My day job, when I’m not agonizing over SCG articles, is game design. I work for a company called Blue Fang Games that develops video games; for the
past few years, their focus has been primarily Facebook games.
For the past six months, I’ve been unable to talk about what I was working on, but last Wednesday, we released our game: The Oregon Trail! If you’re an
American, it’s extremely likely you’ve played one of the earlier versions of Oregon Trail — it was part of most school curricula for years. Even if you
haven’t, it would be hard to escape the pop culture.
Facebook games aren’t everyone’s cup of tea. I’d image the cross-section of “Magic players” and “too cool for Facebook games” is significant — but not
all-encompassing. I’m clearly biased, but I think this has a little bit to offer people who have stayed away from the FarmVille clones. Either way,
working on The Oregon Trail has been the most challenging, rewarding, and enjoyable job I’ve had to date. It’s too soon to know how successful it will
be, but working on something that hundreds of thousands of people are going to play — well, it’s a little overwhelming.
Check it out here
, add me to your wagon party, and feel free to whine about getting dysentery via PM or in the forums.
Later this week, we’ll be putting out another game that’s just as classic: Where in the World Is Carmen San Diego? I didn’t personally work on
Carmen, but it looks great so far.
But enough about fording rivers… today, I want to take a look at mana. I’m going to start with some general rules of thumb and then look at a few
examples of successful mana bases.
How many lands?
The most fundamental question about a mana base is “How many sources do I run?” New deckbuilders probably make more mistakes in this area than anywhere
What you should take into consideration are things like:
“In an ideal game, how do my first few turns play out?”
“What is the most expensive spell I plan on playing, and what turn do I want to play it on?”
“What kind of card draw or deck manipulation do I have?”
“Will my opponent be playing spells that disrupt my mana?”
There are pages of calculations you can do to find exact ratios that promote specific draws. Some people test for days or weeks, just getting the last
few slots of their mana base correct. Luckily for us, other people have largely done this work for us.
Aggressive Decks / Tempo Decks — 22
Midrange Decks / Combo-Control Decks — 24
Late-Game Control or Prison Decks — 26
Those might seem a little high, but I prefer to err on the side of “too much mana” when in doubt. Faster decks with cheaper spells tend to run less and
less mana, but you should have a very good reason if you want to drop below twenty.
These numbers are in no way exact, but it’s a lot better to start from there than 16 or 30. I’d suggest starting around there and just playing games.
Keep track of any time you lose from what appears to be too many or too few lands, and don’t be afraid to cut or add accordingly.
Does this count as a land?
“How much mana will I have on turn one?” vs. “How much mana do I need on turn one?”
“How much mana will I have on turn two?” vs. “How much mana do I need on turn two?”
“How much mana will I have on turn three?” vs. “How much mana do I need on turn three?”
(Continue ad nauseam)
There is, of course, no substitute for testing, but it’s nice to have a place to start from. The following cards can be considered lands for the
purpose of “how much mana do I run?”:
It can be dangerous to blindly follow rules of thumb, but most other, more conditional mana sources count as about half a land. For instance:
(Dark Ritual, Cabal Ritual, Lion’s Eye Diamond)
(Chrome Mox, Mox Diamond, Mox Opal)
In other words, running four Noble Hierarchs lets you cut two lands. That’s generally fine, but you don’t want to drop below 18-20 lands, or you’ll
have trouble getting an opening hand you can keep. If you want to play anything with a lot of atypical mana (most combo decks, for instance), you’re
going to have to emulate an already successful list, or test, test, test!
You might want to be sitting down for this one. This might come as a shock to you, but the card Wasteland exists. No card is more influential in
Eternal than Wasteland is, to the point that building around it is second nature to most Eternal Magic players.
Basic lands aren’t glamorous, but they’re one of the first things you should consider when building a mana base. It would normally be a good idea to
first identify how common Wasteland is in your metagame, but let’s be serious. In both Vintage and Legacy, Wasteland decks are both extremely common
and extremely powerful. If you’re playing in anything resembling a large event, you will need to factor them in. Only very small, very skewed metagames
are going to be completely Wasteland-free — and in general, I’d still play basic lands there, if only to better prepare myself for larger events.
A more relevant question might be, “How much do I even care about Wastelands?” If you’re a one-color deck, you’re going to be stuck running a number of
basic lands anyway. If you’re an extremely aggressive deck, early Wastelands aren’t very painful. Zoo decks in Legacy would often be happy if an
opponent to spent a turn killing their land.
Remember that you’re not worried about “Wasteland: the card”; you’re concerned with “Wasteland: the strategy.”
Think about the cards in your deck that are important, specifically against Wasteland decks. In Legacy, this usually means Goblins or Merfolk; in
Vintage, this usually means Mishra’s Workshop or Fish decks.
Some spells you’re just not planning on playing against those decks. My GP Chicago list ran Duress in the sideboard to fight combo
decks. However, I would never need that color of mana against a deck with Wastelands, so running a Swamp wouldn’t make a lot of sense.
