In the board game world, the ultimate goal of any title desiring even a modicum of healthy strategy is to ensure that it’s able to put forth multiple paths to victory. The longer and more complicated a game is, the more it comes with an inherent barrier to entry. More complex games, no matter the extent of their quality, will inevitably scare some players away due to difficulty or time reasons, let alone the amount of effort needed to pursue the various wining strategies that lay within.
However, it’s also imperative that those games contain a multitude of gameplay options to warrant the merit of investing that kind of time and effort. Players have to feel that their decisions lead to worthwhile positive outcomes – otherwise the whole enterprise may not feel worth it over repeated playthroughs. If the game comes across as being ‘on rails’, where it only has a strategy – or where one strategy is clearly dominant over the rest – that creates an issue at the foundational level. This conundrum is felt with games of all length and complexity, but if players feel that a deeper game has a single or prevailing winning strategy, it’ll quickly lose its replay appeal.
In Magic, this issue is experienced slightly differently. Because the game exists across multiple formats and is designed accordingly, there is no singularly overpowering strategy for every facet of the game. A dominant deck build for Standard is not going to have the same effect in Legacy, nor is a Commander deck going to run away in the latest Modern tournament. Moreover, because the game is continually adding new cards, even in cases where dominant decks emerge in a given meta (and they do), the influx of new cards and banned lists every few months ensures things won’t remain that way in perpetuity like can happen with a board game.
Because of this, Magic is constantly in a fluid state, ever-changing and hard to maintain a firm grasp on exactly what will be the most ideal strategy in every given situation. While this has helped give the game a healthy vigor over 25 years, one side effect is that sometimes elements of the game don’t line up with the initial expectations players have of them. What may initially seem like a casual-friendly mechanic can become a highly adopted in competitive circles (say Storm or Landfall), whereas something that would seem like it’d be a tourney favorite is instead readily embraced by the casual crowd (e.g. Buyback or Bushido).
Another such mismatch of strategy and expectation over the years has also been, strangely, animated lands – often referred to as ‘manlands’.
The idea of animating lands has been around since the beginning of the game, including mass land animators like Kormus Bell, Living Lands, and Living Plane or singular activations such as Verdant Touch, Quirion Druid, or Mishra’s Factory. While rarely a major mechanic in and of itself, interest in animated lands has ebbed and flowed throughout the years, with fans and detractors on all sides of the battlefield.
On the one hand, animated lands are an inherently aggressive tactic. The entire concept allows you to turn your mana base itself into an army, presumably to swing in for massive or even lethal damage. The intent is to use it as a knock-out blow by surprising the defender with one or more attackers they hadn’t anticipated on. This fits squarely into the idea of trying to win decisively and quickly.
On the other hand, continually animated lands are inherently a fragile thing. After all, as creatures they can be killed, which not only costs you a creature on the battlefield but also access to precious mana. The longer an animated land sits out, the greater the danger of something happening to it. Losing just a few land can set you back several turns or completely turn the tide against you. This has made it a gamble that casual players have been much more comfortable making than most competitive players.
That said, despite their long-lasting appeal, for a notable percentage of the player base, the fear of losing land on the chance of doing just a couple damage isn’t worth it in any setting.
Hopefully this week’s card pick can help bridge that gap a bit.
Today we have: Spawning Pool
Name: Spawning Pool
Edition: Urza’s Legacy / Tenth Edition
Focus: Land Animation
Highlights: Spawning Pool was part of the first true cycle of ‘manlands’ in the game all the way back in Urza’s Legacy, nearly all of which saw regular play in both competitive and casual circles. The two most popular of these were Faerie Conclave and Treetop Village for rather obvious reasons. By contrast, Spawning Pool was less frequently seen in duels, but it wasn’t unheard of to make appearances in the casual multiplayer setting. Which makes this a great choice to resurrect for EDH.
Like most animated lands, Spawning Pool is incredibly straightforward, offering both a normal mana activation and, well, the animation itself. In the case of Spawning Pool, this replaces a normal Swamp as it allows you to still tap for Black mana when you’re not attempting to bring to life. The major tradeoff here, as in the case of most such lands, is that it enters tapped. As is often true of most manlands, getting them early in the game isn’t necessarily the most ideal for trying to get cards out early, but the longer the game goes on the less of an issue this becomes.
Spawning Pool’s particularly useful activation states that for two mana, it becomes a Drudge Skeleton: a 1/1 creature that can be Regenerated for one additional Black mana. In total, this means that for three mana you can turn this land into a 1/1 creature that you can protect from damage-based removal on a recurring basis. Spawning Pool may not match the offensive power of many other manlands in Magic, but it does something equally useful: allow you create a land creature without the near-constant fear of it being easily picked off.
In addition, because of its cheap activation cost and regenerative properties (only one of two cards to provide such protection while simultaneously animating a land) it also does something this genre of card isn’t generally known for: playing defense. Indeed, Spawning Pool makes a superb surprise blocker on the battlefield that is both hard to get rid of and doesn’t take up a nonland slot in your deck. This may sound minor on paper, but ask anyone who has tried to get rid of a type-changing card that doesn’t easily die how singularly frustrating it can be to get rid of.
Is Spawning Pool going to single-handedly overpower your opponents and win you the game as a 1/1 skeleton? Not at all. But there are more than a few situations where it just may help prevent you from losing one. And that’s a pretty useful strategy all its own.
Keep an eye out for us to be regularly featuring other more accessible-but-worth-it Commander cards going forward. In the meantime, we’ll keep the light on for you.
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