Innovations – Mana Rules Everything Around Me

Monday, October 25th – How much money you want to make is kind of like how much mana you want to make. It’s pretty wild to imagine how many people can’t make what they want and how many people get super defensive at the very mention of the subject.

What is the point?

“Having fun using your intelligence to win in Magic.”

There are a lot of ways to win at Magic, just as there are a lot of ways to “win at life.” Timmy focuses on the “having fun,” Johnny focuses on “using your intelligence,” Spike focuses on “to win,” and Vorthos focuses on “in Magic.” Understanding these mentalities can illuminate other perspectives on what’s important to people beyond just winning by the rules of the game. There are also “wins” to be had by having their idea of big fun, pulling off a clever, crazy combo, playing flawlessly, or building a cat-themed deck just to name a few. Possible ways to win extend much further, such as being a kingmaker in EDH or playing all your favorite cards.

For the purposes of this article, we’ll speak primarily from the Spike position; however there’s no reason that you can’t apply these same ideas to Timmy or Johnny positions (or Vorthos, or Melvin, or whatever). Whatever you’re trying to accomplish is your business, but let’s pretend you just want to win.

Do you realize that most Spikes don’t even play Magic? That’s because most people don’t play Magic, and the Spike, Timmy, and Johnny psychographics go beyond sixty pieces of cardboard. It takes only a moment to easily see that Life is full of Spikes. When we talk about winning, we’re talking about very different things depending on our personality. Additionally, our personality in a game of Magic isn’t necessarily going to be the same as our personality in real life. It’s totally possible that someone is a Timmy in everyday life, but a Spike in a game of Magic, or vice versa.

When it comes to Spikes in real life, generally the common trait is the accumulation of power. Why does Spike want power? Power is its own end. The Spike mentality generally treats a game of Magic as a struggle for power. Remember, tournament Magic is an extremely interesting game that is often quite life-like; however it can pervert our perception if we forget even for a moment that it’s a voluntary, competitive endeavor. Not everyone will throw themselves headfirst into the power struggle of modern day life, and not everyone is trying to be a tournament superstar.

Just as tournament games of Magic are governed by a different code of conduct than EDH, so too are real life experiences different depending on whether you’re applying for a job, getting graded on a curve, trying to win an election, or fighting to sell the best burger in town, versus trying to raise children, building a house, enjoying a picnic, or watching a football game. Generally, in real life, we’d be understandably not okay with someone taking our money. Someone hurting our business with a Tectonic Edge would be hostile enough, but imagine someone Volition Reins-ing one of our mana! In real life, it’s often against the rules to do this sort of thing, but inside of a game of Magic, the game involves a slightly different set. You’re not allowed to just tackle people on the street, yet a game of football makes this aggressive action commonplace. Tournament Magic is an arena where there are very different rules about what actions are allowed.

“Real life” has a natural set of rules and restrictions limiting what you can and cannot do, such as gravity, entropy, and inertia. Beyond this, there are further rules laid out by government. If you’re playing the game of “citizen of a country,” you might consider it the ideal strategy to “follow the rules laid out by the government.” If you don’t, you risk more than just the wrath of the government; you risk your standing in the eyes of your peers, not to mention devaluing your personal experiences. A great key to success is protecting your reputation. This doesn’t mean listening to the insults and complaints of haters. This means preserving your good name. If someone hates on you for making a lot of money at your job, care not. If someone alleges that you’re dishonorable, meet the accusation headfirst, assuming the person even merits a response.

“Magic” has a natural set of rules and restrictions limiting what you can and cannot do, such as drawing a card per turn, playing a land per turn, and starting the game with twenty life. Beyond this, there are further rules laid out by the DCI. If you’re playing the game of “tournament player,” you might consider it the ideal strategy to “follow the rules laid out by the DCI.” If you don’t, you risk more than just the wrath of the DCI; you risk your standing in the eyes of your peers, not to mention devaluing your personal experiences. A great key to success is protecting your reputation. This doesn’t mean listening to the insults and complaints of haters. This means preserving your good name. If someone hates on you for using a netdeck, care not. If someone alleges that you’re dishonorable, meet the accusation headfirst, assuming the person even merits a response.

