Reintroducing Stock Mana

StarCityGames.com Open Series: Indianapolis on March 13-14
Tuesday, March 9th – The winner of any Magic game is determined by the person who nets the most mana. What I mean by this is that spending mana is how you generate your advantage. Everything has a Stock Mana value (how much something is to cast) and an Equivalent Cost (how much it “should” cost, based on design guidelines in the game).

Stock mana is a theory that I wrote about in my previous column for another website. It recently picked up some notoriety because Flores talked about a theory he called “The Grand Unified Theory of Magic,” and it was literally identical to the theory I had written about months prior. Since then, I have been publishing some more work on the theory and going more and more in depth. I have a few more topics to go over in relation to it, but before I do, I am going to give you a quick overview on what it is. For the people who have read my previous articles on the subject, feel free to skip this section.

The winner of any Magic game is determined by the person who nets the most mana. What I mean by this is that spending mana is how you generate your advantage. Everything has a Stock Mana value (how much something is to cast) and an Equivalent Cost (how much it “should” cost, based on design guidelines in the game). A Scathe Zombie has an SM of 2B and an EC of 1G because of Grizzly Bears. A Watchwolf has an SM of GW and an EC of 2G because of Nessian Courser. Get it? Good. The theory relies on a schema of total mana. Card advantage is not important; all that matters is that you rack up more total mana used than your opponent. Card drawers are good because they give you more lands to tap for mana and more spells to spend mana on, not because they give you card advantage.

When you flood, you have the same amount of cards so card advantage doesn’t apply. The interaction advantage theory and option advantage theory are too hard to apply as you’d have to consider what the interactions/options would be, and it gets dirty and hard to calculate very quickly. Virtual card advantage begins to explain it, but stock mana obviously does the best job of breaking it down into easily accessible numbers, saying that you can’t spend more mana since you don’t have spells to cast with it. The same can be said for being manascrewed. You don’t have lands to cast your spells, so you can’t spend as much mana as the non-manascrewed player is spending. Hopefully this makes sense to you. If you’re not a big theory buff, this might not interest you at all, but I hope it sparks a little something for somebody out there. Now, onto the main body of the article.

I want to start off by explaining the purpose of the theory as it seems that many people don’t understand it. I have heard people call it useless and pointless and drivel, and the fact is that those people feel that way because I failed to explain the purposes thoroughly enough for them to understand the true value of Stock Mana as a tool in their competitive Magic arsenal.

The theory is not there to make you sit and tediously tally everything out as it happens. It is merely a way to look at specific cards, specific scenarios, specific match-ups, and specific interactions in a way that more easily explains what is going on. Tarmogoyf is not better than Grizzly Bears because it gives you more cards, or because it is a rare, or because it costs more to buy. It doesn’t give you more cards and it doesn’t have any abilities that give you more virtual cards. It’s merely bigger, and Equivalent Cost gives you a way to measure how much bigger it is (besides stats, which can’t be applied to non-creature spells or abilities and are thus not the best terms to measure cards up against each other).

It is not a way to play the game; it is merely a way of better understanding it.

At Pro Tour: San Diego, when I was trying to help Luis and crew test for his Top 8, he and Paulo teased me about the theory and then laughed at me when I tried to answer a question they presented. If they genuinely wanted to talk about it, I was more than happy to, but since they were obviously just out to have a laugh at my expense, I shut my mouth and was on my way. They think it’s funny because they don’t understand what I am trying to accomplish. I am not “solving Magic,” I am just giving a far more accurate way of looking at it than what has been presented in the past.

I am not inventing anything or “fixing” strategy. The reason that Luis and PV find Magic theory so useless is because they don’t need it; they all already know everything that us theorists are trying to describe. They just don’t know it under the names we give, or the exact descriptions we have; they just understand the root concepts on a very deep subconscious level from countless hours of playing and thinking, giving them the ability to play optimally through stock mana principles without having to label what they are doing. They have just discovered all of it on their own, in their own reactive subconscious mind, through trial and error. What they don’t realize is that not everyone else in the world has done that, so the theory is worth stating. The Level 8s are not my target audience, so of course they’re going to laugh at me.

If I wrote about how you should mulligan every zero-land hand and called it “The No-Land Theory,” you would laugh at me, too. I would be putting a title on something that is just blatantly obvious and not helpful to you at all. That is what this is like to them. It just so happens that they are in the infinitesimal minority. Don’t think that you’re above this stuff, because only, like, 50 people in the world are, and odds are you ain’t one of them.

