Sullivan Library – Case Studies in Rigorous Mana

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Today’s Sullivan Library visits the difficult task of honing one of the most underexamined elements of a deck: the mana. Adrian arms you with the tools you’ll need to bring your already sharp deck into the next level of readiness. Deckbuilders of all stripes have something to learn here. Do you know the three major constraints on mana development? Click here and find out!

I was talking with a friend of mine recently about his new deck. It struck me as a particularly exciting deck, with a lot of potential. He said he was planning on PTQing with it because he had just gone on a huge tear with it in online queues. His results were so good that he couldn’t justify playing anything else.

I looked at his spells, and I had to say that they looked good. There was the possibility that maybe a few of the cards could be better served as something else, but overall, it just looked incredibly solid. I got to his mana, though, and it just didn’t feel correct to me.

Even good deckbuilders often seem to fall flat when it comes to mana. The decklist that sticks out in my mind right now is Raphael Levy mono-Red deck from Pro Tour: Yokohama.

His deck’s spells are very, very good. I’ve talked with some players (notably Zac Hill, Ben Dempsey, and, I think, Richard Feldman) about the spells, and we largely like them, though we think that it is slightly off. The mana, however, frustrates me. What is so frustrating, you might ask, about 24 lands, comprised of 21 Mountain, 2 Fungal Reaches, 1 Molten Slagheap? The big thing to me, is how haphazardly it is put together.

The basic concept of the deck is absolutely great. In fact, this essential deck was what Ben Dempsey and I were advocating that Mike Hron play at that Pro Tour (though he would end up playing some home-brew monstrosity he put together on the train, mutating this deck into something that could actual beat his playtest partner Gaudenis Vidugiris, playing The Baron — a stupid decision that still kills me). The problem with the mana is that it cannot possibly be right. The split on Fungal Reaches and Molten Slagheap does nothing for the deck. The Slagheap doesn’t really give you the only bluff you might actually want (bluff for Stormbind). The best card that it might make you bluff at the time might be Void, but that isn’t actually a card that you would expect to see the deck actually pulling out. There is a small argument to be made that you might be bluffing the existence of 5 or more storage lands, but that is about the only reasonable bluff there. But, most importantly, the deck doesn’t include 1 Kher Keep.

Levy’s deck losing one Mountain is still going to have sufficient Red to be able to do everything that it needs to be doing at an incredibly consistent level. One Kher Keep is going to win him games, though, especially given both the kobolds potential use as Gargadon food and the incredibly annoying potential of the Keep versus his first round opponent, Tomoharu Saito. It’s not that Kher Keep is some potent weapon for the offense, so much as it is a card that let’s you feed it your extra mana and helps discourage or effectively prevent the attacks of opposing creatures. At the same time, I definitely would not recommend that Saito be playing Kher Keep.

R/G Stormbind
Tomoharu Saito
4th Place at Pro Tour on 04-22-2007
Time Spiral Block

For the sake of argument, I’m going to assume that Saito tested the amount of Green mana he needed to support four Stormbinds and three Assault/Battery. If his numbers of Green mana are correct, I know that I can definitely state that from my own testing, running 19 Red mana is the absolute minimum you can choose to run and easily support Blood Knight on turn 2 (often a critical play). Cutting any land for a colorless source would appear to cut into the needs of Saito’s deck. Levy’s deck can offer up no such excuse. The potential answers are either a failure to consider Kher Keep at all, or testing that wasn’t rigorous with regards to its mana.

Which brings me back to my friend. I looked at his mana, a very simple package of lands, and it seemed likely that it hadn’t been tested. There were obvious cards that weren’t being included, that generally are. This does not make them necessarily correct. It does, however, make them worthy of exploration.

Reasons for Rigor

Rigorous players often playtest to hell all of their spells. These same players often neglect their mana. I think this is likely because mana is a little bit less sexy. Another factor might be the tediousness of it. But, I think the most common factor is that the subtleties of one’s mana are often very hard to notice (especially in formats where mana options can be very complex). Recognizing the difference in two or three incorrect land can be very hard, especially if the deck essentially functions, regardless.

The thing about mana is that it intrinsically undercuts every single game. Games can be won or lost on your land. A pain land or even a Ravnica dual can result in your death. It’s even worse when you don’t actually have a land that you might be able to search for, and its absence results in a loss.

Sometimes, you don’t even notice the loss. You don’t recognize that the Zoo player who killed you wouldn’t have been able to finish you off if you hadn’t dropped that dual into play untapped. You do see that double Char, Incinerate. But, if that land was wrong, and should have been a Plains or some other basic land, it’s possible that that land was the bullet that killed you, not that final burn spell.

