The Basics: Getting The Mana Right

Last week, I sat down in a multiplayer game with a handful of opponents. I smashed them. It wasn’t even close. I pulled out another deck – a deck that was a lot weaker – and smashed them again. Then I bashed them with a deck I had drafted the day before. Why? Because I had a better understanding of how mana worked than they did…. And yes, it is that important.

Last week, I sat down in a multiplayer game with a handful of opponents. I smashed them. It wasn’t even close. I pulled out another deck – a deck that was a lot weaker – and smashed them again. Then I bashed them with a deck I had drafted the day before.

The reason was that they kept getting mana screwed. They had great cards in hand, but kept discarding them. I killed them before they could play anything significant.

Afterwards, we talked about their decks. Both opponents had heard one of the old chestnuts of Magic – decks should have twenty lands, twenty creatures, and twenty spells – and they cheated a bit and ran eighteen or so land. One opponent was playing a white deck with cards like Teroh’s Faithful for defense, but rarely got enough mana to play them before dying.

It cost them a lot of games. Twenty lands is almost never enough, and eighteen is even worse.

The most fundamental concept of Magic is that you use mana to cast spells and creatures. Mana comes primarily from lands.* Until you draw and play lands, you can’t do much of anything except lose. It doesn’t matter how”good” your deck is in theory – if you can’t play any of it before your opponent kills you, it’s just bad.

A lot of people build decks that work quite well against their friends – because everyone builds decks that are about equal. Their decks seem fine – they win a reasonable amount of the time. Then they play someone with a tuned deck and a mana curve, and lose nearly every game.

Imagine a racing car so badly tuned it barely idles. It may be winning races against other cars that badly tuned, but it is going to lose to anything that can actually rev it’s engine. The same thing is true of Magic decks – if the mana isn’t there, the deck doesn’t move.

How Many Lands?

As a general rule of thumb, you want your deck to be about 40% lands. This means about twenty-four lands in a sixty-card deck. If your spells and creatures cost a lot, you want more. In rare cases, you want less – but only in very special cases.

Think about it this way: You need enough lands to play critical spells when you need them. If you plan to block opponent creatures, you need to be able to play blockers early enough. Take that opponent who wanted to defend with Teroh’s Faithful. Teroh’s Faithful costs 3W. To be effective, you want to drop a blocker like that by turn 4, at the latest. That means you need to have four lands in play by the end of turn four.

Your opening hand is seven cards. If you play first, you don’t draw a card. If you play second, you draw. That means that, on turn four, you will have seen ten cards if you play first, and eleven cards if you go second. If you want to be reasonably sure of drawing four lands by turn four, then you need at least four in ten cards to be lands when playing first, and four in eleven when drawing first. That means you need twenty-four lands when playing first, and about twenty-two when drawing first. Since you cannot always know whether you are playing or drawing first, you need to play twenty-three lands to be reasonably sure of drawing enough lands to play a 4cc spell on turn four.

Here’s an example of this type of reasoning in action. In Invasion block drafting, people typically played forty-card card decks running 17 lands – and dropping to sixteen lands if they were a tight two colors. Invasion block drafting was defined by fast beats and two drops. Onslaught block drafting, by comparison, is all about dropping morph creatures on turn 3, so having three mana on turn 3 is critical. As a result, most pros are playing eighteen lands in this format, and occasionally nineteen, to ensure that critical three-drop.

Figuring out what cards you need to cast fast, and how many lands that will take, is the simplest method of determining the lands you need. A better method is to show the mana curve. A mana curve is a listing of your deck, sorted by converted mana costs. For example, here’s the RDW2K2 deck I took to GP New Orleans last month, with the casting costs in parenthesis:

4 Cursed Scroll (1)

4 Firebolt (R)

4 Seal of Fire (R)

4 Volcanic Hammer (1R)

4 Mogg Fanatic (R)

4 Goblin Cadets (R)

4 Jackal Pup (R)

4 Blistering Firecat (3)

4 Grim Lavamancer (R)

4 Bloodstained Mire

4 Wooded Foothills

4 Rishadan Port

4 Wasteland

8 Mountain

Here’s the mana curve:

  • 1cc: 28

  • 2cc: 4

  • 3cc: 4

The deck runs twenty-four lands, but only sixteen of those lands produce red mana. The other lands are primarily used to mess with the opponent’s mana. The sixteen red lands ensure that you get red mana on turn 1, which is critical for the deck. The deck does need a second mana quickly – and with twenty-four lands, it should find one. However, with eight fetch lands, the deck is not certain that it will hit two red mana quickly. That is okay, because the mana curve is very flat, and only the Firecat requires multiple red mana to cast (or Morph.) (Besides, the Firecat and Cursed Scroll are finishers – the stuff that gets played only at the end of the game.)

