The Basics of Basics
Without any irony or sarcasm, my favourite part of adding flavour to my decks comes with choosing the Basic lands.
As a game piece the Basic land is not without its nuances. Many a debate rages on in various formats as to whether they are strictly better than any other land that enters tapped, or whether the down sides of their narrow colour producing abilities are cancelled out due to their almost universal fetchability (is that a word? Are any magic words words?) But I am a Vorthos and this is a Vorthos article, so we will be mainly focusing on how the aesthetics, style, and even emotional attachments that players can attribute to the basic lands they choose, is a powerful thing not to be ignored.
I will be focusing on how I approach Basics in my deck building through the lens of the Commander Format, as that’s what I play the most, but honestly any player in any format can apply these lessons and take them to the battlefield. In any given Commander deck, assuming your land count is hovering around the 36-39 mark (as it really should be, seriously, don’t be greedy) your lands will make up over a third of your entire library, and depending on your decks colour identity, basics can make up on average half of that land base. That is a lot of cardboard that many players often don’t put as much effort into as their foil, Miss-cut, German Language Commander, double sleeved in a top loader.
So, what are the ways that players can level up their Basic game? As ever when talking to a Vorthos about aesthetics, it all boils down to what feels right, balanced with what sparks joy. MTG is after all a game to be enjoyed. But let’s also try to not be so wishy washy, we want answers!
Location Location Location
Let’s start with the one tried and true method to lock in the flavour of your deck and that is to match the Plane or Set of your Basics to your Commander. Simple and to the point for players wanting that visual synergy but are understandably unwilling to trawl through pages of singles online. But even here we can make choices. Let’s take Atris, Oracle of Half Truths as a case study. Atris is from the Plane of Theros, and the set Theros Beyond Death. So naturally we would want the glorious full art constellation lands by Sam Burley. This also fits nicely into Atris’ role as a Nyx gazing Oracle. But what if these radical and somewhat divisive full arts aren’t your thing? Maybe try the lands from the original Theros Block, but which ones? OG Theros lands are mostly bare landscapes, but I would suggest the Adam Paquette Swamp and Island, both depicting a cliff side path, perhaps leading to a remote temple. These lands not only tie Atris to their home Plane, but also gives them a logical setting in that world, and the same method can be applied to any legendary with a clear home Plane.
If the specific Plane of origin of your Commander doesn’t do it for you then you can start looking farther afield. Many Nicol Bolas, the Ravager players I know use the Amonkhet Block full arts, with their prominent Bolas horns. Many an Angel tribal deck I’ve seen will use any Plains with a cloud motif, and I’ve seen heated debates between Elf tribal players as to which Forest artwork is the most Elven (It’s the M12 Ryan Pancoast one by the way).
Also let’s just take a moment to appreciate the Snow Covered lands. Both the old school snow lands found in Ice Age and Cold Snap and the newer full arts by Titus Lunter found in Modern Horizons, their flavour applications almost outweigh their limited mechanical use. Any commander that dwells in cold, mountainous regions, such as the new Minotaur General Sethron, Hurloon General will want to run these. And let’s not forget those players jolly enough to run Christmas themed Feldon/Father Christmas decks.
Matching your Basic land’s setting to your Commander will go a long way to increasing the aesthetic synergy of your deck, much in the same way that correctly building the mechanical synergies will make your play experience as smooth as possible.
Frame It Correctly
Another way in which you can make your Basics not so basic is by focusing on the card frame. For many players, nostalgia is a strong force in their land choices. Choosing the lands which have the frame style you played with when you were first introduced to the game is a common go-to and certainly helps tell other players a lot about you, even before you start mulliganing to that turn one Sol Ring. For me, I came into the game around 2012 when the ‘Modern Era’ frames were still in use, and for whatever reason Mountains with this frame take me right back to my Uni days, slinging spells with janky, unsleeved 60 card decks at kitchen tables, when I should have been writing essays instead. 8 years later I’m writing essays about slinging spells and I’m sure there’s a lesson in there somewhere.
Much like our location lands, you could match the frame to your Commander. Are you running Captain Sissay? Then you may want to stick to anything pre-Eighth Edition. Conversely the fresh-faced Raff Capashen, Ship’s Mage would surely like to keep it new school with the post-M15 frame. But what if you wanted to break away from your Legendary leaders look? This is where we start to get a little bit meta, and we can start asking some questions that only Vorthos tend to ask, and that would make tournament grinders wonder if we are even playing the same game. How does the deck make you feel when playing it? What significance does the deck have for you? And what frames do you think your Commander would want to have?
