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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.
 

Oversoul

The Tentacled One
The Loam + cycling land engine accomplishes self-milling and gives access to lands from the graveyard, which I've noted is excellent in a deck based around lands. Which lands are good to use with it? Well, let's see...

Phyrexian Tower lets you mana ramp and throw a creature away.
Tabernacle taxes creatures and makes opponents pay.
Rishadan Port locks down other lands and messes with mana production.
Or you could just use one of many other lands that double as land destruction...
...like Strip Mine, Ghost Quarter, Field of Ruin, Tectonic Edge, Dust Bowl, and Wasteland.
Dryad Arbor counts as a creature, even though it's also a land.
Field of the Dead lets you make a whole zombie army.
Glacial Chasm makes it so that most things cannot harm me.
Halls of Mist slows attacking creatures down and puts them under arrest.
But for disrupting combat damage, Maze of Ith is the best.
Bojuka Bog forestalls other graveyard loops and messes with their optimal yield.
Blast Zone nukes their permanents while they're still on the battlefield.
Or with Valakut, the Molten Pinnacle you could just kill your foes directly.
Emergence Zone, Alchemist's Refuge, and Winding Canyons all let you cast stuff instantly.
Arena lets you pick the fights you know you'll always win.
Petrified Field grabs another land right back out of the bin.
If you rely on artifacts, Inventors' Fair can find them easily.
When it comes to artifacts, Academy Ruins recurs them infinitely.
Use Gavony Township for +1/+1 counter enhancement.
Hall of Heliod's Generosity can recur an enchantment.
Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth makes all other lands able to produce black.
Emeria, the Sky Ruin can let you bring your creatures back.
Westvale Abbey can become a 9/7 or make smaller dudes aplenty.
Dark Depths, with a little help, can make a 20/20.
If you like attacking, Rogue's Passage can clear the way.
Mosswort Bridge is for cheating something out with Hideaway.
Kessig Wolf Run is a mana sink and makes a creature bigger.
Throw in lots of fetchlands for any Landfall trigger.
Cabal Coffers, Gaea's Cradle, Serra's Sanctum: make loads of mana for a nasty surprise.
Reliquary Tower grants you infinite hand size.
Use a board-wipe spell, then attack with "man" lands and your foes will be in trouble.
Vesuva or Thespian's Stage can make a utility land double.
Dakmor Salvage helps get dredging started and I might add...
...dredge more by drawing more with Geier Reach Sanitarium or Bazaar of Baghdad.
 
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Shoe

Member
I do love me some lftl, I've been trying for years to crack a Manaless Dredge Commander deck. I've got a prototype but it doesn't really stand much of a chance in REAL games. I snagged my playset of lftl when ravnica came out from the dollar rare bin which was awesome. They weren't even considered good until someone broke dredge a month or 2 later. I wish I had speculated on prices more back then, would have made a ton of cash.

Because loam is so good in competative formats, do you ever find it creates unfun casual experiences? One of my biggest things lately in casual magic is making sure my decks are just as fun for the person or people across the table as they are for me. Competative/griefer players seem to be ever on the rise and infiltrating the kitchen table more and more over the years...maybe it's just my area
 
F

Ferret

Guest
Because loam is so good in competative formats, do you ever find it creates unfun casual experiences? One of my biggest things lately in casual magic is making sure my decks are just as fun for the person or people across the table as they are for me. Competative/griefer players seem to be ever on the rise and infiltrating the kitchen table more and more over the years...maybe it's just my area
Back when my dining room was the home of my weekly game, we almost enforced a house rule of making sure everyone had fun. Of course, this made my friend Jimmy that loved his all-blue Time Walk deck a little annoyed - but, he had other decks :)
 

Shoe

Member
Yeah, I'm forced to resort to finding a new group after a long hiatus. So this isn't really enforceable. At the kitchen table I'd do the same, failure to follow the rule results in playing involuntary Archenemy
 

Oversoul

The Tentacled One
Some of this is just inherent to different types of game effects, but Life from the Loam seems to be pleasantly unafflicted with the stigma some casual players would attribute to other tournament staples. The card doesn't kill opponents directly or take away their stuff. An example, which I observed again just today, of a card that casual players tend to balk at is Contamination. Suddenly the players without black decks can't do anything unless they can get their colored mana from artifacts. They hate that. People don't seem to mind land recursion so much unless it's Strip Mine and such.
 

