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Mmmmmmmmmana…Five Rules For Avoiding Mana-Screw

I’m starting to get truly excited about Regionals, even if I still don’t know when they’re occurring. In fact, all of Team Purple Pepper is more focused than I’ve ever seen them. Having the team has made us all better players and better deck-builders, and some of the craziness that’s being thrown around these days…

I’m starting to get truly excited about Regionals, even if I still don’t know when they’re occurring. In fact, all of Team Purple Pepper is more focused than I’ve ever seen them. Having the team has made us all better players and better deck-builders, and some of the craziness that’s being thrown around these days is almost as effective as it is crazy. Beware the Pepper.

And beware Wood. Three people have e-mailed me to let me know they’ve won local tournaments with the Fattie Wood deck, and our newest teammate Stephan recently cleaned house at Ballpark Cards in San Francisco with it. I love that deck enough to postpone my frantic deckbuilding. Amazingly (at least to me), I am taking the time to test each slot in the deck and play against”normal” matchups. I’m not sure the Wood deck I bring to Regionals will look a lot like the one I’ve written about, but it will likely be the deck I’m, uh… sporting.

Man, I’ve been trying to avoid that joke for three articles now.

Anyhow, Team PP has been building and testing a lot of decks. One of the first, second and third revisions many of these decks see is with their mana base. One teammate pointed out that my decks – while getting heavily revised – usually seem to have the right land balance. It’s not something I had thought a lot about, but I had to agree: I have a knack for deciding how much land a deck should have and finding the right land-mix for multicolor decks.

As it turns out, my”knack” is pretty easy to explain. I follow a fairly straightforward formula for land in decks. Here it is, in all of its unoriginal glory, to help you in building your own Regionals deck.

Keep in mind that these are guidelines only. Magic is a complicated game and it’s easy to build wacky decks that are difficult to fit into these general rules. The only real way to get the right number and mix of land is to playtest the crap out of your deck. There is no substitute for playtesting, no matter how cerebral you are. These rules, though, hopefully put you a few steps ahead in revising your new R/U control deck.

LAND COUNT

There are really two steps to figuring out the land to any deck. The first question to answer is how _many_ lands belong in any given deck. I’ll call the number of lands in your deck your”land count.”

Let’s assume for the sake of sanity that we’re all building sixty-card decks. I know a lot of people don’t follow the sixty-card rule, but I do. I imagine as my metamorphosis into Jamie Wakefield continues, I’ll begin to question this decision. But for now I find sixty cards is a number I understand.

Rule #1: Your land-count should correspond to your deck’s strategy.

Deciding on the number of lands first begins with the overall strategy of the deck and the deck’s mana curve. Use the following table to find your overall strategy for winning and your card-mix:

LAND
STRATEGY
MANA-CURVE*
Less than 20
Very aggressive beatdown
Almost exclusively 0-2cc
20
Aggressive beatdown
32 or more spells of 0-2cc; 8 spells 3cc or higher
22
Beatdown deck with utility
20-28 spells of 0-2cc; Aggro-control 10-18 spells 3cc or higher
24
Generic deck
Deck w/ light 10-20 spells of 0-2cc; control or light beatdown 16-26 spells of 3cc or higher,
usually w/ some high-cost spells
26
Control deck
Combo deck Varies, usually some high-cc spells
28
Heavy control-oriented deck
Varies, usually some high-cc Light”Land-deck” spells
30+
“Land-deck”
Usually ridiculously high

*The mana-curve numbers might not be exactly right, but treat them as roughly right.

Most of those terms should be self-explanatory, except maybe the idea of a”Land Deck,” which I consider a deck focused on land as its primary strategy. Any deck built around Clear the Land, for instance. Bad.dec is an example of a successful Land Deck.

From looking at the chart, it’s easy to see that for any deck you should start with 24 land as a basis, then lower the count as the deck becomes faster and more aggressive or raise the count as the deck becomes more mana-intensive and control-oriented.

To use the table, locate the deck you’re thinking of building or have already built. If the mana curve and land-count doesn’t fit the strategy, then you should probably re-examine your card choices.

I’ve noticed that new players almost always use too little land. Most people start out with the 20-20-20 Rule… Twenty land, creatures and non-creature spells. As a first pass at deck-building, this rule gives a helpful template for building a deck. What new players find by following the 20-20-20 Rule, though, is that they lose a lot games and get mana-screwed a lot.

Without enough land, all of those exciting spells in your hand look pretty silly. Although it hurts to take out your third and fourth Rhox for two more Forests, it’s probably a good idea.

There may be some times, though, when the columns of the table don’t coincide. Usually the mana curve of a deck doesn’t correspond to its strategy and land-count because of non-land mana sources like elves, diamonds, pieces of Ramos, etc. A lot of people decide this means they can substitute non-land mana for land on a 1-to-1 basis. Unfortunately, it doesn’t usually work this way since you need the mana to initially _cast_ those alternate mana sources.

