MtG: Playing with Channeling Land

This all started when I mused about building Magic decks without land. Much discussion ensued. In the meantime, my group and I spent a little time playing with the variant; what follows is my account of how the variant plays, with a look at some of the ups and downs of employing this seemingly simple change to Magic: the Gathering.

While I feel that I’m a decent player, I’m no Magic: the Gathering expert. I don’t tour the pro circuit. I’m not a member of Wizards R&D, nor do I play one on TV. These are just my observations, and I encourage you to try out the Channeling Land variant with your friends and see how it works for you.

Deckbuilding: Easy as Cake

“-That’s pie, you Sicilian schmuck.”

Right. Where were we? Ah, yes; if you had some standard sixty-card decks built for “normal” Magic, lands and all, you can simply set aside your lands and then add a couple of spells until you reach forty cards. That seemed to work fine for me and my group.

I have yet to build a deck from scratch for this format, though most deckbuilding considerations probably won’t change much.

Card Power Levels and Channeling Land

I’ve been playing a Shadowmoor/Eventide league with multiplayer games, so not your typical Type II or Extended one-on-one dueling, and the last two weekends we switched over to using Channeling Land. That being said, the majority of cards did’t seem to change relative power level in these games, with a few exceptions:

  1. Lands, of course, become less valuable.
  2. Land-searching spells seem a bit less valuable. Take Farhaven Elf. There’s no longer a question of whether you’ll be able to play a land. Yet the Elf still gives you the mana acceleration effect of putting an extra land into play and that might even allow you to channel one less spell in your hand, which can translate to getting more of your spell effects to go off and to card advantage.

    In other words, land searching is still useful but such effects are no longer vitally important as when they were needed to smooth out land draws.

  3. Retrace spells become arguably a bit less valuable. Some players are likely to disagree with this, citing the ability to channel for a land every turn with which to retrace, hence “guaranteed” retracing each turn. And I agree that, for certain retrace spells in certain situations (say Spitting Image to make copies of Overbeing of Myth, for example), it can be great.

    Why would retrace be less valuable? One of the reasons retrace was cool to begin with is that late-game you could turn those dead draws (basic land) into a potentially useful play. By giving up something of almost no value you were able to play a spell of some greater value. Now I’m not saying retrace becomes bad with channeling land. Merely that you’re no longer going to be giving up cards of negligible value, instead it becomes a question of evaluating each drawn spell’s value against that of your retrace spells (this carries on the Big-Deck style decisions in Channeling Land, which I find interesting). Giving up something of greater value than a land means you’re gaining less value with retrace than before.

  4. Cards which expect a certain type of card in someone’s library or hand.

    Oona, Queen of the Fae is a bomb under “normal” Magic rules. Depending on the color mix of your opponents’ decks, she may produce 1/2 of X Faeries. Take the lands out of libraries and her accuracy (except against artifact decks) goes up; with Shadowmoor/Eventide hybrids it may become 4/5 or approach X.

    Similarly, cards like Fall (the other half of Rise) would be slightly more powerful since your opponent will generally have only nonland cards in hand when you force them to discard.

These are just a few examples, others certainly exist. Yet most cards should be unaffected under this variant.

The Mana Curve and Channeling Land

During one game my opening hand contained Niveous Wisps and a bunch of more expensive spells. I started by channeling the Wisps, thinking as I did so, “I’ll probably regret this later…”; not more than two turns later did I feel just how much of a mistake it was to give up that kind of tempo play, when I was attacked by a couple of weenies and a Boggart Ram-Gang. I started dropping blockers as fast as I could, but by then I was quickly fading under the assault of a second Ram-Gang and my remaining life points got finished off when one was amped up with Runes of the Deus. Yet if I had channeled a more expensive spell in favor of holding the Wisps I feel I would have had a good chance to stem the tide and stabilize.

You might expect the curve to shift higher, for more expensive spells to rule and cheap spells to be used primarily as fodder for channeling. This did happen, but seemed more a result of deckbuilding and play decisions rather than as a matter of course; I encountered situations where channeling a cheap spell with the expectation of playing a more expensive spell the following turn got me into trouble.

Actually I feel that the mana curve doesn’t change much, and instead the shift favors “good” or efficient cards. Really in most environments efficient cards have been favored all along (okay, not in Type IV Magic), where a card’s efficiency is some measure (essentially subjective in most cases, except where one card is strictly better than another, say Lightning Bolt to Volcanic Hammer) of its power versus cost. The absence of lands just makes this preference more obvious; asking players each turn to choose between cards and decide which to play as spells and which to channel as lands can reward players who ruthlessly separate the wheat from the chaff. I started to notice a couple cards which were almost always channeled when I drew them, which is a hint.

Really expensive spells are… still really expensive. Sure they’ll come out on turn seven, or eight or whatever, but so will turns five and six see the nearly as big stuff your opponents have. Unless you’re playing the goldfish (even then, in fact) you’re on the clock.

Really cheap spells are… still pretty cheap. One-mana spells may be commonly ditched as land in favor of something a bit bigger to be cast later, but that’s not always the right move (as in my Niveous Wisps case, for starters).

Gameplay and Channeling Land

Why don’t you try playing with the Channeling Land variant yourself to find out? Go ahead, give it a shot. All right, I’ll continue in the meantime…

Big deck fans will feel right at home. Others may slow down a bit at first, used to seeing a land and playing it with perhaps only a cursory glance at the casting costs of spells in hand, and faced now with some challenging decisions to make before playing land.

That’s probably the main complaint I could see about playing Channeling Land. Same as how some players don’t like Big Deck; I’ve heard people say things like, “…it makes my head hurt.” because they do not relish the extra decisions inherent in this style of play. If you and your group like to approach Magic as a light-hearted or low-key activity, this is probably not for you (I might also suggest a game other than Magic in such cases anyway; have you tried to read the comprehensive rules? Headaches, indeed).

For me the challenge of choosing which among a handful of cards I will give up for land is fun. It could be that my sense of fun is, perhaps not unlike Tycho’s, unrepresentative of the norm, but there you have it.

Finally, when pulling 20 or so lands out of constructed decks and popping in a couple more spells to hit 40 cards, it seemed at first that playing with such decks would be on par with the 60 card decks which included land. After all, the deck now contains more spells than before.

Of course a quick reality check disproves this theorem, and while there’s nothing wrong per se with 40 card decks they do allow the bombs to rise to the surface much more readily. So I’m thinking about recommending decks made with 60 spells. The main difficulty this presents may be that “normal” decks would need to be rebuilt to hit that mark and thus quickly trying out Channeling Land wouldn’t be as… quick. So you might try it out with a quick conversion to decks of 40 spells, then for serious long-term play consider increasing the minimum deck size to diminish the bomb factor that 40 card decks tend to have (unless you’re working with card pools where 40 cards is the norm).

Have fun playing! And feel free to comment below, I especially welcome thoughts from anyone who’s tried out the variant!