Hypermana Deckbuilding

Pro Tour Hall of Fame member Zvi Mowshowitz explains the principles of hypermana deckbuilding using the G/W Elves deck he designed that saw some success at #SCGINVI.

The best part about G/W Elves, my latest contribution to Standard, is the many people who have commented that they figured out it was a Zvi Mowshowitz creation just by looking at the list without having to be told. Only one man could build such a list! I wonder if that is actually true the same way it is for some of Sam Black creations, which really couldn’t have been built by anyone else (myself included), but it’s certainly true that people’s instincts were both justified and spot on in this case. In a world where people rapidly converge on a consensus "right answer" to the build of most decks, it’s still easy to tell who built many of them by looking at the lists.

Through the ages, I’ve built just about everything, and at the start of a new format, I do it again. But my modern-day specialties fall into two categories. There’s the deck full of efficient threats that assembles more power than a deck with the relevant curve and speed has any right to assemble with more resilience than you expect. The time hasn’t quite come for one of those to break through, although several of them got close and I still think that the W/G Human deck was (and likely still is if you add Imposing Sovereign) highly underrated.

The other specialty is my first love: mana acceleration. I find ways to build decks with ludicrous amounts of mana acceleration that assemble massive threats in greater numbers than the competition can hope to match. I love these decks, and they love me. The key to making these decks work is knowing the key requirements an acceleration-based deck has to meet before it can work properly. These three decks illustrate the template:

These decks have a lot in common and in all three cases seem to have a singular origin; no one else designed anything that got close because they don’t know what to look for. Here are the principles to live by.

1. Your mana base, including your color, has to be ironclad.

If you need colored mana, you need a minimum of fourteen ways to get that color on turn 1. Sometimes you can afford more, but usually you only want fourteen or fifteen because of your other requirements. Fourteen is a hard lower bound. It can be survivable to play a tapped land on turn 1, but it’s very bad and often a forced mulligan. Similarly, you’ll need at least eight mana sources you can play on turn 1 in order to pull this off, with more after that at two or three mana. I’m not sure what the true minimum is, but the pattern seems to be that you want a total of at least sixteen and the more you can get away with subject to #2, the better.

2. You must be able to turn your mana cards into powerful weapons in their own right.

You’ll need to bring at least 22 lands to the party in any modern deck, and in most cases you’ll want 24-26. Even with only 22, the majority of your deck will be mana. If those cards don’t do anything other than provide mana, it will be easy for your opponents to make short work of you if they can trade for your threats, especially if you have a threat-light hand. Being able to fight with your mana sources is a requirement for this type of deck to be viable.

In Mythic, you combined multiple manlands with Knight of the Reliquary, the two power of Lotus Cobra, and the exalted from Noble Hierarch. In Angels & Titans, Knight of the Reliquary and Noble Hierarch returned, Nest Invader came in to replace Lotus Cobra, and the hideaway lands joined the party. Elves doesn’t use manlands because colorless lands wouldn’t work with the mana requirements (see #1) if you splash a color; Gavony Township is by far the best way to turn a flood of lands and mana creatures into an efficient fighting force. Between Gavony Township and Elvish Archdruid, there’s a good chance those Elves can pack real punch.

3. The threats you accelerate to must be able to win the game on their own.

It’s the last fatty that kills you, and it frequently must do this on its own because its friends are dead or never show up in the first place. Green in Standard offers you a lot of good creatures that fit this bill: Kalonian Hydra, Wolfir Silverheart, and of course Craterhoof Behemoth. It also offers Garruk, Caller of Beasts, which in a deck with enough creatures is in context very similar to drawing five cards.

That’s about as many high-end spells as one can safely support, and after that the quality drop-off is rapid.