Rule #2: For every two sources of non-land mana, lower the land-count by one.

Using the idea that non-land mana generally subs for land on a 2-1 basis, it becomes relatively easy to find a starting land-count for a deck. A green control deck using four Llanowar Elves and four Vine Trellis, for example, probably wants to start with twenty-two land in its initial stages instead of the suggested twenty-six. If you’re non-land mana costs more than three mana to cast, like a Skirge Familiar, then this 2-1 rule doesn’t work and you should stick to the table.

There are a few truly complicated cards that threaten this rule. Cards that produce multiple mana, like Gaea’s Cradle, Rofellos, Thran Dynamo, etc. make the initial decision of land-count difficult. In addition, 1-shot mana sources like Dark Ritual and Grim Monolith are difficult to gauge. Generally speaking, though, I would stick to Rules 1 and 2 even when using these cards and lower or raise the land-count through playtesting.

Deciding whether to use Hickory Woodlots or Forests is a debate outside the content of this article. Consider questions like whether you need mana on the first turn, whether you need land at all late-game, and whether you need a burst of speed to get going. The answers to these questions will start to give you an idea about whether you can survive with temporary mana sources like the Masques depletion lands.

LAND MIX

If you’re building a mono-colored deck, finding the right land count is almost your entire battle. When adding two or more colors, things start to get mighty complicated. With two colors, you never seem to have the double-blue for your Counterspell, and you keep getting stuck with Birds of Paradise in your hand with four Plains on the table.

The assortment of different land in your deck I’ll call”land mix,” and having the right land mix is as important (and as commonly messed up) as having the right land count.

Getting mana-screwed consistently either means you don’t have the right land-count or land-mix in your deck (or both). If there’s a question look at the kind of problems you’re encountering. If you don’t have _enough_ lands to cast the spells in your hand, you have a land count problem. Similarly if you keep drawing land and stall in games, you have a land count problem.

If, however, you have the five mana you need but it’s the wrong color then you have a land-mix problem. Land mixes are easy to figure out in Extended when you have dual lands, Undiscovered Paradise, Gemstone Mine, pain lands, etc. to compensate for bad deck-building. In the current Type 2, though, making a multicolor deck means paying very close attention to the land mix of your deck.

Rule #3: The ratio of colored spells in your deck should correspond to the land mix in your deck.

This may be an obvious point, but if you’re building a B/R speed deck with nineteen red spells and nineteen black spells, then you want an even number of swamps and mountains (in this case, eleven each). If you have twice as many red spells as black spells, you want a 2:1 ratio of Mountains to Swamps.

For this rule, consider specialty lands like Remote Isle as equal to Islands. Colorless lands that require colored mana to activate them, like Yavimaya Hollow, should probably be considered a spell for land-mix purposes. If you are using pain lands like Sulfurous Springs, ignore their slots for purposes of the land mix.

I’ll use the example I started earlier to explain these last points. Let’s say I’ve built a moderately fast B/R deck using 22 lands and I have exactly 19 each of black and red spells. Someone tells me I should use Sulfurous Springs instead of just Swamps and Mountains. What’s the correct land-mix?

Sulfurous Springs provides both black and red mana, so counts as a mana-source of both. I have 22 land, so I’ll subtract 4 from the count for ratio purposes to correspond to the 4 Sulfurous Springs. This gives me:

4 Sulfurous Springs
18 other land

Since my ratio of black spells to red spells is 1:1, I just divide my lands equally between Mountains and Swamps. I now have:

4 Sulfurous Springs
9 Mountain
9 Swamp

What if I use Ghitu Encampment? An easy answer would be to take out 4 Mountains for 4 Encampments. The problem with this is that the Encampment also requires an activation cost. So suddenly instead of 19 red spells and 19 black spells, I have given myself 23 red spells and 19 black spells. Thus now red spells are 55% of my spells instead of 50%. Accordingly, my land-mix should change to:

4 Sulfurous Springs 4 Ghitu Encampment
6 Mountain
8 Swamp

I’ve ignored the Springs, since they produce both colors. Now roughly 55% of the remaining 18 lands produce red mana, while the other 45% produce black mana. Given basic land, this would correspond to 10 Mountains and 8 Swamps, but now the spell ratio is correct such that 4 Ghitus can replace Mountains on a 1:1 basis.

When I decide on a land-mix for a deck, I literally count the number of spells of each color, take out a calculator to figure out the ratios then multiply that ratio by the number of land I’m using. Not rocket science, but more trouble than I think most people go to when deciding on their land.

The way I’ve used Sulfurous Springs demonstrates how beneficial multi-colored lands are. When figuring out the right percentage of mana-producing lands, I can effectively ignore the Springs since they count as both Mountains and Swamps. An even more radical idea would be to use Springs _and_ Cities of Brass, giving a land-mix like:

4 City of Brass
4 Sulfurous Springs
4 Ghitu Encampment
4 Mountain
6 Swamp

You as the player have to decide how much pain you’re willing to endure from the painlands – and this is almost assuredly too much – but the Cities do provide extra mana stability and allow you to use fewer basic Mountains and Swamps. The more duplicity you have in each land, the more likely you will have the mana to cast the spells you’ve drawn.