Let’s look at my own Karlov of the Ghost Council deck to illustrate my point. My first decent stack of 100 cards, forged from the remains of an old 60 card deck, this Commander is incredibly special to me and so I wanted special lands. For the longest time I ran Zendikar full arts, which are a hugely popular choice of land, but something didn’t feel right. And then it hit me. The Karlovs of Ravnica are one of the wealthiest “Old Money” families in the multiverse, so practiced at hoarding their wealth for generations that they can even do it in the afterlife. If Karlov was going to flex with anything he would do it with old frame, pre-Eighth edition foil lands, where the foiling is on the frame itself, and each one has the WOTC star flash in the corner. Also, he would most certainly not give a hoot about the art, because the lands are a status symbol and not an artistic endeavour. And so that’s exactly what I sleeved up and they could not be more perfect, both for the feel of the Commander and as a way to denote my personal affection for the deck. Every time I get a nod from an opponent, I feel like that Orzhov Patriarch, sat rich and fat in his opulent chambers.
Luckily for us, there are many frame styles to choose from. From the mainline set frames, to the increasingly common full art lands, to the many variations on the Un-land frames and even the recent Planeswalker specific frames of M21. In fact, the more popular the Commander format becomes, the more WOTC leans into variations of style and the more choice we seem to get. My personal favourite addition to the list of alternate frames, are the Ravnica Guild Kit Basics, which incorporated each guilds symbol into the text box of their two appropriate lands. They are simple, fresh and most importantly beautiful and I hope we get more of the same in the future.
Whilst we are talking about the frame we may as well quickly touch on the boarder as well. Black is obviously the norm, but those wanting to shake things up can obviously opt for the much-lamented white border lands instead, found in cores sets from Unlimited to Ninth Edition. For whatever reason, the joke is that these are less desirable among the Magic community, but personally I think that they could help you stand out from the crowd. I suppose the fact that they are something of a meme could also be the flavour reason you include them in the deck. As we don’t have silver bordered lands, the other route to go is gold boarder. Found in commemorative sets like the world championship deck replicas, they are a fun and interesting option. Personally, I run gold border lands in my Grenzo, Havoc Raiser deck as a cheeky nod to the Goblin’s proclivity for pillaging shiny things. Just be careful when taking these lands to MagicFests. They are technically not legal in any paid EDH event, interestingly not because of the gold boarder, but because the card backs are not actually the same as legal Magic cards. I use smoky inner sleeves to better hide anything that would show through a card sleeve, but judges will rightly be sceptical. Who needs paid EDH events anyways?
Frames and borders are for my money, the most versatile and striking way to add your own flare to your land base as it can send a clear visual message to your opponents across the battlefield, and even when they don’t sync up with the rest of your deck, can add that extra level of personal connection to you the player.
The last main umbrella of basic land love I will cover today, as to go any further would require another 6000 words, is picking lands from a specific artist. This is self-explanatory. Do you have a favourite artist? Have they illustrated the basic lands your deck needs? Well then throw them in! Unfortunately, not all MTG artists have a completed cycle of basic lands. When we interviewed the master that is Wayne Reynolds on our show, he stated that Landscapes are something he has never been overly skilled at or keen on creating. A fact reinforced by him only having a single basic Mountain and Basic Swamp in his portfolio. But many artists not only have many lands to their name but are in fact famous for them. The prime example is John Avon, who throughout his career in magic has illustrated lands with a wide and varied style. From his Purple Mountains, to his celebrated run on several Un-Sets and any land which uses his signature single point of white light, Avon is considered by many to be THE land artist. But there are other artists with other styles to explore. Titus Lunter creates landscapes with an overwhelming sense of awe, utilising giant structures and grounded perspectives to drop the viewer viscerally into his locations. Alayna Danner, who is a relative newbie to the Magic scene already has a full set of Basics, full of tightly drawn flora, dreamily fading into the distance through her use of soft light.
Gravitating towards a single artist based on their style will not only tie your deck together but also force players who don’t know their Jonas De Ro’s from their Piotr Dura’s to look a little closer at the names on the bottom of the cardboard. The same names that make magic the best-looking game in the world.
Well that’s it for now. As you can probably tell I can talk forever about Plains, Islands, Swamps, Mountains and Forests (not Wastes though, they don’t count). There is much more we could discuss but I hope I’ve started to help prove that Basic lands have a rich and varied history and the future looks rather good too. With the release of the Theros Beyond Death full arts and the Jumpstart theme lands, art directors are starting to take more and more risks with what a basic land can look like. I can’t wait to see what lies ahead.
Look after your Basic lands, you can’t play Magic without them.
Andy Mann is co-host of the Magic The Flavouring Podcast, where he and Nathan Cansell talk about all things Magic flavour design and lore, as well as interview MTG creatives. You can find them through the links below!
Podcast: https://magictheflavouring.buzzsprout.com/ or wherever you find podcasts. Twitter: @MTFlavouring Youtube: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCqEmU7KIqU4Bcwn2RfcJ-yQ