Mana Makes the World Go Round

How much money you want to make is kind of like how much mana you want to add to your mana pool. It’s pretty wild to imagine just how many people’s means are below what they’d like in this area. What’s even wilder is how many people get super defensive and behave totally irrationally at the very mention of the subject, as though their self-worth were inexorably linked to financial self-worth, and worse than that they can’t be honest with themselves about what they’re doing and what they’re trying to accomplish.

Cards are opportunities to experience life. Mana is money. Both winning at life and winning at Magic can be accomplished any countless number of ways, with different players having very different ideas about what’s important to them. Of course when we talk about casting spells, what we really mean is using mana. In addition to casting spells, there are numerous activated abilities we may choose to experience, such as Dreadship Reef, Resounding Thunder, Nantuko Shade, Mishra’s Factory, and Helix Pinnacle.

Some players think that winning at Magic is all about having the best mana. Most players have a tendency to use less slots in their deck for lands that produce mana than they should be, considering their goals.

How much money do I want? As much as it takes.

As much money as it takes to do what? Whatever I want. It’s exactly the same as mana. How much mana do I want to add to my mana pool? As much as it takes to do whatever it is that I’m trying to accomplish. I don’t want mana for its own sake. No amount of blue mana means a damn to me. However, when I want to cast Cryptic Command, I want that four mana exactly as much as I want to cast Cryptic Command. The mana means nothing to me; it’s just a means to an end.

How much mana ought we make? Well, it depends on what you’re trying to accomplish. If you have aspirations of casting Cruel Ultimatum, you’re going to need a lot more mana in your mana pool than if you are on Wild Nacatls. Why doesn’t everyone cast Cruel Ultimatums? Why would they? Different people have different priorities. Imagine a Zoo player with his Wild Nacatls. He doesn’t need a lot of mana at all, does he? Yet, somehow, he does just fine (or at least did back in his old Stomping Ground). He can be stuck on two land and have not a complaint in the world, yet across the table the “greedy” Five-Color Control player is sitting their stuck on six mana and still a mana short of completing their big-picture agenda.

You may think the Wild Nacatl player somehow noble, that somehow they’re “getting by” on just two lands, but you know what? They’d cast a Cruel Ultimatum, too, if they could afford it. That isn’t even a question. I don’t care how dedicated a Zoo player you are, if you magically could draw a
Cruel Ultimatum (that you could actually cast and was “just this once, yet legal”) you better believe you would cast it. Why not? That is a

nicer draw than Lightning Bolt, most of the time (in such a Magical position).

Does this mean that it’s just better to have more mana? No!

Why doesn’t the Zoo player play a ton more cards that make mana so they can buy a couple Cruel Ultimatums? Priorities. That isn’t what’s important to the Zoo player. There’s an opportunity cost to spending your time building your resources to such a point that you can actually afford that stuff. That’s not the best strategy for every player, as every player wants something different. You may say that everyone wants to “win” in Magic, but that’s nearly the same as saying everyone wants to “be happy” in life. The key is that just as we may have different ideas as to how to be happy, we may also have differing opinions on how to win a game of Magic, as discussed above.

Some people want to make a ton of mana ASAP. They don’t care about what it costs them or stability. Some people try to build stable resources to a large degree so that they can afford the more expensive things in the game. They’ve decided that the best tools for getting the experiences they seek are worth investing a lot of time and energy into acquiring, even if they have to spend most of their time and effort cultivating means of paying for them.

Still others prefer a minimalist approach, intentionally keeping it simple and not aspiring to accumulate great amounts of mana. Why bother? They just want to win, and if the best strategy doesn’t take much mana, so be it. Meanwhile, there are some that want arbitrarily large amounts of mana. Ten mana? That’s just not enough! Twenty? Please! There are plenty of strategies that seek to generate arbitrarily large amounts of mana, but if you’ve ever used an infinite mana combo and had to ship the turn after having nothing to do with it, you know that mana is just like money; all the money in the world means little if you have nothing useful to do with it.

Other players are interested in making plenty of mana and work hard to make sure they can afford all of the useful tools that they believe will further their agenda. Maybe some of the things they want cost UUBBBRR while others cost 2GGGG or 2WW. The solution? They do what it takes to cast their spells. This doesn’t mean they lie or cheat their Cruel Ultimatum a mana short and hope they get away with it. They slow down a bit and play Vivid lands. Are Vivid lands good? Sure, especially with Reflecting Pool, but there’s a cost, as there always is with making mana.

