them – but if you already have them (or feel rich), you really should use them! Just make sure they can only get basic lands.
The Blackcleave Cliffs cycle leaves out the crosses, which is a major strike against it – I really like my manafixing symmetrical. I’m also not sure how I feel about that disadvantage – entering the battlefield tapped DOES always cost you in my cubes, since I make sure that there is a relevant early game in most matches, but once you have three untapped lands out, you’re usually out of the rough, and for this disadvantage to matter, you have to draw such a land after your first three land drops. I think these lands make multicolored decks slightly too attractive, but anyway I will not consider them before there isn’t a complement cross cycle.
Bad manafixing cycles entering the battlefield untapped
The Darkwater Catacombs cycle (only couples)
The Cinder Marsh cycle (only couples)
The Cloudcrest Lake cycle (only couples)
The Lava Tubes cycle (only couples)
Alright, the Catacombs cycle is just weak (always a bit clunky to be forced to keep an additional mana open when you need just one), but the rest ranges from terrible to incredibly terrible. (Yes, back then Wizards obviously thought that the painlands and the Lava Tubes cycle were roughly equally powerful!) With so many strong options in both couples and crosses, there is no need to take a second look at those.
Manafixing cycles entering the battlefield tapped
The Temple of Abandon cycle (couples and crosses) *
The Bloodfell Caves cycle (couples and crosses)
The Akoum Refuge cycle (only couples)
The Bad River cycle (only couples)
The Azorius Chancery cycle (couples and crosses)
The Azorius Guildgate cycle (couples and crosses)
The Arctic Flats cycle (only couples)
The Coastal Tower cycle (only couples)
The Caldera Lake cycle (only crosses)
In any environment with a relevant tempo element (this should include every well-built Next Level Cube!), entering the battlefield tapped is a major disadvantage and a strong incentive to draft decks with manabases which do not rely on such lands. Gaining one life does too little to offset this disadvantage, and thus the only one of these cycles which is attractive enough for Next Level Cubes is the Temple of Abandon cycle. Note, though, that if putting non-fixing Temples (if they only give you one color of mana you need) into your draft decks just for the scry seems attractive, there is some issue with your cube! (Some people advocated this in Theros draft, but they were dead wrong.)
The Bloodfell Caves cycle seems to be a budget alternative to the Temples, but the latter will rotate out of standard soon and probably become nearly worthless, so this shouldn’t be too pressing a concern. With their lifegain bonus they might just be at the edge of playable, but I want to offer drafters more attractive manafixing.
The Akoum Refuge cycle is, of course, the same, just without the crosses. I see absolutely no reason to mix those cycles up, and I certainly do not want more of those cards.
The Bad River cycle offers a few of the same synergies the „real“ fetchlands do, but other than that, they are strictly worse than many other cycles. Even if you do not want to invest into their rare successors, you should be able to do without them.
Now to the elephant in the room: The Azorius Chancery cycle (the bouncelands)! I have explained in detail several times why these lands are incredibly overrated. Even in the MTGO cubes, players have noticed in the meantime that their advantage is not worth the tempo loss. When I still used them in my cubes, even novice players soon hated them for their clunkiness. I didn’t just stop using them because _I_ didn’t like them, but because NOONE I played with liked them! They were nothing more than traps, and I have no use for such cards. In addition, the reason people think they’re good has very little to do with manafixing – it’s about (really, really slow) ramp, so they won’t even end up with the drafters who want them to fix their mana. I advise you against using them in your cubes, and if you have cubes where they seem actually useful, I advise you to rebuild your cubes so that tempo matters.
The Azorius Guildgate cycle, the Arctic Flats cycle and the Coastal Tower cycle are all essentially inferior to the already weak Bloodfell Caves cycle, unless you consciously weave gate or snow synergies into your cube. Well, the existing gate synergies are few and unattractive, so I see no point in using gates; and snow is both an underdeveloped and problematic theme. I once designed a mini-cube with the goal of making snow work (article is in German), and I believe I succeeded, but I just don’t think it’s worth the trouble, especially since you need to have players draft snow-covered basic lands, which is tough to implement giving the small wiggle room Next Level Cubes offer for allocating booster slots. (Also, there is no snow dual cross cycle). I consider the cards from this group useless.
