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Breaking Ground

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Despite over two decades of set releases driving ever-evolving technology; even with a handful of radically different mulligan rules creating disparate incentives; one element of competitive Magic deck design has remained shockingly static.

... That is, until now.

Look at this 1998 Deadguy Red deck, played by my fellow ex-Editor-in-Chief, travel, and drinking buddy Dave Price:


... And contrast against this 2014 winning list by Martin Dang:


... or even this Top 8 list by Pat Cox one Pro Tour later:


Dave had Wasteland. Dave opened up with the then-greatest 1-drop of all time (Mogg Fanatic), or even better, one of the less-good (but doubly power-ful) 1-drops... And then immediately ruined the opponent's ability to respond. With, you know, Wasteland.

Dang and Cox got to start with probably the most underrated 1-drop - Red Deck or otherwise - creature of all time, Monastery Swiftspear. Dang splashed his era's City of Brass of all things for his mana consistency while Pat got to ride the smoothest land base of all with twenty basics.

But they all had one thing in common.

Their land counts of course!

  • 20 Mountain

1-drop Red Decks? In 1998 or in 2014, or in many other eras: Straight twenty.

Sure you have the odd twenty-one in 1-drop decks. Cox shared his Top 8 with multiple other folks wise enough to pack Monastery Swiftspear, including eventual winner Joel Larsson, who went with twenty-one.

Sometimes you even see twenty-two!

The Red Deck that put Dave on the map with its undefeated record at US Nationals 1997 was one such twenty-two lander; as was the longtime anchor of Red Decks in Standard; Etienne Busson's Grand Prix Lille winner from 2018.

But it's crazy how through more twists and turns than the letter S we see such constancy in mana bases.

Again, until now.

Decks for the most part have played around twenty-four lands. You have the odd duck like this one:

Mono-Blue | 1998 World Championship | Randy Buehler


That's Randy Buehler's top Standard deck from Worlds 1998. For my money the 1998 build is the most innovative mana base of all time. Randy's team, which featured the current head of R&D, current and past Lead Developers at WotC, and multiple Hall of Famers figured out what became a truism in Counterspell mirror matches:

He who taps mana on his own turn first, loses.

So, they built their deck to never have to tap mana first. They pushed the number of lands to a whopping twenty-six. They never even had to tap mana for a threat; they could just activate a Stalking Stones at the end of the opponent's turn and 3/3 them to death. Or when it came time to deploy Rainbow Efreet, they could have generated an insurmountable advantage already, on the back of never tapping mana main phase (but tapping the bejeezus out of Whispers of the Muse with buyback). Then Randy did something that was relatively unheard of in those days: Could go up to thirty mana for the mirror! But even then, only after sideboarding.

Randy did himself one better the following year, going up to twenty-eight in the main! While still keeping the back door open for more lands after sideboarding. For the same reasons and different (Maze of Shadows was, in fact, a potential defense against the troublesome 2-drops that could get under his Counterspell curve).

Mono-Blue Control | World 1999 | Randy Buehler


So I said up top, "until now".

We are living in an era where Magicians are quite literally breaking new ground. What's doubly wonderful is how not-uniform the decisions are! Today I'd like to talk about several of the ways players are approaching their mana bases. Some are true Pioneers of Magic: The Gathering (see what I did there) while others are exploring like spaces in slightly varied, often incredibly detailed, ways.

Understanding the structure of the underlying resource will be rewarding in a richer way than almost any other aspect of Magic theory.

It's not often that I'm a kid in the deck list candy store. But Constructed with Zendikar Rising kinda sorta does it for me.

Part I: One, Thirty, and Zero... Three Pioneering Mana Bases

Let's start with an easy ONE:


Regardless of all the super exciting things going on elsewhere in Pioneer, it is heartwarming for me to see beloved Burn doing so well. This version by swiftwarkite2 finished third in a Pioneer Challenge just yesterday. But the online results are ablaze with 5-0 deck lists and other top finishes.

What we see here is a real expansion of Burn in Pioneer. It seems like an eternity ago that I was back on the PT with a Red Deck, but it was somehow just earlier in 2020. With MONO-Red. I don't know if I would have been excited to branch into a second color, but at the time, Pioneer didn't have the mana to legitimately support one even if I did.

Now the format has a ton of r-w dual lands. Battlefield Forge and Inspiring Vantage are joined not only by the superstar Sacred Foundry but... Needleverge Pathway from Zendikar Rising.

This obviously gives the Red Deck a legitimate foothold into White, where swiftwarkite2 has wisely invested in the double damage-dealing Boros Charm and my all-time favorite Burn sideboard card (where appropriate of course), Chained to the Rocks.

If you haven't read them, my Chained to the Rocks articles here on Cool Stuff Inc. are literally two of my favorite articles I've ever worked on.

I'm glad to see the tech finally catching on :)

Anyway, you might be wondering why I chose to lead off with swiftwarkite2's deck list. This mana base isn't too odd. It's nineteen instead of twenty but pretty straightforward. This is, after all, one of those Red Decks I adore, with an ultra-low curve but mile high ceiling.

It's that Needleverge Pathway I wanted to focus on. That ONE Needleverge Pathway.

My first instinct was to wonder why swiftwarkite2 didn't play more. This card can be better than Inspiring Vantage after turn three, and is generally a better pull than Battlefield Forge. It's the kind of card that the Tendo Ice Bridge-packing version of me would have jammed four-of into every deck.

Then I realized the wisdom of restraint here.

Look at those casting costs.

