Limited Lessons – Manabases in Limited

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Tuesday, April 8th – One of the trickier skills to master in Limited Magic is the creation of the perfect manabase. How many second-color lands should you run? How does curve alter the ratio? When should you splash, and how? Today’s Limited Lessons sees Nick Eisel break down this arduous task into friendly bite-sized chunks…

This article could also be called “Not Giants in LLL.”

Confused? Allow me to explain.

I initially wasn’t going to say anything, but Craig said it was fair game and I need an intro. The story goes like this…

Friday afternoon, Craig messages me on AIM, with an angry tone (or as angry as he could convey via an Internet Messenger service). The reason he is mad is because he believes that I attempted to “resubmit” an article on Giants in LLL, which was already published on the site over a month ago. When I inform him that I haven’t even sent in an article yet, we both have a good laugh over the misunderstanding and he says I’m free to grill him in my column about it. Sorry buddy, had to do it. [Yeah, ya got me. I was really angry at the time, too! My bad. — Craig, shamefaced.]

So, this week I won’t be covering Giants in LLL… that’d be pretty silly of me, considering LLM is almost over and LLL is older than Willy Nelson. I decided to stay with another general topic this week instead of doing a walkthrough. While I’d love to be writing the second article on Bluffing, I’m just not sure that I have enough info stored up to really make it a worthwhile read. Instead, I’ll be focusing my efforts on the subject of Limited Manabases.

The Basics

The first thing you need to know, if you don’t already, is…


Seventeen is where you live, where you go in doubt, and where you place your trust. Seventeen is your rock, your hard place, your… well, you get the idea. The overwhelming majority of Limited decks are going to want this many lands, and that’s where you should always start. Seventeen is 42.5% land and should keep your draws as smooth and optimal as you can hope for. Obviously there are going to be exceptions, and plenty of instances where you’d rather have sixteen or eighteen, but the starting block and default should always be seventeen.

So how does one decide when to deviate from this magic (no pun intended) number of seventeen? Well, the easy answer (as far as I’m concerned) is that you use your imagination.

“Okay… so I say to myself, ‘Well, today is Wednesday, it’s raining outside, and I’m feeling happy so I’ll play 26 land because I feel like it’…?”

Not quite, smartass.

What I mean is that you need to take a few minutes during deck construction and imagine how a normal game with your deck will play out, and see your deck running optimally in your head. When you do that you should get a feeling of whether you should add or subtract a land from the original number. It’s possible I’m making this seem easier than it actually, is but in most cases you should be able to look at your deck, envision a game, and then know that you need to be adding another land.

To break it down a little, the main thing you want to think about is overall mana curve.

How many five-drops do you have?

How many drops higher than that?

What about other mana cards, like Fertile Ground or Leaf Gilder?

If you’re still not sure, then the likely answer is that you should just revert back to the default and play seventeen land. It’s pretty easy to determine when to play eighteen land… your deck will often have a ton of bigger drops, no acceleration, or be completely mana hungry with expensive creature abilities.

Determining when to play 16 land (or fewer) is a much tougher case. Key points to think about when considering playing less land than normal are having a very low curve, or lots of additional mana cards (like Landcyclers from old blocks, Fertile Ground, Kodama’s Reach, etc). In LLM the only examples that really come up are a Kithkin build with a very low curve, a deck with lots of Green fixing, or a mono Red build with multiple Smokebraiders and a low curve. Here’s an extreme example of a deck that skimped on mana.

Flamekin Harbinger
5 Fertile Ground
2 Leaf Gilder
Lash Out
Nameless Inversion
Eyeblight’s Ending
Oblivion Ring
2 Elvish Harbinger
Imperious Perfect
Garruk Wildspeaker
2 Lys Alana Huntmaster
Wydwen, the Biting Gale
Sentinels of Glen Elendra
2 Mulldrifter
2 Swamp
3 Island
9 Forest

This was one of the earliest Fertile Ground decks I drafted in LLL, and also one of the most insane decks I’ve ever put together. Notice that this deck runs a measly fifteen lands and could probably have gotten away with running fourteen if I wasn’t gun-shy about getting screwed and losing with this monster. This is a very extreme example, and you really shouldn’t be playing fifteen land very often. The point of this exercise is to show that even going to sixteen isn’t common and generally will happen if you’re in Kithkin or a deck like this. Other slower decks like Giants or slow multi-colored Elementals will want to run eighteen land if they don’t get enough acceleration.

