The Art of Magical Warfare – Curving Out

If you’re anything like me, the first time you heard the term “Mana Curve” it was either by someone much better than you, or it was on a website. For the longest time I never understood what a good curve really was, or how to build my deck with that mythical “Good Curve.” I would ask the same questions over and over, “What’s the shape of the curve? Is it a bell? An incline? I just don’t understand!” Well I’m here to help you figure out exactly what the mana curve is, so you won’t have to be like me and annoy people with those questions all the time.

History has demonstrated that the most notable winners usually encountered heartbreaking obstacles before they triumphed. They won because they refused to become discouraged by their defeats.

-B.C. Forbes

If you’re anything like me, the first time you heard the term “Mana Curve” it was either by someone much better than you, or it was on a website. For the longest time I never understood what a good curve really was, or how to build my deck with that mythical “Good Curve.” I would ask the same questions over and over, “What’s the shape of the curve? Is it a bell? An incline? I just don’t understand!” Well I’m here to help you figure out exactly what the mana curve is, so you won’t have to be like me and annoy people with those questions all the time.

A mana curve is all about your creatures; it’s a measure of determining how many creatures you have at each mana cost (one-mana guys, two-mana guys, three-mana guys, and so on). When you have two one-drops, three two-drops, four three-drops, four four-drops, two five-drops and one six+-drop, this is an example of a “good” curve. As you can see, it vaguely resembles an upside down bell curve, it starts small at the edges of the mana costs (one-drops and six+ drops) and is at its highest at the middle, your three- and four-drops. Now let’s talk about a term closely related and based on the mana curve, Curving Out.

Curving Out means casting a creature per turn whose cost equals the turn you’re on. In other words, it means casting a one-drop on turn 1, a two-drop on turn 2, and so on. Curving Out is an important concept when understanding the tempo of the game, a topic I’ll explore more in depth in a future article. For now understand that Curving Out is a great way to get ahead of your opponent and win the game. It forces him to match your efficient creature with his own efficient creature each turn, and if on one turn he does not have the drop to keep up, he falls behind in the race, forced to play a lesser drop which cannot compete with your bigger man.

It’s worth noting that not all creatures are created equal and curving out alone will not guarantee that you will win the game. However it’s a great starting point in ensuring that your deck is as efficient as it can be. Though rares and busty uncommons such as Isamaru, Hound of Konda and Nagao, Bound by Honor “jump the curve” as it were, trading with drops above their cost, these are the exception to the rule, and understanding that hitting each of your drops puts you ahead of your opponent is a must if you want to improve your overall winning percentage. Also with an understanding of the importance of the mana curve and its relationship to the efficiency of your deck you are equipped with the knowledge to positively impact your decision making process when faced with two ever-present choices in the game of Magic: when to mulligan, and what to do with your mana each turn.

All that your opponent wants you to do each turn is say go. All that you want to do is maximize your mana each turn. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve watched players waste turns, making plays that just don’t make sense based on this model. For instance, last night I watched a player on turn 4 with four mana in play and playing R/W ponder the decision of playing a Kitsune Healer or a Frostwielder. When he played the Healer and passed the turn after attacking with his 1/1 flyer and his 2/2 creature, I couldn’t help but groan inwardly. Based on what we were talking about above, the point is rather obvious. Frostwielder, with his ping ability, will be able to help his lower drop creatures trade with his opponent’s higher drops for no mana cost, while his Kitsune Healer will just allow his smaller creatures to survive longer. Why is this so unimpressive? Because as your opponent plays out higher drops, your lower drops become less and less valuable, as you are forced to trade two of your two-drops for your opponents one five-drop. Again, it’s a matter of efficiency and card advantage – that I, spending fewer cards than your opponent to do the same thing, and thus keeping more cards in your hand.

Also this is why saving removal is so important. I once heard a much better player than myself tell me something has resounded in me for many years. “Always save the last removal spell in your hand.” Every time Garrett “Scrap” Schapper said something like this, I just took it as gospel and didn’t ask why. Nowadays I still follow the gospel, but I understand why. Removal trumps the curve. This is so important in a discussion that is based on efficiency and the mana curve, understanding when you must bring out the big guns and when you can rely on your creatures and your life to impact the board is paramount to playing good Magic.

