At this point Valakut Exploration has proven itself as a solid inclusion in any red Lands deck, and in fact as a good reason to be playing red in itself. If you take a look at the card, it’s not too hard to see why.
Valakut Exploration (VE) works exceptionally well in Lands because it plays into both of our main strengths – it both rewards land drops and fills the graveyard. Without fetchlands, most other decks can’t trigger it more than once a turn. We, however, can easily double-trigger via Exploration or Crop Rotation, and it’s not uncommon for the card it exiles to be a card that can get an additional trigger. It also puts cards in the graveyard when it’s done with them, which means we can get them back with Loam (or just happily dump Punishing Fires and Loams in the yard if we can’t cast them just then).
Here I’m going to do a bit of a deep dive on this card, looking at some common play patterns with the card, what other cards go well with it, and what matchups it excels in.
The Road Map – Play Patterns with Valakut Exploration
Ideally, when VE resolves, you will be able to immediately make another land drop. That means that, all else being equal, you want to play it on turn 4 with another land in hand (turn 2 if you have Exploration). This is extra great if you have a fetchland to drop after resolving it, because then you will immediately get two deeper and have a colored mana source to cast whatever it turns over for you.
Lands has a lot of clever ways to get additional landfall triggers. Most obvious of these is probably Exploration, which pairs nicely with VE. The fact that VE digs you towards its older 1cmc cousin is just icing on the cake.
Crop Rotation is another excellent way to get additional triggers. If you exile a Crop Rotation to VE, you’ll probably want to play it, since it essentially cycles at the same time as it tutors. Even just rotating for a fetchland to get additional triggers can be a real play, especially if you have multiple VE going at once and/or your opponent is at a low life total. Elvish Reclaimer can do a similar job, albeit slower.
One line of text on the card that we haven’t really talked about is the fact that it does damage to the opponent when it dumps the cards into the graveyard at the end of the turn. This can be a legitimate way to win in longer games or games that stall out (the kinds of games Lands tends to naturally create). It is usually pretty slow, however, unless you have some supplemental damage or multiple VE in play simultaneously. Still, even if it isn’t dealing the full 20, VE can be a nice way to nudge people below 20 life so they can be properly bite-sized for Marit Lage.
There’s also a bit of a slick niche rules case to be aware of with this card. Because it dumps exiled cards “at the beginning of your end step,” cards exiled during your opponent’s turn will remain available to you through the end of your next turn. That means that you can, for example, rotate on their turn to get a trigger and then untap and have more mana available on your turn to use whatever you exiled. It also means that if you have to rotate or fetch reactively you’ll get the card on your turn; don’t worry about losing the trigger. Note also that if VE is removed, all the cards exiled with it will remain available to play indefinitely – so crack your fetches and rotate in response to their removal!
Expedition Party – Cards that work well with Valakut Exploration
Basically all of Lands plays well with the card. Crop Rotation and Exploration give us additional land drops, while Loam and Punishing Fire don’t mind hitting the graveyard. Still, it’s worth looking at some less obvious cards.
- Ancient Tomb: Tomb has been a flex slot for a long time. Unfortunately Lands could never really use 2 colorless to do anything other than activate Stage. But that changes with VE, and getting VE up a full turn earlier is a nice advantage that Tomb can bring to the table.
- Elvish Reclaimer: Reclaimer has been a sideboard option or a 2-of to help beat Delver and Hogaak, but it works well with VE as well since it can function to get an extra trigger every turn. The fact that VE holds cards over to your turn is also nice since we can hold up Reclaimer all turn and then use it EOT if it hasn’t been needed.
- Uro, Titan of Nature’s Wrath: Uro was an all-star in the UG Lands deck that wanted to ramp into Field of the Dead triggers. Well, VE likes extra land drops too. If one wanted to lean in to the Uro ramp aspect of Lands, VE would be a nice additional payoff next to Field; one thing UG sometimes struggled with was finding its engines and payoffs, and VE can be both. The fact that it can dump Uro into the yard if it exiles it is just a nice bonus.
- Glacial Chasm: Chasm always had the problem of just keeping you alive while you spin your wheels. Now, if you have chasm and VE in play simultaneously, you get to dig deeper faster to close out the game. Not only that, but VE represents a real win condition. Especially against decks without wasteland, you can often sit behind a chasm lock and just let VE kill them eventually. VE also means you will get one ‘draw’ a turn even as you dredge with Loam, which means you can actually find an Exploration or whatever else you need to make the lock more secure and advantageous.
