Feature Article – Deckbuilding 101: Manabase

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Friday, January 9th – The creation of a stable manabase is often an overlooked art. Today, premier deckbuilder Stuart Wright takes us through some of the finer nuances required when maximizing a deck’s mana potential. If you’re looking to pick up an edge in your deckbuilding skills, look no further!

You’ve just finished building your amazing new deck, packed with powerful cards… so you just throw in twenty-three lands, right?

No. Obviously.

Frankly, many people actually do this. The creation of a stable manabase is one of the most important parts of deckbuilding, and often the part on which I spend longest. There are a lot of options for mana, and having the wrong lands will often prevent you from even playing your great spells. Today I’m going to go over some decks, and explain how I built their mana. The goal is to teach you how to build a manabase for your own decks, rather than to provide hot new decks. Also remember this is often closer to an art than a science, as different people will do things differently, which is fine as long as you can justify your decisions.

I’d like to note in this the lists themselves don’t really matter here; the point is working out the mana rather than the perfect spell configuration. However, this is not to say they are bad… they’re just not up-to-the-minute hot tech.

For the following examples I’m assuming that people know roughly how many sources they need of each color. There is no hard and fast plan for working this ratio out… it is mostly just looking at the list with an eye on the cards you want to cast early and any particularly hard-to-cast spells. For example, you need a lot of sources to support Birds of Paradise, but running Meloku in your Blue/Green deck doesn’t have any effect on your mana at all. So while other people might count up total mana symbols and run through some convoluted mathematical process here, I don’t do that. I simply try to take into account how early different cards are required in a real game. While this is trickier to do, it is more useful in the long runs, and two Counterspells clearly have more of an effect on your mana than four Meloku.

It can be hard to figure out a decent manabase for some of the more complicated decks around, so we are going to start with something simple: Blue/White Reveillark.

4 Mulldrifter
4 Kitchen Finks
4 Reveillark
4 Wrath of God
4 Mind Stone
3 Glen Elendra Archmage
4 Sower of Temptation
3 Remove Soul
4 Knight of Meadowgrain
1 Mirror Entity

In this case, we have a fairly simple two-color deck, but even here there are quite a number of possible lands we could play. We clearly want some number of basic lands, and also the good two-color lands available to us (in this case Adarkar Wastes and Mystic Gate). While that would be simple, there are also a number of other cards we could include that either fix mana in a strictly worse way than those mentioned above (such as Arcane Sanctum), or provide another function (Mutavault or Faerie Conclave).

First, we need to ask if we want these other “function” lands here at all. This is a more controlling deck, so we could certainly live without them, but I have found that the extra pressure created by a manland, or using one to trade for a creature, is well worth it if the mana can easily support it. With only two colors and eight lands than fix our mana, we can certainly afford them. This also means we don’t really need more “substandard” fixers. Therefore I would suggest the following.

4 Mystic Gate
4 Adarkar Wastes
3 Mutavault
8 Plains
6 Island

I picked Mutavault over Faerie Conclave due to the two-drops, as it would mostly prevent us from playing them on turn 2. Of course, Mutavault doesn’t help Knight of Meadowgrain any more than the Conclave, but it is a more powerful card. Although we need double White on turn 2, we still only have four cards that require it, so we don’t want to go overboard. Playing a different two-drop is perfectly acceptable here, and we need double Blue for Sower of Temptation and Glen Elendra Archmage later in the game.

That was nice and simple, but there are plenty of decks that are a little harder to fathom. Let’s move on to a multicolored Block Constructed deck. In this case, our land options are much more limited than in Standard, but at least the format is slower so we can afford more comes-into-play-tapped lands.

4 Tidehollow Strix
4 Sprouting Thrinax
4 Cruel Ultimatum
2 Covenant of Minds
4 Agony Warp
4 Sedraxis Specter
4 Blightning
4 Broodmate Dragon

5 Obelisks of Something

Note that I put the Obelisks on a separate line, and left them undefined. These cards are part of your manabase too, and are similar to, but not quite the same, as lands. While they provide the same number of sources as a tri-land, they provide in a slightly different way: they are more awkward for casting spells that cost three mana or less. Therefore, we want them to mostly be in our splash color.

In a different build of this deck, I played Druid of the Anima. If you want to count such that produce mana in your manabase, you need to run at least fourteen sources of the color that produces the mana to cast them, and preferably more like sixteen. For more fragile cards, a good rule of thumb is to count them as half a mana source. Counting artifact mana as a full source is mostly fine, unless the environment is full of artifact removal. However, you don’t really want to simply cut lands for them, so the deck should need the extra mana sources anyway.

Moving on… the big question here is how many tri-lands do we feel happy with? We need enough cast our spells, but having every land come into play tapped is just absurd. This requires us to figure out how many sources of each color we would be happy with in the final build deck. We have a lot of gold cards here, so we probably need slightly more than you might think; although your land might provide three useful colors, it can’t provide them all at once. In this case, I’m going to aim for fifteen sources of our main colors (Blue, Black, and Red), and eleven of the minor color (Green). This might seem like a lot, but we have an awful lot of RBU, cards and even one UUBBBRR card.

Due to Black and Red being the truly central colors for the deck, we ended up with more sources than I wanted, but this is pretty much unavoidable due to the way the mana fixing is provided in this set. I was also left with a large number of Islands, because you really don’t want to play any Forests at all. This means you play Obelisk of Jund to secure your Green mana, which provides all the other colors you need other than Blue, making you compensate with more Islands. This leads to a problem in testing, where I draw too many Islands and I’m unable to cast Cruel Ultimatum despite (in theory) having the right mana but with three Islands in play. For the same type of reason, I wanted to avoid Grixis Panorama… before you use it, you can’t play Cruel Ultimatum. However in this case there is no good option due to a limited card pool. So I cut back slightly on the basic Islands, going from seven to six might not seem like much but when the goal is to not draw multiples then it helps quite a lot.