I’d like to finish with a discussion on how to mulligan effectively. If you’ve noticed, I’ve written this article with a fundamental goal in mind – winning. In each instance of theory that we’ve discussed, winning the game has been paramount in my mind, and most especially, talking about how you will win. Your opening hand is arguably the first and most important decider of how, and if, you will win the game. Mulliganing is a very important tool and unlike many other aspects of the game, gives you direct power over the cards in your hand. If your hand is incapable of winning the game, or is too risky to keep based on the lands in it, then you are allowed to negate the hand you were dealt and find a new hand. I see people too often regard mulliganing as a punishment, an unlucky break. Understand this immediately – viewing mulliganing as punishment for bad luck is a sure-fire method of remaining a bad Magic player. The choice to mulligan is the choice to exercise your will over the course of the game. Let me explain.

If you have a solid mana curve, that is you have a good number of two-, three-, and four-drops and are given a hand of Plains, Plains, Swamp, Swamp, Horobi, Death’s Wail and Hundred-Talon Kami on the play, what do you do? If you know that your deck is full of Kami of the Ancient Laws, Nezumi Cutthroats and Kabuto Moths, and other effective two- and three-drops, you will most certainly ship this hand. Why? Two reasons – first, you don’t curve out, and can fall behind to a turn 2 bear, turn 3 Gray Ogre to the point where you may not be able to recover if your opponent has a removal spell available. Second, Horobi, Death’s Wail is a situational turn 4 play, in that if you play him with a naked board on turn 4, he might well die to just about anything that can hit him. The same with the Hundred-Talon Kami, though he is a decent creature for his cost, by the time he comes down on turn 5, he doesn’t even trade with the best turn three-drop Red can muster (Ronin Houndmaster).

Another example: Island, Island, Wicked Akuba, Kami of the Waning Moon, Mystic Restraints, Teller of Tales, Rend Spirit on the play. This is another example of a hand that many players might keep, and they’d be wrong and complain about how they lost with such a powerful deck. Look at what must be drawn in order to for you to win this game – Swamp, any other land, within four turns. As it is, the Wicked Akuba is literally a blank card, and if you don’t draw two lands in the first few turns, you won’t have anything to cast for the entire game, and lose. Even if you draw 2 Islands, you will nothing but a Mystic Restraints in the first four turns, and lose regardless.

Finally let’s talk about an interesting dilemma I was faced with the other day. I’m on the draw. My hand is Forest, Orochi Sustainer, Sakura-Tribe Elder, Order of the Sacred Bell, Moss Kami, Kami of the Hunt and Consuming Vortex. If I draw any land in my deck in the first three turns, I have a great shot of winning the game. Why? Sakura-Tribe Elder. Not only will he come out and chump my opponent’s best blocker, he’ll also dig me to a third land, and I have plays for the rest of the game. If I didn’t have Sakura-Tribe Elder and instead I just had Orochi Sustainer, this is much more dangerous of a hand to keep and may warrant reevaluation. In included this example because it’s the type of hand that many players would immediately ship because of the one land, but it actually allowed me to win the game handily, even though I didn’t draw the second land until turn 3.

So to sum up, basically any three-land or four-land hand is good unless it’s completely off color and you have double casting guys in your hand of the wrong color or the lands are your splash. Also, one-land and six-land hands are usually unkeepable for just the same reason, even on the draw, even if the one card is really good. Even six-land Nagao, Bound by Honor is pretty borderline, and remember for God’s sake, six-land plus a Dragon is not a good hand. One removal spell and you’ve lost the game, and even without the removal, they may just not have enough guys to run around your big ole’ Rare.

Though a mulligan is a powerful choice and a decision that must be made with an eye for probability and potential, two things should be kept in mind. First, Magic is not a math problem. I see many mulligan articles talk about percentages of drawing a land and throwing numbers at this problem. Basically, ignore them after getting a basic understanding of what the chances of drawing a land each turn are (with a 17 land deck and a one-land hand with two two-drops, it’s a 48% chance to draw a land in the first turn, and it keeps getting slightly better with each non-land draw). As my friend said the other day, you just turned this game into a coin flip weighted slightly against you by keeping a one-land hand on the draw with two-drop, two-drop, three-drop, three-drop removal spell. There are a few situations where this might be advantageous – your play skill is inferior to your opponent’s, your deck doesn’t have a good curve yet features it’s two- and three-drops here, you don’t think your deck is better than your opponent’s. Remember that mulliganing to six is much worse when on the play than on the draw and that when you have a three-land or four-land hand that isn’t that exciting, then you are rolling the dice by throwing it away. Mulliganing to the perfect hand is always risky, and rarely if ever yields the desired results, rather stick with consistency and a chance to win.

