The Constructed Manabase, Part 4: Detail Work

Richard completes his excellent series on building a Constructed manabase with the most intricate installment yet – honing the color and mana requirements of any given deck. He looks at a number of recent examples to emphasize his theories, and shares a mass of insight that can only aid us in our quest to become superior deckbuilders. A fine conclusion to a strong series.

This is the important one. If you skipped Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3 of this series, we’re still cool – just read this article.

Question: Is there any difference between playing the following:

2 Azorius Chancery, 1 Watery Grave.
1 Dimir Aqueduct, 1 Azorius Chancery, 1 Hallowed Fountain.

Using only the information I’ve discussed so far in the series, these two mana configurations would be considered identical. In terms of mana-to-spell ratios, you are playing three lands in both cases, and two of them are bouncelands in both cases. Additionally, these three lands together produce two White, one Black, and three Blue mana. So what’s the difference?

Multiple Mana Producers

The first difference is something I like to call Signet Burn. Say my only White source is Azorius Signet, and I really need to cast Condemn. Unless I can sink the floating Blue mana into something, I’m going to burn for one and lose a point of mana for that turn. That second downside becomes immediately relevant if the opponent casts a post-combat threat and I cannot Cancel it because I was relying on the now-tapped Signet for my second Blue source.

The definition of Signet Burn is simply, “When your only way to pay for a spell/ability is to do so with unwanted mana floating afterwards.” It comes up with mana producers that yield at least two mana at a time – like Signets (obviously), bouncelands, the Odyssey filter lands, and Ancient Tomb.

If you want a quick way to determine how vulnerable your deck is to Signet Burn, check over your list for spells which have no colorless requirement. Condemn is a common offender, as it has no colorless component and is often looking to be cast off an Azorius Signet or Chancery. Voidslime causes similar problems, as a Selesnya Signet or Azorius Chancery cannot contribute to paying its mana cost without leaving a White floating. The other situation where Signet Burn typically comes up is with spells that cost exactly one colored mana and one colorless mana. You cannot use an Orzhov Basilica to cast Remand, for example, without taking Signet Burn.

These kinds of mana producers can also get you into trouble due to something I call Signet Screw. Signet Screw is a variation of color screw; it’s the situation where you can’t cast a Lightning Helix because the only untapped mana sources you have are a Plains and an Izzet Signet.

Even though you’ve got two mana sources, and even though between the two of them you can produce Red, White, and Blue mana, you can’t cast your RW spell. You’d be fine if you had so much as one more colorless mana source; then you could activate the Izzet Signet for UR with the colorless source, tap the Plains for the requisite White source, and then presumably burn for one with the floating Blue mana (which would be an example of Signet Burn). The more pressing issue is that with Plains and Izzet Signet alone, you cannot cast the Helix at all.

Kamiel Cornelissen had to deal with this exact application of Signet Screw in Pro Tour: Honolulu.

Notice the two Boros Signet, two Izzet Signet configuration. Why do this? Why not play four of one and zero of the other?

Say it’s Kamiel’s third turn. He plays a land and a Boros Signet, holding Lightning Helix. He can now tap his remaining untapped land and the Signet to cast the Helix. Great!

If he plays an Izzet Signet there, however, he cannot play the Lightning Helix. So play four Boros Signet, right?

Right. Now let’s say it’s Kamiel’s third turn again. He plays a land and a Boros Signet, holding Mana Leak. He can now tap his remaining untapped land and the Boros Signet to Mana Leak something, right?

… Not so much. Mana Leak doesn’t cast well off RW, even if you tapped an Island to obtain that RW.

This is Kamiel’s dilemma. Even though Island plus Boros Signet and Plains plus Izzet Signet are capable of producing two mana in some combination of Red, White, and Blue, one configuration can cast Lightning Helix but not Mana Leak, and the other can cast Mana Leak but not Lightning Helix.

Kamiel played two Izzet Signet and two Boros Signet in order to give himself options; if he plays four Boros Signet and zero Izzet Signet, he can never play a third turn Signet and leave Mana Leak mana open. It’s impossible. If he plays two of each, at least he has a chance of drawing both a Boros Signet and an Izzet Signet, and then playing the appropriate mana fixer according to whether he needs to play Lightning Helix or Mana Leak on the upcoming turn. Drawing two Boros Signets doesn’t let you play Mana Leak if you’ve drawn it, drawing two Izzet Signets doesn’t let you play Lightning Helix if you’ve drawn it, but drawing one of each Signet lets you play whichever one you need according to what’s in your hand.

