The Constructed Manabase, Part 3: Color Balancing

Richard continues his comprehensive series detailing the construction of the perfect manabase. Today’s offering is a travel through history… by looking at successful manabases from decks past, Richard gives us some excellent tips with which we can improve our own building technique.

Finally, we come to the colors.

Just as with mana ratios, the number of colored-mana producers you should play depends on how quickly you need a given color of mana and how much of that color you need.

Both Flamebreak and Shock are Red cards, but Flamebreak requires a much larger quantity of Red mana; in order to ensure that you can cast it in a timely manner, you need to play more Red sources than you would in order to support the lone Red requirement of Shock.

Likewise, an Obliterate that you don’t plan on casting for a very long time would demand fewer Red sources of your manabase than, say, Slith Firewalker, which wants to come out and play as soon as possible.

Having said all that, let’s get to it!

Mono-Colored Decks

Now this, folks, is color consistency:

22 White Producers

0 Anything Else

With a manabase like this, you can play pretty much any damn white card you please; they might as well be artifacts. WWWW for Dawn Elemental? Might as well be four colorless, for all I care.

It’s pretty intuitive that if you’re only playing one color, your colored mana requirements tend to be pretty well covered. They’re so well covered, in fact, that deckbuilders will often cut regular colored producers for colorless producers that have a useful ability. Case in point: Derek Starleaf’s Top 8 deck from GP: Detroit 2003:

If you count the Eternal Dragons as Plains (since they do Plainscycle, after all), Derek has 26 White producers. Even without the four Plains he presumably cut to fit Temple of the False God, he has about an 80% chance of having Dawn Elemental mana ready on turn 4. Nice.

Shuhei Nakamura took this a step further at Pro Tour: Columbus, running only sixteen Red sources in his mono-Red deck.

Note that although the upper-right-hand corner of Blistering Firecat reports 1RRR, the Cat’s Morph option reduces the red requirement to RR. Good thing, too – with his sixteen total Red sources, Shuhei had only about a 60% chance of having RRR available on turn 4.

Here’s where things get interesting. Back when Mirrodin was Standard-legal, fellows like John Ormerod got really dangerous with their mono-colored manabases.

Look at that! Ten Forests and four Green Talismans as the only early-turn Green producers for an entirely Green deck! He plays fourteen Green-makers and 13 colorless-makers; if one more Forest were to turn into a Quicksand, he’d have had green producers in the minority! John’s colored mana production had become so watered-down, he really was not playing so much a mono-Green deck as he was a Green/Brown deck. Had he felt the urge to, he probably could not have safely played any GGG spells, simply because he was so low on cards that tapped for G. In fact, he played only one double-Green spell: Tooth and Nail (okay, and the Baloth in the sideboard), and that spell took so long to get online, he could count Solemn Simulacrum as a reliable mana source before he needed the second Green.

So what have we learned? If you’ve only got one color to support, you can dilute your color production abilities right down to the point of being a “two-color” deck, if it pleases you. There’s certainly no rule against it, and as long as you don’t continue to expect the godlike consistency of a manabase like Ryan Cimera, you can reap the benefits of your colorless lands all the way to the Turn-4-Tooth-With-Entwine bank.

Two-Color Decks

The gentlest way to ease from a mono-colored deck to a two-color deck is by adding a splash. Constructed maniac Gabriel Nassif played the most bare-bones splash I am aware of in the Top 8 of Pro Tour: Venice.

That’s six – count ‘em, six Green sources in a deck whose only card draw is Gempalm Incinerator, to support Yellow Hat’s playset of Broodhatch Nantukos and singleton Nantuko Vigilante in the sideboard. Since he’s only got a 65% chance of hitting Green on turn 2 for a face-up Broodhatch, and doesn’t cross the 80% threshold until turn 7, I’d say it’s pretty safe to call this splash “greedy.” However, notice that Nassif uses Morph in much the same way Shuhei did to evade color screw: even if he hasn’t found a Forest or a Wooded Foothills yet, he can still get a Gray Ogre out of either one of his sideboard cards.