I’d like to close out this article with a rather complicated play example that I was faced with last week. Here ya go!

My opponent is W/B, he’s got four land in play, he’s missed a few land drops but it’s only turn 6 and it’s obvious he’s got enough land to operate freely. It’s late in the draft (Match 8 of a 3 on 3) and my teammates have seen that his deck is basically … lacking in good cards and tricks. The board position is as follows: I have a Teller of Tales in play along with a Soratami Mirror-Guard. I untap, draw a land and play my sixth, split evenly between Islands and Forest. I have a Mystic Restraints, Kodama’s Might and Soratami Mirror-Guard in hand. My opponent has a bunch of cards and his board is a Villainous Ogre (tapped) and Kami of the Waning Moon (untapped). The life totals are me at 13 him at 15.

Let me start with the play I made, and how the game played out (it ends quick and bloody, don’t worry). I play a second Mirror-Guard and swing with my Teller, keeping my other Mirror-Guard and a G up for Might in case something goes wrong, with the option of Mighting and Mystic Restraining his two blockers next turn. My opponent untaps, swings with his Ogre, I go to 10 to his 12 and he plays a Gibbering Kami, with a White up. He has Blessed Breath – my teammates have seen it – so that’s definitely a possibility. He passes.

Next turn I draw a land and don’t play it to bluff more tricks in hand. I then try to Mystic Restraint his Gibbering Kami. He Blessed Breaths in response, Blue. I then think for a while and make a horrible play. I play Kodama’s Might on one of my Soratamis, tapping his Kami. I then swing all 3 into him. He blocks the 3/1 (unpumped) and takes 8, falling to 4. I say go. He untaps, swings with everything, putting me dead on board next turn. He says go. So right now he has 2 W and 2 B up, doesn’t lay a land, and has a full grip of cards.

I ask my teammates if they’ve seen Call to Glory. They say no, again. One mentions he actually cacked one and we’ve already seen two others, so that means this would have to be the fourth in a six-man draft. My opponent also knows I know all this, and by making an all-out attack has perfectly bluffed the Call. That said, he’s dead on board if he doesn’t have a trick and had unfavorable blocks assuming no tricks from his end, so an all-out attack was justified. I swing my way into a Call to Glory and Indomitable Will on Gibbering Kami later and I’ve traded my board for Kami of the Waning Moon. I scoop.

Did you spot the major misplay? It was on the turn I played the Mirror-Guard. As I was told later, the best way to win that game was to swing for an untradable untrickable eight damage. It would put him behind the race, he would be unable to swing back effectively, and it would mean I would no longer have to swing everything every turn to stay in the game. By playing Kodama’s Might on my 3/1 and tapping his Kami of the Waning Moon, I swing for eight, play another Mirror-Guard and say go. Now when he has Blessed Breath for my Restraints I can elect not to swing at all, staying back five points ahead, rather than being forced to swing into his protection guy in order to stay in the race.

(Note – if you are not within one attack phase of evening the life totals, you’re not racing, you’re either winning or losing. Note also – I’m including spells in hand to be damage in this case, so a race where you have Devouring Greed but yet on board are behind is even better, because your opponent doesn’t even know that you’re racing and might make wrong decisions!) As it turned out, the game may well have been unwinnable because he had Call to Glory and I drew three straight land, but this completely beside the point. The unmolested attack for eight while he as tapped out was vastly superior to my plan of Mystic Restraints and tap his guy while pumping one of my own one turn. It’s too greedy and a resulted in a trade for eight damage for my 3/1, instead of eight damage for no loss, and then I lost the game.

That’s all I have for this week. Happy Holidays!

Michael L. Clair

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Airclair on MODO