Back to Basics #2: A Mana Curve Can Be A Line Or A Blob

Some less experienced players drop”mana curve” like a buzzword, but fail to truly grasp it. Some, for example, just clipped an old Beth Moursund”Deck Deconstruction” column from The Duelist, and the accompanying table for spells for each mana slot. The result is posts on the Wizards boards telling Type I Sligh builders that they need three- and four-mana spells to complete their mana curves, which would only slow the decks. Let me explain it to you.

Fortunately for me, my exams are finally winding down and I got in a few games. It was a bad time to lie low, and the people I don’t know very well on IRC are playing different decks all of a sudden. Seeing more Forces of Will and Misdirections in aggro-control decks is fun, though. I got to Mana Drain a Force and a Misdirection in the same turn one game. Both our hands were depleted and Merchant Scroll was my only business spell left.

What does Merchant Scroll fetch?

Ah, in real life, it’s a”Stroke of Azhrei,” autographed and mailed by Darren Di Battista, the same card that saw action in his Old School Expulsion”The Deck” redux.

Future Sight revisited?

Lots of people I know have been e-mailing me, talking about Future Sight in”The Deck.” Some people have come back with stories of how it breaks some games wide open… But I just haven’t been able to make it work. I was convinced to give it another try, but in the games I actually cast it where it makes a difference, it just stalls – that is, you can turn over a Mana Drain you can’t cast yet, a Swords to Plowshares with no target yet, a Balance with a full hand, and so on. Sure, it can’t be Misdirected and that seems to make it attractive in the face of a lot of aggro-control these days, but it takes a few turns to kick in – as opposed to the immediate boost from a Braingeyser or Stroke of Genius. That stall can be enough for an opponent to catch his breath, including a timely Red Elemental Blast after boarding.

One of the last guys I tested against was Eddie LaRusic, a twenty-year old University of New Brunswick computer major from Sydney, Nova Scotia, Canada. He asked me to write about how he ignominiously got shafted by a Mind Twist protected by Dromar’s Charm (no shame in that, since it was preceded by Ancestral Recall, Yawgmoth’s WillAncestral Recall, and Cunning Wish-Ancestral Recall). Anyway, in the one game I did play Future Sight on him after a stall, I turned over an uncastable Mana Drain, an uncastable Swords to Plowshares, and a Polluted Delta and Flooded Strand, meaning I only broke even on my one card investment three turns later.

John Wiley, a 32-year old dad from Sacramento California, gave me the laugh of the year when I tapped out to play a Morphling after countering his first two Illusionary Masks. I miscounted my land, and hoped he had no Recoil. What I didn’t foresee was his replacing Hypnotic Specter with Gilded Drake as an experiment. Congratulations to John for suckering his first Morphling with his tech, thanks to my carelessness.

In another game, though, I got Future Sight and turned up Yawgmoth’s Will, which wasn’t castable yet since not even Ancestral was in the graveyard. Next, I turned up Force of Will, then Mana Drain. Finally, I got Demonic Tutor for Ancestral Recall and won the game. Future Sight helped in the sense that Black Lotus was the fourth card after Ancestral and it was amusing to have it on the board during a Will turn, but it just wasn’t explosive.

Future Sight, though, is improved by Polluted Delta and friends, plus the Brainstorms that go with them. It’s probably possible to make it work if you can remove more of the reactive spells in your deck. So far, the best I’ve seen is from Stefan Iwasienko, a.k.a. Womprax. He and some of the Morphling.de people are further tweaking the”Combo Keeper” builds the Germans prefer to include Fastbond and Sylvan Library, either of which can make the Sight a lot more explosive.

Future Sight in”The Deck” variants isn’t new among the Germans, who prefer to incorporate the combo (or at least used to, before aggro-control became more popular, as theorized when I explained their KrOathan sideboard option), but if it gives rise to a solid new variant, Stefan’s name for the build is”The Shining.”

Metagame Goblin Welder Deck?

Jason Jaco, a.k.a. Doublej20 on TheManaDrain, posted an interesting decklist on Star City a few days back. What he essentially did is take a Tools ‘n’ Tubbies build and replace the green with black (and Survival of the Fittest with Oath of Ghouls), to give him a stronger sideboard including Planar Void, Chains of Mephistopheles, and Blood Moon.

