The Constructed Manabase, Part 1: Mana Ratios

In the first of what promises to be an excellent series, Richard examines the process behind building the perfect manabase. In today’s introductory article, Mr Feldman takes a look at some of the strongest Aggro decks produced in the current Standard metagame. Why do some decks require a mere 21 land, while some flounder on a more cumbersome 23?

I received an e-mail from a fellow named Mark Pui a few weeks back. Mark asked if I could explain why Paul Cheon winning Solar Flare deck from U.S. Nationals played 2 Azorius Chancery, 1 Watery Grave and not, say, 1 Azorius Chancery, 1 Dimir Aqueduct, and 1 Hallowed Fountain. Changing the configuration would have left Paul with the same overall color-producing capabilities (three lands that combined to make three Blue sources, two White sources, and one Black source) and the same total number of bouncelands (two), so the question was a perfectly reasonable one to ask. As I went to answer his email, it dawned on me just how ridiculously complex even Standard manabases have become since the release of Ravnica. The time had come, I decided, for someone to do a breakdown of these crazy things — an exploration, if you will, into the inner workings of the modern Constructed manabase.

In a nutshell, my goal is to discuss how to build a Constructed Magic: the Gathering manabase in a level of detail that no one has before.

And there is a lot of detail out there. Assembling a deck’s mana compliment involves figuring out how many lands to play, how many producers of each color to play, which sources should produce which colors, whether to play straight-up lands or accelerants, when it’s worth it to cut corners for utility lands like Miren… the list goes on and on. So, in order to reconcile my desire to cover the subject thoroughly with your desire to not ingest a five-million word article all at once, I’ve decided to do a series of articles on the subject.

This first article will focus in on the very specific – but not at all simple – question of how many mana sources are appropriate for your Constructed deck.

First things first. If you’re looking for one simple, clear, guiding principle as to how many lands, bouncelands, Signets, Rampant Growths, etc., to play in your Magic: the Gathering decks, here it is.

The number of mana producers you should play depends on how much total mana your deck needs, and how quickly that mana is needed.

That’s a mouthful, I know, but trust me – it’ll seem a lot less textbook-y after an article’s worth of explanation.

Now, the most… um… scientific (I guess) approach for me to take in showing you how to apply this principle would be to rattle off a bunch of probabilities. However, the last time I did an article on probabilities, it generated less forum chatter than any other article I’ve ever written. To me, this indicates that a lot of people just were not interested, which was a real shame because the Bonus Section at the end of that article was an important one to me on a personal level, and I suspect few readers even got that far.

So what have I learned? Math is boring. Don’t write number-crunching articles, because (almost) no one wants to read them.

Instead, I’m going to take a look at the manabases of decks that have seen play on various Sundays around the world, and talk about the reason they played the mana they did.

Low-Curve Decks

Let’s start with the simple stuff. A lot of decks use only mana producers that give you exactly one point of mana every turn. You know – things like a basic land, a Signet, or a Mox, as opposed to a math-complicating Gilded Lotus or Seething Song.

Take a look at Craig Jones Zoo list from the finals of Pro Tour: Honolulu.

Ignoring the question of colored producers, Craig’s total mana count is pretty straightforward. He plays 22 land, no Signets, no Moxen, no Sakura-Tribe Elders, no glitter, no glitz. Just 22 good, old-fashioned, lands.

22 total mana producers is not very many. Why is Craig okay with this?

Going back to the principle I laid out earlier, the number of mana producers you should play depends on how much total mana your deck needs, and how quickly that mana is needed.

Simply put, his deck doesn’t need a lot of mana, and it doesn’t need it very quickly.

Craig has twelve one-drop creatures (Ape, Lions, Isamaru), seven two-drop creatures (Wolf, Kami), and three three-drop creatures (Burning-Tree). The rest is all burn (seven of which cost three mana, four of which cost two, and three of which cost one) and a pair of Bathe in Lights. I mention these separately because in an aggressive strategy like Zoo’s, it’s much more important that you play your creatures as quickly as you can than that you play your burn spells immediately.

Why is this true? Simple. Burn spells can always go to the face, but creatures can only attack (productively) when there isn’t a big blocker in the way. Craig is banking on his opponent’s 4/4s and 5/5s costing so much more mana than his one-mana 2/1s and two-mana 3/3s; he’ll be able to play them right away and get several swings in before a big four- or five-mana defender steps in their way.