- Fetches/Fetchables: Many Lands builds, especially RG, can have as few as 3 fetchable lands. With VE, running out of fetchable lands isn’t just a bummer because it turns your fetchlands off – it also means fewer triggers. This raises the stock of cards like Sheltered Thicket, which play a role in the deck anyway but also can be fetched. It also means that playing more colors (or just more fetchable lands) makes more sense.
- Value Permanents: The worst cards to turn over with VE are narrow, reactive cards. Pyroblast when your opponent has no blue permanents, for example. The best ones to turn over are additional permanents that can generate value – things like Exploration. This means cards like Klothys and Sylvan Library get better, while cards like Pyroblast and Abrupt Decay get a little worse (Decay especially because of its color-intensive mana cost). While it has yet to be explored fully, even cards like Seal of Fire or Executioner’s Capsule could be options to make full use of Valakut’s oracular properties.
- Sylvan Library: While it might seem like VE should replace our old treehouse bookshop, the two actually work well together, and some split is probably the best configuration. Library lets you see three cards so that you can definitely find a land for VE, and then it lets you stack your deck so that the triggers exile exactly what you want them to. And VE in turn complements Sylvan Library by letting you burn through more cards more quickly without having to pay life or use shuffle effects to dig.
- Experimental Frenzy: Frenzy works a bit like Valakut Exploration in that it’s a non-graveyard value engine. But should you ever have both in play together, your exploration will truly reach a frenzied pace. Since Frenzy lets you see the top card of your deck, you will always know what your next trigger will find (unless, of course, you are playing the land off the top). But what’s extra nice is that VE also lets you clear the top of your deck so you can keep digging with Frenzy. Having both might be overkill, but it will definitely do some killing.
- Manabond: While usually only played as a 1-of, Manabond can send VE into overdrive, getting up to 6+ triggers in a single turn via Life from the Loam. Note that since both Manabond and VE trigger at your end step, you can choose how to stack them. This means that you can either prioritize damage (set Manabond to resolve first) or prioritize digging for next turn (set VE to resolve first). If VE resolves first, then the cards exiled via triggers from the lands Manabond puts into play will remain available until your next end step.
Looking Down from the Heights – Valakut Exploration’s matchup strengths
Valakut Exploration generates value over time. As such, it is at its best in matchups that tend to go long. In other words, it excels against control decks. It also does exceptionally well against the fair creature decks like Death & Taxes, where it represents a hard-to-answer value engine that will pull you ahead in the long term.
Against these matchups, VE functions as Lands’ version of Dreadhorde Arcanist – a must-answer threat that can run away with the game in a few turns if it isn’t answered.
Of course, most decks have answers for cards like this now. Snow runs Abrupt Decay, D&T has Skyclave Apparition, and Green Sun decks have Knight of Autumn/Reclamation Sage. But Lands has as lot of heavy-hitting enchantment engines like this; a few more helps overload their answers. Snow has 3-4 abrupt decay to our 3 Choke, 2 Library, 3 VE, 4 Exploration. Adding VE to our roster may not make these matchups into auto-wins, but it definitely helps.
Against Delver, Valakut Exploration’s high cmc makes it something of a liability. Still, if it resolves it will quickly take over the game and the most popular Delver variants have no answer to it once it is in play. If there are some number of 3cmc must-answer permanents you want to have against Delver, this is definitely in the running, though Choke might be stronger all things considered.
Against fast combo decks, it’s probably best to cut VE during sideboarding. It won’t do much against TES, for example, and tapping out for it could cost us the game.
Fiery Obsession – Final Notes on Valakut Exploration
Given all the strengths of the card, the question becomes less ‘should we play it?’ and more ‘how many?’ At the moment it seems like somewhere between 2-3 is the most usual number, alongside 2 Sylvan Library. Typically it replaces Gamble in GRx Lands builds, though Gamble can do work alongside it as well. 2-3 seems like the right number since it’s the kind of card you want to see at least one of in most matchups, especially in the D&T, Snow, Delver metagame that we seem to be in at the moment.
An extra copy can often be found in the sideboard, where it comes in as additional non-graveyard-based threat in matchups where it shines. Still, while 2-3 might be normal, one could easily imagine builds that lean more heavily into Valakut Exploration and run the full playset; perhaps a RUG build featuring Uro. After all, multiples stack well and can quickly churn through the deck to burn out the opponent.
And there you have it! If there’s anything I missed please do let me know, it would be great to have as comprehensive a guide as possible. Until then, happy exploring!