Flores Friday: Constraints… And Defining A Mana Base

Friday, January 21st – One of the most influential deck designers in Magic history dissects his R/U/G deck to explain his colored mana rules of thumb, and how to make the constraints of your deck idea work for you!

Before we continue — err… begin — I just want to reiterate something that you’ve probably read elsewhere, specifically from myself or Conley
Woods or perhaps Gerry Thompson:

Deck designers, for the most part, make many bad decks for every one good deck.

You would probably not believe the garbage jotted down on crumpled Kentucky Fried Chicken napkins stuffed into the lint-bottomed back pocket of Patrick
Chapin’s well-traveled backpack. I mean, maybe you would believe, because you had a similar idea or you have a notebook full of all your ideas
(good and bad both) stuffed somewhere… But whether or not Pat ever published what he was working on, that doesn’t mean to say that he thought it was
the be-all and end-all of, say, Mono-Black Control decks.

For my own part, I’m much more interested in process and new technology development than I am with the creation of any one deck (something that may be
confusing to some of my readers, who ask me about decks months after I stopped thinking about them). New technologies and techniques, or the
possibility to uncover some sweet, as yet undiscovered cards are typically more interesting… and better for the community in the long run.

Case in point: Zvi Mowshowitz lashed the entire community onto his “let’s see what we can do with the mana that is available to us” mind set with his
development of the Mythic engine; a deck that had Rampaging Baloths main and Jace, the Mind Sculptor — as a two-of — in the sideboard. Only months
later — and with the work of many other efforts (including Zvi’s own, applied to another format) — did we get the first Mythic Conscription, Joshua
Utter-Leyton’s Explore-powered utter beatings, or the G/W Hideaway / Emrakul, the Aeons Torn deck that has already scored a Blue Envelope this
season… in Extended.

Anyway, last week we talked about a new-old-new again deck style: Mono-Cascade. That
deck was built with particular constraints in place. Specifically, the cheapest cards were Esper Charm and Blightning. The reason we had those
constraints — and essentially only those cards as non-Enlisted Wurm cascade end points — was to preserve the predictability and card power of
our deck. We have a very powerful deck that can compete with the best strategies in the format, but if we start lowering our card power in order to
compete with crappier strategies, then all of a sudden we’re paying six mana for a 5/5 and a Lightning Bolt or something, and we just aren’t
going to win as much.

Many viable strategies have built-in constraints: For example, you need to play a ton of cheap artifacts to make Thoughtcast good, and at least three
copies of Nissa’s Chosen to run any number of Nissa Revanes.

Constraints-wise, the Mono-Cascade deck is somewhat prohibitive… and slow. By design, it does nothing until turn 3 (and nothing until turn 4
in many games). That can be awesome sometimes (like against 4-Color Control)… but its complete lack of speed makes it meat for, say, G/W Hideaway.

We can embrace the spirit of the Mono-Cascade — that is, lots of two-for-ones — with a bit more flexibility. Along the way, we also get to
expand our card power to more Top 10 cards,
while reducing our linears dependency.

Here is a first pass:

By now you probably know I am a huge fan of Jace, the Mind Sculptor and Cryptic Command in Extended. Yes, we are a bit heavy on the four-mana slot —
Bloodbraid Elf; Jace, the Mind Sculptor; and Cryptic Command all — but those are awfully good cards. In fact, if we consider Kitchen Finks a Top 10
Extended card, this deck plays six of the Top 10!

This deck starts much sooner compared to Mono-Cascade: Lightning Bolt and Preordain at one; Spreading Seas at two… All stuff going on (and
potentially battlefield-affecting, when playing against beatdown) before Mono-Cascade would even play its first card.

Now speaking of constraints, I have called Mana Leak / Cryptic Command / Jace, the Mind Sculptor “the pillars” of Extended… Since as good as Mana
Leak is, you can’t play it in this deck because it conflicts with Bloodbraid Elf.


Theme One – Good Stuff Two-for-Ones

The primary theme is a “good stuff” deck loaded with Top 10 cards… The card quality is there at every point in the curve, with most of the cards
doing more than one thing.

• One mana – Lightning Bolt, Preordain

• Two mana – Spreading Seas

• Three mana – Kitchen Finks (Great Sable Stag)

• Four mana – all that awesome stuff

• Five mana – Primal Command

• Six mana – Primeval Titan

The original, pre-publication, version of the deck (despite this one being listed as a 1.0) didn’t have Primeval Titan, but I felt like the deck needed
a way to close out games (or even just something to find with the Primal Command).

Previously the deck just had some 3/2s and a couple of sometimes hard-to-handle Gnarled Masses… Which are all well and good against Faeries, but can
leave something to be desired against Wurmcoil Engine or even Master of Etherium.

So that’s why there are only three Lightning BoltsGreat Sable Stag is a holdover of maindecked Faeries hate left over from younger days.

The presence of Primeval Titan gave me the opportunity to play Tectonic Edge; and it is possible I have too many (which we will get to later).