This is precisely why “how quickly that mana is needed” is part of my guiding principle; although Char and Burning-Tree Shaman both cost three mana, Craig needs the three mana for BTS much more quickly than he does the same three mana for Char. It’s critical that the Shaman be castable on turn 3 so that he can attack on turn 4 (when there are no Keigas to block his path yet), but Char will do four points no matter when you cast it – right on turn 3, a good deal tardy on turn 8 (when the opponent has had time to set up his creature defenses and BTS is no longer likely to even deal three), or even on turn 15. It still deals four. This is an important concept to recognize — mana curve alone is not enough information to figure out mana requirements.

Now, while it’s important for Craig to hit his first two land drops so that he can play out his cheap attackers while they’re still good, his most expensive (maindeck) spells all cost a scant three mana: 4 Char, 3 Flames of the Blood Hand, and 3 Burning-Tree Shaman. The rest all cost two or fewer, so there’s a good chance that even if Craig gets stuck on two lands for a turn or two, he’ll still have productive plays to make thanks to the one- and two-mana cards that are also in his hand. Eventually he’ll find his third land, and can then start sending Chars and Flames to the face as normal.

After sideboarding, Mr. Jones will have at most three four-mana spells in his deck; Hunted Wumpus and Giant Solifuge will never really be coming in for the same matchups. This can raise the top of his mana curve to as much as four, but only in some matchups, and only for a mere three four-costers.

So what have we learned? 22 lands is sufficient to hit two land drops with consistency, and then a third land drop on turn 3-4, and then a fourth land… eh… probably on turn 5 or later. That’s acceptable for a deck with such small mana requirements as Craig’s, and his low land count keeps his draw step jam-packed with business spells. Good stuff.

For a twist on the low-mana deck, let’s look at the other half of the Honolulu finals match: the oft-discussed Heezy Street.

Mark’s curve is slightly higher than Craig’s; he’s maindecking four four-drops in Giant Solifuge, and an extra four three-drops between the Moldervine Cloaks and the fourth Burning-Tree Shaman. Since his curve is just a bit higher than Craig’s, Heezy needs just a touch more mana; his 23rd land provides this. (This gives him about a 4.5% increase in mana production over Craig.)

In short, the introduction of a few more three-drops and a single four-drop in the maindeck has induced the addition of one land. You need a little more total mana, since some of your spells cost four, and you need it a little quicker, as hitting your third land drop on time is more important when you have more three- and four-cost cards in your deck, especially when the new additions are not burn spells.

To round out our look at aggro decks, let’s hop over to Extended and examine Tsuyoshi Fujita’s Top 8 deck from PT: Los Angeles.

Fujita’s curve is even lower than Craig’s was, as he has only nine cards that cost three mana to cast: Stone Rain, Molten Rain, and the one Forge[/author]“]Pulse of the [author name="Forge"]Forge[/author]. He has no four-drops whatsoever in the maindeck, and the remainder of his cards all cost at most one or two mana. Thus, he can get away with playing only 21 lands.

A careful observer will note that ten of his lands are fetchlands as well. Each fetchland activation removes another land from his deck, slightly reducing his chances of topdecking another. Thus, Fujita’s actually only playing with 20-plus-some-fraction lands. Does he really plan on casting those sideboard Fledgling Dragons and Flametongue Kavus on turn 4? And why play Firebolt over Shock when your fifth land drop is a dot on the horizon in most games?

Once again, the answer comes from a simple look at “how much mana you need, and how quickly you need it.” It’s not critical for Fujita that he cast his Flametongue Kavu on turn 4, since that card is almost certainly coming in for the aggro mirror matches. These tend to take longer to resolve than aggro versus combo or aggro versus control matchups, as creatures are slugging it out and hitting the graveyard left and right. In such a battle of attrition, it takes a lot longer to win or to lose than it does when you’re going straight for the throat and the other deck is either racing you or throwing up defenses as quickly as it can.

Thus, if Tsuyoshi cannot cast his FTK because he’s only drawn three lands, that means he’s been drawing a lot of spells (by process of elimination), and is likely ahead in the attrition war. He’s okay with that scenario, so it’s usually no big deal to him if his Kavu is late to the party. Admittedly, Fledgling Dragon doesn’t work quite the same way – Fujita certainly hopes to summon that guy as early as possible in the Red-deck mirror match – but he’s still going to be doing well in the attrition fight if he can’t find a fourth land because his hand is all spells.

So what can we take away from looking at these decks? If your curve tops out at maybe four copies of a four-coster and only has 4-8 three-costers that need to hit the table ASAP, you only need 22-23 total lands to accommodate them. If the four-coster is in the sideboard, and only comes in for slower matchups, you can probably get away with 20-21 lands instead.

Come back and take a look at these lists again if you’re ever building or tweaking a deck of a similar nature. Thanks to The Ferrett, you can quickly count the number of cards at each casting cost by making use of that handy Mana Curve graph… but remember that mana curve is not the whole story behind mana usage. You need to look a bit more deeply at when the cards actually need to be played before taking these numbers to heart; just keep in mind the Char versus Burning-Tree Shaman example, and you should be good to go.

