An Homage to the Strongest Card in Magic
Black Lotus, Ancestral Recall, Time Walk, Timetwister and the five moxes are all powerful Magic cards. But one card stands above them all - the basic Island. Where would Magic be without the wonders of Counterspells, timing, priority and all the subtleties that come with the ability to tap an Island.
Summer Magic Dry Spell
Stepping down a short flight of stairs from the bright summer sunshine on a Copenhagen street into a store below street level the air was heavy with excitement, or perhaps just heavy. I was about to have my first encounter with Magic: The Gathering. In the middle of the surprisingly high-ceiling room, two guys were sitting across from each other with each their own huge stack of cards to the side. On the table between them colorfully illustrated pieces of cardboard were carefully laid out, and occasionally a player turned some cards sideways played a card and made an announcement. A thick mob of spectators gathered closely around the combatants cheering at every move and generally enjoying themselves. Some onlookers were even hanging over the rails of a spiral staircase to the upper floor to follow the intense battle. This was obviously something distinctly different from the world of roleplaying and tabletop games, which had never caught my interest – except for the flavor. It seemed as if a door had opened into a world of infinite possibilities.
It was the summer of ’94 and I was travelling my homeland Denmark with a couple of friends on an open train ticket to go anywhere for two weeks. While in Copenhagen one of the guys on the trip insisted that he and I visited a local game store to pick up this new game he had read about, and which he was sure I would like too. Not being much into games I only went hesitantly along. In the store everyone seemed focused on this new and very different game, and the two of us each ended up buying a 60-card starter deck of Revised Edition (which had been released two months earlier). I do not remember, if we read the accompanying rules booklet on the trip, but I think we did because once back on our home Island it did not take us long to figure out how to play with cards – and we never made any of the hilarious mistakes often heard about from Magic players who had to teach themselves the game.
Playing with the 60 cards we each had bought was a trial. Well first of all, it was more or less 60 cards because back then we played for ante, and sometimes one of us was some cards ahead of the other. I particularly remember winning a Basalt Monolith which I considered one of the strongest cards in our meager 120-card meta. My biggest challenge was playing blue spells because my deck had come with just two Islands among the randomized pot of basic lands. My biggest creature was a Sea Serpent which did represent a very real threat at 5/5. But due to its inability to attack an opponent without Islands it could easily be pacified by not playing any cards of that land type. My only chance to get in was to enchant one of his lands with a Phantasmal Terrain, but at two Blue mana this winning “combo” required me to draw both my Islands in one game.
To be honest, the lack of Islands in my deck made me consider Blue the most useless color in Magic – even when I collected more Islands due to the inevitable arms race between my original arch nemesis, myself and the half a dozen other friends soon joining us in the Magic craze.
It did not take too long, however, before I spun on a plate and became an incarnated blue mage and perhaps the most irritating brewer to play against in my playgroup (at least when the jank I put together occasionally did what it was supposed to). Back then players either brewed or just jammed all their best cards into a deck. Net-decking was hardly a thing, InQuest, an old-school MTG publication, had yet to print its first issue and the decks we read about in The Duelist Magazine often required cards that we could not trade for in our tiny circle.
The cards that converted me to Blue were Power Sink and Stasis (which was the first rare card I succeeded in collecting a full playset of). I became the Stasis guy who always tried to find new ways to pay the divisive enchantment’s upkeep cost of one blue mana to keep everyone from untapping. It usually involved enchanting Leyline Druids and Birds of Paradise with Instill Energy and then try to deliver lethal damage with a Serra Angel.
Since those early days what I have enjoyed most about Magic has been the ability to counter and control. I always get a little edgy when playing a deck without Blue where I must rely on removal and board wipes and have to wait to my own turn to react to, what my opponent plays. Even after decades of R&D at Wizards of the Coast seemingly trying to stymie my favorite color in Magic, I still think that Island is the most powerful card in the game, simply because it lets you cast blue spells. But let’s go beyond my own nostalgic anecdotes and look at some facts.
La Isla Bonita
Blue is the only color to have any representation among the Power Nine. Therefore it should not come as a surprise, that the Island is the most played basic land in Vintage according to statistics from MTGGoldfish. Black Lotus and moxes are, of course, very nice, but even a Vintage player will often need a basic land to cast their Ancestral Recalls, Time Walks, and even Timetwisters, and here, the Island is naturally the first choice. On a side note, it is no surprise that Mox Sapphire tops the price list among the five moxes from Limited Edition Alpha with the cheapest available specimen on Cardmarket costing 3.499.99 € – which is 1.000 € more than number two - Mox Jet - and 1.800 € more than the cheapest Mox Emerald for sale.
In the Legacy format, the Island is number seven on the list of most played lands according to the above source. That may not seem like a high position, but when you look at the six cards above the Island, you discover that three of them are fetch lands which can fetch an Island (Polluted Delta, Misty Rainforest and Scalding Tarn) and two of the remaining three are dual lands with Island as one of their land types (Underground Sea and Volcanic Island). There’s obviously nothing like an Island, when you want to Brainstorm or when you want to counter something.
In the Pauper format, the Island is simply the most played land with Forest at number two and Snow-Covered Island at number three. Luckily for players of the cheapest eternal format both Brainstorm and Counterspell has been printed at common along with Ponder, Preordain and Gush.
The popularity of Islands is unsurprisingly reflected in the price of the card. Of course, no beginning Magic player nowadays will ever have to end up missing basic lands, because any store or experienced player will probably provide them with a good stack if asked nicely. But pimping out your lands is definitely a thing and special versions of anything, even basic lands, will come at a premium. And as always, Islands are placed above the Swamps, Mountains, Forests and Plains. The four most expensive basic lands for sale on Cardmarket are the three Summer Magic Islands (500 – 800 €) and the Island of the Terese Nielsen's Guru Lands (620 €). Even when it comes to much more recent sets such as Unstable, the basic Island takes the price. The non-foil is just about twice the price of its four competitors, and at € 53 the foil version is 20 € more expensive than the Forest at number two.
Ceci n'est pas une Island – It’s Raining Mana
Artist Mark Poole illustrated the first three Islands of which two were in Limited Edition Alpha and one more was added from Limited Edition Beta. Those three illustrations were also used in Unlimited and in Revised when I began playing Magic. The illustrations were to the point and no sober person with an unimpaired vision would doubt that this card was what the text said, an island. Even digging further back in time to Magics prehistoric islands the trend is clear. We see this in the crude paleo illustration of the Alpha and Beta playtest Islands and in the gritty 90’s photocopies that produced the Gamma playtest cards depicting map cutouts of real islands. But that trend was not to last.
Earlier this year a satirical post observed the rather odd evolution of the Island with each new set, and the jesting critique even prompted a response from head designer Mark Rosewater. Of course, both the joke and the response were right. As the collection of illustrations demonstrated, many Islands do not portray an island, and as the head designer pointed out, having to come up with a dozen new ways to show an Island every would probably lead to repetitive artwork. Besides, nowadays, most players probably identify the basic land cards by the big mana symbols first introduced in Portal, rather than by the illustration. And, in the end, as long as we have our Islands and as long as they tap for blue mana, most blue mages could care less.
That was it for this highly subjective take on my favorite card. Do you agree that Island is the most powerful card in Magic? Which version of the card do you prefer? And what is your Magic origin story? Feel free to share in the comment section below.
Opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and not necessarily Cardmarket.