A less greedy – if more bold – splash can be found in the Top 8 of Worlds 2003.

Here we have a fellow who has splashed Patriarch’s Bidding, a spell that requires two Black mana to cast, into his otherwise mono-Red deck. Did he use a set of Wooded Foothills and a pair of Forests, Nassif-style, to do it? Certainly not.

Eder supported his splash with a healthy twelve Black sources, precisely twice the number Nassif played. Playing double the relevant color producers while having double the color requirement made the early-game math a bit tougher on Wolfgang, but this was mitigated by the fact that he didn’t really plan on casting Bidding until turn 6 or 8 anyway. Note that his triplet of Smothers was much more castable than Nassif’s Green cards were, as the doubling of his off-colored mana producers in order to support his BB spell gave him the pleasant side effect of bringing his single-B spells online in a more timely fashion.

Now let’s look at an Extended version of Goblin Bidding, from the top 8 of GP: Okayama.

Lee’s Goblin Bidding deck played 23 lands to Eder’s 22, but only 20 actual colored-producers thanks to the three Rishadan Ports that he squeezed in. Counter-intuitively, Lee’s overall manabase is better at producing colored mana than Eder’s was; Lee has 18 Red sources and 14 Black sources to Eder’s 18 and 12. However, with 4 Sulfurous Springs and the full complement of Shadowblood Ridges, it’s safe to say that Lee’s mana is more dangerous than Eder’s.

The moral of this story is that you can cut colored-producers in two-color decks just as you can with mono-colored ones. All you have to do to make the mana remain consistent (or, in this case, even better) is to swap out basic lands for multi-colored producers.

How far can you take this concept? Just as with Tooth and Nail, you can take it… well, pretty much as far as your multi-colored lands will let you.

Had John Ormerod been afforded the luxury of Ninth Edition’s painlands and Ravnica’s duals, he could have played a two-color Tooth and Nail list with no more effort than Ben put forth to splash Wildfire and Demonfire into his otherwise mono-Blue Tron deck. Note that both Eder and Lundquist splashed in a double-colored card using twelve mana sources of that color: Patriarch’s Bidding in the case of Eder, and Wildfire in the cast of Lundquist.

Also note, however, that it was much more important for Lundquist to cast his splashed card early than it was for Eder. Oftentimes Ben’s only out against a curvaceous draw from an aggro deck was a Signet-accelerated Wildfire, and even then he wouldn’t win on the spot as Eder generally did when he cast Bidding. Ben would need to cast Wildfire as soon as humanly possible so that he could start rebuilding before his aggressive opponent did. So why stick with twelve Red sources? Surely some of those Islands could have become Mountains, Izzet Boilerworks, or something along those lines…

Readers who remember part two of this series know why this was not necessary: Ben’s deck has numerous opportunities for early-game card draw. Besides the simple cantrips of Remand and Repeal, Compulsive Research provides an emergency source of colored mana when the lands are more important than the card advantage.

Each time Ben draws a card from one of these spells, there is some chance that the card he draws will be a Red source; in effect, by playing early-game cantrips, he is increasing his deck’s concentration of Red sources and its concentration of Blue sources, without actually playing more Red- or Blue-producing lands. In fact, he is even increasing his Urza-land concentration!

From all these two-color decks, we can observe that it is acceptable to cut colored sources from a balanced manabase for colorless producers like Rishadan Port or even the entire Urzatron, provided you convert some basic lands to multi-colored producers to pick up the slack. It’s also fine to splash double-colored spells into an otherwise mono-colored deck, as long as you bulk up on off-color mana sources to the point of resembling a regular two-color deck. Finally, remember that you can skimp on colored-mana producers if it’s not critical that you get that color early (as with Nassif’s six Green producers and sideboarded Green morphs), or if you’re playing lots of draw magic (as with Ben Lundquist twelve-Red-source splashed Wildfire).