It’s an interesting metagame-based strategy with Growing Tog explicitly in mind, and it’s an interesting article because he presents a complete sideboarding strategy. What disturbs me about it, though, is that his table tells you to board in Blood Moon in practically every matchup (except aggro, mainly).

This is a valid and actually intelligent strategy, but consider that he’s actually happy to rely on it in addition to the other sideboard cards and forego Survival of the Fittest, one of the strongest card draw engines in the game at present. Consider, further, that the Onslaught fetch lands have actually increased the nonbasic land counts of even decks with just two colors (remember that it’s different in Extended where you no longer have duals). Thus, you have a card you sideboard against control, aggro-control and combo, and something just sounds wrong about that.

(This isn’t a complaint against Jason, but a note against cheese on the level of Rishadan Port in the old block. And again,”The Deck” can deal with it with a couple of basic Islands and Aura Fracture – or at least better than other decks can.)

Another disturbing sign, for me, is how Deck Parfait had the same idea since a while back. Again, imagine a mono-white deck splashing essentially one card – and it’s not Ancestral Recall.

And again, I think every deck has a lot of good options to deal with various decks right now, and a card that can randomly win against a lot of decks all by itself really shouldn’t exist. Forcing non-control decks to deal with it, moreover, makes the game less interesting.

The Mana Curve

I got a lot of good feedback on the maiden”Back to Basics” column, so I guess I’ll try to slip in extremely beginner-level columns now and then. The first column was a caveat against high-mana cards in Type I, and today’s discusses a related but broader concept: The mana curve.

“Mana Curve” is a term you hear in every format, even – or especially – Limited. The term comes from a graph of the mana costs of a deck’s nonland cards. If it’s built right, it should have a rough downward curve, with a lot of cheap spells, and less mid-range spells.

That mix of spells lets you use your mana every turn, which is the entire point of a curve. You play one- and two-mana spells in the early turns, then follow up with the more expensive ones later. Obviously, if you pack too many expensive spells, they’ll just sit uselessly in your hand early, and you might not have enough time to catch up later despite your potentially stronger plays.

Note that the curve isn’t just about playing cheap spells. If, for example, you have almost exclusively two-mana spells and very few one- and three-mana spells, you’ll still have mana problems because the two-slot is clogged and there’s a consequent hole in the one-mana slot. That is, you’ll do nothing a lot of Turn 1s, and have an extra untapped land on too many Turn 3s. This is a problem very relevant to mono-black and mono-white deckbuilders, as discussed more extensively in a past column, “The Nantuko Conspiracy.” This is also very relevant in other formats, too. Consider, for example, how Morph lets you play a creature as a 2/2 for three mana, and how this may artificially clog your three-mana slot in Limited if you’re not careful.

(This is not necessarily a crippling problem, though – many pros consider the third-turn 2/2 to be absolutely critical for many Limited decks. Although Oscar will gently remind you of this later, let me say it strongly now: Type One has a lot of efficient and powerful one-drops, while Type Two, Duress and Birds of Paradise aside, does not. A lot of people try to recreate the classic Moursund mana curve in Standard, cramming a bunch of underpowered one-mana cards in and winding up with a perfectly-curved, yet horribly weak deck. It may well be worth clogging your deck at the x-mana slot; you simply have to ask yourself whether”x” is where the bulk of the cheapest and most powerful spells you can legally cast reside – The Ferrett)

The problem that some less experienced players drop”mana curve” like a buzzword, but fail to truly grasp it. Some, for example, just clipped an old Beth Moursund”Deck Deconstruction” column from The Duelist, and the accompanying table for spells for each mana slot. The result is posts on the Wizards boards telling Type I Sligh builders that they need three- and four-mana spells to complete their mana curves, which would only slow the decks.

The essence of the mana curve concept is that a deck must use all its available mana in a given turn for quick and efficient development, and nothing more. You can actually have a mana curve where the most expensive spell is one or two mana, and an equally valid curve that tops out at seven (just not in Type I, as I’ll explain later).