As far as my inbox is concerned, however, the most popular question regarding mana concerns in Limited is how you decide on the distribution of lands among colors. I think there’s a big misconception in the community in that a lot of players seem to think there’s some super secret equation or something that you use to determine exactly how to build your manabase.

Sorry guys, this isn’t Einstein’s laboratory, and it really isn’t that complicated.

The math is all pretty simple and can be done away from the table. The fact of the matter is that it’s more a matter of “feel” than math anyway. Sure, you can get down and precise about things, but if you’ve been playing long enough with any degree of success you’ll likely have an idea of what works and what doesn’t, and can just build your manabase on the fly.

What I generally do when I’m building is to sort by color once I’ve decided on my final 23. I then look down the color piles and see what my priorities are. Since I’m assuming a typical two-color deck here, you’ll usually have a 9/8 split for your mana with the occasional 10/7 ratio. The easiest way to determine the split is by looking to see what color has more double casting cost cards, and also which color has more cards overall. If I need a certain color in the early game I may also give it priority depending on my deck’s overall gameplan. All you can really do is take all of this information into account, try to find a balance there, and then go with it. So in this instance, E does not equal MC squared.

I debated whether or not to post a bunch of examples here, but I think I’ve come up with a better idea than that. Instead of me taking up a ton of space posting decklists and then giving short reasons why I built the mana the way I did, I want to get some input from you guys. Feel free to post some decklists in the forums (or email them to me), and I will take a look at them and give you some feedback on the mana and hopefully have some idea why you had trouble with it that can help you in future drafts.


The second concept I want to discuss today is the issue of splashing.

First, let me issue a disclaimer: For those of you who don’t know, I’m a splashaholic and currently attending rehab to remedy the situation. For the time being I am likely to recommend more aggressive splashing than is likely necessary, and while I’ll attempt to keep the information sound for the average player, you should still take it with a grain of salt.

It’s a known fact that I love to squeeze every possible color into every deck, and that cards like Horde of Notions excite me. That being said, I can still be very controlled and draft standard decks when I have to. My biggest observation in general is that I think the average player probably doesn’t splash often enough. This is certainly not a huge mistake, as if you instead splash too often in situations where you shouldn’t be, the results will be absolutely disastrous. Not splashing enough can only lose you a little bit of value, and if the extra consistency adds more confidence to your game then it really can’t hurt you too much.

The first part of this topic is which cards exactly to splash. Most people already know that you want to be splashing removal and bombs (mainly), as well as filling a hole in your deck when you can. You want to focus on cards that are easy on the mana, and avoid double colored cards in most situations. There are certainly some times (like the decklist above where I “splashed” Dread) where it’s worthwhile, but the general rule is to keep it consistent. It’s hard to really get card specific in this area because then we have to be format specific as well. I will talk a little about it though, because certain LLM cards illustrate specific nuances about splashing and I think it’s worthwhile.

First, Mulldrifter is essentially the ideal splash card. It’s a flier for decks that are lacking in that department, and it’s a bomb in that it draws two new cards. It can also be Evoked (albeit less often since you won’t have too much splash mana) to get you out of an early game jam.

Now let’s take a look at a trickier card like Imperious Perfect. Seems pretty splashable, doesn’t he? The Perfect will generate a whole army by itself and it doesn’t even matter that you have no other Elves in your deck because he’ll make them. Certainly a bomb, but I wouldn’t recommend splashing this very often for the simple reason that you need a Green mana to activate it every turn. I don’t know about you, but I tend to splash off Vivid Lands, Shimmering Grottos, Fertile Grounds, and Smokebraiders, and those aren’t the best for needing mana of a splash color every turn. Perfect is also a 2/2 that will die almost instantly upon sight, so you went to all that effort for nothing a decent amount of time. The main thing is that it’s hard to support the Green every turn, and if you don’t get him online until the very late stages of the game where you do draw that Forest then he might not do enough to matter.