There are other lands you do want but don’t really need to stick around. If your only red spells are one or two Firespouts, you can hold onto that
Volcanic Island until the turn you’re going to use it. After that, it doesn’t matter much if it stays on the battlefield or not.
Besides Wasteland, a few other cards might pressure you to run extra basics. Back to Basics, Blood Moon, and Price of Progress are not as common as
Wasteland, but they show up from time to time. Against any of these cards, more basics are better, but there are a few specifics to consider. Against
Back to Basics, you don’t need a basic land in a color you’re running enchantment removal in — particularly Krosan Grip. Against Blood Moon, you don’t
need to worry about red mana; Mountain is pretty worthless there. Price of Progress is tougher; it really depends on what you’re playing. If you’re
running an aggressive deck, you can put on enough pressure to make the symmetry hurt. If you’re a control deck (particularly Counterbalance), you only
need enough basic lands to hold you until you stabilize.
What I’ve mentioned so far is just the bare minimum though. If you can afford to, running extra basic lands gives you a big edge against decks that try
to exploit a weakness you don’t have. As odd as it sounds, I’ve won a ton of games just by having more Islands than my opponent expected.
Historically, a “cantrip” is a spell with some minor effect that has the ability “draw a card” tacked onto it. Usually, when people use the term today,
they’re talking about a subset of mana-cheap cards that manipulate your library without actually netting you card advantage. Brainstorm, Ponder, and
Preordain are popular cantrips right now. Gush and Sensei’s Divining Top aren’t technically cantrips, but they do similar things to a deck.
Decks with lots of “cantrip” effects can get away with running less mana. You can use cantrips in the early games to make sure you don’t miss any land
drops, and in the late game, you’re less clogged.
With four cantrips, you can definitely cut one land, and with six or more, you could cut two — but just because you can doesn’t mean you should!
Cantrips can be a pretty dangerous trap.
When you’re not naturally drawing into lands, you’re forced to take lands with your cantrip, which entirely negates the point of fixing your deck. If
your mana is smooth, each cantrip is more likely to get you the card you need to win instead of the card you need to not lose.
One and two-color decks
When you’re playing a one-color deck, your mana is inherently stable. Because you don’t need to worry about having the right color at the right time,
you can afford to get a little extra value out of your mana base. People do that by splashing an additional color or adding powerful, off-color lands.
Saito’s Merfolk does both.
Dual lands aren’t cheap, so a one-color deck can make sense on a budget. If you’re just looking for the best list though, there’s very little reason
not to run at least one splash color. Fetchlands and dual lands make adding a color so pain-free that it almost always benefits you to do so. A
two-color deck can still run a huge amount of basic lands. If you have a one-color deck, and you’re looking to fill some slots or solve a problem, you
should consider off-color almost as readily as on-color answers. This really only applies to cards with one colored mana symbol (splashing a Moat isn’t
as easy), but that’s still a huge set of cards you have access to that you may have been ignoring.
Saito used a splash to get a huge edge in some tricky matchups. In a blue-only deck, your plays against Goblins and Zoo might be limited to weak and
clunky effects like Blue Elemental Blast or Threads of Disloyalty. Those aren’t bad cards, but they’re not on the same level as Engineered Plague and
Perish. Saito was able to add those without making any of his other cards less playable.
Even after adding black, Merfolk has plenty of room to play with. A two-color Merfolk deck can support four Wastelands and four Mutavaults. Any deck
would be happy to have free creatures or free land destruction spells; most can’t afford the loss of colored mana. Merfolk can.
Merfolk straddles the line, however. Even though basically every spell is blue, Merfolk has a high number of cards with double-colored mana in their
casting cost. While you can’t exactly count Aether Vial as a land, it lets decks get quite a bit a bit greedier with their mana than they could
otherwise. Without Vial, there’s no doubt Merfolk would be a lot less consistent and a lot less successful.
The less restrictive your colored mana requirements are, the more power you can get from your mana base. Merfolk gets away with a lot at eight
colorless lands, but some decks run even more. Dragon Stompy, Faerie Stompy, and Angel Stompy are one-color Legacy decks that run a full set of
Wastelands, Ancient Tombs, and City of Traitors. Some Mishra’s Workshop decks in Vintage don’t run any colored spells because they run so many
colorless nonbasics. Other lands to look at might be Rishadan Port, Karakas, Volrath’s Stronghold, Academy Ruins, and any land that’s restricted in
One base color, many splashes
Most decks I play myself fall into this category. This sort of deck is anchored around one color but uses fetchlands and dual lands to run two or more
Most blue Vintage decks are built this way, but a Counterbalance deck like Gerry Thompson is the best example. Not only are most spells in a
Counterbalance deck blue anyway, but Counterbalance itself is a critical, early-game play that costs two blue mana. Because you expect to play
Counterbalance on turn 2 with relative frequency, you absolutely want to minimize the number of lands that would prevent you from doing that.
