Magic Memories: Life from the Loam

Oversoul

The Tentacled One
I like the art on the new "Secret Lair" version of this card and I'm excited that I'll finally be using it soon...
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Where to start? Life from the Loam is one of my personal favorites, but it's also one of the all-time great Magic cards. And I don't know how to properly convey that. In tournament play, it's been a format-defining staple in every format that it's ever been in, and yet it has never been at risk of a ban or restriction in any format, never come close to creating a metagame dominated by itself. And this has been not merely as a best-in-slot utility spell like Lightning Bolt, but as a build-around card advantage engine centerpiece. That kind of tempered, universal success is extraordinary. For reference, nothing else I've started a "Magic Memories" thread on comes even close. Actually, I'm at a loss to name any cards that have been quite as great as build-around engines in so many diverse decks, in so many formats, for such a long time, all without being seen as too dominant throughout their history. Obviously Necropotence is a great card advantage engine and another of my personal favorites, but it's also been totally broken. The best example is probably Dark Confidant, but I'd argue that Life from the Loam has been considerably more prominent for most of its history than Dark Confidant.

Life from the Loam has been a competitive force in 9th Edition Standard, 10th Edition Standard, Extended, Legacy, Vintage, Modern, Commander, and pretty much any other variant format you could name for which the card is available in the pool. It's probably even good in Ultimate Masters drafts or something. It's had dedicated decks named specifically in reference to the card, such as "Loam Control", "Aggro Loam", "4C Loam", "Confinement Assault Loam", and "Retrace Loam." It's also been engine powering almost any deck in Legacy with "Lands" in the name, like "43-Land", "RG Combo Lands", and simply "Lands." And then of course it's key to Dark Depths combo decks, both the more disruptive "Depths" versions and the speedier "Turbo Depths" versions. It's a toolbox card appearing in "Maverick" decks that are primarily based around Green Sun's Zenith, and in some various non-blue control decks as well. And then of course it has appeared a lot in "Dredge" decks that are based entirely around the Dredge mechanic itself. While the Ichorid-based versions in Vintage and Legacy don't bother with cards that have anything less than Dredge 4, that hasn't been the case in slower formats, and Life from the Loam has been a Dredge mainstay in other formats.

There are a lot of ways to use Life from the Loam. I'm sure that includes some I've never thought of. So I think it could be interesting to review what makes this card so special...
 

Oversoul

The Tentacled One
Life from the Loam does two things. Neither thing by itself is particularly great, but having them together on the same card creates a total package that goes far beyond the sum of its parts.

The effect that Life from the Loam has when cast is technically unique, but fairly mundane. Return up to three target land cards from your graveyard to your hand. Green has historically had some level of interaction with lands in graveyards, and returning them to your hand is less powerful than returning them to the battlefield. Some similar previous cards to do this included...
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And of course green has always been a strong color for graveyard-to-hand recursion in general, as I talked about in the Magic Memories thread for Regrowth. There haven't been other sorceries that just return lands to your hand and don't do anything else when cast, but the overall theme is there, and, as you can see, the effect has appeared as an ability on creatures. It isn't bad, but it's also not particularly strong, as the various mechanics in Magic go.

The Dredge mechanic is infamously strong, but tends to be used in specific ways. What has broken Dredge has been the easy access to self-milling in combination with graveyard-base creature recursion. Originally, this was Ichorid, but cards like Narcomoeba, Bridge from Below, and Dread Return would soon follow. Other popular choices have included Bloodghast, Prized Amalgam, and Creeping Chill. Dredge-based decks rely on quickly filling up one's graveyard, so the higher the Dredge number, the better.
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While Dredge 3 is seemingly right behind the big dredgers, the difference is profound. A deck built around the Dredge mechanic would ordinarily try to avoid stooping to use the Dredge 3 cards. Shambling Shell has appeared as a worst dredger slot in dedicated decks, as it does technically enable dredging, which hopefully puts a Stinkweed Imp or Golgari-Grave Troll into the graveyard, and since it does pitch to Ichorid, it sees some play. Darkblast is a reusable removal spell of sorts, so it sometimes shows up, especially in Modern where Golgari Grave-Troll is banned. It also can be cast to get it into the graveyard without needing a discard outlet, which is sometimes useful. Greater Mossdog is probably the worst of the Dredge 3 options, but has shown up in decks anyway. Mostly, these cards see use because there are only three options with Dredge numbers higher than 3. They're not ideal, but a Dredge-based deck requires consistency and needs to get a Dredge card into the graveyard to get going.

Life from the Loam is different. Because while the Dredge mechanic is filling up your graveyard, it gives the spell more lands to grab. The two halves of the spell feed each other. If you don't already have lands in your graveyard to use Life from the Loam on, then dredge the spell up and it can put some there. Once you've got lands in your graveyard that you'd like to get into your hand, cast Life from the Loam to retrieve them.

Being able to use Life from the Loam on basic lands is of some use, but the card really shines when paired with a variety of lands. It turns out, some lands in Magic are very good cards!
 

Oversoul

The Tentacled One
One of the most important techniques to make Life from the Loam into a true engine is the use of Tranquil Thicket and other applicable cycling lands from Onslaught to create a cycling/dredging loop. Generally, a Loam deck should use whichever of these lands are appropriate for its colors. Secluded Steppe for white, Lonely Sandbar for blue, Barren Moor for black, Forgotten Cave for red, and Tranquil Thicket for green (since Life from the Loam is green itself, that one is pretty much universal).

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While it's had nothing to do with my own decks or experiences, it might be worth noting that while these have been Loam staples pretty much since the card was first introduced, they were not legal in the Modern format for most of its existence and didn't factor into Modern Loam decks. The advent of Modern Horizons last year changed this, and the technique is now available to Modern players, although I don't think that it's currently popular in that format. It is an option.

The mechanism itself is simple, but doesn't really go anywhere without some synergy. You cycle one of these lands, generating a draw trigger, then use that to dredge up Life from the Loam. You cast Life from the Loam and grab the land you cycled as well as two other lands. At this point you've spent three mana to put three cards from the top of your library into your graveyard, two lands from your graveyard into your hand, and you're in the same position as you were before, so you can repeat the process as many times as you can pay three mana (two of it being in the colors of Life from the Loam and whichever land you're cycling).

As two-card combos go, spending three mana to retrieve a couple of lands from your graveyard and mill yourself for three cards doesn't sound that amazing, although the potential to loop it repeatedly might add an element of interest. But card advantage engines can be a bit subtle in that respect. A Loam deck is built to benefit from the self-milling in some way, and the engine itself also grants access to any land cards that happen to get milled away by dredging. This makes Life from the Loam one of the best cards to use in a deck based around lands.
 
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