Mechanic Spotlight: Modal Double-Faced Cards

Tom Anderson Design

Zendikar Rising spoiler season has just begun, bringing a bunch of evocative and interesting new cards to the game. And this time, I’m not just reporting on them or speculating on them.

I’m revealing them!

Now, in case you haven’t heard, these are two sides of a double-faced card. Creature on the front, land on the back. There are a bunch of these in the set — some with instants on the front, some with enchantments, even ones with lands on both sides! But the big shock is how you use them: unlike the Ixalan flip-lands, these cards are modal. You can choose between Umara Wizard and Umara Skyfalls every time you draw it, based on which one you need right then!

KIND OF A BIG DEAL

You won’t believe how wide I grinned when I got this preview. “Modal lands” is pretty much my ideal mechanic! Not just for Zendikar Rising, either. There was a big discussion online this week about favorite mechanics, and I actually got a little upset I couldn’t say this one. 

Like other 2020 mechanics, it’s a bold innovation that interfaces with a core part of Magic gameplay, ensuring it will be interesting and relevant in any game of any format. But unlike Mutate — which needed preemptive FAQs to explain all the corner cases it could generate outside of Standard — these modal cards are blissfully intuitive. All the complexity is still there, but it comes from combining these cards with other effects — bouncing a modal land to your hand to use the other side later, searching for a “creature card” and being able to grab a utility land…that sort of thing. It’s a perfect example of the modular design that’s been key to Magic’s success since 1993.

UNSCREWED AT LAST

If the ability to combine simple mechanics in intriguing ways has been winning players over since 1993, then there’s one element of Magic that, unfortunately, has been turning them away for just as long. Even as an avowed fan of variance in games, it’s hard to sell getting mana screwed or flooded as any sort of positive experience. It’s frustrating in casual play and heartbreaking when it happens in competition. And as a commentator myself, I can confirm that the constant threat of “non-games” is one of the big reasons Magic struggles as an esport.

The problem is famous enough that many of Magic’s competitors through the years have tried adding mechanics to eliminate it. Being able to play nonland cards face-down as “generic” lands is one of the more common solutions and has been by far the best one in my experience, so it’s fantastic to see Wizards work out how to include it themselves. From novice mages all the way up to Hall of Famers, everybody will enjoy their Magic more when they have more choices and agency. 

But the choices involved with modal lands get a lot more interesting than that…

LEARNING FROM YOUR COUSINS

Based on my experience with games like The Spoils, Final Fantasy TCG and the original World of Warcraft card game (not Hearthstone!), the amount of design space here is very significant. We still have time in the spoiler season to uncover twists on this mechanic — spells that can be played for a special cost from their land mode (a la morph); modal lands that bounce themselves or other cards so players can make use of the spell side once they have enough lands; modal lands that require a condition to be met to be played on their land side, or whose land side is legendary. And of course, this new type of double-faced card might appear in future sets with nonland card types on the back.

We’re already seeing Zendikar Rising experiment with using different card types as the front side of these, which will affect deck-building and combo options across various formats (the front side determines how you can search for or target these cards when they aren’t in play). There’s even a new set of rare dual-color lands that have a land on each side, letting you choose which to play, which shows WotC’s willingness to innovate with this new mechanic. I’m excited to see what other creative designs we may see in the Zendikar Rising Commander precons!

FORGET WHAT YOU THINK YOU KNOW

It can be easy to understate the impact of a mechanic like this, which lessens the pressure of mana screw with little deck-building cost. Experienced players have long since memorized the matrix of land counts for decks of 40, 60, 80 or 99 cards, but that was before we threw modal cards like these into the mix. 

Burn decks, which fear flooding after their second or third land, can potentially lower their land count by replacing some with modal lands/damage spells. On the flip side, a Standard landfall deck running Azusa, Lost But Seeking may run several playsets of modal lands on top of a higher “normal” land count to guarantee hitting extra land drops to enable Omnath, Locus of Creation. It gets especially tricky when you remember that these cards have only the characteristics of their non-land side when they aren’t in play. So, you can play Umara Skyfalls as your extra land for Dryad of the Ilysian Grove, or off the top with Bolas’s Citadel — but not off the top with Radha, Heart of Keld. You also can’t put it into play with an Uro trigger! This is going to make Standard Ramp a very delicate archetype to tinker with in months to come.

Even decks outside of these strategic extremes may be pushed to reconsider their land/spell count. Is the ideal rate of replacement here 1-for-1? How does this impact combo decks that previously played few or no lands, like Belcher or Neobrand? Challenging deck-building assumptions is going to give players tons of room to experiment and be rewarded, in everything from Limited to Legacy. That’s a tremendous footprint for a new mechanic, and the Zendikar Rising team should be proud of adding this fun new wrinkle to Magic.

COUNTDOWN TO ADVENTURE

It feels great to be so excited for a set based on its mechanics alone. Aside from the far-reaching implications of these modal lands, the new party mechanic (which provides another application for Umara Wizard) promises to add another interesting consideration to deck-building, and landfall is always fun for the weight it adds to every land drop. I’ll have plenty more to say about Zendikar Rising once it comes out, but for now, I want to thank Wizards for allowing me to premiere such a great card and mechanic to the world!

Whether you’re playing on the kitchen table, or the feature match area at some future tournament, modal cards mean you can look forward to hitting more land drops and playing good, exciting Magic.