The Constructed Manabase, Part 2: Mana Ratios, Continued

Richard continues his informative series on the philosophy behind the perfect Constructed manabase. Last time, he took a long look at Aggro decks and builds, concentrating on decks with a low mana requirement. Today he looks at decks with a more mana-intensive outlook, and investigates the relationship between cantirps, acceleration, and land-count.

Welcome back!

In Part 1, I discussed some simple, low-curve manabases and the reasoning that went into Tsuyoshi Fujita’s 21-land Boros deck, Craig Jones 22-land Zoo deck, and Mark Herberholz 23-land Gruul deck. I also talked about the effect of double-mana producing cards like bouncelands and Kodama’s Reach, and alluded to a little thing called the Alan Comer Rule.

Let’s get right into it, shall we?

Draw Magic and Land Drops

Some time ago, Magic Hall of Famer Alan Comer came up with a theory that for every two cantrips (i.e. spells that have “draw a card” as part of their effect) you play, you can cut a land. The idea is that every time you draw a card, there is some chance that that card will be a spell and some chance that that card will be a land. In this way, early-game cantrips will, some of the time, draw you into a land. When this happens, it means that even though you cut a land to play this card in your deck, it allowed you to make your desired land drop anyway. And since you can’t expect this to happen every time you play the cantrip (since you will only get a land some of the time), you only cut one land for every two cantrips.

I’m not sure if the probabilities of this principle hold true or not, but to my knowledge this theory has not been contested, and as I am not nearly proficient enough a mathematician to do so myself, I’m going to go along with it. (Feel free to disagree in the forums.) According to this rule, Antoine Ruel winning deck from Pro Tour: Los Angeles…

… which ran 23 land, 4 Mental Note, and 2 Opt, was effectively sporting 26 early-game mana sources. If you consider that his draw magic suite (Thirst for Knowledge, Fact or Fiction, Deep Analysis, maybe Gifts Ungiven) will yield him even more lands over the course of the game, you can see that he was much more capable of generating mana than Heezy Street – which also played only 23 lands (and no Signets or Moxen) – even though both decks technically had the same land count.

Playing the cheat-on-lands-play-more-cantrips game does some interesting things to your deck. For one, the more cantrips you play, the more early-game mana you will have to commit to digging for land. Antoine’s only critical first turn play was Force Spike, so a lot of the time he had spare mana with which to cast a Mental Note or Opt. These cantrips put him closer to making the land drops he needed, while putting extra cards in his graveyard with which to fuel Psychatog and Cephalid Coliseum’s Threshold later on.

Looking back at the aggro decks from the previous articles, there’s no way any of them could have afforded such a manabase. They simply didn’t have time to play a cantrip turn 1 – they needed that mana to play their Isamarus and Kird Apes! If you’re going to use utility cantrips to make land drops and justify land cuts, you have to make sure you will actually have time to cast those cantrips during the first few turns of the game.

Cycling lands function as optional cantrips as far as making land drops goes; if you really need that land drop, you can just play the Cycling land normally. If you’re outright flooded, or if you’re maybe one mana short of what you’ll need three turns later, you can cycle the land away and probably still find that one extra land you wanted in your next few draws – while likely putting a business spell into your hand besides. Cycling lands offer an interesting twist on the Alan Comer rule; let’s go all the way back to Tomi Walamies finals deck from Pro Tour: Venice to investigate.

4 Goblin Burrows
4 Forgotten Cave
18 Mountain

4 Skirk Prospector
4 Goblin Sledder
4 Goblin Piledriver
4 Sparksmith
4 Clickslither
4 Goblin Goon
4 Gempalm Incinerator
2 Menacing Ogre
4 Shock

4 Starstorm
2 Rorix Bladewing
4 Skirk Fire Marshal
4 Thoughtbound Primoc
1 Menacing Ogre

Tomi’s manabase solves an interesting problem for his aggressive deck’s high mana curve. He’s got eight four-drops between Clickslither and Goblin Goon, plus another two five-drops in the Menacing Ogres. He also has a third Menacing Ogre, two six-mana Rorixes, and a hearty four Starstorms (which will almost certainly cost four or more every time he casts them) in the board. If he wants to hit his drops on time, he needs to play a lot of mana sources.