2 Seaside Citadel
2 Mountain
6 Island
4 Swamp
1 Arcane Sanctum
1 Jungle Shrine
4 Crumbling Necropolis
4 Savage Lands
1 Grixis Panorama

Looking at this, we have fourteen sources of Black, fourteen sources of Blue, twelve sources of Red, and seven sources of Green. When we add four Obelisk of Jund, that’s another four Green, Black, and Red. The final Obelisk should probably hit Red, Blue, and Black, so Obelisk of Grixis it is. Twelve comes-into-play-tapped lands may seem excessive, but Block is slower than Standard, so it’s nothing too shocking here.

Now for something really complicated: Extended Zoo. In this case, we have a huge number of possible lands, but a smaller number of total lands, with lots of different gold cards to play.

4 Tidehollow Sculler
4 Kird Ape
4 Wild Nacatl
4 Mogg Fanatic
2 Isamaru, Hound of Konda
4 Tarmogoyf
2 Ethersworn Canonist
4 Lightning Helix
4 Tribal Flames
3 Blightning
3 Seal of Fire

Let’s start with the easy part: we play all the Onslaught fetchlands we can. As we don’t have much use for Blue mana, we can disregard any lands than search up Island/X (like Polluted Delta). We also want a basic Mountain in there somewhere, as avoiding taking damage is a useful option to have. Playing a fairly normal twenty-two lands, we then have nine slots open to us after we account for 4 Wooded Foothills, 4 Bloodstained Mire, 4 Windswept Heath, and the Mountain.

It would be simple to run one of each Ravnica dual land, cutting one of the Blue-producing ones. However, that is pretty lazy, and exactly the sort of thing we are trying to avoid. In this case, we want to look at which lands enable us to cast all of our spells off two lands. The important cards here are Tidehollow Sculler at BW, and Lightning Helix at RW. While other cards need two colors, they don’t need them separately (like Kird Ape) or off only two lands (like Blightning). Having a single land that produces both colors of mana needed for your early spell leads you to having to double up on a certain color. So, what we can note is that Sacred Foundry is bad at casting Lightning Helix, and Godless Shrine is poor at casting Tidehollow Sculler… not exactly what you would expect! When trying to cast Helix with Foundry out, you’ll still need a SECOND land that makes both of the colors in the Foundry. Of these two spells, Tidehollow Sculler is a lot more of a problem, as you want the ability to play him on turn 2, while Lightning Helix can wait. This means I would rather not play Godless Shrine at all, and playing multiple Sacred Foundry can lead to awkward draws.

So, if these lands are bad, what lands here are good? Overgrown Tomb pairs with Stomping Ground to give you all your colors bar White, but again is unable to cast Tidehollow Sculler or Lightning Helix. This means the best pair we have is Temple Garden and Blood Crypt. So maybe we should just run these, and search up the others? Well, that doesn’t quite work, as only eight of the fetchlands can search up each one in any given instance. Drawing Temple Garden and Windswept Heath can never get you all four colors on their own. So we still need the other shocklands in some number, to give you the option of adding either Red or Black to this draw. This is not to say the mana is bad, just that when you’re working off two lands, you won’t always be able to get to all four colors and have access to every single spell. Of course, if you don’t draw a Tidehollow Sculler, then you don’t need to able to generate BW most of the time.

My initial thoughts with this deck were that I wanted more Sacred Foundries, as Red and White where the most-used colors, but in practice it doesn’t work out that way. We also want at least one Blue source to power up Tribal Flames, and playing a second allows us to search it up with any fetchland we have.

While this is all good in theory, it does require testing to see if it plays out well in practice. Often you have a problem here, in that the mana options are already really good in general, and these top-end tweaks are just adding a 1% edge, which will take an awful lot of games to see. This is why it is important to use theory in this sort of case.

For this deck, there are a few other options: you could run a basic Plains or Forest. This would mostly be used to protect yourself against Blood Moon, and you need to judge if that situation will come up enough to justify making your mana weaker the rest of the time. This also assumes that the extra basic land will enable you to win under Blood Moon in the first place… for example, a basic Swamp would be pretty useless at casting anything here, although it would be theoretically useful under a Blood Moon.

Here’s my final take on the manabase required for the above Zoo build:

4 Windswept Heath
4 Wooded Foothills
4 Bloodstained Mire
1 Mountain
1 Overgrown Tomb
1 Stomping Ground
1 Sacred Foundry
1 Steam Vents
2 Blood Crypt
2 Temple Garden
1 Hallowed Fountain

In order to keep things simple, I’ve not mentioned sideboards for any of these decks. They aren’t quite as important for working out mana, but it depends if there is anything really powerful in the sideboard for which it’s worth the effort to impact the maindeck mana. For example, if there was a really good UU card for the Reveillark deck above, we might want to adjust the mana so we could play it more easily. However, if there was a less powerful UU card instead, we might well decide that it isn’t worth the sacrifice on the maindeck mana, and not play it in the sideboard at all. The more flexible our mana, the more we can make small changes (for example, when adding four Stifle to the Zoo sideboard, we’d only need to add one more Blue land, if that). Therefore I would normally build my deck and manabase first, and use that information to decide what cards are in good for sideboard, rather than the other way around. Clearly this isn’t always true, and if you want something like a transformational sideboard then you need to plan ahead.

I hope this article will help people to build better manabases for their own decks in the future, or at least make them think a little longer before writing “+23 lands” at the end of their preliminary decklist. No matter how good a deck may be, it is very hard to win without being able to cast all your spells.

Until next time!