Mana Accelerators:

Last night at the local store, I was in a series of pickup multiplayer games. One kid had a G/B deck with Grinning Demons and Spiritmongers that just never got started. He was constantly saying,”If I draw a land, I’ll kill you” – and a bit later,”If I had drawn another land, I would have won.” After the fifth game, I asked him how many land he was running. He replied that the number didn’t matter – because he had Gaea’s Cradles. His comment was”If you knew how good Gaea’s Cradle was, you’d understand!”

Actually, I think I do know how good Gaea’s Cradle is – but I also think I understand mana a bit better than he did. I won most of the games last night. He didn’t win any by himself – his only win was a Two-Headed Giant game where his partner carried him.

Gaea’s Cradle is a special type of mana accelerator – a card or land which can get you more mana, more lands, or help you dig to lands faster. They come in four flavors: Land enablers, land fetchers, mana producers and card drawing.

Land enablers let you play lands faster than the normal one-land-per-turn the rules allow. Fastbond and Exploration allow you to play additional lands during your turn. Burgeoning allows you to play additional lands whenever your opponent(s) play a land. Storm Cauldron is similar – sort of. These cards can speed up your mana development, but only if you actually have the lands in hand to play. These cards are almost invariably played with card drawing, like Horn of Greed. Without the card drawing, these cards just get an additional land in play a bit quicker, but then become dead cards. Either way, they do not affect the basic mana calculations.

Land fetchers search your library for a land card, and either put it in your hand (Yavimaya Elder, Lay of the Land, Land Grant) or into play (Explosive Vegetation, Rampant Growth). These may affect the number of lands you need to play. The”may” comes because these cards must be cast. If the casting cost of these cards is as great or greater than the casting cost you used to calculate the number of lands, then they don’t count. For example, if you decided you needed to have three mana on turn 3, and counted lands accordingly, then a four casting-cost spell like Explosive Vegetation has no effect. On the other hand, a two casting cost spell that fetches a land, like Rampant Growth, does affect the number of lands needed to get to the magic three lands by turn 3 in this example. As a simple rule of thumb, I count each mana fetcher (that I can cast before the critical point) as half a land.

Mana producers are other cards that tap for mana (e.g. Moxen, Diamonds, Elves, Wall of RootsWall of Roots doesn’t tap, but it had about the same effect.) Cards that reduce casting costs (Medallions, Familiars) are similar. They all are treated the same way as land fetchers – each elf, diamond, or medallion counts, generally, as half a land. More importantly, the mana producers also accelerate the mana, making it possible to get a larger, fatter threat out faster. This type of acceleration is more important in duels than in multiplayer, because explosive starts are more effective in duels – but it is a real asset in both types of games.

One final consideration are spells with alternative casting costs – spells which do not require mana. Force of Will is the best such card ever printed, although Land Grant runs a close second. In the current set, Krosan Tusker is the closest thing to an alternative casting cost, since it is cycled more often than it is hard cast. For such spells, place them in your mana curve at the point where they will most likely be cast.

So how far can these effects bend the mana curve? The ultimate was probably either 9-Land Green, or Miracle Gro, which ran ten land.

Mike Long: Miracle Gro (GP Sendai)

4 Tropical Island

6 Island

4 Quirion Dryad

2 Waterfront Bouncer

4 Wild Mongrel

4 Werebear

4 Gush

4 Brainstorm

4 Sleight of Hand

4 Daze

2 Foil

2 Opt

4 Winter Orb

4 Land Grant

4 Curiosity

4 Force of Will

So why does this deck work? Look at the curve:

  • Zero casting cost: 18

  • 1cc: 14

  • 2cc: 18

When all your spells cost less than two mana, and the average casting cost for the entire deck is one mana, you can play with ten land. Moreover, the deck also runs four Land Grants (which fetch Tropical Islands for no mana) and ten one-casting cost card drawers to dig for land. That’s why it works. And that low a land count will only work in a deck like this.

Multicolored Decks:

Up until now, I have been talking about single-colored decks. Multicolored decks follow the same general rules, but add one additional level of complexity – you need not only the right amount of mana, but the right colors as well. Simply put, if your deck needs to cast a four casting-cost spell in one color quickly, and a second spell of another color consistently by turn 5 or 6, you need to do the math for both colors.