So, although Tomi’s deck is an aggressive one just like Heezy Street (which played 23 lands and zero cantrips), Zoo (at 22 lands, zero cantrips), and Boros Deck Wins (at 21 lands, 10 of which were fetchlands, and still no cantrips), this finalist creation sports 26 land and four cantrips (Gempalm Incinerator cycles even against control decks if you really need that land), for an effective 28 mana sources. That’s nearly half his deck!

Even worse, Tomi doesn’t have much he can do with his excess land. Antoine Ruel could activate Stalking Stones when he had a spare six lying around, or draw some cards with Fact or Fiction, TFK, or Cephalid Coliseum and then play them in the same turn, or even just hold onto the extras with plans to pitch them to an attacking Psychatog later on. Once Tomi hits the five-mana mark in game 1, though, his only possible use for extra mana is making bonus activations of Goblin Burrows.

So how does he play all these lands without getting flooded every game? The optional cantrips, of course: Cycling lands. If Tomi’s got four lands out and hasn’t drawn any Menacing Ogres yet, he can cycle away his Forgotten Caves rather than playing them as regular mana sources, since he can bet he’ll naturally draw into the fifth mana source before he runs into one of his two cards that need the full five. Alternately, if his draw is land-light, he can just play the land normally and advance his production capabilities. He can Alan Comer or Straight-Up his mana ratios on a game-by-game basis, based on how many lands he has in hand already.

Cycling cards are confined to Extended these days, but even in Standard we see Sleight of Hand and Sensei’s Divining Top being used in much the same way: when you see a land-light hand early on, these fixers can serve up the mana producers you need, and when it’s a business spell you’re looking for, they bury excess lands beneath the good stuff for you. As far as I know, no one has yet quantified the effect these cards have on your mana ratios – how can you tell how many lands you can safely cut based on the fact that your deck is playing Top and/or Sleight? – but you should keep in mind that if you’re worried about making your early drops, playing such cards is often a more overall beneficial solution than simply adding more lands.

We all know that drawing the right mix of land and spells is an important part of Magic. We want lands early so that we can make our drops on time, but if we draw too many of them over the course of a game, we might not have enough business spells available to win it. Cards like Cycling lands, Divining Top, Sleight of Hand, and so forth, help you hit that mix by giving you more control over which type of card (mana producers or business spells) you get out of a given draw step. For decks where “need mana quickly” is more important than “need lots of total mana,” these land drop-helpers allow you to trim your land count a bit while maintaining a brisk pace of early mana production.

Things get more complicated when you look at Osyp’s winning deck from the same Pro Tour:

10 Plains
9 Mountains
4 Forgotten Cave
4 Secluded Steppe

2 Gempalm Incinerator
4 Exalted Angel
2 Jareth, Leonine Titan
2 Daru Sanctifier

4 Lightning Rift
4 Astral Slide
4 Akroma’s Blessing
3 Renewed Faith
4 Starstorm
4 Akroma’s Vengeance

4 Avarax
3 Demystify
3 Disciple of Grace
2 Akroma, Angel of Wrath
1 Oblation
2 Gempalm Incinerator

Osyp has a fat stack of 27 lands to start out with – the largest count we’ve seen so far – but with a mammoth 17 cycling cards, the Alan Comer Rule indicates that he really has access to something like 35 mana sources, assuming all he does is cycle his nonland cards. That’s a bit unrealistic, so if we instead assume he almost always hardcasts his Akroma’s Vengeances and Starstorms rather than cycling them, but also typically plays his Cycling lands rather than cycling them, he still has around 31 effective mana sources – more than half his deck.

