Kaldheim’s Utility Lands

Tom Anderson Design

The long voyage to Kaldheim, having taken most of December and January, is nearly over. Today, myself and many other streamers will be trying out the set for the first time on Magic Arena. Shortly thereafter, the whole Magic Arena population will be logging in to test the cards and combinations they’ve been hyping themselves up for.

And boy, has Kaldheim of all sets brought the hype! Between MDFCs, vehicles, equipment, changelings, tribal support, planeswalkers and sagas, they really threw in the whole brainstorm whiteboard this time around. It’s very exciting, but it’s harder for any one spoiler to stand out from the crowd. One way to get a message across? Spoil a ten-card mega-cycle! In this case, some of the most powerful utility land effects we have EVER seen — and at uncommon!

LAND SPECULATION

The first thing to acknowledge is that these things are going to be a constant feature in Kaldheim Limited, incentivizing higher land counts and offering powerful insurance for games that drag on. Draft and Sealed are where we would expect uncommon, enters-tapped utility lands to make their impact, after all. But prominent deck-builders and pro players have been going much further in this case, speculating that many or all of these new lands will have a role to play in Standard — despite the tax a single-color tapland puts on already strained mana bases!

The high hopes make more sense when you compare the numbers and choice of effects on offer to those of past utility lands. These aren’t just offering a small burst of life or a situational card advantage effect — they are effectively powerful sorceries at slightly higher CMC than you’d expect. And then you remember that they’re uncounterable, and some have effects you can activate at instant speed! 

I’ve been shorthanding these as “Invoke Lands,” after the recurring mega-cycle of cheap vanilla creatures armed with gigantic, costly activated abilities.

Like these creatures, you aren’t including the new Invoke Lands expecting to rush out an activation. In Constructed, these are much more of a Plan B — something to do with your mana if the right situation crops up. But when you make those activated abilities strong enough to swing games on a single activation — and make them effectively “free” assets during deck-building by slapping them in a land slot — it makes them unimaginably better. 

One way to look at these is as the flipside of the new MDFC design paradigm: less mana efficient on the spell side, but you aren’t permanently committed to the land side when you play them. In many situations, I’d argue that these lands are actually the more powerful option.

PRIME REAL ESTATE

Okay, so these new lands pack a punch. Many of them directly affect the board in the manner of premier spells: Spark Double, Pyroclasm, Zombify, even Serra Angel. But are they really good enough to make the cut in an increasingly powerful Standard format? And which ones are leading the pack? I figure the best way to try and go beyond simple guesswork is to compare them with similar land cycles from the past, and see what made the difference for their playability.

The first cycle of colored lands to sacrifice themselves for spell effects appeared in Odyssey. Instead of late game invocations, these “Threshold Lands” recreated cheap, efficient staples like Shock and Giant Growth for just one extra mana. To balance out the efficiency, these lands required the player to build up their graveyard first. Despite that slight drawback, all but the unimpressive Nomad Stadium were played extensively across Standard at the time. Entering play untapped and producing colored mana minimized the cost of playing these over basics, and cheap, instant activation on generically useful effects guaranteed you could get use out of them. Keep those metrics in mind as we leap forward many years to Battle For Zendikar

The “Blighted” cycle of lands also entered play untapped — and while their inability to produce colored mana may seem a weakness, it’s worth remembering that generic mana was something of a valuable “sixth” color at the time. These lands otherwise ran very close to the Kaldheim template: expensive activated ability with significant impact on the board. While their effects vary wildly, all of them saw solid Standard play — though not at the same time. The ramp of Blighted Woodland was relevant in the time where Crush of Tentacles was a game-winning spell to ramp to, and Blighted Fen gave R/B planeswalker decks a “free” way to squash untargetable creatures. Even Blighted Steppe made a difference between racing aggro decks during early Kaladesh Standard.

These activations were closer to the cost we see on the new Kaldheim lands, placing their use clearly in the late-game of most decks. To make sense at that level of investment, these abilities had to do one of two things: offer an emergency burst of resources to break a stalemate, or directly trade for late-game threats. Blighted Gorge was the only one outside these parameters, and not coincidentally, the only one that didn’t find a home in Standard.

Average Blighted land in 10,000 Standard decks factoid inaccurate; Blighted Gorge, which was hugely overcosted and appears in 0 Standard decks, was a statistical anomaly and should not be counted. 

The colored utility deserts from Hour of Devastation reinforce these lessons. The real key for this cycle was how every one synergized powerfully with play patterns of top-tier Standard decks. Ramunap Ruins and Shefet Dunes may have been good enough on linear value, but Hashep Oasis was literally multiplied when buffing Electrostatic Pummeler, and the forgettable mill of Ipnu Rivulet became an infamous accelerant for God-Pharoah’s Gift or Approach of the Second Sun. The discovery of any specific combos like this for members of our new land cycle will be an important factor in determining their place in Standard long-term.

IS IT OKAY TO GO SLOW?