In a deck with one base color, almost every land should provide that color. Since all of your lands are sharing that base color, you really only need
to worry about the relative importance of each splash color. Obviously, the more of a color you’re running, the more lands you want, but there’s a
little more to it than that.
The later you’re planning on casting a spell, the less important it is to load up on that color. Swords to Plowshares costs one white mana, but in most
games, you’re not going to play it on turn 1. Gerry only needs two Tundras because it’s not something he’s really hoping to have in his opening hand.
In contrast, if you’re playing something earlier, it becomes more important. Even though Tarmogoyf costs more mana than Swords to Plowshares, it’s a
card you’re planning on playing on turn 2, quite a bit of the time. You want to play Tropical Island early, and you don’t want to be afraid of exposing
it to Wasteland. Because of this, Gerry’s list runs three.
A common exception to the “everything adds blue rule” is running an off-color basic. Red is particularly important here in Wasteland-heavy matchups.
The Mountain in this deck is critical for casting Firespouts against Merfolk and Goblin decks. Even though the maindeck has less red cards than green
or white, there are more red mana sources. That’s because the list is taking into account what post-board games will look like and which decks are most
likely to attack a mana base.
Since the deck has a slightly larger number of mana sources and a lot of deck manipulation, it can get away with a few colorless lands. Gerry’s running
two Mishra’s Factories to add a little punch to the deck, but that’s a far cry from the eight colorless lands Merfolk is packing.
Notice that the deck doesn’t have a single card that costs more than one non-blue mana. While the first mana of a splash color is simple enough to
find, the second is a lot trickier. You can support cards like that by upping your dual lands and off-color basics, but if you want to run more than a
few, you’ll need to do some deeper restructuring.
True multicolored decks
- 3 Grim Lavamancer
- 4 Tarmogoyf
- 4 Wild Nacatl
- 3 Knight of the Reliquary
- 4 Qasali Pridemage
- 3 Steppe Lynx
- 2 Loam Lion
If you’re looking at an even mix of three or more colors, you’re asking a lot from your mana base. A deck like Matt Elias‘ Zoo could easily need three
different colors of mana by turn 2, so it can’t afford to mess around.
With a pretty even mix of colors, Matt runs a pretty even mix of lands. Fetchlands work really well with Knight of the Reliquary and Steppe Lynx, so
there are as many of those shoved in as possible. Ten is close to the top end for fetchlands; much more than that and you start running out of lands to
find with them.
Zoo would love to get its hands on a Wasteland or a manland, but it just can’t afford to. The colored mana requirements of even a three-color
deck are too strict to play a bunch of colorless lands. The only non-standard lands this Zoo list has are Horizon Canopies, which tap for two on-color
mana types the turn they come into play. Even the Canopies aren’t quite stable enough though. Because different hands can have very specific mana
requirements, Matt still has to run at least one Savannah to find with his fetchlands, even though Canopy is almost always better to draw.
What Zoo gets in return is the ability to play more or less whatever it wants. Zoo can run extremely cost-effective green and white creatures, along
with the reach given by the best direct damage red has to offer. No single-colored deck can do that.
Wild Nacatl forces a Zoo deck to run dual lands, but some multicolored decks go another direction, sometimes even running a mix of all five colors.
Five-colored lands like City of Brass, Gemstone Mine, Forbidden Orchard, and Undiscovered Paradise are used in decks that want to play a wider range of
colored spells. Generally, five-color is only used in specialized decks. Extremely fast decks, like all-in Storm combo and Dredge, might run a
five-color mana base to get the most flexibility they can while using up as little deck space on lands as possible. Five-color Workshop decks run a few
powerful bombs, but most cards are colorless; even so, five-color Workshop decks have fallen out of fashion in recent years in favor of
ultra-consistent colorless MUD decks. In other words — don’t run a five-color mana base unless you know what you’re doing, and you’re willing to take
Return to Mirrodin
I mentioned it last time, so I’ll throw in some Mirrodin Besieged Top 10s. Not much interesting popped up since the article, so there really isn’t much
in the way of updates. I never like to predict what will see play this far in advance because trends aren’t necessarily linked to power level. I
can, however, happily let you know what cards I personally like and will be excited to play with.
Top 10 Mirrodin Besieged Vintage Cards
1. Brass Squire
2. Steel Sabotage
3. Blightsteel Colossus
4. Phyrexian Revoker
5. Leonin Relic-Warder
6. Shimmer Myr
7. Tezzeret, Agent of Bolas
8. Green Sun’s Zenith
9. Spine of Ish Shah
Top 10 Mirrodin Besieged Legacy Cards
1. Brass Squire
2. Tezzeret, Agent of Bolas
3. Phyrexian Revoker
4. Goblin Wardriver
5. Green Sun’s Zenith
6. Leonin Relic-Warder
7. Thrun, the Last Troll
8. GO FOR THE THROAT
9. Glissa, the Traitor
10. Inkmoth Nexus
Top 10 Mirrodin Besieged Cube Cards