Curves vary, so we’ll run through several examples to illustrate this fundamental concept.

The mana curve is intertwined with Jay Schneider’s original Sligh deck, played by his friend Paul Sligh:

Geeba, Paul Sligh, Second Place, Atlanta Pro Tour Qualifier 1996 (PT1 Format)

Creatures (25)

4 Brass Man

2 Goblins of the Flarg

2 Dwarven Trader

3 Dwarven Lieutenant

4 Ironclaw Orcs

2 Orcish Librarian

2 Orcish Artillery

2 Orcish Cannoneers

2 Brothers of Fire

2 Dragon Whelp

Burn and Damage (11)

1 Black Vise

4 Lightning Bolt

4 Incinerate

1 Detonate

1 Fireball

Utility (2)

1 Immolation

1 Shatter

Land (23)

4 Strip Mine

4 Mishra’s Factory

2 Dwarven Ruins

13 Mountain


3 Active Volcano

1 An-Zerrin Ruins

1 Detonate

1 Fireball

4 Manabarbs

1 Meekstone

2 Serrated Arrows

1 Shatter

1 Zuran Orb

Mana Curve

1-mana slot: 14

2-mana slot: 14

3-mana slot: 6

4-mana slot: 2

X-mana slot: 2

(Geeba is a fictional Goblin word and it never caught on. To this day, this archetype simply bears Paul Sligh’s name, even though newer spells have allowed it to be more aggressive, dropping the control elements in the original.)

It was originally viewed as a collection of trash and used crap like Dwarven Trader for the PT1 format… But its strength lay in the collective efficiency of the perceived garbage. For 1996, Turn 1 Dwarven Trader, Turn 2 Ironclaw Orcs, Turn 3 Orcish Artillery (or two cheaper plays) was very efficient development – and imagine how wonderfully Jackal Pup fit into this picture just a few expansions later!

(However, Turn 1 Goblins of the Flarg, Turn 2 Dwarven Lieutenant is sign of how internal synergy was an issue that still had to be addressed – The Ferrett, who acknowledges Sligh’s deep and revelatory place in Magic history but is still amused by the usage of Flarg Goblins in a deck with five dwarves)

Dwarven Trader – from Homelands! – is nothing to brag about, but Jay Schneider wrote:”Think of how often Sligh’s one casting-cost critters do five or ten points of damage before they are neutralized.”

Jay listed his original mana curve on The Dojo:

“1 mana slot: 9-13

“2 mana slot: 6-8

“3 mana slot: 3-5

“4 mana slot: 1-3

“X spell: 2-3”

Again, the concept isn’t embodied in the original table, but simply in the idea of using all available mana every turn for efficient development. The table, for example, is completely inapplicable to a modern Type I version:

Dark Elf Sly, Thomas Barrett a.k.a. MolotDET, January 2003

Creatures (12)

4 Jackal Pup

4 Goblin Cadet

4 Gorilla Shaman

Burn (16)

4 Lightning Bolt

4 Chain Lightning

4 Incinerate

4 Price of Progress

Artifact Damage (8)

1 Black Vise

3 Cursed Scroll

4 Ankh of Mishra

Others (2)

1 Wheel of Fortune

1 Fork

Mana (22)

1 Black Lotus

1 Mox Ruby

1 Strip Mine

4 Wasteland

3 Barbarian Ring

12 Mountain

Mana Curve

1-mana slot: 24

2-mana slot: 13

3-mana slot: 1

Seven years later, your casting costs are pretty much halved. Further, aside from Ankh of Mishra, all the two-mana slots in the example are instants, and you have a”curve” that almost tops out at one mana. However, you actually have some semblance of a curve because you have your three-mana Cursed Scroll activations. Your ideal development is to empty your hand of one-mana creatures and permanents early on, unload burn as needed, then sit with at least four mana, activating Cursed Scroll and playing your topdecked card each turn.

As you can see, it worked in 1996, and it still works in 2003.