But these highly successful land cycles still share one trait the Kaldheim lands do not: entering the battlefield untapped. Even clearly positioned as tools for the late-game, few proactive or aggressive decks can afford such a hit to their curve — especially if they’re already playing other taplands to be in the 2+ colors required by these activation costs. Fortunately for those already preordering their playsets, the Invoke Lands do have a successful recent precedent as enters-tapped utility lands: Dominaria’s Memorial cycle.

While not quite as prominent as the above land cycles — they appeared at a time when aggro was under no pressure to fit other taplands in its mana base — some Memorials did see noteworthy play. The dividing factor was not the highest ceiling, but seemingly just the chance to whiff; the more situational or random Memorial to Unity and Memorial to War were left alone. Memorial to Folly combined powerfully with Molderhulk, while Memorial of Genius was made more attractive for typical control with the untapping power of Teferi, Hero of Dominaria. The ability to scale up alongside some of the nastiest threats in the format cannot be overstated, nor can the late-game nature of those threats — and by extension, our decks.

LESSONS FROM THE LAND

At last, we can attempt to evaluate the relative strength of the new Invoke Lands, based on the following metrics:

  • How relevant will the effect be in every game?
  • Do the cost and effect slot into the likely archetypes of its colors?
  • How reliably game-winning is the effect in the late game, when it is most likely to be used?
  • What specific combos exist, if any, to abuse alongside this land?

Since many of my fellow Magic pundits have already analyzed these cards in great detail, I decided to focus on their power level relative to each other. The difference between the top and bottom tiers should be clear: game-ending potential, scaled to the point in the match development at which you would reasonably expect to be activating them.

S-tier: Great Hall of Starnheim, Port of Karfell, Littjara Mirrorlake

All three of these are high-ceiling effects that offer game-ending potential for just a modest amount of setup. They impress mainly in how powerfully they can alter the board state, and in how easily a Clone or Reanimate effect can produce outsized value with the kind of targets you’ll have in Constructed. 

Great Hall takes a little more setup, but comes in low enough on the curve that the body will be game-changing. It synergizes with the small recursive creatures like Archfiend’s Vessel already in Standard and strong angel tribal cards from Kaldheim like Firja’s Retribution.

A-tier: Axgard Armory, Immersturm Skullcairn, Surtland Frostpyre

Unlike the exciting bodies generated by the S-tier choices, these lands aren’t quite as flexible. But at least the effects on offer are situationally awesome and costed reasonably for when you’d want them. Axgard Armory and Immersturm Skullcairn are both good ways to convert excess lands in your aggro draw for some extra game-ending juice; the Armory may even have eternal format applications as a rare land-based tutor! 

Meanwhile, the Frostpyre is an extremely handy example of a card you normally couldn’t maindeck (Pyroclasm), which might now be available to bail you out against aggro in Game 1. This looks especially potent in ramp decks, which can have the effect online sooner or tutor out a singleton copy when needed.

B-tier: Gnottvold Slumbermound, Gates of Istfell

Gnottvold Slumbermound is a tragic example of how the cost of an effect and its positioning in actual meta decks can drastically shift its value. While a 4/4 trample body seems comparable to the S-tier Great Hall — and destroying a land is looking like a more important niche trick in Kaldheim Standard — it’s tricky to look at this and figure out a time you’d be happy activating or even playing it in the present RG Adventures list. 

Gates of Istfell is in a similar longship, although I’ve seen it rated very highly by other experts. Understandable, since historically, this looks like the ideal UW Control effect to staple to a land for emergencies.  

But in 2021, we are playing a different brand of Magic. We just have so many effects stacking up to help smooth out your draws and ensure efficient use of mana — MDFCs, Castles, plentiful cantrips and cycling, recursive utility spells like Cling to Dust, the London Mulligan itself — and more coming with Kaldheim’s central UW mechanic, foretell! Even where a classic control list does exist, I don’t see the need for “bonus” card advantage like there used to be. For both RG and UW decks, the value of the late-game mana sink seems less important than avoiding awkward single-color taplands.

C-tier: Skemfar Elderhall, Bretagard Stronghold

These two are a little harder to evaluate. I haven’t really had an elf deck on my radar during spoiler season, but the presence of strong enough synergies could alter the math on the tokens you get here. Still, for both the Elderhall and Stronghold, I suspect the lost tempo of playing a tapland in aggressive, snowballing synergy decks combined with the decidedly low-impact activated abilities will relegate these to “Limited card” status — even if a counters or elf strategy does become popular.

Hopefully seeing that all laid out with my reasoning can help you understand how to look at these cards and include them in the right quantities (2-4 for the S- and  A-tiers, 0-2 for the others) as we begin our brewing journey through Kaldheim. Also, keep in mind that ALL of these cards are going to be extremely strong picks in Limited, as good or even better than the uncommon MDFC’s from Zendikar Rising. Make sure you get out there this weekend and try out these exciting Kaldheim utility lands for yourself!