Rant of Valakut: Back to the Basics Ben Iverach-Brereton January 4, 2021 Rants of Valakut The most important* step when building a Commander deck choosing which basic lands to use. They set the tone for your deck, and reinforce your theme. Do you want your deck to have an old-school feeling? Use pre-Eighth Edition lands. Is your deck filled with artifacts? You might want to focus on Esper, Kaladesh or Mirrodin lands; each one will give a different feel to your deck. You might even decide to use a mix of basic land styles to give your deck a more chaotic, cobbled-together theme. Some people find one basic land that they like, collect several copies of it, and use it for every deck. There may be a small gameplay advantage to using a single piece of art for all of your basic lands, but I still prefer a variety of basic lands in my decks. I liken this to being the curator of a miniature art gallery: you have the opportunity to show off a wide range of paintings, and it’s up to you to choose a collection that look good together. In keeping with the singleton nature of Commander, I make sure the basic lands in my EDH decks all have distinct artwork. I even take it a step further by having my basic lands each depict a unique location. For instance, we’ve seen several versions of the same places on Innistrad and Tarkir, so if I decide to use a Khans of Tarkir Island in a deck, I make sure not to use the corresponding Dragons of Tarkir or Fate Reforged version as well. This used to be quite time consuming for me, but now that I’ve sorted my basic lands alphabetically by artist, it goes much faster. Sorting my basic lands this way may seem excessive and silly (it’s amazing what one does to pass the time during a global pandemic, isn’t it?) but it makes it so much easier to spot duplicate landscapes and reprints when deck building. When I’m choosing basic lands for a deck, I try to have a general idea of what I’m looking for before pulling out any cards, just like I do with my nonland cards. This time it’s not about mechanics, though, but aesthetics: am I trying to evoke a dark, gloomy atmosphere, or is this a bright, cheerful deck? Is this deck set in a busy city, or does it hail from the untamed wilds? Based on the mechanics of the deck, I try an establish a general ‘look’ for my lands. After all, just because a deck is Jund colours doesn’t mean it’s from Alara! Admittedly, sometimes I don’t get much further than picking a bunch of basic lands with art I like, but that’s ok; the basic land equivalent of a “generic good stuff” can still make for a great ‘gallery’. Regardless of how I pick out my lands, I always pick a few more than I need at first. This lets me lay them out and put back ones that don’t quite fit. Maybe the trees on this Forest are the wrong type, or the sky is too blue on this Swamp. It’s not about whether I like the art or not, but how well it looks with all of the other lands. Once I’ve trimmed things down, I sleeve them up, and my deck is done! Below are some of the collections I’ve curated. Welcome to the Art Gallery of Valakut. Please enjoy your tour… This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things My oddly named Shattergang Brothers deck, “This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things,” was the first time I really tried to stick to a theme for my basic lands. These goblins love to blow things up, so why not have basic lands that represent the buildings they’ve targeted for ‘sudden demolition’? This meant focusing primarily on Ravnica lands, since they’re the most common basic lands to feature large structures. Not only did this work with my theme, but it’s also fitting from a lore perspective. The Shattergang Brothers are from the City of Guilds, after all; Krenko even killed one of them shortly before the events of Oath of the Gatewatch… The nonbasic lands in this deck were chosen for their mechanics more than their artwork, though I did made sure to use Cliff Child’s Dark Ascension Evolving Wilds, since it has that old cathedral on it. SWAMPS When I first built this deck, I had to make do with a couple of lands that didn’t fit my theme; they were the best I had at the time, but in the years since I acquired a lot more options. I recently took the time to review which basics were in this deck, and I was torn between using more Ravnica lands, or branching out by using lands from other settings. I decided the latter would be more fun; if nothing else, buildings like the Sultai palaces and Abzan fortresses look a lot like the sort of thing that the Shattergang Brothers would destroy. MOUNTAINS If I only included one non-Ravnica land in this deck, it would stand out too much. Using a mixture of settings gave me a lot more flexibility, though. For instance, I didn’t expect the distinct architecture of Amonkhet to fit in well with anything, but because I added a wider variety of structures, it looks pretty good here. Even if avoided lands with distinct Amonkhet monuments, that still left me with several options. I’ll admit that there were a couple of lands from Magic Origins that were set on Kaladesh that seemed perfect for this deck’s theme. However, when I realized which artist made them I decided to find something else to use instead. This actually worked out better anyway, since it pushed me to include a wider