Why did Joe Black need so much mana? With literally no acceleration, casting key cards like Akroma’s Vengeance and Starstorm (for 4) on turn 6, along with the mana-intensive process of cycling cards in order to generate Lightning Rift and Astral Slide triggers, he really could not afford to be missing land drops – even during the later turns of the game. He also had a certain eight-mana Angel of Wrath he planned on casting after sideboarding, so being able to make a land drop every turn was crucial.

While Tsuyoshi Fujita and his 21-land (including 10 fetchlands) Boros deck were praying to hit fourth-turn Fledgling Dragon mana in the Red deck mirror, Osyp was counting on turn 6 Vengeance mana, with nothing but cyclers and one-for-one lands with which to do it.

And then there was this deck.

2 Cephalid Coliseum
1 Darkwater Catacombs
10 Island
4 Salt Marsh
3 Swamp
4 Underground River

4 Nightscape Familiar
4 Psychatog
3 Chainer’s Edict
3 Circular Logic
4 Counterspell
3 Cunning Wish
3 Deep Analysis
3 Fact or Fiction
3 Memory Lapse
4 Repulse
2 Upheaval

1 Coffin Purge
4 Duress
1 Fact or Fiction
1 Gainsay
3 Ghastly Demise
1 Hibernation
1 Mana Short
1 Recoil
1 Slay
1 Teferi’s Response

Long before it became an Extended staple, Psychatog got its start in tournament Magic by utterly manhandling Invasion-Odyssey-7th Standard. Looking at Carlos Romao’s winning Tog list from Worlds that year (one of six Tog decks in the Top 8 asfdadfasdfafadsf), you may notice that he plays a scant 24 mana sources. I say “scant” because he plans on using these 24 mana sources to cast Upheaval and Psychatog in the same turn, which requires either nine lands in play or eight lands at the start of the turn (cast Upheaval floating two, then replay a land and tap it to finish paying for Tog). 24 lands to hit eight mana in one turn? That seems like an awfully tall order for adding a mere one land over Mark Herberholz 23-lander whose curve topped at four.

The reason Romao is fine with this land count is twofold: one, he does not need the eight mana very quickly – really, not until his control deck is ready to finish the late game with it – and two, he’s got lots of card draw. To be specific: 4 Repulse, 3 Deep Analysis, 3 Fact or Fiction, plus Cunning Wish for even more, and even Cephalid Coliseum if need be. It stands to reason that the more cards you are drawing, the more lands you are drawing (since, again, some fraction of the cards you draw will be lands), so if drawing lots of cards over the course of a game is a natural part of your strategy, you can get away with playing extremely expensive cards like “eight-mana” Upheavals – provided you don’t expect to play them promptly on turn 8.

And let’s not forget those Nightscape Familiars. For an early-game two mana investment, Carlos gets a one-point discount on his Upheavals later on. Which brings me to…

Paying Mana To Make Mana

Cycling your way into an "effective" 31 mana sources like Osyp did is one thing… but are there really decks so mana-hungry they actually devote more than half their card slots to nothing but mana production? Kamigawa Block players already know the answer to this one.

One need look no further than the infamous Gifts.dec from Kamigawa Block Constructed to find a deck too mana-hungry for a mere 31 simple sources. Not only did decks like Julien Nuijten winning list from GP: Mexico City (one of many tournaments that season to be taken down by the powerhouse deck; I chose Mexico City more or less at random) sport 23 lands and 4 Sakura Tribe Elders, they also played 4 Kodama’s Reaches – which produces two all by itself (for an effective 33 sources according to the Karoo Rule) – and four Sensei’s Divining Tops to help make early land drops. Wow.