Do you want to make more mana?  

Of course, we all do. Why don’t we just dedicate more time and more cards to doing so? Because at the end of the day, there’s a big difference between wanting to increase our chances of making more mana long-term versus a single decision about making mana this turn. Let’s say you have a choice between charging your Dreadship Reef or not. Generally, you’re going to charge it, though certainly not always. This is no different than having an opportunity to make $20 on an opportunity that’s right in front of you. Let’s say you have boosters of Scars of Mirrodin, and you’re planning on selling them at a store tonight for $2 in store credit. Then someone comes up to you and offers to buy them for $3 cash. Why not sell them to the new buyer? Like with the Dreadship Reef, you have an opportunity already in front of you. You have only to act to cash in on it.

On the flip side, let’s say you’re playing Five-Color Control, and you’re deciding whether or not to add more land to your deck so as to better be able to afford the spells you’re interested in using. Some may say, “Isn’t it obvious that you should spend the extra card in your deck (the extra time in your life) to increase your mana-producing capabilities?” However, if you spend too much time in your life selecting life experiences that just make mana, you may find yourself with nothing worth spending it on. This is of course the opposite problem than most people have, however.

Most people “cheat on land” and always play less mana than they should. They’re overly optimistic with regards to how well things will work out for them in every mana-making endeavor, imagining that twenty-three lands should be enough for their U/W deck or that twenty-two should be fine for their Lotus Cobra special. Then, they complain about being “mana-screwed” like so many angst-ridden individuals that complain about being “money-screwed,” despite spending that hour, day, or year drinking, playing video games, partying, pokering, walking in the park with that special someone, reading books, dancing, watching television, or even gaming, instead of doing something that would put themselves in a position to actually be able to afford to do those things and more in the future. It’s almost as if it’s preordained that many are going to be irrational about making minor decisions that give themselves the best possible chances to have just the right mix.

Whatever people like to do is just what they like to do, and that’s fine. The same is true with selecting the spells you play in Magic. Play whatever cards you want! If you think Mana Leak will help you win the tournament, and that’s what you want, play it! If you think that Kresh the Bloodbraided will be fun and memorable in your EDH game, and that’s what you want, go for it! It’s up to you to decide what spells are best for furthering your agenda. It’s not just the spells you decide, however. Every card is an opportunity for some experience. It’s lots of fun for some to win tournaments (Preordain), and it’s lots of fun for some to have epic games of EDH (Kresh), but both of these players want to be able to play their spells and play lands to enable this.

When you play a land in your deck, you’re giving up an opportunity to do something else fun. That twenty-fifth land could’ve been a Baneslayer! That fortieth land in your EDH deck could’ve been a Spelljack! This is the same thing with spending time doing things that can make money. Every class you sit through, you could’ve been cutting class to get into trouble. Every hour you spend trading cards at the PTQ, you could’ve been playing games of Standard. Every hour you spend at your job, you could’ve been watching television.

Why bother sitting through class, trading cards, or working a job? Delayed gratification.

We certainly live in an era of instant gratification, where nearly everyone wants everything, and they want it

The thing is, if you just hold off a little on getting into trouble long enough to go to class, if you spend a little time at the PTQ trading for cards on the move, if you spend an extra couple hours of overtime, you can actually have the mana to cast your spells. Yes, if you cut a Baneslayer for another Island or even better, a way to smooth out your draws, you’re missing out on some opportunities, but the hope is that in the big picture, you’ll be the most happy and you’ll be able to cast the spells you want and afford the opportunities that life presents you with.

When someone can’t afford to go to the movies, buy a wedding ring, fix their car, take a two-week vacation to Hawaii, or go to the concert, it’s an experience that’s linked to every other experience they ever had. You didn’t just start the game in this position. You made the decision to spend that hour watching television, that hour playing Final Fantasy, or that hour listening to music. There’s nothing wrong with any of those decisions, but if you find yourself short of mana, ask yourself if you’re playing enough land.

