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The Strength of Mana

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With the "shock lands" spoiled for Return to Ravnica and Gatecrash (not a huge surprise), I want to talk about one of my major concerns for the format: mana. In other words, I’m concerned that the mana may be too strong. There is a limit to how strong mana fixing can be in a format before it breaks the format in some way. But why is this?

The answer lies in the fundamental method Wizards uses to balance cards: mana cost. This is the primary knob that can be tweaked to change the playability of the card. When mana is too strong, distinctions between cards begin to break down. Color stops mattering, and the small group of most powerful cards rise to the top. This is a recipe for a stale format.

Phyrexian Obliterator
A good example of this is the story of Jace, the Mind Sculptor and Stoneforge Mystic. Those cards rose to the top because they were extraordinarily powerful and not very well restricted by color costs. These two things come together, and all of a sudden, a dominant deck is born. Consider the flip side of this: Cards such as Geralf's Messenger and Phyrexian Obliterator are also extremely powerful and played in strong decks, but their color restrictiveness limits them.

I’m not saying that the mana in Ravnica will cause a problem, but the fact that it is as strong as it is means that there could be an issue with it. Normally, a cost on Niv-Mizzet like 2uurr would actually be rather restrictive, but in Ravnica, it plays more like 4ur, and that could end up being a problem, assuming you actually want variety in your Standard format, which most people do.

Wizards has actually acknowledged that there is such thing as too strong mana in a format, thus I believe they are aware of the problem and actually do think about it. For the most part, the R&D team at Wizards does a reasonable job as well. I disagree with some of the things they are doing from an ideological perspective, but given their certain ideology, they produce very good design (for the most part). Occasionally, stuff that is bad happens (hexproof and Delver of Secrets being the most recent examples), but I’m willing to trust that they actually thought about this.

Still, I think it’s worth looking at where we could potentially end up. The format that WotC acknowledged had “too strong” of mana was the Lorwyn format with Vivid lands, Reflecting Pool, and filter lands. So, let’s take a look at a deck that abuses this fact.

I’m not going to look at whether the mana base is designed correctly to cast all of his spells (it’s pretty close). What I am going to look at is the actual total strength of his mana base. I count mana bases by numbers of sources. I did an article on mana earlier in which I explained this, but it’s pretty easy to follow, so I won’t rehash things here.

Vivid Grove, Vivid Creek, Vivid Meadow These all count as five-color lands. However, because of the Vivid mechanic, I wouldn’t count them as full lands for four of the colors. In this case, one-half of a land for those colors would do. Thus, we arrive at the following counting these lands:

w u b r g
6 6 4 4 6

Reflecting Pool This is a five-color land.

w u b r g
10 10 8 8 10

Underground River, Yavimaya Coast Both are dual lands.

w u b r g
10 12 9 8 11

Mystic Gate, Fire-lit Thicket, Flooded Grove, Sunken Ruins This is where you can see the true strength of filter lands. You might think that they are just dual lands, but they are actually stronger than that since a single filter can provide two sources of a color (Island and Flooded Grove together allow you to cast gg spells, thus the Flooded Grove is acting as two sources of green). They don’t do this all the time, however, and they do require colored mana to activate. I’m comfortable counting these as one and one-half sources of their appropriate colors. Thus, we arrive at the following:

w u b r g
16 21 10.5 11 15.5

This is the final total for Parke’s mana base. Considering he plays only twenty-six lands, having seventy-four total sources of mana is impressive. That means his lands are, on average, providing almost three sources of mana. Thus, on average, it’s a tri-land mana base.

Let’s see how close we can come to replicating that using lands we know are already in Standard:

We’ll start with four Transguild Promenade. (It’s Rupture Spire for those of you who haven’t seen the spoiler.)

w u b r g
4 4 4 4 4

To that, I think we can add at least two Shimmering Grotto. I won’t count this as a full five-color land because it does cost mana to generate colors; however, I think we can count the pair as one and one-half sources of each color.

w u b r g
5.5 5.5 5.5 5.5 5.5

Now, we have twenty more dual lands to add. What do we have left to achieve Parke’s numbers?

w u b r g
10.5 15.5 5 5.5 10

That’s forty-six and one-half mana sources. We aren’t going to get there with just dual lands, but we can cover most of it. The big thing to note is that if we skimp on green mana, we can still have a pretty strong mana base, and it’s reasonable to skimp on green mana because the only green-intensive spell is Cloudthresher. There were a number of five-color control decks that didn’t require the spell, and it’s reasonable to assume that in the upcoming format, we won’t need to cast an off-color, quad-color spell. Thus, let’s halve the green mana sources.

w u b r g
10.5 15.5 5 5.5 5

Now, we have forty-one and one-half total sources left to allocate but only twenty lands left to do so. What happens if we add two more Shimmering Grotto to our mana base?

w u b r g
9 14 3.5 4 3

This leaves us with thirty-three and one-half sources and eighteen lands. This is very doable. We can even add two and one-half sources of mana. Let’s do some rebalancing

w u b r g
9 14 5 4 4

Obviously, we begin with four Hallowed Fountain, and we also know that each of the guilds has a Gate, and the Azorius one is going to be best for us. However, we also have Glacial Fortress, which is probably stronger anyway.

Adding one Glacial Fortress and four Hallowed Fountain:

w u b r g
4 9 5 4 4

Why only one Fortress, you ask? Well, I want to knock out the off-colors with duals that produce white and blue, so that means I’m choosing from Godless Shrine, Watery Grave, Steam Vents, Sacred Foundry, Temple Garden, and Breeding Pool. Because I have twelve sources of w or u and twelve off-color sources left, this allows me to pick all dual lands that produce white or blue mana.

My selections contains the following: four Watery Grave, one Godless Shrine, two Temple Garden, two Breeding Pool, three Steam Vents, and one Sacred Foundry.

That leaves our final mana base as follows:

Note that any of these lands can also be replaced by their Magic 2013/Innistrad counterparts, allowing for a much less painful mana base. You probably won’t run all shock lands, but the point still stands, as shock lands are the key to making the Magic 2013/Innistrad lands work.

Is this mana base more unstable than the one from back in 2008? Yes, but the fact that we can come as close as we did is somewhat disconcerting. This mana base features a lot of shock lands and four Shimmering Grottos and is vulnerable to disruption if it doesn’t draw its eight five-color lands. Thus, it’s a higher-variance mana base.

However, what I haven’t really talked about is the other element of mana fixing that is going to be present in this block: the nonland cards. Due to the presence of the shock lands, cards such as Farseek, Arbor Elf, Gem of Becoming, and Liliana of the Dark Realms are now mana-fixing as well. You add to that cards such as the spoiled Chromatic Lantern (which automatically fixes all your mana), and you have a potential problem.

Conclusion

Steam Vents
Good mana is essential to healthy, fun formats. Having access mana-fixing is an important part of Magic. After all, no one has fun when they can’t cast any spells. However, there is a point at which color stops mattering, and if that point is reached, problems can ensue. I’m not sure that Ravnica block will hit that threshold, but it is walking dangerously close to the line, and while I’m happy to play Cruel Control mirrors all day, I’m not actually sure that would be the best for Magic.

I trust that WotC has thought about this and has ensured that there is some level of variance within the mana-fixing in this format, but it is something that bears watching nonetheless. Still, I think Ravnica will be a fun and enjoyable block as it was last time. I hope there isn’t some super-powerful spell that is supposed to be balanced by color-restrictiveness that shows up. If so, it might break Standard.

Chingsung Chang

Conelead most everywhere and on Magic Online

Khan32k5 at gmail dot com

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