Last updated on March 3, 2023
Painted Bluffs | Illustration by Mark Poole
Magic has a lot of different subtypes across all card types and sets. This doesn’t mean that all subtypes are created equal, or even playable.
Deserts come to mind when I think of mediocre lands. Not the best description, am I right? Deserts are very rarely playable outside of filling in Limited decks, but there are still a few I’d consider budget-playable in formats like Commander where land utility is great and fixing is king.
I’m going through all the desert lands in Magic, ranking from worst to best and talking a bit about gives each one its ranking. Let’s go!
What Are Deserts in MTG?
Ramunap Ruins | Illustration by Florian de Gesincourt
Desert is a land subtype in Magic that typically taps for colorless mana and may have some other ability. They sometimes tap for colorless mana but often do so with some kind of drawback, like costing to tap or entering tapped.
These drawbacks and the concept of a dry and barren desert meshing with the mana-rich lands we have in Magic results in a relatively boring and plain type of card.
Obviously that all gets thrown out if you’re playing a desert-centric commander like Hazezon, Shaper of Sand, but it’s better to analyze these cards on their own and not in the context of the one card that makes them much, much better.
#16. Dunes of the Dead
Dunes of the Dead just isn’t very good at all. Tapping for colorless isn’t the biggest drawback, especially in a mono-colorless Eldrazi Commander deck, but the graveyard ability doesn’t make up for the general blandness.
A 2/2 Zombie is practically nothing, even if you can trigger this multiple times.
#15. Grasping Dunes
Grasping Dunes is another colorless tapper than has an activated ability. This time around you can pay and tap to sacrifice it and get a -1/-1 counter on a creature at sorcery speed.
Paying mana and going down a land for such a minor ability at the slowest speed in the game just doesn’t cut it. Especially in today’s environment, and with how far power creep has gotten us.
Desert is, well, the namesake card! It taps for one colorless mana and can deal one damage to an attacking creature at the end of combat.
It’s better than the previous cards, that’s for sure, but such easy-to-predict and maneuver-around combat tricks aren’t really tricks at all. Not too excited to sleeve this one up.
#13. Endless Sands
Endless Sands has a few things going for it. On top of tapping for a colorless you can pay a total of six mana and tap it twice to blink a creature. Don’t get me wrong, there’s some upside to being able to bring it back at any point and dodge multiple… board wipes?
Yeah, this isn’t as good as it seems at first, especially since you have to sacrifice it.
#12. Hostile Desert
Hostile Desert allows you to exile a land to have it become a 3/4 body until end of turn. I like manlands. They’re a great resource for a lot of different decks, but having to exile a land from the graveyard is just too anti-synergistic with many land strategies to sell me on this card.
In most land decks, having lands in the graveyard is typically no problem and is often an upside. I can’t think of a lot of decks that would have a lot of lands in the graveyard and would also want to be losing them to make a 3/4. Fetch lands come to mind, but decks playing enough fetches to also have this get animated often enough are either the land decks I just mentioned or a much higher power level deck than this card is going to be played in.
#11. Ipnu Rivulet
I love blue utility lands, believe me, but I don’t love Ipnu Rivulet. I’m happy to see that we can get blue mana untapped with this card. That’s a big step from the previous cards on the list. But the activated ability just doesn’t cut it for me.
This is basically only getting played in Commander, and I don’t see this milling anyone out outside of some kind of infinite combo where you can play infinite lands per turn.
#10. Cradle of the Accursed
Cradle of the Accursed’s claim to fame is that it can be sacrificed to make a 2/2 Zombie at sorcery speed… wow. Yeah, this isn’t too great. It’s better than some of the previous lands, but not by a whole lot.
#9. Ifnir Deadlands
Ifnir Deadlands gets a little more interesting. It gives black mana untapped which is a big selling point, and its activated ability can actually kill something problematic in the early game.
It’s not an efficient form of removal, not even close, but it’s better than the previous deserts I’ve mentioned, and that’s what counts.
#8. Survivors’ Encampment
Survivors’ Encampment is a desert that can actually tap for any color of mana! The only drawback is that you’re tapping down a creature to do so. But that’s decent budget fixing if you’re doing this at somebody’s end step or have plenty of bodies!
#7. Hashep Oasis
Hashep Oasis, like the deserts before it, can tap for colored mana untapped and comes with an activated ability if you feel like sacrificing it. This time around you get +3/+3 to a creature for just three mana.
Not the worst exchange ever, but the sorcery-speed limitation feels unnecessary and a larger drawback than it needs to be.
#6. Shefet Dunes
Shefet Dunes gives all your creatures +1/+1 at sorcery speed which is, well, pretty good! This can slot into white decks that go wide with tokens or smaller hatebear creatures. With the concept of gearing up for a large attack, the sorcery-speed limitation feels a lot more painless here.
#5. Sunscorched Desert
Sunscorched Desert deals one damage to a player when it enters the battlefield and taps for a colorless. Having a free ping of damage like this has a lot more use than you may think.
It can help blow up early hatebear creatures like Thalia, Guardian of Thraben and also set yourself up in a Rakdos, Lord of Riots deck.
#4. Ramunap Ruins
Ramunap Ruins is probably the first card you’ve actually recognized on this list. It’s playable in some MTGA Constructed formats as a burn piece and does well in that role. I personally play a copy in my Purphoros, God of the Forge deck, and I’ve never been disappointed to use it.
Like many niche cards in Magic, just put them in the right deck and you’ll do fine.
#3. Painted Bluffs
Painted Bluffs actually has a bit more general viability than any desert so far. Having to put in a mana to get a different color out is always disappointing, especially in comparison to the likes of Mana Confluence, but I wouldn’t be upset to include this in an ultra-budget Commander deck that’s multicolored.
These kinds of cards have a place!
#2. Cycle Deserts
- Desert of the True
- Desert of the Mindful
- Desert of the Fervent
- Desert of the Glorified
- Desert of the Indomitable
The runner up is the full cycle of cycling deserts. These cards give colored mana for no drawback other than entering tapped, which isn’t too big of a deal. Being able to give up one card to draw another is one of the most powerful abilities in card games!
#1. Scavenger Grounds
Scavenger Grounds is, simply put, a cut above the rest of the deserts. It taps for colorless, nothing to see there, but exiles all graveyards at instant speed for two mana.
You’re aware that the graveyard is just another resource at your disposal if you’ve played about two or more games of Magic. Being able to shut that down when you’re not engaged in that strategy is an incredible tool to have.
Best Desert Payoffs
I can think of two major payoffs for playing them taking into account what deserts typically do and their official subtype.
The first, and most powerful, is playing them in a Hazezon, Shaper of Sand Commander deck. This eliminates the drawback of sacrificing the deserts that would otherwise hold them back, and you’re getting some extra benefits along the way. Unfortunately there are 20 deserts in the game and only 16 (by my count) that are actually playable.
Otherwise, general landfall decks with commanders like Omnath, Locus of Creation or Soul of Windgrace would be a decent home for these cards. You’re not going full-desert (never go full-desert), but they’ll end up being much stronger alongside these cards than otherwise.
Scavenger Grounds | Illustration by Steven Belledin
That wraps up today’s rundown on deserts! They’re not my favorite subtype in the game, don’t be mistaken, but I think they sit in a very niche spot in Magic and Commander that will (hopefully!) only get stronger with time. With the right synergies, additional printings, and new deserts, it’s only a matter of time until they grow in popularity.
What do you think of deserts and my ranking breakdown in general? Did I slip up and judge any of them incorrectly? Let me know all your desert experience and critiques in the comments below, or come chat about it in the official Draftsim Discord.
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