Not every format is fair, and some players are sort of stuck taking a mulligan by birth. First of all, if you’re from America, get over yourself. You had to take a mulligan? Please. To what? Eleven cards? Regardless of how your deck starts, the game of life is much more than a single game of Magic. If you find yourself short on mana to cast the spells you want, might it be worth considering cutting a spell you don’t need and adding a land? Seriously, how many Magic players do you see complain about mana screw over and over?

Look It’s Simple…

1) Most people don’t spend enough slots in their deck on making sure they have the mana to cast their spells. Likewise, most people waste too many slots on cards they think enjoy, not realizing that they’d actually enjoy their deck much more if they actually had the mana to cast their spells and drew spells that were more effective for accomplishing whatever it is they desire.

2) Even if you play the right mana base for your strategy, you’re going to get mana-screwed in some games. Life is like your entire game-playing career, not just a single game. The right mana base doesn’t ensure that everything will work out as expected every day or that you’ll win every little battle. Additionally, even if you’ve built your deck sub-optimally in the past, as long as you live, there’s always time to tune your deck, to adjust your strategy. It may be round 4 of the tournament, and you may be locked in for a little while, but there will always be more tournaments, the rest of your life.

3) Complaining about mana screw is foolish. It doesn’t help you, and while it may feel at times like others give you sympathy, it actually just makes other people respect you less. It isn’t the mana screw that they don’t respect. Everyone gets mana screwed, from time to time. It’s the complaining about mana screw that’s the problem.

Why is it foolish to complain about mana screw? It isn’t useful. The apparent sympathy is no better than a drug and not a particularly pleasurable one at that. It doesn’t make one less mana-screwed today, nor does it make one less likely to mana-screw in the future. In fact, it brings down the energy of the people around that person, and for what? So they can “feel better” now? With perspective, perhaps they’d realize that if they agreed to flip a coin for a dollar, and they lose, they agreed to it. What is there to complain about? When you play a game of Magic, you’re realizing the consequences of your actions. Among these actions was agreeing to a game that involves elements of chance. Even with the perfect mana ration, you’re going to roll a one on a twenty-sided die, from time to time.

We’re not talking about avoiding complaining to be all high and mighty. It isn’t about that at all. The reason to not complain about mana screw is because it doesn’t actually help you (in fact it hurts you). Incidentally, this is true for a lot more than mana screw. Use your deck slots wisely!

Stop cheating on land! Study people that are successful at doing what you want to do. Ask yourself how many slots they spend on making mana and what ways they go about it. Look at the spells they’re selecting. What can you learn from those? There’s no reason why you have to play the same mana ratio as someone else, but people with similar strategies can provide an awesomely useful blueprint for making sure you have the right mana to pay for the spells you want, when you want them.

Additionally, there’s no reason why you need to experience the same spells as some or anyone else. There’s so much to discover in Dominaria; why limit yourself to just the same fun and satisfying experiences as everyone else? If what you’re doing isn’t working, perhaps taking a step back and imitating others that are succeeding is the ideal strategy. However, if you always just follow the crowd, maybe a little danger is in order. Trying something new isn’t just about winning today; it’s about strengthening yourself long-term so that you have the tools inside you to be able to create for yourself.

Just as so many cheat on land and play 22 when they should play 24, or 24 when they should play 26, a nearly equal number pay little attention to the contents of their mana base. To them, the mana base is nothing more than “24 land,” added to the bottom of a decklist, almost as an afterthought. You want to win at Magic? Reflect on your mana base, as well as the spells you experience. Are you really using those slots in the wisest possible ways? There are a lot of ways to make mana besides just your nine-to-five variety of basic lands.

Spending Mana

Money can be useful for giving one more opportunities to win at life, experiencing things such as rock climbing, tickets to their favorite band, a basketball, a house, college tuition for their kids, top-notch, optional medical treatments, Xbox games, mythic Magic cards, or time they can afford to not work. These things may all lead to situations where one is “happy,” but it’s not actually the money making them happy; it’s the experiences. A basketball adds what it does to your happiness because of the opportunities it provides to experience life using it. The same is true with Magic cards and Xbox games. No amount of money buys happiness directly.

