Deck Building 101 – The Mana Base

Jonathan Sukenik instructs you on how to build a better deck by paying more attention to your mana base. Consider his advice for your decks at this weekend’s StarCityGames.com Open: Dallas/Fort Worth.

It’s been a while since I’ve written a conceptual article aimed at making people aware of certain aspects of the game that may be overlooked or more complicated than people give it credit for. This time, I want to focus on the fundamental part of Magic we call "the Mana Base."

When we first learn to play Magic, lands just seem like sort of like a nuisance. Even though I’m able to cast as many spells as I want in a turn (barring any Rule of Law), the only thing holding me back is lands. I suppose a good way to think of lands is like a salary. Every turn, you have the opportunity to make more mana by playing another land from your hand. If you don’t dish out your work for that month (which means you don’t have a land in your hand), you don’t get any rewards. You’re stuck with however many lands you have access to in your hand. 

Lands also always seem to get blamed for one’s losses. "Oh man, I just got mana flooded and my opponent hit runner runner!" "Well, I had to mulligan down to six and then had to keep a one-land hand. I obviously didn’t draw a land by turn four." "I kept a Sunken Ruins, Mutavault, Bitterblossom hand and just didn’t get there."

The problem here is that most of these situations could’ve been remedied in one form or another. While sometimes people simply lose because of their poor mulligan decisions (a crime I know that I’m guilty of), some people also lose because they didn’t spend enough time on their mana base.

By now, I hope you’re starting to open your mind to the fact that instead of blaming things that seem to be out of your reach for your loss, you could be blaming your mana base and more importantly…blaming yourself for not putting the necessary time into your mana base. You won’t be guaranteed to never get unlucky with a better mana base, but you’ll be able to decrease your chances of losing due to factors that you act like are out of your hands.

How about we start with a very simple concept?


When a lot of players think of the definition of "mana base," they think about how consistent it is. Sometimes, they talk about consistency with regards to how reliable they can play their four-drop on turn four. Others rave about their ability to make 1BB, 1UU, and 2WW on turn four (I’m looking at you pre-Dark Ascension Solar Flare). However, all of this and more will go into a consistent mana base.

First, I want to highlight the obvious advantage that mono-colored decks innately have. They simply can’t get color screwed. This allows them to just be satisfied with any land in their deck, since they’re usually more or less the same.

An example of when this has been a very visible advantage to me is in Block Constructed pre-Dark Ascension. I was "rage Daily Event-ing" and wanted to just smash some people with Mono Red in Block Constructed. For those who don’t know, this deck was very inferior to pretty much all of the decks in the format but did only have 24 Mountains in its land column. I was able to easily 3-1 the Daily Event (which isn’t bad for those "rage" events). The reason for most of my wins wasn’t because of my play skill; it was because my opponent’s decks would keep on beating themselves. On the play, my Jund opponents would have to mulligan down to five while I just calmly keep my seven-card hand with three of the same art Mountains. My Reckless Waifs and Ashmouth Hounds were able to keep on attacking them while they complained in the chat about me getting lucky. Me getting lucky? No way! People need to realize that in Magic, you can control your luck. He could’ve picked to play a deck with a more stable mana base; one where in your hand, you just have to worry about the number of lands rather than the types of lands.

Another problem could be when you need the lands to come into play untapped. This was very prevalent with Solar Flare right when Innistrad came out. The easy solution is really just to look at your curve. If you need blue and black by turn three urgently, just play Darkslick Shores! The same goes with Seachrome Coast and all of the Scars of Mirrodin lands. You would want to play the lands in the Glacial Fortress (M12) cycle if you need those colors in the late game. A good example of that could be Garruk, Primal Hunter. You may not need green mana early enough to play Copperline Gorge or Razorverge Thicket, but Rootbound Crag, Sunpetal Grove, and more basic Forests could be more appropriate. The mana base should probably be the last thing that’s worked on, since it’s very dependent on the cards that you play.

The last thing I want to highlight is how much Evolving Wilds affects Standard mana bases. First, it’s a little harder to play a deck with four Evolving Wilds and a ton of one-drops. However, this isn’t necessarily the hardest thing to do with all of the Scars of Mirrodin lands. The real problem here is that with more basic lands (to support Evolving Wilds), you would probably be more inclined to play lands in the M12 cycle. With all of these factors, a lot more time will have to go into people’s mana bases. While Evolving Wilds will help them be more consistent, it’s your responsibility to make sure that you don’t make your mana worse in the process.

Time for the next topic!


Once upon a time, there were only five lands that people would play. Well, this is more or less a lie since the original dual lands were printed in Alpha, but roll with me here. These lands were not even that special; they just produced a mana of one of the five colors of Magic. I’m talking about basic lands here. Whether the basic lands are from the Guru Program or from a Fat Pack, they all do the same thing (other than show how much money you have invested in Magic). They all produce the same mana. In all reality, though, there are lands that are really special without being explicitly "pimped out."

Let me begin by explaining how these days, many lands can act like spells. In Worldwake, we got to revisit manlands (such as Creeping Tar Pit). These are lands that are just like creatures… without taking a spell slot! How insane is that? The answer should be "very." At that time, Jund was able to play with eight manlands in Standard, while Faeries would always sleeve up four Creeping Tar Pits and four Mutavaults in Extended. These "creatures" weren’t vulnerable to your own removal suite of Consume the Meek and Jund Charm. These lands were really special, but not even the most special.