Garruk, Primal Hunter is interesting since it can win a game but is not especially quick about it, exposes you in new ways, and makes your Bonfire of the Damned problem worse rather than better. Acidic Slime doesn’t fit the bill at all but can be a special case. Thragtusk is a great card when you’re trying to stay alive and fighting an incremental game, but it’s terrible at killing opponents, which is what you need it to do. In a perfectly engineered anti-aggression post-sideboard configuration, you would have it, but it’s not your first place to upgrade because you’re trying to lower your curve.

Huntmaster of the Fells is another great example of an excellent card that helps grind out games but is profoundly unhelpful to a true hyperramp strategy because slowly accumulating small advantages is not how you make up for spending two thirds of your cards primarily on mana nor does it properly take advantage of massive amounts of acceleration.

4. The biggest threat must be powerful enough to overwhelm opponents.

This is related to #3 but is different as well. A card that can win an entire game if left to its own devices is different from a card that can beat their entire game plan. In today’s Magic, opponents will be doing powerful things with their decks. You need not only to be able to operate off only one large card but also to be able to take your large cards into the later stage of the game and have them be unable to deal with what they add up to. Something in your deck must bring overwhelming force. The original Mythic’s final form used Eldrazi Conscription, Angels & Titans used Iona, and Elves uses the almighty Craterhoof Behemoth.

5. You need a way to make your cards keep you alive against aggression.

In general, a hyperramp strategy that works has an excellent matchup against beatdown decks. You have total and complete inevitability if your deck is built right, so your opponent has to win on tempo, and that’s tough to do when you have more one-drops than they do! It’s on them to contain your explosive mana engine while also killing you, which is tough if you make it tough, but you can’t afford to give them a free pass for too long. It’s vital that you do things that cost two or three mana that hold down the fort.

In the original Mythic, this was Rhox War Monk and Baneslayer Angel, and Angels & Titans solved this problem with Nest Invader and by sticking with Baneslayer Angel as one of its creatures. Here it is Loxodon Smiter. Loxodon Smiter is the card in the deck that everyone looks at funny and people are looking to replace, which I respect, but it’s better to think of it as a way to gain stability in game 1s against aggression. It actively punishes an army of attackers, giving you the time to finish your development while also still being good beats. That doesn’t mean it should stay, but it’s not as random as it looks.

Sideboarded games against aggression are very hard to lose. The cards they sideboard against you tend to be harmless since their deck was already focused on the job they have to do, while you get to dramatically lower your curve and tune your creatures to be defensive, making the window for them to kill you in much narrower while burning a bunch of raw power that you in no way needed. They don’t usually have a long game that matters.

6. Every card must either be mana or a threat.

You don’t have room for removal. You don’t have room for counterspells. Every card you play that doesn’t provide mana must be one of those game-winning threats. A few of them can be lower-priced threats to support a reasonable curve, but only a few. You certainly can’t be putting in removal spells because that’s trading one for one with an enemy who has more cards than you do or worse risking it being dead in your hand because they’re playing defense with spells. You must show opponents no mercy. After sideboarding you’ll know what you’re up against, and if your goal is simply staying alive, it becomes ok to play answers.

7. You need a way to not die to mass removal.

This is the often-hard part. Your plan will involve putting a lot of stuff into play. What if they kill it all with a single card? Usually the answer involves biting the bullet. If your opponent has the sweeper, that’s going to suck for you, but your deck is very powerful and can if properly built and played manage multiple waves of deadly threats. It’s the last fatty that kills them and the last sweeper that kills you, and most people don’t take the approach of bringing more sweepers than they think they need, instead taking the bare minimum they can get away with. When you’re serious about packing a real punch, that often won’t be enough.

Witness U/W/R decks with access to only two Supreme Verdicts. Gerry Thompson has called the card a "crutch." In my world, that’s insane. Supreme Verdict and the ability to recast it with Snapcaster Mage are one of the biggest draws of such a strategy. Why would you skimp on it when it’s so cheap to have access to all four? Then again, most people playing aggression mess up point #6, which makes things a lot easier, but it’s still true that a lot of games are either "Verdict or no" situations on the fourth or fifth turn or would be easy games with Verdict but very hard games without it.