variety of lands, like those Amonkhet lands. I still included a Mountain from Kaladesh, just one by a different artist. I’m happy with my choice, too; the tower-with-birds by Eytan Zana is one of my favourite Mountains in general. FORESTS Swamps and Mountains have their fair share of buildings on them throughout the multiverse, but the same can’t often be said for Forests. Outside of Ravnica, most Forests are images of a deep, untamed wilderness. I didn’t want all of my Forests in this deck to be from one plane, so I dipped back into Tarkir and Amonkhet to find a couple of other structures. They went nicely with the Swamps and Mountains from those planes, which was great, but it was an Ixalan temple tucked neatly in the jungle that really got me excited. Here was a land card with exactly the sort of image I had in mind: a building sitting prominently in the artwork, as if the Shattergang Brothers were scoping it out and devising their demolition plan from the bushes. What’s more, it’s not clear what kind of trees are surrounding Christine Choy’s jungle temple, so they don’t stand out from my other basics lands; if I had opted for some a different Ixalan Forest, it wouldn’t have matched nearly so well. Peasants of the Henge A mono-green Human tribal deck is going to have a lot of hunters and trappers in it. I wanted the basic lands in my Syr Faren, the Hengehammer deck to feel like they could all be from the same forest. Stylistically I was aiming for something in between Eldraine and Innistrad, with trees similar to what you might see in the Canadian Shield. I tried to focus on narrow walking paths and deer trails. I avoided anything that might look too urban; the low stone wall in Adam Paquette’s Great Henge Forest and the stone road in Darrell Riche’s Lorwyn Forest are the only signs of civilization I could see in any of these lands, and they felt remote enough for my purposes. FORESTS I was pleasantly surprised at how well these Forests worked together, despite being from such different planes. Tarkir, Innistrad, Lorwyn, Theros, Eldraine… these worlds aren’t exactly known for sharing a unified theme. There are a couple of lands whose trees aren’t as good a fit as I might have liked, but when you need to find twenty-five different pieces of art, some compromises are bound to happen. I will say this, though: the smattering of Core Set Forests did a great job fleshing things out; without them, I don’t think I would have even come close to getting this collection to mesh. EnXantchatress The nonland cards in my Xantcha, Sleeper Agent enchantment deck have a dark, foreboding look about them, and I wanted the basic lands to match. My focus was less on the locations depicted, and more on the colour palettes of the artwork. I tried to stick to gloomy vistas, with fairly muted colours. The few bright patches in the art have harsher tones, evoking the general feel of Phyrexia. I really enjoyed putting together this particular collection of basic lands; it includes several pieces of art that I usually skip over during deck building. The darker scenes don’t often fit with my usual choices, making this deck a bit of a departure for me. Taken together, I think these basic lands compliment one another nicely; the atmosphere they create is somewhat sinister, which makes playing with this deck feel that much more unique. SWAMPS If there’s one word to describe the overall aesthetic I was trying to capture with these Swamps, it’s “bleak.” There are a few splashes of warmer colours here and there, which tie in well with my Mountains, but otherwise these lands are fairly muted. Dan Frazier’s M10 Swamp is a great example of what I was going for; the presence of the flower in the foreground does little to make the landscape feel welcoming. The light cast on these Swamps always feels constricted, and never quite reaches the viewer. Even when the sun is shining brightly, like in Mike Bierek’s M13 Swamp and Sam Burley’s Abzan Swamp, the foreground is in deep shadow. The Abzan Swamp is especially interesting to see here, compared to its presence in my Shattergang Brothers deck. There, the focus was on the building in the background, while here it’s the shadows in front of it that really set the mood. Together with this deck’s other Swamps, these lands feel unsettling, and this carries over into the Mountains. MOUNTAINS The art on these Mountains do a lot of heavy lifting in this deck. Picking “bleak,” cold-feeling Swamps is relatively easy, but the typical art of a Mountain has a sense of adventure and grandeur about it. The gothic aesthetic of Innistrad was a good starting point, whether from the original set, or the subtly twisted landscapes in Shadows Over Innistrad; outside of Avacyn Restored, the lands from that plane are always a little spooky, no matter what type they are. Their dark palette compliments this deck’s gloomy Swamps well, and the reds and oranges on them usually look more angry than comforting. What I didn’t expect was for Ixalan Mountains to fit into this deck. Considering the artists, it actually makes sense; not only did Dimitar Marinski and Titus Lunter do the art for these Ixalan basic lands, but they also created the two Dominaria Mountains that round out this deck. (I actually didn’t realize that these lands were done by the same artists until editing!) All of