Oversoul

The Tentacled One
I usually stall and blather on about history or something esoteric, saving EDH stuff for later on in these threads. There's a lot more to say about Life from the Loam, but I'll break from my usual trend (because it was silly anyway). EDH stuff is fresh in my memory now, and I tried a new Loam deck in the West Coast Commander League just yesterday.

The large deck size and lack of redundancy don't really adversely affect LftL moreso than most other cards, and the more pronounced effect of the format rules here is the forced focus on "color identity." In 60-card formats, Loam decks almost always have color splashes because getting access to a range of lands is so easy. It's a somewhat subtle aspect of Life from the Loam gameplay. You need a bit of initial setup, but Loam decks can reliably avoid becoming colorscrewed, which skews deckbuilding considerations (in a good way). EDH is different in this way because you're locked in to a specific color scheme.

So far, I've done a Loam package in Golgari, Bant, Gruul, Naya, and, as of yesterday, Selesnya. Unfortunately, my Selesnya attempt kind of fizzled. The deck itself lost one game, won another, and saw the third game go to a draw, but at no point was Life from the Loam involved. I scaled back the Loam package during deckbuilding to make room for Constellation/Enchantress stuff, and I think that hurt my chances. Oops.
 

Oversoul

The Tentacled One
So here's a card that I've been having fun with lately in Loam decks, one that used to be a Loam mainstay but fell out of popularity over the years...
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This guy gets big quickly, which is the main appeal. Sure, it's just a vanilla creature in combat, but it's not hard for this to be a 7/7 or bigger by the time you're attacking with it, and that's not a bad deal for three mana. If it survives another turn, it gets even bigger. If it were just a big creature for three mana, it might be worth it in some decks, but the card's upkeep ability can be especially nice with an active Loam engine going, especially once you get two or more Countryside Crushers on the battlefield. This creature was key in the success of "Aggro Loam" decks in Legacy for a few years, and still sometimes shows up in tournament lists occupying that niche.

Also, it's just a really good feeling not to keep topdecking lands when you didn't want to.
 

Oversoul

The Tentacled One
You know what creature is good with lots of lands in your graveyard?
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Knight of the Reliquary has been a Loam staple, one that defines some archetypes, since Shards of Alara. It has two abilities and both of them synergize with the Life from the Loam engine. A three-drop that requires white and green mana has to be pretty potent to compete with other options, especially these days. And Knight of the Reliquary pulls it off with ease. The first ability turns it into a beefy attacker under the influence of dredging. The second ability helps fuel the Loam engine, helps fuel the card's own first ability, and can find any land. Staple a reusable Crop Rotation onto a Terravore and you've got Knight of the Reliquary.

This is, by far, the biggest single reason for a Loam deck to run white. And it's pretty much been the powerhouse defining the "Aggro Loam" archetype.
 

Oversoul

The Tentacled One
The Loam + cycling land engine is good on its own, but there is a card that turns it into something explosive in a land-heavy deck...
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Before the advent of LftL, Manabond wasn't a particularly valued card. I remember seeing the occasional casual experiment with it, but nothing that had any staying power. At least not in my recollection. Al0ysiusHWWW did try to use the card in some silly deck in the early 00's. It's entirely possible that most of the examples I saw of the card's usage were in forum posts here at the CPA...


But it was CPA member Limited, who zeroed in on the synergy between Manabond and Life from the Loam: http://www.casualplayers.org/forums/threads/dredge-with-manabond.13462/#post-191334

The missing piece there, which I guess we all missed at the time, was the use of cycling lands like Tranquil Thicket to make this a reliable engine. The Loam engine turned Manabond into a Legacy powerhouse and gave rise to the glorious 44-Land deck (also known as 43-Land.dec and other names, eventually giving way to just the generic "Lands" deck).

Early versions of this deck would generally run Exploration, Manabond, Life from the Loam, and Gamble. All other cards in the deck were lands, occupying up to 44 slots in total. Exploration was there to speed things up and was the preferred opening play, but what the deck really needed to do was either find Life from the Loam or find Gamble and cast it to find Life from the Loam. From there, the plan was to replace every card draw with dredging up Life from the Loam and use every available mana to either cycle a land (generating a draw trigger) or cast Life from the Loam. Each turn would yield more lands in hand that would then be dropped onto the board with Manabond. This deck could generate board states with huge tracts of land by turn 4 or so, and could then proceed to use Wasteland and Rishadan Port to slow the opponent down while Mishra's Factory and Treetop Village beat the opponent to death.