Some”curves,” though, are more extreme:

Stompy, Oscar Tan, January 2003 Gauntlet deck

Creatures (28)

4 Rogue Elephant

4 Skyshroud Elite

4 Ghazban Ogre

4 Quirion Ranger

4 Druid Lyrist

4 River Boa

4 Elvish Spirit Guide

Pump (12)

4 Giant Growth

4 Rancor

4 Bounty of the Hunt

Others (4)

3 Null Rod

Mana (17)

4 Land Grant

1 Black Lotus

1 Mox Emerald

11 Forest

Mana Curve

0-mana slot: 4

1-mana slot: 31

2-mana slot: 7

3-mana slot: 4

(The”zero-mana slot” refers to Bounty of the Hunt, which has an alternate casting cost making it a”free” spell. The”three-mana slot” is deceptive, because it’s just Elvish Spirit Guide, a green Dark Ritual in this deck that you can”Morph” into a 2/2.)

Here, you have a mana curve that’s practically a straight line, but it’s still a mana curve – something that many beginners introduced to the concept via the original mana table have trouble coming to grips with.

The very flat mana curve is a result of the very large Type I card pool, where you have the most efficient spells and creatures printed available. Type I Stompy, for example, has so many one-mana creatures available because it’s practically a compilation of R&D mistakes that Randy Buehler has sworn never to create again. But since the needed creatures are available at one, there’s no need to fill the higher slots, and you can obviously use all your mana every turn.

A corollary concept illustrated is that a flat mana curve has the advantage of coming with a low mana count. That is, less land translates to a higher spell ratio, or a greater chance of topdecking a business spell each turn. For Stompy, two land (or one and a Quirion Ranger) is already more than enough. This sort of”hidden” card advantage is built into many other decks as well, and Growing Tog can even use Gush to produce more mana than its low land count seems to.

Steeper Mana Curves

If you can have extremely flat curves, though, you can also have extremely steep mana curves, though you have to overload on mana slots to support that kind of spell mix:

Benjamin Rott a.k.a. Teletubby, German Tools ‘n’ Tubbies, November 2002

Tubbies (20)

4 Juggernaut

4 Su-Chi

1 Masticore

1 Karn, Silver Golem

2 Triskelion

4 Goblin Welder

1 Squee, Goblin Nabob

1 Anger

1 Elvish Lyrist

1 Quirion Ranger

Tools (8)

4 Survival of the Fittest

1 Ancestral Recall

1 Time Walk

1 Tinker

1 “Memory Jar

Mana (32)

1 Black Lotus

1 Mox Sapphire

1 Mox Ruby

1 Mox Pearl

1 Mox Emerald

1 Mox Jet

1 Sol Ring

1 Grim Monolith

1 Strip Mine

3 Wasteland

4 Mishra’s Workshop

4 Taiga

3 Tropical Island

2 Forest

4 Wooded Foothills

3 Windswept Heath

Mana Curve (excluding Squee and Anger)

1-mana slot: 7

2-mana slot: 5

3-mana slot: 1

4-mana slot: 9

5-mana slot: 2

6-mana slot: 2

TnT is something that doesn’t appear to have a”curve” on paper – but if you’ve played it, you know it’s more than capable of using its mana efficiently, which is the more important result. The curve is distorted by several mana artifacts and Mishra’s Workshop, which can combine to get your four-mana play down on Turn 1. You might get a few erratic opening hands where you don’t have a first-turn play or get two Moxen but have to wait to play a second land… But the added mana cards generally lower the slot a spell belongs to and make the deck play smoother than the”curve” implies. What you end up with, very roughly, is a general slot for one- and two-mana spells, and another for the four-mana spells. If you visualize a Mishra’s Workshop in the opening hand, the”curve” becomes more recognizable.

TnT and Stompy both work, so you should get the idea that a mana curve is more about matching your spells to each other and to your mana base than it is about following a fixed table. If you look at decks in other formats where you have no more broken one-mana plays, you’ll see the same concept in action, albeit adapted to the smaller card pools. Some are extremely steep as well:

Trinity Green, Lasse Larvanko, 2000 Finn National Champion

Creatures (27)

4 Birds of Paradise

4 Llanowar Elves

4 Rofellos, Llanowar Emissary

2 Priest of Titania

2 Blastoderm

3 Masticore

4 Skyshroud Poacher

4 Deranged Hermit

Others (10)

4 Tangle Wire

4 Plow Under

2 Fallow Earth

Land (23)

4 Rishadan Port

3 Gaea’s Cradle

16 Forest

Mana Curve

1-mana slot: 8

2-mana slot: 6

3-mana slot: 8

4-mana slot: 7

5-mana slot: 8

(An identical deck was played by Sigurd Eskeland in the 2000 Norwegian Nationals to a Top 8 finish.)