One of the clearest examples of the importance of mana was shown to me over ten years ago during the qualifier season for Pro Tour: Rome. I had just met Derek Rank, and he had this incredibly powerful deck. I would later learn that it’s “official” name was The Richmond Gun (so named because of its creation in Richmond, and the fact that it was of the archetype then known as “The Gun” — something that today we’d probably view as akin to Boros). I asked him what the deck was called, and he said (completely joking), “Um, call it ‘Pro Tour Jank’.” Thus, the deck was dubbed PT Jank.

When I wrote about the deck on USENET (the most widely read source for deck tech at the time, though The Dojo was quietly gaining a following), I included a little tidbit about his deck. I didn’t have the exact decklist, but I had figured out mostly everything. One of the things I didn’t have at all right was the mana. I was nearly correct, but that wasn’t quite good enough. Where there should have been four more Plains, I had put in Volcanic Island.

“Volcanic” Jank, as the Chicago guys would term it, would result in a lot of qualifications for people that season. No, they didn’t qualify with Volcanic Jank. They qualified because they beat some Jank player who didn’t have the Plains they needed. They sat on spells that they should have been able to cast, but couldn’t because of their Wastelanded Volcanic Island, or worse, because their double White just wouldn’t get out of their hand even without the “help” of a Wasteland. By the end of the season, Derek and his friends outright thanked me for mislisting their deck. They had apparently qualified three people on the back of beating Volcanic Jank, though who knows how many people might have played the list and done well enough with it, only to lose in the key moments.

In general, the considerations for mana that matter are bound by a few constraints.

The first constraint is spell speed. You need to be able to cast your spells in a timely fashion. This means, for example, that in Yokohama Red, according to my testing, you need a minimum of 19 primary Red sources (generally called Mountain) if you want to support your Blood Knight. This means that you need some number of Urborg if you want your Tendrils of Corruption to be usable by whatever turn you’ve determined you need it to be. This means that you should have a certain number of Blue and Green land to be able to support your Wild Mongrels and your Deep Analysis.

The second constraint is resistance to aggression. Whether you are an aggressive deck or a controlling deck, the fact remains that you can not generally run a deck with too much pain in it. Pain isn’t necessarily just from painlands, sacklands, or Ravnica duals. It also comes from running Legendary lands that an opposing aggressive deck is likely to play. It also comes from running comes-into-play tapped lands. The big reason for basic lands in decks generally comes from resistance to aggression. Taking too much damage of various different sorts (including the Time Walk that might come from losing a duplicate Legendary Land) can make you lose versus an aggressive deck, even if you yourself are aggressive. This is one of the key differences between this constraint and the spell speed constraint — a deck will be able to cast every spell quickly if it is jam-packed with all of the relevant sacklands, Ravnica duals, and City of Brass, but that doesn’t mean it won’t fold due to its own mana.

The third constraint is utility in the face of the long game. Here, these are the thoughts that govern you when going against decks that might play out longer. Were it not for this constraint, for example, you wouldn’t see the Yokohama block Mystical Teachings decks running Urza’s Factory (or multiple, multiple copies). For many aggressive decks, this means running an incredible number of sacklands to reduce their effective land count, or it can mean running special lands that do something, even if it means worse spell speed via color selection or coming into play tapped. Even combo decks often include these things. While the “long game” of many combo decks is actually very, very early, they are still designed with ways to deal with their excess mana in a “long” game — Cephalid Coliseum isn’t just a Dredge outlet; it is also a respond to the constraint of the long game.

There is a tension between these three constraints. They resist each other. In completely bizarre metagame, it can occasionally be possible to ignore one of the constraints, but you often do so at your own peril (“What do you mean that all of the Rock decks were knocked out by round 4!?”).

The Three T’s and the Limits of Theory and Tinkering

In general, there are three tools for selecting your mana: tinkering, theory, and testing.

Tinkering is the really fun thing in Magic. It comes from your gut. “What if we try out this card?” is the process that usually is a matter of tinkering. Brainstorming whether or not some new land is reasonable or not is the exact same thing as brainstorming whether or not a spell is good. Usually it is a question of whether a card fulfills some kind of function that can be useful or not. A great example of a card that was tinkered into being would have to be Llanowar Reborn. At a certain point, someone said, “Well, what if we try out this card? Maybe it will make our Tarmogoyfs scarier than theirs!” Keeping an open mind with regards to what is worth thinking about is the most useful part of this tinkering aspect. It has a cost in time to go through it, but it can often reap nice rewards. The thing about tinkering, though, is that at some point you should always go about actually testing the card to see whether it was worth it or not.

