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The Four-and-a-half Immutable Rules of Mana Bases

  • The Capabilities of All Decks, Ever, Are Defined by Their Mana Bases
  • Most Decks Play About 24 Lands; You Should Probably Start Your Builds at 24 Lands
  • The More Powerful, Resilient, or Inevitable a Deck’s Semi-Soft Locks, the More Mana it Can Play
  • Surprisingly, Beatdown Decks are Most Apt to Sideboard Additional Lands
  • Control Decks Should Generally Do Everything in Their Power to Hit Land Drops (Especially Against Other Control Decks)

The Capabilities of All Decks, Ever, Are Defined by Their Mana Bases

Decks play lands.

Decks.

Play.

Lands.

To the best of this author’s recollection, this is true for n-1 Magic: The Gathering decks; or at least competitive Magic: The Gathering decks, ever.

Even the strategy with the leanest second-leanest land base of all time — Goblin Charbelcher — is inherently defined by its mana base. That is plays only one or two lands makes the Goblin Charbelcher in this archetype consistently lethal.


How Does The Mana in This Deck Work?

This version of Belcher plays only one land! A Taiga can play either Red or Green spells. The vast majority of the spells in this deck are Red or Green (or of course colorless), so that works out famously.

While there is only a single Taiga, the Belcher deck can find it with increased regularity via those four copies of Land Grant. The presence of only a single land means that — assuming you get the Goblin Charbelcher — you won’t accidentally flip a land over two cards deep [and not win the game].

Speaking of which, while there is only a single land, the deck plays an extraordinary number of mana sources. Elvish Spirit Guide and Simian Spirit Guide are basically Gruul Dark Rituals. Chrome Mox, Lion's Eye Diamond, and Lotus Petal make mana. Everyone makes mana!

In sum, 45/60 of the cards in the Belcher deck are there to make mana, and the Burning Wishes potentially pull that up to 49/60. So concentrated are the mana sources in Belcher, that the Gitaxian Probes — which will almost always be cast for 0 mana themselves — will just draw into more mana with high consistency.

With so many mana sources, plus the ability to play without ever dropping its single land, the Belcher deck will generally be able to win on the first turn. It will do so only by stringing card after card after card — generally dovetailing 1 mana card into five more — into a first-turn kill (or at least 10 Goblins).

On the other end of the spectrum you might consider a control deck like the one advocated by Reid Duke back in 2012:


Iterations on this deck bought Reid many Grand Prix Top 8s as well as first place at the Star City Games Invitational; it is — in this writer’s estimation — one of the most elegant and innovative builds of the last decade. Why? The mana base.

This deck’s capabilities perhaps most explicitly illustrate the concept of a deck’s capabilities being defined by its mana base.

The primary kill condition of this deck is Nephalia Drownyard, a land. Nephalia Drownyard has a 1ub activation cost. There are no — no — other Black mana requirements in this deck’s main or sideboard. That vital Black mana comes from Overgrown Tomb (two copies in this build, only one in some others). How is all of this laced together? The Farseeks that help accelerate cards like Supreme Verdict or give a little more oomph to Sphinx's Revelation can also find the rare source of Black mana.

Reid’s deck played 26 lands; but alongside 4 Farseeks — and at its furthest extension including four copies of Think Twice and multiple copies of Azorius Charm — it essentially ran 30/60 primary mana sources and effectively even more.

Most Decks Play About 24 Lands; You Should Probably Start Your Builds at 24 Lands

Did it ever strike you as odd that the most vanilla beatdown deck plays about 24 lands (could be 23, with some in the sideboard) while the slowest control deck plays 24-26 lands? They have very different mana requirements and want to play very different numbers of turns. The beatdown deck wants to end the game so mercilessly the opponent re-thinks ever attending a Magic tournament again while the control deck wants to play the opponent into a position of emotional futility so oppressive he never wants to sleeve up another mid-range creature.

And yet?

Consider these Red Decks from over the years:

from:

Red Deck Wins ?Standard (1999) | Mark Wraith / Dan Paskins, National 1999



PVDDR with his most recent PT win, earlier this year:


Ben Stark with his “Desert Red” twist on the same, still in 2017:

[deck from http://sales.starcitygames.com//deckdatabase/displaydeck.php?DeckID=117277]


Wraith and Paskins played 23 lands with an average main-deck casting cost of 1.8 (and a top of the curve at 2rr).

Fujita’s Extended update half a decade later played the mode 24 lands with an average main-deck casting cost of 1.67 (and that is counting Blistering Firecat at 1rrr) . . .  So more land despite a lower average cost.

Earlier this year, Hall of Famer PVDDR played the exact same number of lands that his fellow Hall of Famer did more than a dozen years earlier. Though he shifted to Standard, Paulo’s deck’s average casting cost jumped to over 1.9 mana. This might not seem so distant from the original Red Deck Wins until you realize the average is dragged down by those Village Messengers (ew) but the deck needs to support an unprecedented number of Hazorets, Chandras, Khenra flashbacks, and Glorybringers out of the sideboard.

It gets really weird when you consider Ben’s deck. The lone 25-lander of the group — still within 1 mana of the mode 24 — Ben’s deck clocks in at a whopping 2.4 average mana!

One might come to the conclusion that there is no particularly linear relationship between land count and average mana cost. (more on this later)

Point being: Start at 24 lands when you start. It is uncommon that decks stray very far from this number, even when their casting costs jump 40 or 50% from one build to the next.

It is not that we never see decks with way more or way fewer lands . . .  We just tend to define those decks by those extremities.