9 Forest
1 Okina, Temple to the Grandfathers
8 Swamp
1 Shizo, Death’s Storehouse
1 Island
3 Tendo Ice Bridge

4 Sakura-Tribe Elder
4 Kagemaro, First to Suffer
2 Ink-Eyes, Servant of Oni
2 Meloku the Clouded Mirror
1 Hana Kami
1 Myojin of Night’s Reach
1 Ghost-Lit Stalker
1 Kokusho, the Evening Star
4 Sensei’s Divining Top
4 Gifts Ungiven
4 Kodama’s Reach
4 Sickening Shoal
1 Soulless Revival
1 Death Denied
1 Wear Away
1 Goryo’s Vengeance
1 Exile into Darkness

3 Kokusho, the Evening Star
3 Pithing Needle
3 Hideous Laughter
2 Nezumi Graverobber
2 Goryo’s Vengeance
1 Rending Vines
1 Hero’s Demise

Why did these decks play so many mana producers?

Simple. Gifts decks needed a lot of total mana, and they needed it fast.

A common play for a Gifts deck was to accelerate out a turn 3 Gifts Ungiven via a turn 2 Sakura-Tribe Elder. Gifts Ungiven costs four mana. Remember back when we were talking about Heezy Street, Zoo, and Boros Deck Wins? Those lists topped out at four mana – it was a fortune to them! We were talking about how unlikely it was for Fujita to hit FTK mana on turn 4, and here Gifts is shrugging as it slaps down a four-coster on turn 3!

For this deck, four mana is a walk in the park. After it’s done casting its four-mana namesake, it goes on to play Kagemaro for five, a Ninjitsu’d Ink-Eyes for six, an eight-mana Myojin of Night’s Reach, and then some infinitely expensive Hana Kami recursions involving Soulless Revival, Death Denied, and probably some kind of pact with the Devil.

This archetype was the most successful in its format, and over half of it was “just” mana.

Gifts needed mana so fast that it couldn’t wait to plod along with mere land drops as Osyp did in Venice. It needed to accelerate the stuff out, and for that, it paid extra. The acceleration was one of the main feature Gifts players looked for from Sakura-Tribe Elder (though E.T.’s other perks were, of course, as powerful as ever). Kodama’s Reach provided both acceleration and extra land drops, which was enough incentive for this mana-hungry deck to spend its entire third turn doing nothing but tapping out to find more lands.

Given this, why didn’t Gifts players convert more of its mana producers to accelerants? Surely some of those Forests would have been better served as Orochi Sustainers, right? It’s not like there were Shocks flying about left and right that they were worried would smoke their precious accelerant… what made them halt progress at Elder and Reach?

Unfortunately, the downside of accelerants that cost mana is that… well, you need some amount of mana up front in order to play them. If Gifts sees a hand of “one land, Elder, Reach, spells” on the play… it’s got to mulligan. Even though it’s technically got three mana sources, two of them might as well be blank pieces of cardboard until another land shows up. For this reason, decks that Pay Mana to Make Mana have a certain minimum investment of zero-cost mana producers (usually lands; sometimes Moxen or the like) that they can depend on to generate the down payment on their Elders and Reaches.

Without getting into too much math (since I said I wouldn’t at the beginning of the series), the odds of getting at least two lands in your opening seven cards is about 75% when you’re playing 20 lands, 78% with 21, 81% with 22, 83% with 23, and 86% with 24. Taking mulligans and playing one-mana guys like Llanowar Elves muck with those values, but they’re useful numbers to keep in mind when hitting two land for your E.T.s and Signets is important to the advancement of your mana. (By the way, I mentioned opening-hand probabilities and not “by the second turn” probabilities because if your hand is “Forest, Elder, spells,” you’ve almost always got to ship it back. It’s more important that your deck show you it can hit the two-mana mark using just your opening hand than proving it can theoretically hit its second land drop assuming you never mulligan.)

Now, as the tops of decks’ mana curves get higher and higher, the amount of total mana you need on hand becomes more complicated to analyze, and playtesting becomes increasingly important to determine how much you should play. How do you pen-and-paper your way to a manabase when the amount of mana you can devote to expensive processes like Hana Kami loops depends greatly on the board position? There’s no cut-and-dry answer to such a question, which is why I’ve been showing you a range of high-end manabases like Tomi’s, Osyp’s, and Julien’s.