Theory can be a very powerful tool as well. It comes from your head. One of my favorite deck builders when it comes to theory has been Ben Dempsey. He’s made a smattering of decks, but often his contributions to decks are invisible. Take, for example, Brian Kowal’s States deck from a few years back, This Girl, the Angel deck that Mike Flores piloted to a Championship crown. The deck was largely Kowal, with small bits of input from his regular friends and collaborators. The mana was largely Ben Dempsey.

Every mana was incredibly rigorously thought through. In an aggressive, multiple-colored deck with some severe mana requirements, this is hard stuff. Ben was a monster. “This is the land you want because on turn 2 here are the spells you’ll be casting, and on turn 3, these are the spells, and on turn 4, these are the spells. This configuration will maximize your ability to cast the spells you want to cast on each of these turns.” I can’t do what Ben can. I can’t describe to you his process there (though maybe our editor can get him to write about it), but I can say that it is a great example of the way that one can use theory.

Theory and tinkering are useful tools. But they are nothing before the most important tool: testing. All the theory in the world can’t save you if you got your facts slightly wrong, and no amount of tinkering will matter if you’ve evaluated the card slightly off.

Through testing again and again, you can figure out that perhaps you need one copy of a Blood Crypt in your deck to search for in your Seismic Loam deck. It’s possible, in theory, that you might want more. It’s possible that one is the correct number. But only rigorous testing will help you figure out how many you should run. Maybe the number is zero. How can you really know unless you test it?

Tinkering can give you the fuel for really great ideas. Theory can give you a huge shortcut to having the correct build. But only testing can actually verify the things in a deck.

My friend used very sound theory to describe why he felt that his mana was just right in justifying himself when I brought up my concerns. He had everything thought out, and was resistant to even testing out alternate mana options as I suggested. I still remember my somewhat harsh response:

“Your attitude sounds wrong.”

Here is his:

“I can understand why that would be from your perspective… It sounds exactly like yours did when I was talking about mana in your Red deck, which sounded similarly wrong, but I’m pretty confident that I don’t want other lands just to have them.”

And this, to me, is the failure of theory. He was defending his decklist mana based primarily on theory, but comparing it to my defense of my decklist’s mana, which was based on lots of empirical evidence. Those two things are worlds apart.

Let’s say that theory gives you an equation that may even be correct. If you haven’t tested, you don’t actually know the variables that you’re plugging into the equation. You are plugging in guesses. So, while your output might be close to the right answer, it might be wrong enough to get you losses. Like I said to him then, if you’re serious about qualifying, take time to look at your mana. In my experience, having that mana perfect can make the difference between winning a tournament and a Top 8 or Top 16.

Theory is useful, and is often the result of experience. “Nineteen mountains in Yokohama mono-Red” was arrived at via rigorous attempts to push the limits of Red’s abilities. But it was arrived at through testing. And further, in a new format, the constraints are going to be different enough that the weight that you might have to pay to each could change the value of each constraint. Maybe for the following PTQ season, eighteen or twenty would have been correct for the same question (“How many Mountains does it take for an aggressive deck to comfortably play Blood Knight?”). It’s worth noting, that playing Blood Knight in the first place was likely a recipe for failure, but even if in a particular deck it wasn’t, the testing is the key to figuring that out. Theory, based on history, tells us that, for example, many sack lands are good in aggressive decks in Extended.

The simplest way to test changes in mana is just to slug it out. Make a radical change that you’re thinking about, and see what you think. Take, for example, a deck that might be able to benefit from sacklands. You could play the maximum number of sacklands. Here, you recognize that you’re going to be pushing up against the second constraint for the benefits of the third constraint. Proper testing should include many games against the aggressive lists of decks to see if perhaps you should pare down your sack lands a little.

Going back to the matchup with one less sackland might have notable results. Take notes of all of the damage you sustain. A 10-set might do it, if the results are incredibly obvious, but generally it won’t. Essentially you are playing a game of Salvo: choose the angle that you’re firing across the field, and when you determine if you’ve under or over shot the target, alter your numbers appropriately. At a certain point, you’ll have it close if not right on (like knowing that you should have 10 sacklands or maybe having it be a question mark between 9 or 10). More testing versus more opponents might help you hone it down, or maybe it is simply too close to call, and you have to check your gut or your head to see.

If tinkering comes from your gut, and testing comes from your head, it’s important to note where you’re testing, the most important part, comes from. It comes from your sweat. You have to work hard to get it out.

