How to arrange your permanents
I write this after reading a nice, moderately interesting article by PVDDR (I say moderately interesting because, over the course of more than one and a half decades of playing Magic, I’m pretty sure I’ve read about all the tricks he describes before). Just as Paolo suspected, the one topic I want to chime in is the one he talks about in his last paragraph, which he only wrote because there seems to be a discussion on the net about that habit of his.
Just like Paolo, I’ve been taught Magic this way: Putting my lands in front in a row, and laying my creatures and other permanents behind them. In my early Magic career, everyone I played against did the same, and when I played an opponent doing it otherwise for the first time, I was thoroughly confused (not because I didn’t immediately understand what was going on, but just because the layout of the board was so unfamiliar to me). When in later years putting your creatures in front of your lands became the norm (probably because of the “red zone” used in early video coverage from Magic tournaments) I tried to adapt, because I acknowledged the obvious advantages of that layout, because I did not want to confuse opponents or generate the appearance I was trying to hide something, and because as an active judge I wanted to set an example regarding the clear representation of the gamestate. However, I found that deeply ingrained habit incredibly hard to shake, and whenever I did not actively concentrate on consciously putting my creatures in front of my lands, I would instinctively push my lands towards my opponent again.
I think this instinct even makes sense: The first card you play in almost every game of Magic will be a land, and of course you will move that towards your opponent to show it to him, just like you would do in most other card games. Later, when you add creatures to the table you will naturally be inclined to keep them apart from your lands and thus play them in a different row, closer to you.
Over the years, I have worked hard on slowly changing that habit. I believe the thing which got in my way the most was simply ergonomics: Lands are the permanents I need to manipulate way more than all others. I tap lands for mana whenever I cast a spell or use an ability with a mana cost. There may be a few permanents with a tap ability I use every turn or creatures I attack with every turn, but I will usually use nearly all my lands nearly every turn, and even those lands I don’t use, I will often rearrange for clarity and preservation of space. (I tend to group my tapped lands together separately from my untapped lands. I’ve even made it a habit to keep them in subgroups to indicate if they were tapped together or not – for example, if I cast a Talruum Minotaur in my first mainphase, and a Lightning Helix later in the combat phase, I will usually line up my lands in three groups: The 4 tapped for the minotaur, the 2 for the Helix and everything still untapped.) Obviously, it is less effort to manipulate objects at elbow’s length from you in contrast to those directly under your chin. When considering only the aspect of playing and using your cards, putting your lands before your spells is just NATURAL, and the other way around is UNNATURAL!
Paolo also makes a few very good points why this layout might actually be clearer: It is true that lands are the type of permanents players tend to give the least attention to. Furthermore, they’re also the kind of permanents many players negligently or even purposefully hide by stacking them together (a kind of behaviour you should let no one get away with as an opponent or judge, and neither in a tournament nor a casual setting). Paolo is right: Most of the time there is uncertainty about a gamestate, an oversight was made or even something shady was going on, lands are involved. So maybe it would be a great idea to actually return to the norm of putting your lands in front where they can be clearly seen?
But then again, as someone whose play has shifted from mostly casual/constructed towards exclusively limited over the last 15 years, I know that it is really useful to be able to clearly indicate which creatures are in combat with each other by putting them in direct contact. It is possible to put those creatures opposite to each other behind the land rows, but the additional clarity makes a difference, especially when playing with less experienced players.
I’m honestly not sure how often I still play Magic with my lands in front. Lately, I’ve tried out another layout, with my lands in small rows to the left (still grouping them for tapped and untapped lands, with tapped lands usually in front) and my other permanents to the right (creatures in front of non-creature artifacts and non-aura enchantments, and creatures in combat pushed to the front row). I believe this makes the most sense overall, and once I think of it in a game, I find it easier to maintain than creatures in front of lands (since I’m right-handed and keeping my “hand” in my left hand, my lands are still somehow at elbow’s length). I recommend that layout to you for an optimal combination of clarity and ergonomics. It should also be helpful in multiplayer games, where it is otherwise often unclear where one player’s permanents end and his neighbor’s permanents start.General