Mana can be useful for giving one opportunities to win at Magic, experiencing things such as Birds of Paradise on turn 1, hitting Day of Judgment on turn 4, having double blue for Jace, having a second Plains to fetch to cast Baneslayer, enough acceleration to cast Mind’s Desire on turn 1, and being able to cast Goblin Ringleaders and Siege-Gangs while also having disruption in the form of Wastelands and Rishadan Ports. These things may all lead to situations where one is “winning,” but it’s not actually the mana making them win, it’s the gameplay and the synergies between their cards. An Island adds what it does to your winning because of the opportunities it provides to cast your spells using it. The same is true with Dark Ritual and Llanowar Elves. No amount of mana buys winning directly.

Helix Pinnacle? Costs a card, a slot in your deck. Every time you draw Helix Pinnacle, there’s the opportunity cost, as you could’ve drawn something else that helped you more before you had a hundred mana. Besides, this is a pretty good example of something being capable of making you happy, that you’d buy if you could afford it, and the opportunity presented itself. But why bother setting things up so that this is the goal? Helix Pinnacle is for some people, but not all, just like Lamborghinis are for some people, but not all. It doesn’t make you any less of a Magic player if you win with Nacatls or Titans, rather than spending nearly infinite on luxuries like Helix Pinnacle. Why hate on someone that elects to Helix Pinnacle? Let them! Maybe they aren’t playing the optimal strategy as you see it, but if they put themselves in a position to afford to activate it a hundred times, more power to them!

Who cares if you can’t afford Helix Pinnacle in your Mono-Red beatdown deck? If you had a hundred mana, it’d be a waste. You have no need for such excess. For serious, twenty-one buys you as big a Fireball as you’d want, 99% of the time.

“Wait,” you may be saying, “Not everyone has the same chances to make money.”

Guess what? Life isn’t fair.

Some people are naturally born stronger than others. Some people are born healthier than others. Some people are born smarter than others. Some people are born into wealthier families than others. Sometimes, it’s a lot easier to be born in a certain country, with a certain skin color, with a certain chromosome, or a certain era. No one ever said life is fair. Some people have more efficient brains, and some people have more natural factors making it easier for them to make money. So what? Do you think everyone in the NBA sits around complaining that it isn’t fair that players like Lebron James and Kobe Bryant have unfair advantages? No, they go out there and try to win the best they can.

Most people limit themselves and their thinking so much when it comes to making mana. They have a set of preconceived notions about what’s possible, though almost always there’s much more that could be possible than we give credit for. What’s okay for making mana in a game of Magic is not totally without regulation, though. Occasionally, you’re going to encounter cards like Black Lotus that are so undesirable for the community as a whole that they get banned or restricted. Making money is the exact same way. Still, so many people seem to get so hung up on this idea that money is bad that they appear almost guilty at the thought of wanting to make more of it.

How many times have you seen someone that acts like money is the root of all evil? Of course, generally those are the same people that forget that the old expression is: “The love of money is the root of all evil” (not the money itself…).

Likewise, I can’t tell you how many Magic players are convinced that lands are bad. They tell themselves that planeswalkers are good, creatures are good, direct damage is good, and counterspells are good, but lands — lands are bad. Don’t you like casting your spells? Don’t you like being able to afford the life experiences you want?

“Mana screw sucks! Why can’t everyone have the same amount of mana? Well, just as it’d be pretty terrible to force everyone to play exactly 24 mana, it’d be pretty terrible to force everyone to work forty hours a week. That would be slavery! It’s not the working forty hours a week that’s slavery; it’s forcing everyone to do it. Everyone has 168 hours a week to do what they will. Everyone has different priorities. Some people want to make music. Others want to play video games. Still others want to raise a family, while others spend hours and hours in their church. There’s no shortage of ways that one may want to spend what limited time they have on this Earth that don’t necessarily involve working.

Why force people to spend 24 slots in their deck working if they don’t want to? Oh sure, as a country we end up forcing each other to work to meet obligations we force on one another to one degree or another, so it’s certainly a matter with a lot of shades to it. Still, it doesn’t have to be that way. How do you know

wants this “basic level of mana” you may think is vital to play a game of Magic? I have met plenty of Dredge players with absolutely no qualms at all about playing with no mana at all! More power to them!

You know what, though? You play a Dredge deck with no mana-producing lands, so you don’t really have room to complain that you couldn’t get rid of your
opponent’s Leyline of the Void, now do you? You’re the one that made the decision to spend all those slots on Stinkweed and Bridges from Below.
You make choices and you live with them.