Decks of Three or More Colors

Remember this little dark horse?

This is a pretty straightforward three-color manabase. We can count that Ben’s maindeck has fifteen Blue producers, twelve Black producers, and twelve White sources.

Now, several people I have met like to figure out their manabases by adding up the total number of mana symbols represented (i.e. one copy of Exalted Angel counts as two White symbols, while one copy of Vindicate counts as one White symbol), and then doling out colored mana producers in the same ratio.

While this method won’t usually leave you with a horribly mismatched manabase, it is pretty rare that such a massive simplification of a process as complicated as building a manabase will lead you to the correct solution. Case in point: Ben’s deck has eighteen White symbols, seventeen Blue, and sixteen Black. Moreover, his only card with double colored requirements is a White card (Exalted Angel)…so why did he go 15-12-12 in favor of Blue?

Blue mana is Ben’s “enabler” color; it enables him to find his other colors. If he’s got Blue, he’s got the color capabilities to cast Brainstorm, Peek, and Deep Analysis, and casting these cards will increase his chances of finding his other colors. As Blue is his “enabler” color, Ben values it more highly than the others, even when those other colors might have more strict requirements in the general sense. Overall, this gives him greater mana consistency than simply spreading out his colored producers according to his ratio of colored symbols. I’d like to add that this is only one situation in which the “mana symbols method” is flawed; if you are taking your deck seriously, you should be spending a lot more time on your color base than just plugging some numbers into a formula. In the long run, Magic is far too complicated to forgive such behavior.

The classic “enabler” color, though, has always been Green. Speaking of which… what would a mana base article be without a Kamigawa Block Gifts Ungiven list?

Lieberman’s winning list is a pretty straightforward green-black deck with a critical third color splash: blue for Gifts Ungiven. Although technically he is only playing one “pure” Blue source in the lone Island, he actually has access to as many as thirteen Blue sources in practice. The Island is one, Tendo Ice Bridge is another four, and Sakura-Tribe Elder and Kodama’s Reach bring us to thirteen.

Tendo Ice Bridge worked overtime for this deck; if Alex didn’t draw one of his eight “normal” Green producers, he could melt a Bridge to summon a Sakura-Tribe Elder, use that guy to fetch out a Forest, and thereby enable the remainder of his Green land-searchers. Alternately, if he already had a Green source to go with his Ice Bridge, he could go straight for the Swamps with his Elders and Reaches, knowing he already had his one-shot Blue source lined up via Ice Bridge should he topdeck a Gifts.

A nice benefit of this setup is that a fourth color can be added trivially by the addition of one basic land. Just one week after Lieberman won a Grand Prix with this deck, Katsuhiro Mori won one in Japan with a similar list. Mori’s deck sideboarded in the off-color all-star Godo for the mirror match, thanks to the addition of one Mountain in his list. Thanks to the Elders, Reaches, and Tendos, one Mountain was all it took to give him an effective thirteen Red-or-Blue producers. Extended players can now pull similar tricks with Fetchlands and the Ravnica duals; if a player were so inclined, he could actually play every color but the quintessential enabler and get away with it.

Most of the things that apply to two-color decks also apply to three-color decks. Splashing a third color is more common than playing a solid three, but when the recipe calls for three whole colors, more often than not, you will find one color “enabling” the other two.

The End of the Beginning

Believe it or not, we’re now finished with the basics of building a Constructed manabase. In the fourth and final installment of this series, I’ll be getting into the really complicated stuff. When is it definitely better to play two Azorius Chancery plus one Watery Grave than to play one Azorius Chancery plus one Dimir Aqueduct plus one Hallowed Fountain? What kind of effect does Chrome Mox have on your color base?

Stay tuned!

Richard Feldman
Team Check Minus
[email protected]