these Mountains cast deep shadows in the foreground, much like this deck’s Swamps. This makes the area feel imposing and unwelcoming, which carries over into a general sense of claustrophobia and isolation, despite the wide open spaces depicted. Sinister indeed! Seven Reflections My Riku of Two Reflections deck has a lot of clones in it, and focuses on making multiple copies of the same creature. To ‘mirror’ this theme, I decided to find basic lands that had repeating elements in their art. The deck has some heavy colour requirements, so it doesn’t actually run that many basics; while this made my job a bit easier, it also meant that whatever lands I picked really had to drive home the theme of repetition. I wish there I could have included a few more to showcase their artwork, but making sure the deck functions properly was more important. ISLANDS Islands were the easiest of the three land types for me to find repeating elements in them. Jung Park’s mage rings of Vryn was an obvious starting point, as was Vincent Proce’s row of hedrons from Rise of the Eldrazi. The other Islands were a bit more subtle, but each one has a copied pattern in it somewhere. John Avon’s waterworks from Return to Ravnica may not initially fit with my critera, but its overall composition feels right to me; the water wheel in the foreground is duplicated in the background, and the narrow waterfalls parallel each other nicely, so I’m going to let it slide. MOUNTAINS With the idea of duplication and repeating patterns in mind, I immediately thought of a Khans of Tarkir rock formation that would fit the bill. However, I once again vetoed the artwork because of the artist. This game has no shortage of great dual peaks, jagged mountain ranges and rocky canyons for me to choose from, so it’s not like I’m starved for options. Ultimately, most of this deck’s Mountains took me back to Ravnica. This was in part because the design of these lands is somewhat reminiscent of assembly lines and repetitive mass production, though it had more to do with how prominently the repeated elements were featured. Adam Paquette’s twin bridges, for instance, are both silhouetted nicely against the sky with the buildings framing them nicely. There are even bridges to the right that continue the pattern. John Avon’s molten columns are very self-contained by comparison, being an interior view, but they still make for a distinct piece of repeated architecture. Unsurprisingly, John Avon’s Mountain fits nicely beside the artist’s waterworks Island that I mentioned earlier. Less expected is how well it parallels Mark Tedin’s tree matrix; the compositions of the two pieces is very similar, and the trees mirror the columns nicely. But I’ll get into that more in a moment. FORESTS You’d think that art featuring a terrain type made up of a bunch of trees would make finding Forests with prominent repeated elements very straightforward, but it proved to be surprisingly difficult. The art of most basic Forests have one central feature, like a walking path or a particularly big tree, and while there may be several trees in the background, they’re rarely the focus of the art. It took a bit of digging, but I did eventually manage to find a few basic Forests that fit the bill. Rise of the Eldrazi was a good resource for me once again, providing a second row of hedrons to use, this time by Jung Park. Christine Choi’s garden path from Kaladesh was another land that stood out, with its lovely repeated arches reminiscent of the mage rings of Vryn. As mentioned earlier, I also included Mark Tedin’s matrix of trees, which feature an excellent example of repeated elements. Of note for me, this deck is one of the few times that I’ve dipped into New Phyrexia lands; other than James Paick’s Annex Plains, I usually find the harsh art style to clash with other basics. All that said, my favourite Forest for this deck has to be Matt Stewart’s Amonkhet palm trees. The way the canopies split into two mirrored halves is the sort of thing I didn’t even know I was looking for. What’s more, there are even more repeated elements upon closer inspection: there’s a row of pillars or obelisks halfway to the horizon, and a set of twin mountains in the distance. That’s not to mention the fact that there are multiple palm trees with that same distinct style in the foreground. It’s almost as if this land was made specifically for my Riku deck and its clone theme! *Alright, I was joking about card art being the most important part of a Commander deck, but if you’ve never spent the time curating your basics, I recommend it nonetheless. It gives your deck a distinct feel, and leaves you with something nice to look at between turns. How you approach your choice of basic lands is entirely up to you, too. Maybe you just want to pick art that you like, or maybe you want to use your lands to reinforce a deck’s theme. Whatever you choose, it sets the tone for your deck, and if you pick out different basic lands for different decks, they’ll feel that much more unique when you play with them. The best part is that your decisions have zero impact on gameplay, leaving you free to do whatever you want. There are no wrong answers, so what are you waiting for? Go out there and build your very own miniature art gallery! 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