This has been a long time coming (though not as long as some other pieces I have in the pipeline). Let’s talk about Gates (Baby).
It all started 10 years ago. One of the fancy improvements to the new card frame was this little feature:
Why “Basic Land – Forest?”
We added “Basic” in order to help new players understand the difference between basic and nonbasic lands. By explaining this distinction on the type line, we did not feel the need to add reminder text to cards like Blood Moon that reference “nonbasic lands.”
We added “Forest” to the forests for two reasons. It allows us to make cards like the Dragon Lairs from Planeshift be “Land – Lair,” and then they need one fewer sentence in their text boxes. This also opens up design space for future cards. In addition, this change allows us to clean up an obscure rule that most of you won’t care about. (For the technically minded: the current rules say that every land has a subtype equal to its name. We needed that rule so that cards like Wood Elves don’t have to say “card named Forest,” but that rule has prevented us from making some cards we wanted to make, plus it’s kind of a silly rule to have anyway – if the cards have subtypes, we should just print them on the cards instead of having them be invisible subtypes. Then we can get rid of that rule because all lands will just have whatever subtypes are printed on them.)
Yes, the “new” frames are turning 10 this year and will have been in Magic the same amount of time as the old frames. But back to the point at hand. Because lands were now free to have a subtype, there were crazy things that you could do with them. It opened up so much design space and when I first read this I was like, “awesome.” Since 8th Edition we have seen the following land subtypes:
- Eighth Edition – Urza’s Mine, Urza’s Power-Plant, Urza’s Tower
- Mirrodin – Locus
- Ninth Edition – Urza’s Mine, Urza’s Power-Plant, Urza’s Tower
- Time Spiral – Desert, Urza’s
- Scars of Mirrodin – Locus
- Return to Ravnica – Gate
Yeah, huge innovation here. The Urza’s Lands helped with templating, Locus have been on two lands (but both benefit from multiples in play), and Desert is just a Desert to help with powerhouse Camel‘s ability. The Locus subtype is actually pretty powerful so it’s not like it can be really used again and Urza’s Factory is put there because of flavor.
So why hasn’t land subtypes been used more?
You need game mechanics to make it work. While it was a cute trick with Urza’s Factory, it gets a pass for being in a nostalgia set. The obvious place for a land subtype mechanic would be in a block were lands matter. Zendikar seemed like it would be the perfect place for it, but nothing ever materialized. There was some fear that a “land matters” block might be seen as a fun enough theme so I believe that some of it got pulled back. Now that we know that Landfall will come back eventually (thanks to the Storm Scale), we can hopefully see a land subtype theme there.
But why Return to Ravnica? There’s lands in every set. Why here and now?
Because it was needed to differentiate from other enters the battlefield lands. Seriously (near the bottom).
Finally, one day in a cardcrafting meeting (a weekly meeting where the designers and developers talk nuts-and-bolts issues) we were lamenting the lack of a good answer when Zac Hill said, “What if we just did the Invasion lands but added a marker?”
“Go on,” the room said.
“Imagine if these lands had special meaning to the guilds and they had a subtype. Then we could make a few cards that cared about the subtype and they wouldn’t be strictly worse anymore.”
After almost a decade, Mr. Hill spoke up and WotC was finally able to mine some of that design space. While the Guildgates were crafted with limited in mind, I think that they should be used more in design. Is there a reason why lands haven’t had subtypes before, like the Vivid lands from Lorwyn? Yes, it’s because no matter the flavor, it has to fit why they’re doing it; which is why Tribal died. Tribal has pretty much been dropped because of rules and templating issues though it fits flavor fantastically. Adding the subtype “Monument” to the Hideaway lands is a nifty flavor idea but it doesn’t do anything gamewise.
That is, until you make the game care.
Currently, there are 4 cards that care if you control a gate:
- Armory Guard (Vigilance if you control a Gate)
- Gatecreeper Vine (Tutors for a Gate)
- Orge Jailbreaker (Loses Defender if you control a Gate)
- Gateway Shade from Gatecrash (Tap an untapped Gate, it gets +2/+2)
10 gates, 4 cards, one set named after a subtheme. Of course there’s going to be more in Gatecrash, but that’s the point: there should be more. You can’t make it a major theme, but you can at least give players some options when it comes to interacting with Gates. There are plenty of effects that you can do surrounding land subthemes: tutoring for one, deal damage based on how many you control, have a creature gain a combat ability, have a creature lose a combat ability, the creature can tap for mana, and so on and so fourth. And it can fit into almost any setting that Magic has gone to over the past few years. Innistrad? It’s Haunted. Scars of Mirrodin? It’s under Phyrexian control. Finding the flavor isn’t hard, it’s coming up with unique mechanics so it doesn’t feel stale after a couple of years.
There’s an added benefit the first major land subtheme being in Return to Ravnica: it’s the opposite of why it wasn’t in Zendikar. WotC knew that Ravnica would sell, so they didn’t have to worry about banking the set on an idea that hasn’t been proven. With the concept being in a really popular set, WotC can study how people are liking the idea then, BAM, we can have it a few years from now. It’s sneaky, but I’m sure it’s just a byproduct of putting them in here. It’s been fun for limited, so far, and I want to see where WotC takes this concept over the rest of the block.
This really wasn’t as much about Gates as it was about land subtypes. Or about how WotC should do it more often. It’s a hugely untapped design area that I think would make people happy. Of course, different things make different people happy, so it’s all relative. I believe this mechanic area is more than just a hypothetical playground. You can obviously go intrablock, like what the Gates are doing in Return to Ravnica block, but the fun might be with interblock design. It has to work for limited to make sense, but having a land show up every once in a while that interacts with cards from the past can be a fun call back (it obviously depends on the design of the world and such fancies).
Let’s take a look at the Monument idea I had. Suddenly a cycle of rare one-shot lands could have the same subtype (like the Hideaway lands), and there could be a Green creature that could tutor for them. A year or two down the road, there’s another cycle of one shot lands and a Black creature that drains life for each Monument you control. Obviously this is just coming from the top of my head but now you’ve opened up design to function better with future and past blocks. These are the small touches that WotC loves to do (see: tribal elements about 2 to 3 years apart).
Land tutoring has always had this bad association with being too powerful because you could go get any land in the game. If there were a subtype of land cards that would just be focused on either A) having more casual appeal or B) low enough on the power scale so they aren’t easily abusable, then by “limiting” yourself you’ve opened up a whole new design area. Just like Zac Hill suggested.
Does that mean it’s going to happen? No, of course not. But hopefully WotC embraces some more land subtypes because I don’t want to wait for another 10 years before I get to play with them again.