Some Case Studies from Past States Decks

In response to my friend’s criticism, let’s look at my current version of Johnny Walker Red (first discussed here):

4 Mogg Fanatic
4 Mogg War Marshal
4 Siege-Gang Commander
2 Chandra Nalaar
1 Jaya Ballard, Task Mage

4 Incinerate
4 Beacon of Destruction
3 Molten Disaster
1 Furnace of Rath

4 Mind Stone
3 Coalition Relic

2 Fungal Reaches
1 Pendelhaven
1 Kher Keep
4 Ghitu Encampment
3 Keldon Megaliths
3 Zoetic Cavern
12 Snow-Covered Mountain

4 Incendiary Command
1 Furnace of Rath
3 Pithing Needle
3 Jaya Ballard, Task Mage
3 Sulfurous Blast
1 Molten Disaster

Sadly, this deck has warped to try to respond to Dragonstorm (a winnable, if very hard matchup), and it is no longer the decklist I would have unequivocally recommended to anyone playing in Standard. That said, it is still pretty damn good.

Focusing on the mana, though, here are some explanations:

Mind Stone and Coalition Relic: The artifact mana in the deck helps it achieve its ability to play the “big spells” with ease. 33 mana is a lot of mana, and both of these serve a great purpose other than mere acceleration. Mind Stone changes back into a spell at need, and Relic allows the fast burst early into a powerful spell. Zac Hill had asked about this card versus Foriysian Totem, which is a very reasonable call, in theory, but in testing he was quickly convinced that the Relic’s burst speed was more important.

Ghitu Encampment and Keldon Megalith: Here, these two cards faced off against constraints. In the deck speed department, both allowed me to cast multiple-Red requiring spells, but also slowed me down on the turn they came into play. Versus the long game, the more the merrier, but in the short game, this could result in damage. The tension between the effect of the card and coming into play tapped was such that eight was not justified. At the same time, in the testing between States and the release of the decklist, it just became clear that the deck needed another finisher/answer, and the third Megalith justified its place. As the environment shifts, the Megalith is the card most likely to see changes in its numbers.

Snow-covered Mountain, Zoetic Cavern, and Fungal Reaches: The colorless lands here end up serving purposes as well. They can both be used to build up mana (when the Caverns are used as acceleration), and the Caverns also do the duty of being a potential source of damage or card advantage. Again, in a perfect world, you’d probably want to play four of each. But you can’t. The deck won’t let you. It needs its Mountains. The next likely candidate after Megalith for change would be Cavern. If you were to find yourself less in need of finishers, you’d probably want to shift out a Cavern for a Mountain or Fungal Reach (depending on whether the spell speed constraint or the long game restraint was more critical in the metagame). The choice to use Snow-covered Mountains was simply a means to potentially trick an opponent into thinking you were Snow Red, a la Bill Stark.

The Legendary Lands, Kher Keep and Pendelhaven: Both of these lands give a reasonable return at the cost of a Red colored mana. Pendelhaven can sometimes even be a Wasteland, which can be useful. Kher Keep would be a card that I would play three of, if only it wasn’t Legendary. The cost of losing a land via the extra Kher Keep is simply too much for the very real returns that having one in play gives. In other decks, this is not the case.

Take Eminent Domain (first discussed here), my State Championship deck from 2005:

4 Annex
4 Dream Leash
4 Icy Manipulator
4 Wildfire

4 Shock
4 Remand

3 Keiga, the Tide Star
3 Kokusho, the Evening Star

3 Spectral Searchlight
4 Dimir Signet

4 Dimir Aqueduct
4 Shivan Reef
4 Tendo Ice Bridge
2 Mikokoro, Center of the Sea
2 Miren, the Moaning Well
1 Oboro, Palace in the Clouds
1 Shinka, the Bloodsoaked Keep
1 Shizo, Death’s Storehouse
1 Minamo, School at Water’s Edge
1 Island
2 Mountain

Here is a deck with two copies of two different legendary lands. In this case, the deck was happy to play these lands as Wastelands on the rare opponent who might be playing them. Shinka and Shizo, for example, were cards that while rarely actually used on ones own dragons, could represent a Wasteland in many matchups. Oboro could do the same thing, if rarely. The double copies of Mikokoro and Miren were there simply because these cards were so incredibly good, and the cost of extraneous copies was greatly reduced by the resolution of a single Wildfire.