The elegantly simple setup of playsets of Exploration, Manabond, Life from the Loam, and Gamble worked reasonably well, but most players tweaked it by swapping out some copies of those spells for copies of Mulch and/or Mox Diamond, which added further acceleration. Later, this setup was deemed less flexible than a 38-Land version, and eventually other Lands decks moved away from reliance on Manabond. But the Manabond-based versions were super-fun to play and generally very consistent and straightforward.
 

Oversoul

The Tentacled One
The flagship expansion set for 2009, Zendikar, introduced many powerful cards that changed the game. In sheer quantity of powerhouse cards, it's got to be one of the top sets of all time. And amidst those bombs was a seemingly innocuous little burn spell with a unique ability. Punishing Fire only dealt two damage for two mana, which would ordinarily be inadequate for a burn spell. But it had built in recursion with opponents gaining life. While there are a lot of cards that can make opponents gain life, most of them would not allow for a viable combo with Punishing Fire. All it takes is one, though. And there happened to be one: Grove of the Burnwillows.
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While actually killing an opponent with this combo would be slow and clumsy, the real threat of the combo is the decisive advantage it gives in combat. Punishing Fire was usually pointed at creatures, sometimes at planeswalkers, and only used against directly against an opponent if there were no other good targets and if there wasn't anything better to do with the mana. One damage isn't much, but it's still damage and it adds up over time.

For years, although this combo saw considerable tournament success, I panned it as less elegant than the much older, more interesting, and more compact single-card effect of Cursed Scroll. The two are really only similar on the surface, and while Cursed Scroll did and does remain a good Magic card, the sorts of decks that could use it were not in vogue for tournaments at the time. Despite the demonstrable success of the Punishing Fire + Grove of the Burnwillows combo, I never really got over my initial suspicions. And since I'm talking about my memories, I should explain what my qualms were...
  • It's a two-card combo that takes 51 mana and 17 turns to kill your opponent.
  • It's a control-oriented direct damage combo in a pair of colors almost universally associated with fast, aggro damage, not with control strategies.
  • When doing anything other than casting Punishing Fire, you would prefer Karplusan Forest (to say nothing of Taiga) to Grove of the Burnwillows, because aggressive decks, especially in R/G, care more about the opponent's life total than about their own.
  • If Grove of the Burnwillows gets destroyed, Punishing Fire is basically a worse version of Guerilla Tactics.
  • The combo generally loses to aggro and has a deficiency of targets against control and combo (other burn spells would give a faster kill).
Despite those objections, at no point did I think that the combo was bad. Quite the opposite: I was well aware of how versatile it was, how little constraints it put on deckbuilding, how good Punishing fire could be in multiples with Grove online, and of tricks like holding mana open to double up successive Punishing Fire casts, etc. The combo was strong and had proven itself. It wasn't that I underestimated it or hated it. But it wasn't really my cup of tea.

However, in recent years I've warmed up to the Punishing Fire + Grove of the Burnwillows combo a bit because of how nicely it fits with Life from the Loam. Other than the fact that it's a slow burn (in the traditional metaphorical sense and in the Magic jargon sense), Life from the Loam shifts the variables of gameplay in all the right ways to make the combo more appealing to my own sensibilities.
  • Punishing Fire is good and multiples and you don't really care if they show up in your graveyard or your hand, as they'll occupy both zones throughout the game. Life from the Loam dredges them into your graveyard, so you find copies of the card faster.
  • The combo needs Grove of the Burnwillows on the battlefield. Life from the Loam makes that easy. Even if it's in your graveyard, you can fix that.
  • The combo is a bit mana-intensive. Life from the Loam decks inherently ramp their mana.
  • One thing most Loam-based strategies don't get to use very much of is direct damage. This combo solves that easily.
 

Oversoul

The Tentacled One
For more controlling Loam decks, the emphasis has often been on the "Retrace" mechanic. Life from the Loam provides a reusable way to fill your hand up with lands. And Retrace spells can be cast from the graveyard with the additional cost of discarding a land. There are 14 spells in the game that have the mechanic, and a few of them have been featured in tournament decks. For those of us with a casual focus, potentially any Retrace spell could work. Their mechanic always synergizes with LftL. But since my focus is largely on my memories, here's my favorite...
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It's not an early-game play, but once the Loam engine has been running for a few turns, Worm Harvest can make tons of tokens quickly.
 
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