Another issue is when to splash that double colored mana bomb (or triple in the case of Incarnations). The key question to ask yourself is this: “Just how good is this card?”

The answer to that question will almost always let you know whether or not you should be splashing it. If it’s Profane Command, Austere Command, Titan’s Revenge, or possibly a Planeswalker, you should probably try to get it in there, while if it’s just something like a Primal Command you should pass on it. Even splashing Planeswalkers should be done with caution, as only the best ones are really worth it and they are still very hard on the mana. As far as splashing Incarnations goes, I really only do it with multiple Smokebraiders and/or other fixers involved , and only if my color issues are loose enough to afford it.

Another thing you want to think about during the draft is when you should think about splashing more than usual. Of course, if you’re in Fertile Ground then you’re just taking the best cards, but when else should you do it? The main times in my mind are those where you are in an archetype that is lacking removal like Merfolk or Kithkin. Merfolk is stable and slow enough that you can certainly afford splashing a Lash Out, Eyeblight’s Ending, or Pack’s Disdain if you didn’t pick up any Moonglove Extracts or Oblivion Rings in the first two packs. How else are you going to deal with that annoying Flamekin Spitfire or Dreamspoiler Witches that is going to wreck you? Planning ahead and actively searching out splash options can really help you in these spots.

Yet another time to splash is when a bomb just happens to fall into your lap and there isn’t really a great pick for your deck. Imagine you’re again UW Merfolk going into pack 3 when you happen to crack that Titan’s Revenge. You can probably support it off three Mountains, dude. You won’t want to cast it until very late in the game anyway, so go for it.

Finally, and possibly the most important consideration involving splashing is how many sources to play for each number of cards. I constantly have friends messaging me on AIM asking how many sources they should play to support X cards. This is obviously deck dependent, and some decks can allow you to play more sources than others. You have to first take a look at your main colors and see how tough the mana concerns are there. After that, check for any fixers like Vivid Lands or Fertile Ground, and then make your decision. Here are some general numbers that I use that are a good starting point. Assume that all splash cards are single colored mana, as it gets more complicated with double colored considerations.

1 splash card – 1-2 sources of mana
2 splash cards – 2 (sometimes 3) sources of mana
3 splash cards – 3-4 sources of mana
4 splash cards – 4 sources of mana
5 splash cards – okay, you’re basically straight three colors now…
86 splash cards – these are forty card decks, jerk

I know that’s not too specific, but it really does vary from deck to deck. The most common situation for me is to be splashing two cards (example: Nameless Inversion and Eyeblight’s Ending) and run two Swamps for those. If I have a Vivid Land and a Fertile Ground I’ll probably still run two Swamps and count it as gravy in most decks. If, however, my main colors require lots of colored mana, then I may go down to one Swamp and it will still be three solid sources. The other case I wanted to expand on is when you’re only splashing one card, like a single Mulldrifter. Whether you want to play one or two splash lands is really dependent on the color issues for the rest of your deck, as well as how good the card in question is. If it’s a Mulldrifter then I probably want two Islands so that I can have a shot at Evoking it early if I need to, and also to make sure I’m casting it when I draw it. If it’s something a little worse, like a Lash Out, then you can probably get away with a single Mountain unless your mana is strong enough to afford more.

I also want to mention that while I used lots of LLM cards as examples (because they are current), these ideas translate to any format. Hopefully these are solid guidelines for anyone with questions.

By the way, if you ask me how many splash lands are required for 86 splash cards via email I will probably hate you (or at least strongly dislike you) forever. So don’t do that, okay?

I will be happy to answer any other questions regarding splashing or anything in this article in the forums ,and I strongly encourage you to post some decklists for which you had trouble finalizing the mana. I’ll try to point you in the right direction.

See you in forumland.

Nick Eisel
[email protected]
Soooooo on MTGO