Certain other elements of the mana are also interesting. Spectral Searchlight (a card often removed from later versions of this list) guaranteed correct colors, but also doubled as a kill card against many controlling decks. Dimir Aqueduct in Eminent Domain was incredible, making recovery from Wildfire all the more easy, and “cheating” on the deck’s needs for lots of mana coupled with its needs for spell slots. (This innovation was, I think, the first major use of the Karoos for this purpose.) The single Island and double Mountain were there to finish off the color requirement already started by the many other multiple colored lands.

The previous year’s State Champion deck, Kooky Jooky (first mentioned here), had much simpler mana, but also was a result of rigorous testing:

4 Birds of Paradise
4 Sakura-Tribe Elder
4 Eternal Witness
4 Viridian Shaman
3 Hearth Kami
2 Duplicant
3 Rootrunner
4 Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker

4 Commune with Nature
4 Magma Jet
2 Sensei’s Divining Top

7 Mountain
11 Forest
2 City of Brass
1 Okina, Temple to the Grandfathers
1 Pinecrest Ridge

The mana of the time was far less versatile than it would soon become. The choices that bear the most noting are the non-basics. One Pinecrest Ridge? Really? The big reason for only one Pinecrest Ridge was the need to include more multi-colored mana (the deck could require RRR and, occasionally, GGGG), but the sheer weight bearing down on the metagame from Affinity gave the deck a strong second constraint: keeping the life total up. Eventually, after hundreds and hundreds of games, tinkering brought forth the idea of Pinecrest Ridge, while testing showed that one would be sufficient to get the mana right without causing the pain that an extra City of Brass would inflict. The single Okina matched with the absence of a Shinka came from another place entirely. Using an Okina, one could potentially save Kiki-Jiki from a Shock or Magma Jet. Shinka, on the other hand, would almost never be activated, but would occasionally be Wastelanded by an opposing Shinka. Notably, the sideboard also included a single Swamp, to support three Cranial Extractions from the board. With Birds of Paradise and Sakura-Tribe Elders, this was usually sufficient to fulfill the first constraint of spell speed in those matchups where the card was necessary.

My State Championship Ponza deck from 2002 (briefly discussed here) is another example of simple mana that matters, in a mono-colored deck:

4 Firebolt
4 Volcanic Hammer
4 Starstorm
3 Violent Eruption
2 Wildfire
3 Burning Wish
3 Pillage
1 Jeska, Warrior Adept
4 Blistering Firecat
3 Fledgling Dragon
2 Dwarven Blastminer
3 Barbarian Ring
4 Forgotten Cave
16 Mountain
4 Petrified Field

Here, the deck is nearly all color, with only four Petrified Field not generally providing Red. Testing was showing that returning the Cave and Ring was good enough that the deck could afford to be running 4 fewer Red sources. The 4 Forgotten Caves helped provide the deck fuel if it was flooding (especially useful with the Petrified Field), but probably most worth noting was the three Barbarian Ring.

Barbarian Ring was an amazing card in this deck. However, it did have this nasty habit of hurting you. This mattered a lot versus Madness, which you should generally be able to beat, at the top level of play, but often only barely. The three or more damage that a Barbarian Ring often represented for you when it was in play being used could be more than enough to lose you the game. Similarly, versus Psychatog, about the only way you could ever lose the game against that match was when they went aggro on you. The extra damage from a Ring could end it for you. On the other hand, the 4 Petrified Field would guarantee access to more Rings should you see your first one (almost a certainty versus Tog). The sideboard had Wish access to Overmaster and Slice and Dice, both useful in their own right, but also a means to attempt to find more mana via drawing it.


Remember, it is just as important, if not more so, to have your mana as rigorously tested as your spells. Theory and tinkering are important tools, but a well-honed deck needs to have had every element of it tested, and that includes the mana.

Recognize the three constraints (spell speed, resistance to aggression, utility in the long game) when designing your mana. They will help guide you. Even in the face of this guidance, however, it is important to remember that the three constraints are theory. This means that you still need to go to the table and test it out. All of the theory in the world won’t help you if reality is saying that you’re wrong.

With my friend from the beginning of the article, it’s totally possible that his deck list’s mana is perfect. He’s certainly tested the deck out, and it works. But that doesn’t mean that the mana can’t be pushed into being something formidable. That formidability can easily translate losses to wins just as surely as a lack of it can transform wins to losses.

Testing your mana isn’t sexy. It is, however, a good practice to get into your testing regime.

Good luck in the qualifiers remaining this season. I’m sure I’ll be seeing some of you at some of them. And if you’re my opponent, I hope you haven’t heeded my advice…

Adrian Sullivan