For one last taste, I’m going to take us back to Top 8 of PT: Osaka of 2002, which featured the following deck.

2 Cabal Coffers
24 Swamp

4 Nantuko Shade
4 Shambling Swarm
4 Chainer’s Edict
4 Diabolic Tutor
1 Haunting Echoes
4 Innocent Blood
4 Mind Sludge
4 Mutilate
4 Rancid Earth
1 Skeletal Scrying

3 Ghastly Demise
2 Haunting Echoes
2 Laquatus’s Champion
2 Last Rites
4 Mesmeric Fiend
2 Skeletal Scrying

Notice Jens’s varied curve: Innocent Blood on turn 1, Chainer’s Edict or Nantuko Shade on turn 2, Rancid Earth on turn 3, Diabolic Tutor or Mutilate on turn 4, and Mind Sludge or Haunting Echoes on turn 5. His two Cabal Coffers don’t start producing mana until he has three Swamps out (making them similar to Darksteel Ingots as far as “Pay Mana to Make Mana” goes), but with 24 Swamps in the deck, he should have three ready to go on his third turn in most games.

What’s really interesting about this deck is how flexible its mana requirements are. Technically, Jens only curves up to five mana, which is what Tomi’s Goblins deck (which also ran 26 lands) did in the earlier example from PT: Venice. However, while Tomi had only 2 Menacing Ogres at his five-spot, Jens has 4 Mind Sludge, 1 Haunting Echoes, and a Skeletal Scrying that’s going to cost around five most times he casts it. Plus, he doesn’t have the four Gempalm Incinerators that Tomi had, should he need them to dig for a land. How does Jens get away with playing so few lands and such a high curve?

Yet again, it all comes down to how much mana you need, and how quickly you need it. (If you only take one sentence with you from this whole series, take that one.)

For one thing, Jens isn’t an aggressive deck like Tomi was – he’s a control deck, so he doesn’t have to hit all his land drops right on time. As long as he can reset the board with Mutilate on turn 4, or stem the bleeding with some early Edicts and Bloods, he’ll have several consecutive turns to sit back and find lands with his good old-fashioned draw step. He’s in no hurry to hit the opponent with early damage because, as a control deck, he’s got a late-game finish planned anyway. Moreover, he’s got two Cabal Coffers that will ultimately produce much more than the standard one mana of a Swamp, or even the double-duty Kodama’s Reaches of the Gifts Ungiven decks. Coffers can routinely be seen tapping for four or more points of mana by themselves, and Jens can search one up at will with any one of his Diabolic Tutors. Really, if he’s willing to spend a Tutor to get it done, he can find all the mana he needs at the drop of a hat. (And a lot of the time, with expensive mana sinks like Nantuko Shade and Skeletal Scrying, it’s worth it for him to do so.)

The most important thing to remember about Paying Mana to Make Mana is that you automatically tack on an additional “how quickly I need it” charge when you utilize this strategy. Gifts decks need either two mana for Sakura-Tribe Elder or three for Kodama’s Reach really fast if they are to accelerate out their critical plays as they need to. If you’re Jens Thoren and planning on Diabolic Tutoring for Cabal Coffers in some matchup or other, you’ve got to be able to hit four mana in a timely manner first – and think twice about cutting any Swamps; Cabal Coffers won’t be doing a damn thing until you have at least three. Keep these things in mind when you’re working on mana bases like these.

To Sum Up

There is a ton of information that goes into a Constructed manabase. I’m two articles into this thing and all I’ve talked about has been the ratio of mana producers to spells in your deck. What’s more, my discussion has not been exhaustive; I’m sure there’s even more to be said on the subject that I didn’t mention here, and I hope that future articles of mine (or of other writers) will bring these things up.

In any case, the third article in the series will get into the original question posed by Mark Pui, as I analyze the color components of a successful manabase.

See you then!

Richard Feldman
Team Check Minus
[email protected]