For example we call a deck with 35 lands “Lands” in the same way that we tell you how many lands a, say, “Two-land” Belcher deck plays. Yes, I know that the Belcher deck we looked at played only one land; FWIW, the 35-land Lands deck plays at least 8 more mana sources without counting Life from the Loam, Exploration, Manabond, or Gamble.

The More Powerful, Resilient, or Inevitable a Deck’s Semi-Soft Locks, the More Mana it Can Play

Ever wonder why there is no Ramp deck in Standard?

The answer is simple: There is nothing to Ramp into!

When Ulamog, the Infinite Gyre rotated, Standard was left with no super expensive — and reliable — Semi-Soft Lock for big mana decks to sink their massive resources into.

Ergo, no deck willing to devote 40+ slots to mana.

Most of the decks that are willing to commit an enormous amount of mana — say 24 or more lands and a bunch of low mana acceleration and some bulk acceleration — play a relatively small number of extraordinarily powerful threats. The Belcher deck is a good example at 40+ mana sources (if only one or two physical land cards) . . .  But that’s because any Goblin Charbelcher and the vast majority of Empty the Warrens are assumed to be lethal within two turns. It can burn all its mana in one turn because it doesn’t plan on playing very many more.

There are two overlapping reasons for this:

  1. If you are committing a ton of space to mana, you actually have fewer slots left in your starting 60 cards to commit to semi-soft locks.
  2. Your threats have to be, if not physically huge, big enough to close the game out quickly. They have to win quickly because otherwise the opponent will have time to draw into appropriate answers; further, if they don’t win quickly you will topdeck a bunch of mana and fade instead of finishing, obviously because your deck is full of all that land.

Consider:


The most familiar “Ramp” deck most readers are probably currently familiar with plays a whopping 47 primary mana sources without considering either Prismatic Omen (a card that literally just filters lands) and Primeval Titan, a Semi-Soft Lock that gets more lands with every action.

Primeval Titan is a hell of a threat on its own; but when the Valakut line comes alive, you will often see a game not unlike Charbelcher . . .  It will be over in a turn or so if not immediately.

Imagine our current Standard, with no Emrakul, no Ulamog. What would we Marvel into, if we were still allowed to spin the Aetherworks? Wakening Sun's Avatar? As that Dinosaur’s biggest advocate, I just don’t see it. It’s not nearly indestructible enough, possesses no close out evasion, and is often not even the biggest creature on the battlefield.

Also, not Hostage Taker-proof.

Surprisingly, Beatdown Decks are Most Apt to Sideboard Additional Lands

All different kinds of decks can sideboard additional lands. The most memorable (to me, anyway) are Randy Buehler’s Standard format topping decks from the 1999 and 2000 World Championships:

Draw, Go ? Old Standard | Randy Buehler, Pro Tour Chicago


Draw, Go ? 1999 Standard | Randy Buehler, Worlds 1999


Twenty-six lands and four more in the sideboard?

Twenty-eight lands and two more in the sideboard?

Considering the fact that Andrew Cuneo’s initial build played only 22 lands (if 25 mana sources with 3 Mind Stones) these massive shifts in mana represented massive shifts in mindset. (Twenty-two lands with an average CMC of 2.81 considering Whispers of the Muse at u, Capsize at three total, and ignoring the activation costs on any of its artifacts, in case you were wondering).

But while Control decks sometimes play extra lands in the sideboard, it is non-intuitively the beatdown deck that most often does this.

Beatdown decks do so for primarily two reasons:

  1. They sometimes radically change their strategies after sideboarding, including jumping their mana costs (ergo, need more lands)
  2. They want to be more explosive against other beatdown decks. This is most commonly the case when they want to win a game quickly. In these cases beatdown decks side up in mana in order to ensure early game development with similar theories as Ramp decks. If they develop, they can run the opponent [opposing beatdown deck] over quickly, so the game will be over quickly enough that they don’t have time to fade.

As I said, there are a surprising number of examples of beatdown decks with extra lands in the sideboard; this may be the most illustrative:


Tom Ross played only 18 lands main deck, an extraordinarily low number for a Standard deck. This was not the whole story as Knight of the White Orchid was like a card advantageous mana elf in Tom’s deck, plus the deck ran an equally extraordinary low average CMC at 1.52.

His sideboard of four Needle Spires helped enable the addition of Gideon, Ally of Zendikar (very expensive, comparatively) and the Red splash. Reckless Bushwhacker epitomizes an explosive turn that doesn’t look back, or leave time for topdecking excess lands, once you’ve blown past the minimum with your foot on the accelerator.

Control Decks Should Generally Do Everything in Their Power to Hit Land Drops (Especially Against Other Control Decks)

On second thought, that would be a whole other article itself.

Instead let’s go with this:

If You Win the First Game of a Limited Match, Consider Siding Out a Land

When you win the first game, your opponent gets choice of play / draw. Typically he will choose to play. If he chooses to play, you will start with eight cards. Mulligan algorithms in Limited are usually about identifying a minimum number of lands in your opening hand; the extra look at a lower number of total lands in deck will outweigh the mana balance you slivered off.

In return all you will do is pair card advantage with greater threat density.

This won’t work all the time. Maybe your deck has super tight color requirements based on deck search; maybe you’re already down to 16 lands to start; maybe your algorithm isn’t about hitting three on three because you need to hit seven for some reason. But if you’ve got a solid Sealed Deck 18?

Think about it.

LOVE

MIKE


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