Of course, life, like tournament Magic, has lots of different formats, some more cutthroat than others.

Why can’t we all have as much mana as we want?  

Ever play DC10? DC10 is a Magic variant in which everyone just has as much mana as they want. It’s an easy casual format one can play sitting at a table at an event with a pile of draft leftovers. Two players can just start drawing a card off the top and invest little thought or emotion into the game. The games are quickly over and grow boring nearly as quickly. With nearly no cost to cast cards, the casting of them means almost nothing. There’s little tension, little excitement, little meaning.  

If everyone had as much mana as they wanted, few would play lands in their decks. Likewise, few would wait tables, collect garbage, or organize businesses that are able to do powerful collective things like produce Magic cards. Without mana, the game just isn’t as interesting, in general. Fortunately, we’re rational people. We’re also blessed to live in a free world where one is free to select which mana sources they employ, and if they’re so fortunate as to “go infinite” and produce an arbitrarily large amount of mana, it’s their mana to spend as they see fit. It isn’t fair that your opponent with seven lands can cast better spells than you when you’re stuck on two? If mana can’t buy better spells, what can it buy?

How about instead of complaining that Primeval Titan costs too much to cast, you ramp up a little? A single land drop a turn isn’t going to cut it for what you have in mind? Have a little heart and explore cultivating a plan for prosperity! You can’t afford something that costs mana you don’t have? Go out and spend more of your life figuring out how to make some more mana. I know; sometimes it seems like there are no good sources of mana available. You don’t have to sit around and wait for someone else to make a mana base for you! Get your grind on!

Yes, six and seven mana are a lot (let’s not even get started on Eldrazi). It can be so seductive to sit around fantasizing: if only the card you like cost a mana less, you think, then you could afford it. Since it doesn’t, though, might as well give up, right? Better yet, why not give up and go around telling everyone how much you hate that it costs more mana than you feel like you can afford.

Sure, some people are going to lie, cheat, and steal. They figure, “Oh, I’m a mana short of being able to afford to play Jace with Negate back up in a turn, so it’s okay for me to cheat and add an extra mana to my mana pool.” Lying, cheating, and stealing? For what? To save a mana? Everyone makes mistakes, but if you rationalize stealing even a couple of candy bars tomorrow, figuring it’s only a couple of dollars, you’re still rationalizing being a thief and a cheat — on par with someone that intentionally taps one too few lands for their spell.

You want to be able to cast your spells?
Play enough land.

Delay gratification! It’s so easy to want to have more and more spells to spend your mana on. Resist the urge! The majority of gamers out there play too few lands and pay the price, not even realizing it. You don’t know the right mana base to use? Study! Yes, sometimes it seems adding lands to a deck would be easy, yet somehow most people still don’t do it. The truth is: it’s just a matter of will. What is “trying?” Don’t “try” to play enough lands. Play enough lands.

It isn’t just the quantity, either. It’s equally important to spend your slots on the right kinds of lands. You may jam thirty Mishra’s Workshops in your deck, but that isn’t going to cast a Baneslayer no matter how much you want it to. Don’t even get me started on playing too many basics or “enter the battlefield tapped” lands.

You think I don’t know how much hate I’m going to get in the forums for this article? It can be a scary thing for someone to have to face their insecurities, and mana is a subject that an awful lot of people are insecure about. Still, the percentage that already gets it and those that wake up, they make writing this piece worth it, and it isn’t close.

You short on mana? Go out, and get it, but keep a rational perspective. You’re above complaining about mana screw. An awful lot of people reinforce this idea that complaining about mana screw is better than owning up to the fact that you lost last round, but there’s no reason you can’t win next round or produce a better record in the next event. I disagree with that position so fundamentally that there’s little I could emphasize more in life.

You want to win more at Magic? Spend enough slots to get the mana you want, and use those slots intelligently.

We are not victims. The highest EV play is to take responsibility for our actions and bring positive change to our lives when we want things to change (apologies to the sticklers for traditional definitions of Expected Value). It’s not the shuffler. We’re the ones who decide our mana bases and how to use the cards in our decks.

Patrick Chapin
“The Innovator”