Wizards of the Coast announced a variety of new and returning cards for Magic: The Gathering in its upcoming set release, Dominaria United, on Thursday. Among these cards are six returning “pain lands,” a nickname they’ve acquired for doing a point of damage to their controller anytime they are tapped for a color of mana.
Three of these six lands are entering Magic’s Pioneer format for the first time, signaling a new level of balance to the power level of three popular color combinations that have had to manage with a resource disparity since the format’s inception in 2019.
Pain lands have existed in Magic since 1995, when five of them were introduced in the Ice Age set. Five more were printed in 2001’s Apocalypse set, completing the land cycle for all 10 color pairs. Over the years, these lands have been reprinted periodically in various sets, sometimes all at once, other times in smaller groups, but have often remained a useful if not beloved resource for fans of two-or-more-color decks to smooth out color requirements at the relatively modest cost of one life per color of mana.
Although these lands have been around long enough that all 10 are legal to play in Magic’s bigger formats, such as Modern and Commander, that’s not the case for all competitive players. Especially those playing Pioneer or Explorer.
To fully grasp the disparity in Pioneer’s available lands, it helps to understand a concept in the game called the color pie, a design philosophy that dictates what each of the game’s mana colors are able to do in various cards. The five colors form 10 pairs, and these 10 pairs are often separated into two groups — enemy pairs and allied pairs. For instance, the allied pairs sit next to one another on the pie: white/blue, blue/black, black/red, red/green, and green/white. The remaining combinations, the enemy pairs, sit across from one another on the pie.
The last time pain lands were printed in a Magic Standard set was in the 2015 set Magic Origins, which only included the aforementioned enemy pairs. The remaining allied pairs haven’t seen a Standard reprint since 2007’s Tenth Edition — a full five years prior to Pioneer’s available cardpool, which starts with 2012’s Return to Ravnica. In effect, this gives Pioneer decks built around the five enemy pairs a built in advantage over allied color decks, since the enemy pairs have more lands to choose from when looking for mana sources.
To make matters more difficult, even setting aside pain lands, the enemy color pairs have more lands to choose from because of other disparities among nonbasic lands available in Pioneer. Although Wizards has done a good job of representing all 10 color pairs in recent years, some of the sets that were released before Pioneer existed also contribute to this resource imbalance.
The other big example of this issue is seen in 2016’s Kaladesh, which featured a cycle of five enemy dual lands known as “fast lands,” which earned their nickname because they enter the battlefield untapped if there are fewer than three other lands already under the player’s control. The five allied fast lands do exist, and were introduced in 2010’s Scars of Mirrodin, but they haven’t been reprinted in a Standard set since, making them ineligible for Pioneer play. As a result, while most of the other popular dual land cycles that see Pioneer play are available across every color pair, it’s the absence of these 10 allied dual lands that give enemy colors an inherent advantage and can impact the competitive viability of nascent strategies that don’t have access to these crucial resources.
That’s where Dominaria United comes in. Three of the five missing pain lands are finally entering the format, providing the red/black, blue/white, and red/green color pairs a new level of flexibility that can potentially introduce new decks to the format that previously struggled to keep up, or reinforce existing decks that had to make do with imperfect mana.
One way to predict the implications of these three new lands is comparing their color pairs against specific deck styles that don’t currently exist in the format. For example, Pioneer has never had a consistent red/green ramp deck, sometimes known as red/green monsters. These types of decks are traditionally defined by cheap green “ramp” spells, including 1-mana green creatures, which produce extra mana early in the game that then accelerates the deck’s ability to cast bigger and more expensive red creatures that outclass an opponent’s strategy.
Since Pioneer has been so limited in red/green dual lands that can tap for both colors early and late in the game, a traditional monster ramp deck hasn’t existed in these colors in the format. But the addition of Karplusan Forest in Dominaria United could finally change that, providing a new home for something as classic as Llanowar Elves to coexist with new Dominaria cards such as Squee, Dubious Monarch or Shivan Devastator in one aggressive deck.
In addition to the lands, there’s one more iconic reprint in Dominaria United that’s likely to make a big splash on Pioneer and to a certain extent, every format where it’s playable — Liliana of the Veil. Over the years, this 3-mana planeswalker has been a dominating presence and staple across a variety of formats, but until now hasn’t been available to Pioneer players.
Historically, Liliana fits into grindy and disruptive strategies known as midrange decks that prolong games with a steady stream of removal spells, hand disruption, cheap creatures, and sticky planeswalkers. When she appears in Modern midrange decks, she functions as the glue that provides a little extra support for whichever angle of attack the deck needs most to take over the game. Her +1 loyalty ability keeps cards out of opponents’ hands, her -2 helps keep the board clear, and if she sticks around long enough, her ultimate -6 ability essentially resets the game, making it near impossible to ever recover.
Midrange players will be particularly thrilled by her reprint since Pioneer already has a powerful red/black midrange strategy that most players agree is one of the top decks of the format. Liliana, coupled with the new red/black pain land, are easy additions to the red/black midrange deck that’s currently dominating Pioneer and Explorer play. Of course the classic question that always comes up in these situations is, “What do you take out to make room for Liliana?” But there’s very little room for doubt that she belongs in the deck and will be a new powerhouse in the format.
Dominaria United goes live on Magic: The Gathering Arena and Magic: The Gathering Online Sept. 1, followed by its paper release Sept. 9.