Finally, the Caldera Lake cycle serves crosses, but no couples – and boy, are those lands bad! That level of cost is already almost to high for the circle-fixing Grand Coliseum, making it ridiculously excessive for duallands.
Manafixing outside of strict cycles
Let’s start with those: I said before that I don’t like giving manafixing only to certain synergies. That is just not the point of it.
Grove of the Burnwillows
River of Tears
Even if I like some of these designs, they do nothing for me without a complete cycle. Grove is too strong anyway; Canopy is nice, but very close to the painlands – I would have to consider if I preferred the more elegant option or the one which has more play to it; and Maze is fine, like a „fixed“ version of the Cascade Bluffs cycle, but somehow close to the Clifftop Retreat cycle, which I feel is the superior choice. The River is out of consideration since it is not symmetrical, and the Verge is inferior to the colorless Myriad Landscape (well, unless it can fetch duallands, which it shouldn’t).
These lands are leftover gimmicks from Torment. I don’t think they really make sense even in a heavily black cube, since I see no reason why I shouldn’t just use the corresponding duals from a cycle, with a Vivid Marsh and an Absorb Vis thrown in. They’re certainly usable, but not exciting from any point of view.
Manafixing not the primary function
The Calciform Pools cycle (only couples)
Not only is there little need for this kind of slow ramp in limited (demonstrated by Mage-Ring Network in Magic Origins draft right now) – tying it needlessly to two colors is silly.
Creeping Tar Pit
These manlands are no bad designs, but they run into two issues: For one thing, they lack the symmetry I want in my manaxifing (and they’re still manafixers, even if that isn’t their main strength). The other is that lands are comparably hard to deal with (and you usually can deal with them as creatures only at instant speed), and thus the ceiling for their power level should be somehow lower than for other types of cards. Oh, and of course there are no cross versions here, but that wouldn’t be necessary if I treated them just as two-colored cards. Well, I used them in my cubes for a while, and they were okay, although noticeably a bit on the strong side. I think they are a good opportunity to demonstrate the principle that your cube shouldn’t include cards just because they don’t ruin it, but because you really want them in there, and that is just not the case here for me.
Duskmantle, House of Shadow
Grove of the Guardian
Kessig Wolf Run
Nivix, Aerie of the Firemind
Novijen, Heart of Progress
Orzhova, the Church of Deals
Prahv, Spires of Order
Rix Maadi, Dungeon Palace
Skarrg, the Rage Pits
Sunhome, Fortress of the Legion
Svogthos, the Restless Tomb
Vault of the Archangel
Vitu-Ghazi, the City-Tree
These are essentially two 10-land cycles from two blocks – the original Ravnica, and Innistrad – plus Grove of the Guardian. This kind of card is in a bad place in general: While it encourages (actually, requires) you to play at least two colors, it also worsens your manabase unless you count it as a spell (which, in turn, means it needs to be quite powerful and is thus problematic for the reasons I just mentioned in the paragraph above). Zooming in on the spot where the card is interesting enough to warrant inclusion in a cube, but not so strong so that it causes problems isn’t easy. Some designs might fit, but I decided that I either wanted a complete 10-card-cycle or nothing, and at the very least Dimir doesn’t have a suitable candidate (oh, how much I hate these stupid, boring mill designs!) If you want to include some of these lands in your cube, be aware that they take the place of a multicolor card, and ask yourself if you cannot find a better use for that slot.
While Cliffs, Haven and Sanctum support tribal themes, I am still not convinced that such lands help a cube. Also, the Cliffs are too oppressive, I actually do not have a bird theme for a lack of fitting tribal cards, and the Sanctum would just double up on an effect Cabal Archon already provides. The Portal does nothing like manafixing and requires the player to make a very difficult jump through a hoop for that – that’s just silly. The Monastery, however, plays okay, but I still don’t like that it requires a player to both play a certain color pair and use a certain synergy to really want that land. Also, right now I avoid this kind of land (requiring two colors of mana, but providing only colorless mana itself) on principle. That might change if a cycle gets printed which I really like, but I won’t include a single outlier in my pool.
In the next part, unsurprisingly, I will get to the „monocolored“ lands!