A classic example has always been blue/white decks, that need double blue quickly for Counterspell, but also need to have double white available to cast Wrath of God in an emergency. Having two blue mana means that you need to have at least fifteen blue mana sources. (Two mana in eight cards calculates out at 13.33 blue mana sources.) Having Wrath of God means two white sources by turn 5, plus a total of four mana on that turn. That means at least eleven white mana sources, and a total land count of at least twenty-seven. You could run twenty-seven land, with sixteen Islands and eleven Plains, but by late game you will be drawing a lot of land when you want action cards. A better solution is to replace two or three of the lands with cheap card drawing like Brainstorm or Sleight of Hand to let you dig to, or through, land.

Of course, with a total of twenty-four lands, and needing fifteen blue and eleven white mana sources, you cannot use Plains and Islands. Fortunately, Wizards has printed a number of lands that tap for multiple colors. In blue-white alone, there are Tundra, Coastal Tower, Adarkar Wastes, Thalakos Lowland, Dromar’s Cavern, Treva’s Ruins, Wizards’ School and Skycloud Expanse to produce U or W, plus all the lands which produce all five colors, from City of Brass on down. U/W also has fetch lands from Mirage (Flood Plain) and Onslaught (Flooded Strand). Using a mix of these will reliably get you both blue and white mana quickly.

A quick note to new players: Don’t trade your rare lands! In every new set, the cards I value most are the multicolored lands. When good players draft and play for choice of rares, the first cards taken are always the fetch lands. Cards like Silvos or Akroma, Angel of Wrath are cool, but they makes it into very few of the decks I build. The lands are always in one deck or another. I own five to nine of all the fetch lands, and I still want more. They are that good. Even the old tap lands from Invasion, like Coastal Tower, are still great in multiplayer. I play them all the time.

In addition to the lands producing multiple colors, some other cards can fix colors quite well. Birds of Paradise is a standard in any G/x deck, for good reason. A 0/1 is not (or is rarely) a beatdown machine, but it is both mana acceleration and color fixing in one – and for one green mana. Nothing else is quite so good, and only Mox Diamond is close. Farther back in the pack are some traditional colored mana producers, like the Diamonds, Star Compass, Fertile Ground, and Fellwar Stone (which is amazing in 5 color, and pretty good in multiplayer decks).

A final note: The dual lands are no longer Extended-legal, but still worth their price. The Onslaught and Mirage fetch lands will fetch duals, meaning that a single fetch land can get up to four colors, if paired with the right duals. Land Grant and Wood Elves also interact pretty well with the dual lands. Finally, I should mention that Brainstorm and Sylvan Library are great with anything that can search for a land – and shuffle the deck. Brainstorm and a fetch land are amazing – draw three cards, put the two cards you like least on top of your library and shuffle it. It is an unrestricted Ancestral Recall. Sylvan and fetch lands are almost as good.

One last digression before I close, since this article is about mana and getting the right number of land, I want to talk about Land Tax. Land Tax and Scroll Rack is a card-drawing machine of incredible proportions. Here is a very old decklist, from one of the first multiplayer deck’s I wrote about, on the Dojo. Nowadays I would know enough to add Soldevi Digger and some other nifty stuff, but it was okay, given that I did not own Moxen at the time. Even with this configuration, I was always seeing about twenty cards a turn. Even without a few duals, some Moxen and maybe Weathered Wayfarer, this deck is a really powerful control deck.

PRJ’s Land Tax

4 Land Tax

4 Swords to Plowshares

2 Planar Birth

1 Trade Routes

1 Enlightened Tutor

1 Disenchant

1 Seal of Cleansing

2 Gaea’s Blessing

4 Lightning Bolt

1 Aura Fracture

1 Worldly Tutor

2 Gerrard’s Wisdom

1 Regrowth

1 Ancestral Recall

1 Foil

1 Viashino Heretic

2 Tormented Angel

2 Troubled Healer

9 Plains

4 Forest

3 Island

4 Mountain

1 Library of Alexandria

3 Zuran Orb

2 Scroll Rack

1 Sol Ring

The deck does have one real problem in multiplayer games – it kills slowly. V-e-r-y s-l-o-w-l-y. You spend lots of time killing everything else on the board, drawing a ton of cards, searching for lands and counting cards for Scroll Rack. You cannot kill anyone very quickly. That makes for some annoyed and bored opponents. My group let me play the deck twice, then gave me the choice of changing decks or walking home. Since it was about fifteen miles, and raining…

Okay, that’s enough. But, please, check your mana. I’m tired of winning because people’s decks crap out. I’d rather win because my deck is better and my play is better.

Well, I can dream.


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* – Or occasionally artifacts – but zero casting cost mana artifacts are called Mox Something or Black Lotus, and they cost well over $100. I’ll ignore them. More affordable mana artifacts are mana accelerants, which get discussed in the article.