When you first start playing Limited, you are taught the two basics: run two colors, and stick to 17 lands. And most of the time, you’ll stick to that recommendation. However, it is good, once in a while, to add an extra color, as a splash can make your deck much stronger.
At first let’s make a few things clear. If you’re not playing in a format which features infinite mana fixers (Ravnica block, Invasion block), a three-color deck should have a two-color core with a splash, or possibly a one-color core with two splashes.
Strengthening your average card value is pointless if your chances to get into mana troubles gets higher too. Therefore, you will want the third color cards to be very efficient. Here are a few elementary rules to respect when you want to splash:
Only Splash Very Few Cards
By splashing, you’re making your manabase more vulnerable to problems. The fewer cards and the fewer lands you splash, the more you limit those problems. In the best case scenario, you splash a pair of cards, and in the worst case you have four. If you have a larger amount of splash cards, it’s very unlikely their quality will compensate with the mana issues you’re going to have to deal with.
Only Splash Key Cards
You know you will not always draw the splash cards and the lands you need to cast them at the same time. Therefore, you will often draw “dead cards,” or cards which just stay in your hand and do nothing, acting as if they were a mulligan. It is only acceptable if, at the very moment you draw the mana to play them, they have an immediate impact on the game.
Usually, two kinds of cards live up to that expectation: removal and bombs. If you eventually find your Mountain on turn 9, it’s okay because your Fireball should still have a heavy impact on the game. The same goes with your Swamp for Doom Blade.
There is one last type of card which belongs to that category: sideboard cards. If you want to answer a specific threat, then it’s okay to splash for it.
Splash To Compensate For Your Deck’s Weaknesses
A Mono Black deck will possibly splash Ice Cage and Horned Turtle so he doesn’t lose to White Knight. A UW deck which doesn’t have any removal will be glad to splash, even for an Assassinate.
Let’s take a few examples of cards to splash (or not to splash):
Lightning Bolt in UW (packing no removal):
Lightning Bolt is not a bomb, but you don’t really want to play a deck which doesn’t have any answer to creatures.
Lightning Bolt in UW (packing Pacifism, Harm’s Way, Divine Verdict, Essence Scatter):
If you have several removal spells already, you probably won’t splash for “just” a removal spell.
Merfolk Looter may be my favorite common in M10, but it is definitely not a card I am splashing. In a splash, your chance of actually playing it on turn 2 are very low, and if you find the right mana to cast it on turn 10 but it just dies to the Sparkmage Apprentice your opponent has been holding for the whole game, it’s not worse the risk. In general, creatures are not very good splashes as they simply die to several cards in your opponents’ decks.
A card that wins games on its own and costs only one colored mana definitely is a card you will splash in 90% of your decks. A Fireball/Earthquake card is pretty much the ideal splash.
Safe Passage after board against an Overrun + Earthquake deck:
Safe Passage is definitely not a good enough card to deserve a splash in the main deck, but against some decks (Red/Green, mostly) it is a top level splash card, good enough to justify being sideboarded in along with a pair of Plains.
Green: the Exception
Most of the fixers are Green, which allows the mages using this color to be a little more flexible. For instance, a deck using Rampant Growth and a pair of Borderland Ranger can afford to splash a wider variety of cards. Let’s say you’re GB and don’t have any flyers. Then Razorfoot Griffin becomes a very decent splash if you have enough fixers to run it. Therefore it is definitely not a card you would want to splash in UB, for instance, as it doesn’t necessarily have an immediate impact on the board when you cast it, but it is still a very decent card to add to a deck whose mana won’t be affected.
Adjusting the Manabase
Knowing which cards you can splash is one thing, but knowing how to build your mana around it is another. Let’s start with the more simple examples: splashes in a one-color deck.
You want to put in enough lands to be able to cast cards from your splash, but few enough to make sure it doesn’t keep you from casting guys from your main color!
Let’s say you have a White deck which has double White Knight and one Veteran Armorsmith, and you want to splash for Lightning Bolt and Fireball. Then you’ll probably go with a 14/3 or a 13/4 manabase. Indeed, you don’t want your splash to keep you from playing a turn 2 guy, while it’s okay to wait a while for your Red mana as your Red cards will instantly have an impact on the game, and as one of them is perfect in the late game anyway.
Now let’s take the same example, except that you replace your Knights with a pair of Silvercoat Lions. Then, drawing two White mana in the early game won’t matter that much and you’ll essentially focus on being able to cast your Red cards anytime you draw them. The ideal manabase will be 11/6.
