Reconstruct History — Green Ramp Spells

(Cultivate | Art by Anthony Palumbo)

Green Ramp: Ramping Up or Down?

Welcome to another installment of Reconstruct History, where we examine popularity trends of cards and archetypes over time.

A few weeks back, I asked what y’all would like to see tracked. While I’ll be working through many of the fantastic suggestions, I wanted to focus this week’s analysis on a suite of cards, courtesy of u/Tristan0342, who was the top commenter on the Reddit poll:

Might also be cool to look at tribes, like if any big tribes saw any spikes or drop-offs at different points. As for specific cards, how about one of the most popular cards on EDHREC, Cultivate! Has this fan favorite still been included in as many decks recently with the advent of better and better ramp?

Great suggestions! We’ll sort the tribes out for another time, as that will take a bit of time to comb through. Cultivate, however, is a great card we can track over time.

But why stop there? Cultivate is but one of the many options available for green ramp cards. Why not look at, well, all of them?


Criteria

Let’s start by outlining exactly what we’ll be looking at:

  1. Metric: Rank (out of possible green cards)
  2. Threshold: Must be at present at least once in the top 400 ranked green cards
  3. Card Type: Instants and sorceries
  4. Effect: Puts one or more lands onto the battlefield from library or hand
  5. Timeframe: Last two years (April/May 2019 – April/May 2021). I know it’s now July, but at time of writing, this is where we scraped!
  6. Breaks: Monthly intervals

I’m limiting our analysis to green ramp ‘spells’ (instants and sorceries) here. Exploration, Burgeoning, and Llanowar Elves are, of course, viable ramp options, and the slough of green creatures that tap or generate mana is a big part of green’s color identity. However, we don’t want to compare apples to oranges too much here. We want to see what other green spells people may be swapping Explosive Vegetation for. We’ll save the mana dorks another time!

This leaves us with the following list, organized by mana value:

As with many cards, there’s a bit of wiggle room here regarding mana value, as you can cast Search for Tomorrow for one mana or kick Grow from the Ashes for five mana.

I’m sure there are other niche or older options out there, but these cards satisfy that criteria #2 (Threshold), above, where they have to have experienced some degree of popularity to be included in our analysis. For example, Spoils of Victory isn’t a bad option, but didn’t make the cut popularity-wise.

Finally, you’ll notice our distribution is actually ‘fairly’ normal, with mana values of three and four being the peak, and only a few cards that have mana value less than three and more than four. For this reason, when we examine mana value trends, we’ll likely bin our cards into the following categories: MV < 3, MV = 3, MV = 4, and MV > 4.


Results

Individual plots

I’ll start by putting an image carousel here to all the individual plots for each of the cards listed above. If you want to see a particular card’s popularity trend over the last two years, just click/scroll right or left to find the card you’re curious about (or up/down, if you prefer viewing in the imgur page) — they’re organized by mana value and then alphabetized. The line graph for the popularity is in black, while the locally estimated regression (LOESS) is in green. As a friendly reminder, remember that the lower the rank number (closer to one, higher on the Y-axis), the more popular it is!

As a final note: Keep an eye on the Y-axis! While it’s usually a bad idea to have different scaled axes for the same metric across different graphs, if I left it at the maximum of 400, much of the subtleties and shapes in the trends get lost. As such, for these individual plots, I’ve scaled their axes according to maximizing their visual depictions. We’ll take a look at each card with a fixed axis in the next section.

Rank of green ramp spells over last two years (2019-2021)


Grouped Plots

Now, how might each of these cards compare to one another? Rather than having you scroll through each of the plots to compare one against another, I’ll plot them here side-by-side as grouped by the following mana value bins: MV < 3, MV = 3, MV = 4, and MV > 4.

Rank of green ramp spells categorized by mana value

There’s a lot to process here, so I won’t go into each individual card and graph. Rather, I’ll try and synthesize some of the general findings we see.


The Untouchables

Undoubtedly, some cards are just steady as a rock, if not untouchable. Cultivate is the top ranked card included in green decks (behind only basic Forest!) and Rampant Growth, Farseek, and Kodama’s Reach are all consistently in the top 10. There’s little to any budging with these cards, and frankly, I’d be curious to see if they decline without being straight-up power crept.

So, to answer u/Tristan0342’s question above: nope, Cultivate hasn’t budged one rank in the last two years!


On the Decline

Others we see have either significantly or slowly declined in popularity over time. Explosive Vegetation still sits in the top 100 for now, but if this trend continues, it’s likely to pass that threshold in due time. Others, like Nissa’s Pilgrimage, Primal Growth, Grow from the Ashes, Circuitous Route, and Pir’s Whim have seen more dramatic fluctuations and declines.

Tempt with Discovery is particularly noteworthy. It saw a pretty big bump in popularity around late summer 2019, but has declined ever since. Maybe enough people finally figured out that either you don’t take the Tempting Offer, or you all agree to take it and fetch out your respective Ghost Quarters, Strip Mines, and Wastelands to nuke whatever lands the tempter fetches out. At that point, Tempt with Discovery becomes “pay four mana, put the best 4 lands in your deck into your graveyard”, which ain’t exactly great.

Some of the bigger ramp spells may be declining due to mana value, price, or availability. Traverse the Outlands can be a total house, but only saw one printing in Commander 2017 and has sat pretty squarely above $10 for a good while now. Reshape the Earth is just too recent to have much data on, but my hunch is that it likely won’t break the top 100 threshold.