I am also not saying that any of this is brand new stuff. I have been accused of stating the obvious and just performing mental masturbation with all of this useless theory stuff. Yeah, you may know that you are supposed to maximize your mana usage and that some cards are above the power-baselines. Everyone knew we stuck to the ground and that if you dropped something it would fall to the earth, too, but the development of gravitational theory was still groundbreaking.

I am not trying to say I am Galileo or Newton, nor is my MtG theory on the same level as gravitational theory. I know if I wasn’t absolutely clear on all of this I would just be inviting trolldom.

Anyway, I am also not saying that you should tap out every turn no matter what. If you have a Doom Blade and they play a Llanowar Elf, you do not have to instantly use it to maximize your mana. The potential of the removal spell will go up as the opposing player lays more important threats, at which point you can use it to get more mana’s worth of value out of it. The best example of this (somewhat ironically) is LSVs hypothetical situation that Paulo Vitor Damo Da Rosa wrote about a couple of weeks ago;

You keep Tarfire, Wort, Fertile Ground, and lands. Do you Tarfire your opponent on turn 1? For purposes of mana maximization (manaxization?), you would, but in the real world, that isn’t a very good play. It’s risking having a removal spell in a hand if they kill Wort all for 2 damage to the dome. It’s just not worth it. According to maximizing your mana usage, it would be the right play, but Stock Mana is different than that. We know that you are spending R and getting them from 20 to 18, which is worth something like half of an R. Instead, you could hold it, and if your Wort dies, you can kill a flier or Silvergil Douser and get far more in effective cost value for your R investment.

It is a common logical fallacy that many people have to think that tapping out every turn is what the theory is asking you to do. The problem is that thinking as such fails to account for EC. Flores makes this mistake in his original podcast on the concept. His example is that Think Twice in his control deck is better than Ancestral Visions because it gives you something to do with your otherwise unspent mana, and helps you make your land drops, which gives you more mana for the upcoming turns.

The second argument has some credence, but still is kind of shaky as you are just as likely to have a nice split of lands and spells and want more spells, at which point a card like Ancestral Visions would be better. That aside, the first argument is what is truly flawed. Think Twice costs you 5 mana over two turns, which gives you 3UU SM, while Ancestral Visions only gives you U SM.

Now, drawing cards is hard to assign an effective cost, because cards are really only tools to generate more Stock Mana value, but even though it is not as measurable in terms of how much it is worth to have an extra card, it is very quantifiable in terms of what drawing cards costs via the price versus effect baselines that have been clearly cut out for card drawing spells in Magic’s recent past. This makes it easier to show what the difference between the power level of Think Twice and Ancestral Visions really is if they are both in your opener.

Drawing one card costs about U (Reach Through Mists), or 2 if you count the card from a cantrip the same as a card from a card drawing spell (The difference being cantripping cards have effects that have an impact on the board, while dedicated card drawing spells do nothing but draw more cards).

Drawing 2 cards costs 2U (Counsel of Soratami, Divination. It’s like a cantripping Reach Through Mists). There are things like Courier’s Capsule that have it at 2UU, and things like Treasure Hunt from Worldwake setting 1.7 cards at 1U, but typically the average standby cost is going to be 2U, so that’s what I am going to use. One could also make the argument for UU or 4, in that you could have two Reach Through Mists or cyclers (which are really just cantrips tacked onto an effect that does nothing) since the actual amount of cards spent is irrelevant to our measurements.

Drawing 3 cards costs 2UU (Concentrate, Harmonize, Divination + Reach through Mists), and if you’ve been paying attention, you know that this sentence is going to say that it could also be classified as UUU if one chooses. I think 2UU is simpler in that I can point to Concentration and say “see?”, but for others it may be simpler for them to just divide and divide and get to the lowest common denominator of all of these effects and just count the amount of Reach Through Mists that are being resolved. I completely understand the logic of that thought process, but for my examples I will be using the way that I find more intuitive. If you choose to do it the other way, then it is more than okay, but you have to do it for every effect. As long as you are consistent, either approach is fine.

So sure, Think Twice lets you burn up 3UU, but what are you actually doing with that mana? You’re getting U for 1U, then later getting another U for the cost of 2U. You may feel like you’ve done more because you’ve spent more mana and reached for cards off of the top of your deck and put them into your hand more times, but the proof is in the numbers that you’re pretty much treading water.

Meanwhile, Ancestral Visions only costs you U and gives you the full 2UU of output. You have to wait for it, but being able to use your mana to do things like maintain board presence and stave off enemy combatants instead of having to tap out on a crucial turn to refuel is the underlying essence of Stock Mana. That is why Suspend cards were so powerful in Limited (and Constructed); you only had to spend very little actual mana to get an effect worth much, much more. Errant Ephemeron didn’t give you card advantage. It didn’t give you more options or more interactions. It just gave you more effective cost value.