There are only eight colorless pips in the entire main. Everything is r if not rr. You can't easily afford to play Needleverge Pathway as Pillarverge Pathway. The first one might be okay, to turn on your Boros Charm... But not only do you not want too many essentially Plains; all of these detract from your sideboard ability to cast Chained to the Rocks.

This really is a great example of good-to-great discipline, and a Zendikar Rising mana base I thought worthy of highlighting.

THIRTY lands???


If swiftwarkite2 gave us a hair's breadth below the historic bar for Red Decks, CharkAttack has gone the complete opposite direction. This really is the line in the sand for regular decks, I think. I mean not Belcher decks. Not weirdo specialty decks. Not Yorion-sized decks that mathematically really should have more than twenty-four lands. Just good old salt of the earth Magic: The Gathering decks that attack and block. Presumably.

With a full fifty percent mana, the current Pioneer Four-Color Omnath deck can teach us many lessons.

First of all check out the cards it plays:

This deck is the Standard Banned List All-Stars! Plus Ruin Crab, preemptively, if ironically in the sideboard.

On the one hand, this deck's cards are so So SO powerful. With so many cards that were banned in Standard, it is not uncommon for CharkAttack's spells to compare favorably one-for-one with whatever spell(s) the opponent casts. So, landing even one might be advantageous.

Hence, having enough mana to cast them.

As an aside, many of the cards in this deck - including many of the banned ones - get increasingly powerful in the presence of additional lands. So everything else aside... You want to have more lands.

But that's not the secret.

This deck is also a study in theory.

Randy Buehler's lists innovated by playing extra lands in the sideboard, ostensibly for Control mirrors. But the technology was appropriated by other decks in very different contexts. If you want the game to end quickly, one strategy to help you end it favorably is to play extra lands. You want to do this if you can land something so overwhelming that it wins the game, if not on the spot, before it can drag on. Think about it like this: If both decks actually go 50+ turns, a deck like CharkAttack's will be at a disadvantage. It has fewer spells, ergo more lands, ergo more blanks going very very long. In fact, it is even worse when you consider the number of Legendary cards - Uro, Omnath, Teferi, and Ugin - that have diminishing utility in multiples.

What this deck design shows us is 1) a desire to successfully play the most powerful cards, even when doing so stretches our imagination of a reasonable land base, and 2) the understanding that when you accomplish (1)... The game might not go for very much longer. At least not effectively.

ZERO lands, obviously


If you haven't seen a deck like this, you're in for a treat.

Pioneer has gotten so weird that not only are people playing Yorion-sized decks, they've come to the conclusion you no longer need the actual Yorion to justify the extra cards.

As you can see, rikubo0611 plays seventy-four cards... None of them being lands. None! Zilch! Zero!

But, of course, lots and lots of them - from Tangled Florahedron to Sea Gate Restoration - are Modal Double-Faced cards. With this deck you can aggressively mulligan to Balustrade Spy or Undercity Informer and essentially flip your whole deck.

In fact, in some ways, it is better to aggressively mulligan because fewer cards in hand means more cards in library, meaning more cool stuff to flip. Your Prized Amalgams will have to do less work than you might think, given you've just hit the opponent with four - count 'em four - un-counter-able Lightning Helixes.

Worldspine Wurm keeps you from decking. Thassa's Oracle provides a heck of an alternate way to win.

Consistency and acceleration both thanks to Zendikar Rising.

Let's finish this one out by contrasting two looks at Mono-Red mana bases from a more ahem Standard format.


Saliently:


By contrast:

To begin with, Mono-Red mana bases in Standard are not settled. I think many descend from an 18 Mountain / 4 Castle Embereth model that has persisted since Castle Embereth first became legal in Standard.

The take by TRID0N seems more typical to me. It has 18 dedicated lands but graduates to 22 by adding Shatterskull Smashing. While I think this "eighteen total" take is more common... I can't say I'm a big fan. For one thing, this kind of mana base is fundamentally dishonest. If you start with the idea that you need twenty-two, then playing twenty-two total including four copies of Shatterskull Smashing almost presupposes playing Shatterskull, the Hammer Pass on purpose. This isn't just a potential liability if other Mono-Red (or other aggro decks) are popular, it's bad with your own Castle Embereth.

One of the constant points of value for Red Decks in Standard over the past many months is access to Castle Embereth at all, but usually four copies. That is because the first Mountain turns on all your Castles. They all come into play untapped. Nothing slows you down. Playing Shatterskull Smashing - and knowing that it is 4/22 of your legitimate mana base - doesn't just impact your ability to play Castle Embereth straight; it apparently impacts your ability to play four copies.

How about the mana base that THEAGENT002 fielded?

I like this one much better. It has got twenty-two actual lands, on the traditional model. Spikefield Hazard shows up here on the bonus. If you have to play it as a land it's an option. You never really want to, but it also comes up less often because you have a legitimate mana base. Moreover, Spikefield Hazard is a better card than Shatterskull Smashing generally in a deck like this. Shatterskull Smashing is a poor spell in a below average mana beatdown deck; and a terrible land if it comes down to that. Spikefield Hazard isn't the best spell, but it trades one-for-one against a wide variety of opponents, and almost always at good speed due to its excessively low mana cost. As a land? It's below average; but when you're taking it as an option, you're probably happy you had that option.

In the abstract, I think the latter mana base is the better utilization of Zendikar Rising's world warping tools; and potentially awesome depending on how many Edgewall Innkeepers and Lotus Cobras you face. Not too shabby against Fervent Champion, either. Not too shabby at all.

LOVE

MIKE

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