I’ve come to the conclusion that I enjoy drafting sets with Evolving Wilds in them more than the ones without. It took me a while to notice this trend, and even longer to figure out why that is. When it comes down to it, I prefer Limited formats that let you splash cards more easily.
I think this is why I tend to get frustrated when drafting Ravnica-based sets, especially for extended periods of time.
My frustration seems misguided at first glance. After all, sets like Return to Ravnica and Ravnica Allegiance look like Limited formats that can easily accommodate splashing a third colour in your deck for a card or two. It even looks like building a full three-colour deck should be easy. After all, Gates are everywhere, so mana fixing should be a breeze.
The problem with this assumption is twofold: first, the cards in these sets have more demanding mana costs, especially the very powerful ones. This makes splashing them harder. Second, players looking to add a third colour to their deck are at the whim of whatever Gate cards are in the set, and which ones are opened in that particular Draft. An Azorius player in Ravnica Allegiance will find it almost impossible to splash mana for a Red card, for example, and even if that player is splashing for a Black card in that format they specifically require an Orzhov Guildgate, an Orzhov Locket or a Godless Shrine.
Most sets, in contrast to the rigidity of Guild sets, have fewer sources of mana fixing, but what they do have can go into more decks. Manalith, for instance, is an underwhelming mana rock compared to the recent Lockets, or the Keyrunes and Cluestones of yesteryear, but when it comes to mana fixing it beats them all. It doesn’t matter what colour of amazing rare you open, a Manalith can help you cast it. A Gruul Locket might draw you extra cards in the late game, but it won’t exactly help you cast an Angel of Grace!
What’s more, that Manalith can also help you cast any of the other spells in your deck. If you decided to try splashing your Angel of Grace in a Rakdos deck you could do so with an Orzhov Locket or Guildgate, but if your deck is mostly Red that fixing isn’t as useful as it would be in a Black-centric deck.
FIXING FOR FIXING’S SAKE
Mana fixing with an extra ability like the Guild Lockets, or that is mechanically significant like the Gates in Ravnica Allegiance, makes these cards a more attractive option for players to include in their decks. Without these abilities and synergies, a cycle of five or ten mana rocks in a set wastes a lot of valueable space; most players won’t want to use them even if they fit the colours of their deck. If the power and importance of these cards is pushed too far, though, it creates a new problem.
If the mana-fixing cards become so appealing in a Draft that players who don’t need them are picking them highly, the ability to splash an odd-coloured card in your deck becomes all but impossible. When it’s already difficult to find the exact Guildgate you need, having a Gates player at your table scoop them all up just makes matters worse. When wanting to splash a card a player is often forced to choose between the powerful card they want to play and the the mana fixing that would allow them to cast it! The correct option in these situations is usually just to ignore both the powerful card AND the mana fixing and avoid the splash entirely. Generally speaking this is good advice, and it yields more consistent draft decks. I’ll say this much, though: it feels bad when you’re constantly passing cool, powerful cards in favour of the boring ones that you can reliably play.
THE RAVNICA CONUNDRUM
All this is not to say that I dislike Ravnica. The individual cards in each set always excite me, and the setting is thematically deep. I always have such high hopes for these sets, but I never end up finding my footing in their Limited environments. I am especially disappointed by this because I WANT to like these sets, and I WANT to enjoy drafting the cards in them. The plane of Ravnica is home to some of the most powerful and influential cards, cycles and mechanics in modern Magic, which is incredibly appealing. Ironically, I think the thing keeping me from truly enjoying these sets is the one thing that defines the plane of Ravnica itself: the Guilds.
The rigid divide between colour pairs is reinforced with Gates and other Guild-specific mana fixing. This is what makes Ravnica sets mechanically distinct, but also makes decks very similar from Draft to Draft. I find that formats with flexible, efficient mana fixing are more interesting to play over the long term, not only because it’s easier to splash, but also because every colour pair is playable. Those formats let to play with and against a wider variety of decks, making them feel fresh for longer. Most Ravnica sets force players into one of five Guilds instead of the full ten colour pairs, effectively cutting deck building options in half.
But why favour Evolving Wilds over other flexible mana fixing? Cards like Prophetic Prism, Skittering Surveyor and Pilgrim’s Eye have filled this same niche and have helped lift up their respective Draft formats. Even Manalith and Rupture Spire can help to fill the gap in some cases. When these cards are printed as a common they help, but none of them are quite as good as the Wilds. That’s because all of them cost mana.
An opening hand with just an Evolving Wilds as it’s only land is risky to keep, but it is infinitely better than one with only a Rupture Spire. The latter hand is completely unplayable without a second mana source, but the Wilds can at least start the ball rolling on its own. Additionally, playing an Evolving Wilds barely slows you down, while fixing that requires you to pay mana, like the various artifact spells, could set you back an entire turn. Especially in the case of faster formats, this loss of tempo could spell disaster.
IT’S BETTER WITH THE WILDS
When spoiler season hits for a new set, the presence or absence of Evolving Wilds is definitely something I look for. Without it, I know that splashes will be harder, and that I might struggle with the Limited environment. My initial impressions of a set are often shaped by the set’s colour fixing, and my excitement can be tempered by a lack of good options. The set may be filled to the brim with cool cards, but if I can’t cast any of them reliably does it really matter?
Try as I might, I get easily distracted by cool off-colour cards when I am mid-draft all the time. I always want to pick them and try to shoehorn them into my deck for some unique interactions. I try and force myself to make the responsible on-colour pick, but more often than not I succumb to temptation. Having versatile fixing like Evolving Wilds is a great way to save these messy, unfocused Limited decks, but without it they can be very tricky and unreliable.
While Evolving Wilds isn’t the most exciting thing to open in a booster pack, it might be the most important card for me to pick in Limited. I’m always relieved to see a copy late in a Draft, and while I don’t necessarily pick it highly every time, it’s always on my radar. It has saved me countless times, and I look forward to seeing it in booster packs again soon.
…I would also accept another reprint of Terramorphic Expanse in Standard. That card needs some love, too.