On the Rise

If there were ever a graph to showcase what reprints can do to popularity, Three Visits is the poster child. Its reprint in Commander Legends (November 2020) at uncommon meant it became wildly more accessible than its only previous printing some 20 years ago in Portal Three Kingdoms (May 1999). A two-mana spell that grabs any Forest and puts it right onto the battlefield untapped is a testament to its potential – it’s literally half of a Skyshroud Claim! Speaking of which, so is Nature’s Lore, which has always been a popular option in the top 50, but seems to be trending on the up and up.

Search for Tomorrow has also seen a pretty significant increase over time. Personally, I think people have been sleeping on this card for a while, and if you need more convincing, go check out Jaelyn’s fantastic Staple Remover article suggesting why it’s so good! We also saw a brief uptick in Into the North with the return of snow lands in Kaldheim (February 2021), but it may be too recent to know if this trend will stay. I’m curious to see where Into the North ends up in a few years time!


Discussion

Let’s briefly discuss what these observed trends may mean for the format.

Need for Speed

Content creators, such as The Command Zone, noticed how cards like Explosive Vegetation have fallen out of favor in many decks they either build or encounter. Considering this episode came out in October 2020, the trend for Explosive Vegetation was already well on the decline for a year or so prior. As recently as July 6, 2021, the Commander Clash crew debated whether cards like Explosive Vegetation are even worth running anymore, and made a case for cheaper ramp spells like Three Visits and Nature’s Lore. Whether you agree with the assessments in those episodes, I think it’s safe to say that considering the data above, there’s a noticeable change already going on in the Commander universe.

And that change is this: the trimming of the proverbial ‘fat’ off of Commander decks that’s been all the buzz as of late seems to extend to ramp options as well. Generally speaking, people seem more incentivized to include lower mana value options over higher ones, and prioritize getting lands out either early, untapped, or both. Skyshroud Claim is one of the few cards with a mana value of four or higher that hasn’t seen as steady a decline as, say, Explosive Vegetation. That’s likely because Skyshroud Claim‘s can fetch any land with the Forest typing, and the lands coming into play untapped, effectively making its mana value more like two instead of four. Many of the cards at or above a mana value of four just see steady or noticeable declines, and trend upwards for leaner options seems apparent (at least, recently) in the data.

And to be clear, it’s a crowded field out there! When so many ramp options exist, it’s easy to see Migration Path as just another Explosive Vegetation but with an upside of Cycling, or to see Three Visits and Nature’s Lore as another Rampant Growth, but with upsides. These seemingly minor calculations and evaluations end up aggregating into big deck changes in performance, speed, and tempo, and it’s no wonder people may feel the format is getting ‘faster’ when this kind of evaluation even goes into ramp cards!


Lurking Predators

Stemming from these points above, it could also be that there are predators lurking in the data — i.e., people are swapping out their green ramp spells in favor of creatures. As stated above, I didn’t want to tackle all mana dorks or mana-producing creatures here, but it could well be that people swap out their Explosive Vegetations for Llanowar Elves, Birds of Paradise, or even Wood Elves variants.

This is especially the case if their deck is constructed in a way to synergize with creatures, whether it’s recurring Sakura-Tribe Elder over and over again with Meren of Clan Nel Toth, getting your Wood Elves to fetch even more lands out with Yarok, the Desecrated, drawing cards off of a Farhaven Elf entering or dying through Guardian Project or Grim Haruspex effects, or even just having them as chump blockers or attackers later on when you drop that Craterhoof Behemoth.

The point is, there are a variety of reasons why decks may want creatures instead of spells, and given how lean and efficient some creatures are, people may be lowering their deck’s average mana value curves without even swapping for another spell. But we’ll have to save the dorks for another time to delve into some of that data!


Niche Construction

Which brings me to the last point: despite these trends, there are still plenty of reasons to run the less popular options. Primal Growth acts as a nice sacrifice outlet in a pinch. Into the North works great with a wintery mana base. Edge of Autumn works well early game, and can be used in Titania, Protector of Argoth or The Gitrog Monster-style decks that want lands going from the battlefield to the ‘yard. Nissa’s Pilgrimage is a fair option in mono-green decks, and I for one am a huge fan of Pir’s Whim to grab my Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx while the rest of y’all sacrifice a mana rock or enchantment. And sure, if I’m feeling jolly, I’ll use it to help the person who keeps missing land drops.

What’s great about Commander is how niche options can sometimes perform as well — if not better — than some staples or popular cards in the right niche. I can safely say I’ve been blown out by Harvest Season from my partner’s Plant-themed deck, which converts what seems like a harmless board state of 0/1 Plants into a full blown orchard. Traverse the Outlands put in some serious work in the right shell, and I can’t wait to lose to a Reshape the Earth in a Maze’s End deck one day. Plus, there’re so many other personal reasons to run cards, whether for artistic, flavor, or price reasons.


Reap What You Sow

There’s a lot of data to consider here, so I’m curious to hear from you all. What factors do you think contribute to some of these trends? Which of these cards do you find yourself splashing or cutting (or not-caring either way)?

Once again, shoutout to Nate Burgess here at EDHREC for scraping the data archives, and an additional thanks to friend John Egner for chatting all things data visualization!

Trent has been playing Magic since the early 2000s, when instead of exercising in a summer sports camp, he was trying to resolve a Krosan Skyscraper on the sidewalk (it always ate a removal). He saved up his allowance to buy an Akroma Angel of Wrath on eBay, only to find out it was a fraudulent post, forever dashing his hopes of ever getting a big creature to stick. He’s since “grown up” and, when he’s not working on his dissertation in Archaeology, spends too much time thinking how to put Cipher in every one of his decks and digging for obscure cards (see photo).