Playing Fetchlands Properly
Fetchlands, in case you are wondering, are the cycle of five rare lands in Onslaught and the five uncommon lands in Mirage. The Onslaught lands are a topic of some debate as to their usage, and how they belong or don't belong in control decks, Braids decks, and so on. A lot of what has been said is correct... But a lot of what has been said has ignored the functionality of the lands.
Each fetchland reads the same thing : Tap, Pay 1 life, sacrifice [cardname]: Search your library for a [basic land A] or [basic land B] and put it into play. Then shuffle your library. They read deceptively simple, however, they really are not.
The most common mistake when looking at a fetchland is to assume you must activate the land once it comes into play and immediately use it. I'm not sure why people think of them in this sense.... But this is patently false. There is nothing in Magic that says you have to use an ability the minute you can use an ability.
I think we all know that, but at times we don't act like it's true. Here, I'll give you an example of a situation with a fetchland. The deck example I'm using is an allied three-colour deck based on Brian Kibler's Redzone.
My opponent cuts the deck, I win the roll, and I will be playing first. I draw my first seven cards:
This hand looks both idealistic and troubling. This deck is based around reaching four mana to play all of its threats, and six mana to utilize Glory with Contested Cliffs. So, what do you do first?
I personally lay the forest, and then hope to pick up an additional land on turn 2, which I will play over the Windswept Heath. Because my hand is light on land, the fetchland is the last land I will play, and I will not activate it until I absolutely need to activate it.
Are we understanding the basic point here?
A fetchland represents something not commonly seen in Magic formats: It is library manipulation that has no mana cost and doesn't come into play tapped. It can be used immediately, but it doesn't need to be.
Here, another example. The deck I'm using is Mobilization Control, a deck that a number of people have poo-poo'd running Flooded Strand in. (Or just poo-pood - The Ferrett, pointing at today's toplined article)
Let's look at a hand of seven cards, with you going first:
This is a hand where using the fetchland properly is important. The island goes down first, not the Flooded Strand, because the Island can activate the Force Spike - while the Strand would force you to use it before being able to use the Force Spike.
Turn 2, does your opponent plays something where you have already used up the Force Spike and you need to use the Counterspell? Perhaps he does - at which point the Flooded Strand is activated and an Island is fetched.
But if he doesn't, don't activate the Strand.
I've seen people do it: "End of turn, tap Flooded Strand to go look for a ..." The point is that there is clearly no actual reason to use the fetchland - because you're short on land! You want to draw a land next turn. Even if you don't, you can still activate the Flooded Strand and get the same damn mana. Don't make the chances of drawing land less likely.
A control deck especially, wants to draw more and more land to make sure it can safely play its threats, card drawing, and still be able to protect itself.
Control decks, however - now more than ever - still need to draw nonland cards. There's no Fact or Fiction out there to save you from drawing a huge land clump, so either you're going to have to make the tough choice when to cast Concentrate, or you're going to have to draw non-land cards. Here, fetchlands help you out by allowing you to run higher than average land counts (26+) while not forcing you to draw tons of land in the late game: Each used-up fetchland represents two lands out of your deck, not one.
For example, if you have drawn two fetchlands and three normal lands, and activated both fetchlands, you have pulled seven lands out of your deck - not five. While this is basic math theory, it's important to remember that while a control deck is happy with its 5th, 6th, 7th and 8th land in a row, the 9th, 10th and 11th become less and less pleasurable as you find your hand bearing less and less ways to deal with threats and more ways to simply tap a lot of mana....
...Unless you're running Ancestral Tribute, of course.
Speaking of Ancestral Tribute, the last note I'll make about the fetchlands is not to discount them when it comes to graveyard-reliant effects. They are probably one of the nicest threshold activators printed, allowing you to get"one more in the pile" without any real expenditure of resources.
The jury is really out on whether or not fetchlands work in control decks. I personally like the idea of being able to run 26 or 27 lands without really running 26 or 27 lands in my deck, making sure I get land-heavy hands but then draw into nonland cards later on in the game. Without hours and hours of testing behind me, I don't know if fetchlands are worth it or not - but there is a difference between playing them and playing them well, control deck or no.