Trinity interests a lot of casual players, but they may not appreciate how its”curve” looks even more messed-up than TnT’s. However, it’s really just blurred by Gaea’s Cradle and the mana creatures. Essentially, the entire one- and two-mana slots are devoted to cheap mana accelerators, and the deck catches up on board position by bringing out big spells like Skyshroud Poacher and Plow Under much earlier than normal.

If you remember the Fires of Yavimaya decks that followed, their development wasn’t very different. Again, the mana curve concept isn’t tied to the graph, since you have decks that use mana properly even if their”curves” look like straight lines or blobs on paper.

If anything shows this, it has to be Darwin Kastle’s Dragon deck at Pro Tour: Venice:

Mana Curve (Counting Krosan Tusker‘s ability)

1-mana slot: 0

2-mana slot: 4

3-mana slot: 4

4-mana slot: 8

5-mana slot: 0

6-mana slot: 4

7-mana slot: 8

X-mana slot: 4

Although the deck has twenty-seven creatures, it’s really the eleven Dragons that take care of business, with twelve creatures and four Explosive Vegetations just to set them up. The very rough”curve” is really just trying to set up one of the four-mana acceleration spells as early as possible, which will in turn set up a Dragon on the next turn. Explosive Vegetation is no Mishra’s Workshop – but remember, this is Onslaught Block Constructed. Finally, fat is generally bad, but the lack of both cheap removal and cheap permission made this sort of fat deck playable in this specific format.

Mana Curves In Reactive Decks

It’s more difficult to gauge the efficiency of your spell mix in control deck because many of the spells are instants played at the end of a turn or in reaction to an opponent’s move. Nevertheless, the latter implies you have to apply the mana curve as well, since you have to react to your opponent’s development, which follows a mana curve. That is, you have to be able to potentially react with what you have in any given turn.

The simplest example is”classic” Draw-Go:

CMU Blue, Erik Lauer, August 1998

Counters (21)

4 Force Spike

4 Counterspell

1 Memory Lapse

3 Mana Leak

3 Forbid

2 Dissipate

4 Dismiss

Other (13)

4 Whispers of the Muse

4 Impulse

4 Nevinyrral’s Disk

1 Rainbow Efreet

Land (26)

4 Stalking Stones

4 Quicksand

18 Island

Mana Curve

1-mana slot: 8

2-mana slot: 12

3-mana slot: 5

4-mana slot: 9

There is actually a rough curve if you consider that blue just doesn’t have a lot in the one-mana slot, and it couldn’t count on having a Force Spike in every opening hand (Quicksand made up somewhat, and note this deck was developed the year before Powder Keg was printed). An ideal development for this sort of deck was Turn 1 Force Spike, Turn 2 Mana Leak, Turn 3 Dissipate, then be able to counter twice on Turn 4 or play a Disk. If you consider that you don’t empty your hand of counters as quickly as you do of Jackal Pups and Chain Lightnings, then you’ll see the rough curve and why you need the cheapest possible counters in Type I.

1998 gave a lot of good examples of this. In that year’s Worlds, Jon Finkel and Sigurd Eskeland entered Round 8 as the only 7-0s. Jon, playing Sligh, won, but recounted the first game:”I played a first-turn Pup, and it got Force Spiked. I was now in a bad position, because I hate to let Draw-Go use their counters. I’d rather just keep hitting them for one or two points a round. Because I had no threats I was forced to try for a second-turn Orc, which got countered, and then I had to cast a Hammer, in the hope that he didn’t have a Dissipate. I usually prefer to wait on the Hammers, but he was at twenty and I had no threats, so I had to try something. He had the Dissipate, and proceeded to beat me fairly handily.”