In all honesty, I’d have to say that the most powerful lands are usually the ones that tap for colorless mana. These are the Wastelands, Tectonic Edges, Nephalia Drownyards, Moorland Haunts, etc. Sometimes, these have the ability to mess up your opponent’s shaky mana base (via destroying them with Wasteland or Tectonic Edge). Other times, they’ll be win conditions (like Moorland Haunt pushing through extra damage and Nephalia Drownyard milling the opponent out of the game).

We have to understand the cost that we pay for playing these powerful lands. You can get stuck with a hand with multiple colorless lands and be forced to mulligan, where you could’ve just played a land that produced any of your colors and you would’ve been able to keep the hand. It’s a balance that’s hard to find, but in my experience it’s easier to start with a mana base of no colorless lands and then mark the cards to see which lands I was considering to remove in favor of utility lands.

What do I mean by marking your cards? Trust me, I’m not talking about anything illegal here. When you’re testing with your friends, it’s very easy to mark the cards that you’re considering changing. If it’s just one card, you can put a token card or a backwards Magic card in your sleeve in order to signify your "variable" card. If it’s a card that has been in multiple sets or that you have access to foils of the card, you can say that the Rise of the Eldrazi Gideon Jura will be a Plains for this game, while the M12 one will be itself (for example). Lastly, you can "mark" your basic lands as well. How about I have my Unglued Islands be Islands, but the Unhinged Island is a Plains? That’s perfectly fine; I’ve done something similar on Magic Online in order to perfect my mana base.

All right, enough of that aside. There are two more colorless utility lands that I’d like to talk about. One was made a mainstay for a while in Standard U/W "Old School" Control by Gainsay (a.k.a. Andrew Cuneo). That one was Buried Ruin. The ability to cash in your land in the super late game for a Ratchet Bomb could really change the game. In essence, if you draw Buried Ruin in the late game, you are drawing a spell! However, in the early game, U/W Control is very mana hungry, so you would be more than happy to just play with a land early on. More importantly, this is a very special land that comes into play untapped. I recall countless U/W players in old Standard having lost to their fourth land being a Celestial Colonnade or Seachrome Coast, but Buried Ruin dodged all of this. To recap, Buried Ruin is a land when you want it to be a land, but it can be a spell when you don’t want lands anymore.

What is the other colorless utility land that I want to throw out into the open? It’s none other than Haunted Fengraf. At first, I thought this might be a Limited only card, where you don’t want to get mana flooded and would like to cash it in for a creature. However, this card is bonkers with Phantasmal Image’s best friend: Sun Titan. Since decks with Sun Titan tend to not play many creatures, it’s able to "reliably" return Sun Titan to its owner’s hand with Haunted Fengraf. Then, the Sun Titan can bring back Haunted Fengraf, too. This cycle is very strong and makes me believe that Haunted Fengraf should be a one or two of in Sun Titan Control decks. Rebuying a Snapcaster Mage isn’t exactly the worst thing either…

The last topic is a really important one and one that people tend to not listen to all the time.

Don’t Be Too Greedy!

Does anyone remember one of the reasons why I don’t like Legacy that much? It’s because people run very few lands and play Wasteland as well. These mana bases always look extremely inconsistent to me, but then again, the decks always look super powerful for a similar reason. I respect the people that will cut a Wasteland from their list to play another land (or at least move the Wasteland to the sideboard). Your spells will do nothing if you don’t have the mana to play them or just mulligan into oblivion.

Another example was in old Standard where Caw-Blade was running rampant. Gerard Fabiano made Dark-Blade, which was an Esper-colored list. While the cards Dark-Blade was playing were more powerful (such as Inquisition of Kozilek to snag a Stoneforge Mystic or Mana Leak), it had a much less stable mana base. In fact, sometimes on the play you wouldn’t be able to play Stoneforge Mystic on turn 2 because your opening hand had Glacial Fortress and Drowned Catacombs. Tectonic Edge also swayed the matchup a lot, especially if the Caw-Blade player had two of them and would be able to bring you from four lands to two.

Greed is something that doesn’t always happen in deck construction; it can also happen when you consider keeping hands. This was a common question for Faeries players at one point in time (one that I had been in multiple times). Suppose you look at your opening hand and it’s Mutavault, Sunken Ruins, Thoughtseize, Bitterblossom, Spellstutter Sprite, Shriekmaw, and Scion of Oona. Would you keep it on the play? How about the draw? In my opinion, a yes to either of those answers could be interpreted as greedy. However, sometimes it’s your day. In the face of probability, you just naturally peel Secluded Glen on your first draw step. Personally, I’ve kept those hands almost every time, but I understand that if I lose it’s not because I didn’t get there. It was because I chose to gamble and be greedy. I took a risk and it didn’t pay off. However, it was an unnecessary risk which makes it my fault. Many people know that Faeries was one of the decks that mulliganed the best at the time, but I ignored that because of greed. It’s important to know whose fault it really is for your loss; was it really luck or was it purely your fault?

As a quick summary, when you lose to mana flood or mana screw, don’t blame your mana. Blame yourself for not making your mana base better. If you flood out a lot, play more utility lands. If you get screwed by the number of lands or the color of lands, consider playing more or better suited lands. You can only become a better deck builder/player if you can own up to your own mistakes and responsibilities. Trust me: your mana base is a huge responsibility.

In conclusion, you should only play mono-colored decks or just net-deck all of your mana bases.

Just kidding!!!

Thanks for reading,

Jonathan "Watchwolf92" Sukenik