If you take the case of M10 more specifically, you’ll notice one deck that is often mono colored, which often needs a splash but doesn’t really want one: Mono Black. Indeed, the deck has some weaknesses (Whispersilk Cloak, White Knight), but it doesn’t really want to splash, as many of his cards (Looming Shade, Consume Spirit, Tendrils of Corruption) are a lot more efficient when you have all lands of the same type. Therefore, you will only splash for top level cards (Fireball and Earthquake, basically), for removal when you miss playables, and for sideboard cards when needed. In a Mono Black deck, if you want to have the same splash as mentioned before (Fireball plus Lightning Bolt), you will usually go for a 15/2 manabase, so the splash doesn’t hurt your synergy too much.
There is one last possibility for a one-color deck to splash, which is not to splash one, but two colors. It is obviously not advised (except if you’re Green), as it will cause mana situations for sure, but it’s still an option when you get passed bombs from two colors other than your main one. Let’s say, for instance, you first pick Mind Control in a M10 draft, and then second pick Lightning Bolt. From then, you only pick White cards in pack 1. In pack 2, the best card you open is by far Prodigal Pyromancer; you pick it, then you take a pair of White cards, then a Wind Drake, and then White cards again. In pack 3 you receive Magma Phoenix pick 2, take it, and then receive one Ponder, one Sparkmage Apprentice, and White cards again. These things happen. Once in a while, the strongest cards you get passed come from a color which is not the one you intend on playing, but you still pick them, either because you don’t have anything interesting in the pack, or because you think the card is strong enough to justify a splash. In this case, I’d highly recommend not going for a 6-6-6 manabase. This is the worst thing there is, and it will cost you lots of games. You should try and have a main color as the deck’s core, and then a maximum of five cards of each of the other colors.
Then you can go for a 8-5-5 manabase. It’s not great, and it’s not what you want to draft, but with a solid core you should still have decent draws, and you should have enough mana to cast the cards you will splash when you draw them. Five Mountains for Magma Phoenix or five Islands for Mind Control aren’t much, it is true, but those cards still have a huge impact on the game, so it should compensate.
Now, what do you do when you are two colors?
Considering you splash only for removal or bombs which cost only one colored mana, you will need:
2 sources for 1 card.
3 sources for 2 cards (2 is decent if you can’t afford more).
3 sources for 3 cards.
4 sources for 4 cards.
As sources, I mean cards which add mana from the needed color all the time. Many of the fixers can’t really be considered as true sources. Let’s take a few examples.
Esper Panorama/Terramorphic Expanse = 1/2 a source, as it won’t necessarily go for the land you need, as you may need two or three of them.
Rampant Growth/Borderland Ranger = 2/3 of a source, as you already have your Green mana, so you need only one of the other two colors to gather your three different lands, which shouldn’t be too hard to accomplish.
Birds of Paradise = 1/3 of a source, as I’m not building my manabase around a guy which could die at any time.
Manamorphose/Chromatic Sphere = 1/3 of a source, because if I draw it but don’t have a splash card in hand, I’m not intending on waiting for a topdeck before casting it.
Sometimes, however, a card may be a very good splash in theory, but not actually be so good. Let’s take the example of a draft I’ve covered two weeks ago.
1 Mold Adder
2 Runeclaw Bear
1 Deadly Recluse
1 Merfolk Looter
2 Sage Owl
1 Elvish Archdruid
1 Centaur Courser
2 Giant Spider
1 Prized Unicorn
1 Stampeding Rhino
1 Djinn of Wishes
1 Air Elemental
1 Essence Scatter
1 Rod of Ruin
1 Entangling Vines
1 Howl of the Night Pack
That deck is really good; it has Djinn of Wishes (UU), Air Elemental (UU), Elvish Archdruid (GG), Overrun (GGG), Howl of the Night Pack (infinite G), lots of early drops which make it necessary to have both my Blue and my Green mana on turn 2, and not a single fixer. In this case, I decided to leave Earthquake in my sideboard. If I had had one copy of Borderland Ranger, Rampant Growth, or Terramorphic Expanse, I’d have ran it along with one Mountain.
Therefore, keep in mind that splashing, even if it can be extremely useful, is nothing more than an option. It’s a strong option at times, but it can be one which is very vulnerable to bad mana draws, so just focus on keeping your deck constant.
Until next week…