There are two wrinkles when counting your spells and deciding on the land mix. First you have to decide how to count colorless lands. When are Rishadan Ports, for instance, going to lead you more into mana-screw than help you?

This is probably the one area of deckbuilding where I design with intuition. If I’m using artifacts, it’s easier to justify colorless lands in a deck. If most of my spells only require one colored mana, it’s also easier to justify. When building a multicolor deck, though, use as few colorless sources of mana as possible to avoid mana-screw. There is probably a ratio of colored mana to colored spells you want in any deck, but it’s not something I’ve bothered to track.

The second wrinkle is how to count double-color casting spells like Counterspell. Yavimaya Elder might be a green spell like Yavimaya Granger, but the latter is much easier to cast than the former. Especially if you’re using the Elder in a multicolor deck, you are probably acutely aware of the difference in the old geezer’s casting cost.

Rule #4: Count double-cost spells as 1.5 of a spell when deciding the land mix.

When I am using double-cost (or more) spells like Plow Under, Treachery, Counterspell, Thrashing Wumpus, etc. I count each spell as one-and-a-half of a spell in figuring out the land-mix. Let me go back to my earlier example yet again:

Here’s my current decklist:

(red spells)
4 seal of fire
4 shock
4 hammer of bogardan
4 pillage
3 arc lightning

(black spells)
4 vendetta
4 spineless thug
4 skittering skirge
4 phyrexian negator
3 twisted experiment

You’ve figured out your land count and you know you want 22 land. Additionally, you want to use Sulfurous Springs and Ghitu Encampment.

The next step is to count the spells of each color. Black is fairly straightforward. All of the spells except for the Skirge are single-black casting cost. Each Skirge we’ll count as 1.5 spells (6 total) to get the final number of black spells as 21.

Red looks slightly more complicated. There are two double-red spells (hammer and pillage). We also have the Encampments, which require a single-red activation cost as a land. So with red we have:

+4 seal
+4 shock
+6 hammer
+6 pillage
+3 arc
+4 encampment

___
27

The ratio of red to black, then is 27-21, or roughly 56% red spells.

Of the 18 non-Springs land, then, we want 56% of them to be red-producing lands and 44% of them to be black-producing land. The result:

4 sulfurous springs
4 encampment
6 mountain
8 swamp

Which is pretty much what we had figured out earlier even without the decklist. But you can imagine how knowing the actual cost of your spells can change your land mix. Of course, this particular decklist breaks the last rule…

Rule #5: Use as few double-cost spells in a multicolor deck as possible.

Even with this land mix, the deck will get mana-screwed because of its double-cost spells (it does, however, have the right mix to compensate for the current decklist). Probably a better idea would be to take out the Hammers for Arc Lightnings and the Pillages for Stone Rains. Keep in mind that doing this would also change the red:black ratio and would require a different land-mix.

When building a multicolor deck, look for single-cost alternatives for double-cost spells. Sometimes there aren’t better spells than the double-cost variety, but often times you’re not losing much by stabilizing the mana.

Even if you have the right land count and mix, you’ll find that double-cost spells get you into trouble when trying to juggle two or more colors. Similarly, don’t use Rushwood Elemental in a deck with four Rishadan Ports, a Rath’s Edge and two Dust Bowls. I know he’s cool, but don’t.

CONCLUSION

I’ve developed these rules from paying attention to how the decks I build play. If I’m consistently getting mana-screwed, I try to get myself to focus on the nature of the problem. Carefully watching a deck’s performance goes a long way towards not only deciding whether to use Lightning Dragon or Flowstone Overseer, but also deciding whether to use twenty-two Mountains or twenty-three.

A lot of what I’ve said is common sense. But I’m not sure deck-builders think to match their mana to their strategy, to weight their mana to their colors and to limit their chances of mana-screw. Above all I’m not sure they pay close attention to how their decks are performing, mana-wise. At the very least, deck-builders do very little systematically to track their choices and justify them.

I can’t emphasize enough that these are simply general guidelines. I break each and every one of these rules all of the time. Like I said, Magic is complicated, and new deck ideas and new cards often call for new ways to count land and mana. If you’re breaking a rule, though, realize you’re doing so and consider why.

If you don’t, I’ll just laugh at you when I Desert Twister your one Swamp, knowing you have a Skirge in your hand. Well, I won’t laugh because that would be mean.

But I may chuckle a little.

Have fun. Questions and comments are always welcome. I apologize to all of the math students in the audience I’ve offended with my social science brain.

-j
Jay Moldenhauer-Salazar, Ph.D.
jay.moldenhauer-salazar@corp.sun.com
Proud Member of Team Purple Pepper