Multiple-Mana Producers

Now that we’ve looked at a few of tournament Magic’s simpler manabases, it’s time to examine some that skew the math. As I’m sure you are aware, there are a good deal of cards out there that will generate more than one point of mana at a time. Bouncelands, Kodama’s Reach, Gilded Lotus, and Seething Song, for example, are all a little more complicated on the mana source math than your average basic land.

For openers, I’m going to say that I do not consider one-shot cards like Seething Song, Dark Ritual, and Through The Breach to be a part of a deck’s manabase. I consider them “strictly accelerants,” as they generate a one-use powerful effect (allowing you to play one big card, or several smaller cards, a few turns earlier than you could normally) and then end their effects immediately.

This isn’t how your manabase works. Your manabase is something you rely on; almost every deck in Magic needs some amount of mana every turn of the game — especially in the early turns — and as far as I’m concerned, cards that cannot reliably produce it should not be counted as part of a deck’s manabase. In fact, I wouldn’t even count Birds of Paradise or Llanowar Elves as reliable producers in environments where I could expect them to die immediately to a Seal of Fire or Lava Dart a majority of the time.

As for bouncelands, let’s go back to the Top 8 of Honolulu, where they made their Pro Tour debut.

Compare Olivier’s B/W deck to Ruud’s, below.

Olivier has a higher curve than Ruud does, with fewer mana producers. He has four one-drops to Ruud’s six, and his are all Plagued Rusalkas, which require additional mana to be functional beyond their initial investment of one Black. Both lists have similar two- and three-drop counts, but Olivier has bumped up two of Ruud’s three-drops to the four-drop slot with his maindeck Okiba-Gang Shinobis. Furthermore, Olivier’s sideboard cards are all three and four mana except for the two Distresses, while twelve of Ruud’s fifteen only cost two.

How does Olivier afford this higher cost of living? Orzhov Basilica, of course.

So what, exactly, does the presence of bouncelands do to his mana counts? Well, taking a look back at what we’ve seen so far, I’d say that the increase in mana usage that Olivier’s deck has when compared to Ruud’s is similar to the increase Herberholz had over Jones in our previous set of examples. So if Olivier were to play only “fair” lands that tapped for one mana, he’d probably want about one more land than Ruud played, meaning he would have likely gone with a land count of 24. Since he played 22 instead, four of which were the Basilicas, we can arrive at a variation of the Alan Comer Rule (which states that for every two cantrips you play, you can cut a land; I’ll be discussing this concept more in my next article) that suggests we can cut one single-mana producer every time we upgrade two of our regular lands to bouncelands. Call it the Karoo Rule, if you like, and don’t take it for gospel. I am neither a statistician nor anywhere near as insightful as Alan Comer; I’m just a writer making an observation.

Assuming the math works out on this — and I’d advise you all to check the forums for more statistically sound arguments on the subject — you could extend this idea beyond bouncelands to things like Kodama’s Reach.

Cards that produce three or more mana, such as Gilded Lotus and Gift of Estates, are a little different. If you structure your manabase such that you require a three-mana boost to be able cast your spells — that is, that you must get out a Gilded Lotus before the top of your curve comes online — and those three-mana boosters cost a good deal of mana to come online in the first place (as opposed to, say, Mishra’s Workshop in Vintage), then… well, you are working with a largely unprecedented manabase and should probably test it inside and out rather than looking to past examples as we have been here. Otherwise, you are most likely using your triple-mana producer as an accelerant only, and should not be factoring it into your manabase except to note that it does produce “two or more mana,” and may allow you to trim your other sources back a bit, just as you would if you had played a bounceland or Kodama’s Reach in that slot.

To Sum Up

Counting your mana is a two-article subject all to itself. So far I’ve gone into the reasoning behind Tsuyoshi Fujita’s 21-land Boros deck, Craig Jones 22-land Zoo deck, and Mark Herberholz 23-land Gruul deck, and discussed how Olivier Ruel was able to play a more mana-intensive than any of them while only playing 22 lands, thanks to his bouncelands.

These have all been extremely simple examples, because this is a complicated subject and I don’t want to overwhelm my readers with tons of intricacies all at once. My next article will go over a number of high-curve decks, some of which involve a lot of mana acceleration (and some of which involve none at all), and I’ll finish the discussion of mana counts by looking into what happens when you Pay Mana to Get More Mana, and the effects of draw magic on your mana ratios.

See you then!

Richard Feldman
Team Check Minus
[email protected]