(Then again, he also wrote about his first game against Jakub Slemr in Round 11:”I played Jakub Slemr, playing Draw-Go. He played perfectly, but he didn’t have the Spike for my first turn Pup, and Sligh just rolls over Draw go.”)

You can(see a rough curve in Type I control decks as well, though you use spells as needed and not the moment you can cast them:

Sun Wukong, Oscar Tan, April 2003

Blue (23)

1 Ancestral Recall

1 Time Walk

1 Mystical Tutor

1 Merchant Scroll

2 Cunning Wish

3 Brainstorm

4 Mana Drain

4 Force of Will

1 Misdirection

1 Fact or Fiction

1 Braingeyser

1 Stroke of Genius

2 Morphling

Black (5)

1 Yawgmoth’s Will

1 Mind Twist

1 Demonic Tutor

1 Chainer’s Edict

1 The Abyss

White (3)

1 Balance

2 Swords to Plowshares

Red (1)

1 Gorilla Shaman

Gold (1)

1 Dromar’s Charm (or Renewed Faith)

Mana (27)

1 Black Lotus

1 Mox Sapphire

1 Mox Jet

1 Mox Pearl

1 Mox Ruby

1 Sol Ring

1 Strip Mine

3 Wasteland

1 Library of Alexandria

2 Polluted Delta

2 Flooded Strand

4 Underground Sea

3 Tundra

3 Volcanic Island

2 Island

Mana Curve (counting Yawgmoth’s Will as an X-spell)

0-mana slot: 5

1-mana slot: 8

2-mana slot: 9

3-mana slot: 3

4-mana slot: 2

5-mana slot: 2

X-mana slot: 4

(For those following my personal list, I have to admit defeat to John Ormerod and Steve O'Connell, a.k.a. Zherbus, and stick basic Islands to avoid random Blood Moon losses. I also took the page from Mikey Pustilnik several weeks ago and cut a mana slot for a Brainstorm. Going down to twenty-six is an option, but adding two basic Islands makes colored mana tight. I’m still testing if I’m fine with my colored mana selection, or if I need to add back the City of Brass somehow.)

Take note that the bulk of the spells in”The Deck” are one- and two-mana plays plus the five pitch counters, with the six expensive spells reserved for openings to break games wide open. You usually have something to cast every turn, and no mana slot is clogged.

So remember.”Mana curve” really just means being able to use all available mana each turn. Normally, it’s done by placing the bulk of your spells in the lower mana slots, which are one- and two-mana in Type I, and filling the more expensive slots sparingly. This lets you play spells immediately starting Turn 1, and use mana smoothly throughout the early game. If you built the deck properly and graph the mana costs, you’ll get a curve.

Some decks, however, rely on more expensive spells, and devote a lot of the lower slots to early mana acceleration. In Type I, they pack a lot of artifact mana and special lands; in Type II, you usually get mana creatures. Although these decks’ curves appear grossly distorted if graphed, you’ll still see something if you consider how the mana acceleration causes implied shifts in the mana slots.

Finally, the same concept applies even to reactive decks. (And yes, Absorb and Undermine are too steep for Type I curves. And Arcane Denial fits a curve, but it’s still one of the worst counters in the game.)

Again, it worked in 1996 to 2003, from”The Deck” to The Claw.

‘Til next week,

Oscar Tan

rakso on #BDChat on EFNet

University of the Philippines, College of Law

Forum Administrator, Star City Games

Featured Writer, Star City Games

Author of the Control Player’s Bible

Maintainer, Beyond Dominia (R.I.P.)

Proud member of the Casual Player’s Alliance

P.S. – Acknowledgements to Sensei Frank Kusumoto and The Dojo for the very old information used in this article, down to the original Jay Schneider posting.

P.P.S. – I apologize for not answering the bulk of my mail over the last two weeks; law school final exams, you know. I’ll get back to my inbox by Easter, but in the meantime, feel free to suggest”Back to Basics” topics. As usual, I’ll acknowledge any suggestion I use if I haven’t listed the article in my lineup yet, so do include your full name and location in your letters.