Theme Two – Mana Control

The secondary theme to the deck is one of mana control. We can play with Spreading Seas, Tectonic Edge, Primal Command, and Primeval Titan all. In the
right circumstances Cryptic Command makes a fine mana control spell, and even Jace, the Mind Sculptor can keep the opponent from drawing lands
(if that is what we want).

So while the deck lacks the end game power of a Cruel Ultimatum, its ability to seize the initiative earlier in a contest — combined with
Preordain-driven mana control starting on turn 2 — gives RUG Two-for-One a not inconsiderable potential edge.

Theme Three – Anti-Faeries

Kitchen Finks — if backed up by a little removal — is actually pretty good against Faeries, on-curve and especially on the play. The deck can Cascade
into a full eight hate threes after sideboarding… Great Sable Stag and Volcanic Fallout.

Great Sable Stag isn’t an unconditional “I win” against Faeries or anything, but the reasonable responses to the card are relatively narrow. Volcanic
Fallout is, of course, very good against them — but the bonus is really in the fact that you have lots of both, and you can get them for free with
Bloodbraid Elf.

Before we finish out this article, I’d invite you to watch the accompanying videos, then click back
here. As a placeholder, Ctrl+F “Hundroog” … Don’t worry… Not going anywhere :)


(Ironically, I’m editing this article while Lauren is on vacation — so for all you old-timers, Hundroog! — T.F., in a joke far too old to explain)

Let’s see how we did, shall we?




Okay! The main issue in the first run of battles (besides, apparently, my inability to heed anything I have ever written about opening hand evaluation)
was around the availability of Red mana.

While there is no simple way to perfect a mana base, we can use simple counting to figure out what kinds of needs we have in terms of colors; how do
those colors lay out in the Alpha version?




Aside – Colored Mana Rules of Thumb

While these are not hard-and-fast rules for deck design (arriving at the right mana is generally possible only via exhaustive
testing), there are certainly rules of thumb that deck designers use when putting together initial land mixes. Here are the ones I use:

1.Splash (generally one colored mana in a symbol, not necessarily under pressure or necessary in the first three turns) – Eight primary

2.Second turn (you need a single mana of a particular color on the second turn) – Minimum twelve sources, ideally fourteen primary sources.

3.Double-color (that is UU for Counterspell and WW for Wrath of God in classic U/W Control decks) – Twelve primary sources.

4.Triple color, or primary color – Fourteen primary sources

5.End game (solo Red for a Banefire, or even RR for a Rolling Thunder in a U/W deck) — Format-dependent, and often contingent on secondary sources. For
example, many a TEPS deck never actually produced the BB necessary for a Tendrils.

“Primary” sources generally include access point lands. For example, an Arid Mesa is a primary source of both white and red mana, though it produces
neither. “Secondary” sources include cards (including lands) “after something has already happened” that can act as proxies for land drops, especially
when the mana is not required under time pressure. For example, you can cast basically anything with filter lands a turn later if you can resolve a
Primeval Titan first.

Again, these are just starting points, and there are many considerations that individual formats or unique positions can give you — for example, lots
of fetch lands, only having to play a particular spell after you’ve resolved a Primeval Titan, etc. Also keep in mind that these shortcuts were
originally built with 24-land bases in mind, and generally inferior nonbasic duals available. Today we play 26-28 lands even in aggressive decks, and
builds like this R/U/G can put a strain on not just our creativity, but Excel spreadsheets.

Okay! Don’t say I never gave you nothin’.

End aside.

So there are only seven total red mana symbols in our main deck — three Lightning Bolts and four Bloodbraid Elves. In theory we want about eight red
sources for a splash, and a minimum of twelve sources on double costs (these are minimums). I never actually ran any math before recording the first
run of videos, working on the mana base essentially by feel.

My longtime playtest partner Paul Jordan was our group’s go-to guy for mana bases during Ravnica Block Constructed… How did I do on my own?




(I know it’s a method of tracking mana, but to me this sounds like Mr. Flores is grunting as he tries to lift an extremely heavy weight. —

As you probably saw in the videos, red access was a consideration more than once, particularly in the White Weenie match (which we lost). That’s not
surprising considering the balance on the Alpha mana base. Even for a splash, we are one red shy of what “the rules” say, though the presence of
Preordain and Spreading Seas can mitigate that somewhat.


There are considerations in both directions here.


We have eight one- and two-mana cantrips that can help fix our draws. Additionally, Bloodbraid Elf can cast even our more difficult tools, viz.
Volcanic Fallout, without having to have RR in play. With a single Red source, Lash Out can fix our draws in sideboarded games. Finally, lots of our
cards that are hard to cast — such as Cryptic Command — are awesome at any point in the game, for example after a certain six-mana drop has ensured our
lands are perfect. Ho ho, Cascade Bluffs and Flooded Grove!


Not only are we (probably about) a red source shy in the main, our sideboard is dominated by RR spells like Volcanic Fallout and Chandra Nalaar… the
first of which we actually need to play under pressure. It is likely that to be competitive, we will have to make some tough changes.

The warping of the mana base is really around the presence of four Tectonic Edges.