Another question that has been asked of me is why you have to write out all of those colored mana symbols. Couldn’t you just say “2 mana” instead of “1G” or “1W” for Grizzly Bear? The answer is no. That is because 1G is worth slightly more than 2 (for reference, see any 2 mana artifact creature). In the same vein, GG is worth slightly more than 1G (See Elvish Warrior/Nissa’s Chosen). GW is then worth slightly more than GG (Watchwolf, Steward of Valeron). So yes, the intensiveness of the colors in the cost and the amount of colors in the cost are important to state. Otherwise we’ll be working in a system where Watchwolf is worth the same as Hedron Scrabbler. Or a system where Nessian Courser, Great Sable Stag, Leatherback Baloth from Worldwake, and Rhox War Monk all cost the same, when in reality that just isn’t true. A player will have to make sacrifices to their manabase to play with the Leatherdaddy Baloth or the Pancake Rhino, and that investment of resources and the risk voluntarily taken of getting color screwed should be rightfully reflected in the value assigned to the creature.

Now, even though Blue is historically better than Green, U is not worth more than G. It’s just one colored mana. The only thing worthy of note here is to know when a color is playing out of character. If you can get an effect of U for G, then it IS worth slightly more than just G because you are getting a harder to obtain effect without having to risk stretching your manabase for the U it should cost you for that effect.

For example, gaining 5 life can only really be done with White mana*. Drawing 3 cards can only really be done with Blue mana*. Some colors are better at doing certain things than other colors, so the default is to go by the color that ability is specialized in. For example, for a 2/2 in Blue or Black, it would cost 2U or 2B respectively, but Green and White are in charge for the category of crappy small dudes, so the baseline will be noted as 1G or 1W. That means that if Blue can get a 2/2 for 1U, the fact that they are getting 1G means it’s slightly more profitable than if it was 1G spent for 1G of an effect.

* Yes, I know Green and Black can occasionally gain life and that Black can occasionally draw cards. Stop nitpicking, you know what I am saying.

Someone asked me about Patrick Chapin line in his theory of options that basically states that the reason that you don’t want your life total to go to 0 is because then you have no more options. I say that this is very similar to the way my theory approaches death. You don’t want that last life point to tick because then you won’t get to spend any more mana. The fact that both of our theories lead to very similar conclusions on the subject gives a lot of respect to the approaches we are taking to explain death. Okay, yes, obviously the real reason you don’t want to lose is because then you will have lost and your record is worse or whatever. We get it. This paragraph is for the people with a capability for abstract thought. It’s about setting a precedent for emerging yourself into the theory of the game that may be lost on some who just take it at face value and can’t get beyond the literal. You don’t have to go the rest of your career thinking the described way, but understanding the theory at a level this deeply is going to resonate strongly in your game. Moving on…

Some cards have changing or alternating values. A 2/2 with no abilities will always be worth 1G, but a card like Tarmogoyf can change. Here are some simple examples from your average Extended Zoo deck.

0/1 is 0
1/2 is one colored mana (which will henceforth be referred to as C)
2/3 is GG
3/4 is 1GG or 3G
4/5 is GGG or somewhere between 2GG and 4G
5/6 is 5G, and so on.

Wild Nacatl
1/1 is 1
2/2 is 1G
3/3 is 2G

For a more ambitious attempt, you can do the same thing for Knight of the Reliquary. Its activated ability is only worth something if you use it, so if it is just attacking and blocking then judge it based on its size alone. If you are able to play a five-drop from four lands due to its ability, then it has netted you a bonus of 1 SM and grown itself by +1/+1 (or +2/+2 with a fetchland). You can use these benchmarks and predictions for what it will do over the upcoming turns to predict what it is worth, and what it will be worth down the line.

I have about two articles worth of additional material on the theory, so don’t think I’m done with this yet. I’ll probably print the next one in the coming week, but don’t hold me to that. If something else sweet comes up, I’ll put this off since it is a topic that isn’t restrained by time like a Standard deck or a tournament report would be. The next article on the topic is going to discuss countermagic and removal spells, as reactivity begins to be considered under the theory of stock mana. It’s already pretty much done, but you have to wait a whole week to see it. So there. The one after that talks more about the economics and mathematics of the theory instead of just explaining it and giving examples, and while that has been half-done for a few months, I have no idea when it will actually get off of its lazy butt and write the rest of itself.

Stay tuned for more tales of interest.

AJ Sacher