We are solid on blue and green, but we need to come up with a minimum of one red mana, and probably five total. Our best source of optimization is
probably Tectonic Edge. I know I want access to at least one, and if we cut some, I know I’d like more in the sideboard.

To reiterate, here’s where we’re starting:

1 Cascade Bluffs

3 Flooded Grove

4 Forest

4 Island

4 Misty Rainforest

1 Mountain

3 Raging Ravine

2 Scalding Tarn

4 Tectonic Edge

We can potentially move a green, stay even on blue, and cut three of the four Tectonic Edges.

Back to constraints — adding Red by adding Scalding Tarns is of inconsistent value if we stay on only one Mountain; for example, Scalding Tarn does not
translate into a second red mana if we already have a Mountain in play.

Practical experience — Cascade Bluffs was really good. I didn’t originally anticipate it being so good, but the ability to get RR on demand made that
singleton a dark horse Primeval Titan target. As we’re already hunting for Red, I am also fine with more Raging Ravines (you don’t “need” more, but
they are functional as Tectonic Edges were, so they give Primeval Titan something to do), or Copperline Gorge. Right now the deck has 23 lands that
enter the battlefield untapped. We can afford one or more that enter tapped (maybe).

Here’s another pass:

2 Cascade Bluffs

1 Copperline Gorge

3 Flooded Grove

3 Forest

4 Island

3 Misty Rainforest

1 Mountain

4 Raging Ravine

4 Scalding Tarn

1 Tectonic Edge

I’m going to test the same deck with a different mana base next.

I usually like to play at least eight basic lands when I am playing with more than a set of fetch lands, so this is skirting the minimum for my
tastes… But we’ll see.

Last thing, I figure I will want to alter the sideboard (specifically by adding some number of Tectonic Edge). I love going up to 28 lands for control
v. control matchups. Now is probably a fine time for a sideboard rundown:

Two mana – Lash Out

Three Mana – Jace Beleren, Great Sable Stag, Volcanic Fallout

Five mana – Chandra Nalaar, Primal Command

Lash Out

Lash Out is actually one of my favorite cards to sideboard in beatdown against beatdown. Ideally, this card is like another Preordain or Spreading Seas
— it just makes your draw awesome.

Think about it like this: Your beatdown opponent is usually just peeling cards off the top of his deck. If you can kill one of his guys and set up a
Kitchen Finks or Bloodbraid Elf, that’s just insane; forget about the fact you’re also nugging for three damage! (But that’s awesome, too).

There are also subtle interactions, like setting up a free card against a Goblin Guide, or even just knowing you will hit Kitchen Finks on turn 3.
Remember, against beatdown, you have so many two-for-ones that you can afford to trade early to stay alive, then go Kitchen Finks / Bloodbraid Elf for
removal or more Kitchen Finks / Primal Command, essentially winning the game on the spot with a Primal Command.

Jace Beleren

This card is really just for Jace matchups. You can’t really afford to be cascading into Jace in Game One… Unfortunately, you might already have a
Jace. However when it is an issue of Jace attrition, drawing a fast Jace and / or cascading into one is just dandy.

Aside – Teamwork

Even the best idea people rely on teammates to actually produce the best decks. The U/G Genesis Wave deck was my baby, but the (ultimately)
better-than-Primeval Titan Frost Titans came by way of Patrick Chapin. Andre Coimbra added the Spreading Seas, and — no surprise here — Conley Woods
was responsible for Acidic Slimes… and then for moving them into the main.

I’m adding this section at the 11th hour, as Steve Sadin convinced me Vendilion Clique is better than Jace Beleren in this sideboard!

End aside.

Great Sable Stag, Volcanic Fallout

Not touching these.

If I were to play this deck in a PTQ, it would be important to me to be able to go full-bore overload against Faeries.

Chandra Nalaar

This card is interesting to me for a couple of reasons. First of all, it’s just gas to have multiple Planeswalkers in play against any deck… But
particularly against control. In addition, Chandra is big and hairy enough to take down a Baneslayer Angel, or can act as a recurring source of
battlefield control against creature decks. I mean it could totally get cut… But that is, or was, the theory.

Primal Command

I’m unlikely to cut this card; I have a wicked win percentage lifetime when resolving this card. It’s awesome against control, but with the rising
success of Red Decks, being able to go Kitchen Finks + removal + Primal Command against the little Red men… Just too awesome. “Gain seven + get a
Kitchen Finks” is pretty good, but “gain seven + Time Walk” is unbeatable when you already have a decent creature in play.

This is what I’m going to try:

1 Vendilion Clique

3 Great Sable Stag

2 Primal Command

3 Lash Out

4 Volcanic Fallout

2 Tectonic Edge

With Tectonic Edge coming in, we have more good cards for control, which can make up for our loss of a Jace.

I wavered a bit around the red removal cards… I think a reasonable option might be one Inferno Titan — which would fit well post-Primal Command
(coming in against beatdown) — but I think with the dramatic increase in red sources, we can (and should) err on the side of speed. So we put in Lash
Outs to ensure our draws come out, so that we can overwhelm creature decks with our vastly superior four-mana spells.

The rest? Pretty much the same.