Note that Signet Screw applies to Odyssey filter lands and Signets, but not really to bouncelands; if you’re trying to cast Lightning Helix off an Izzet Boilerworks alone, what’s holding you back is not Signet Screw – it’s just plain old color screw. Signet Screw only describes the specific case where you’ve got untapped mana sources which give you access to all the colors you need in the abstract, but where you are still unable to pay for your spell because of the way you have to tap them.

Re-Balancing A Manabase

For a more in-depth application of all this, we can look at Paul Cheon winning list from U.S. Nationals.

First, consider Paul’s Signet configuration: four Azorius Signet, two Dimir Signet.

Neither of these Signets can cast one of Paul’s sideboarded Castigates without causing Signet Burn; clearly, he should have played Orzhov Signets there instead, and rebalanced his mana base accordingly.

… except that Orzhov Signet can’t cast Remand. Oops.

It’s probably more important for this deck to be able to play a third turn Signet plus Remand consistently than it is to play a third turn Signet plus Castigate, not only for tempo reasons, but also because the former situation will come up a lot more often than the latter – if only because the Remands are maindeck and rarely (if ever) get boarded out.

So let’s look at the various downsides of the available three Signets for this deck:

Azorius Signet – Can cause Signet Burn or Signet Screw if you need it to cast Castigate, and Signet Burn if you need to cast Condemn.
Orzhov Signet – Can cause Signet Burn or Signet Screw if you need it to cast Remand, and Signet Burn if you need it to cast Condemn.
Dimir Signet – Can cause Signet Burn or Signet Screw if you need it to cast Castigate or Descendant of Kiyomaro.

Of the three of them, it really seems like Dimir Signet is the least offensive. It always casts Remand just fine, and only stops you from playing Descendant of Kiyomaro if you are stuck on three total mana sources, two of them produce White, and the third is a Dimir Signet. If you have four mana, it just sits on the sidelines, and if you have more than that it allows for Descendant plus Remand action. Dimir Signet and Azorius Signet are comparably bad at casting Castigate, but using Azorius Signet as one of your White sources contributes to Signet Burn when you need to cast Condemn – and against the aggro decks (where you’ll be boarding in Condemn), you do not want to be losing extra life to Signet Burn. Orzhov Signet has the most glaring offense of potential Signet Screw on Remand, so mise well play four Dimir Signets and two Azorius Signets, amiright?

Mise well indeed. If I were to take up this version of Solar Flare, I’d run with four Blue/Black Signets instead of the original configuration of four Azorius, 2 Dimir.

Now let’s take a look at the downsides of the three different bouncelands his deck can productively play:

Azorius Chancery – Causes Signet Burn if you need to cast Condemn or Castigate off it.
Orzhov Basilica – Causes Signet Burn if you need to cast Condemn or Remand off it.
Dimir Aqueduct – Causes Signet Burn if you need to cast Castigate or Descendant of Kiyomaro off it.

Seems like a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” kind of situation to me. No matter which bounceland you play, you have a chance of taking pain from playing two out of three of the relevant cards: Remand, Castigate, and Descendant of Kiyomaro. To pick your optimal mix of bouncelands, you need to look a little deeper.

Consider the first time you can tap your bounceland for mana: turn 3, when you’ll probably have a bounceland and one other land in play. In this situation, Dimir Aqueduct has the additional downside of color-screwing you out of playing Descendant of Kiyomaro, since you need to have the bounceland tap for at least one White if you’re going to be able to cast him off the bounceland and one other land (which must also produce White). That’s a black mark for the Aqueduct.

Basilica has the most offensive Signet Burn, as it is the only one that burns you if you need to cast Remand. Not only is Remand the only one of the three “burnable” cards (Castigate, Descendant, Remand) that appears in the maindeck, it’s also the one most likely to appear in post-sideboard games as well. Black mark for Basilica, too.

The fact that Azorius Chancery makes you burn to cast Castigate is not that big a deal, as one point of life is probably not going to make a huge difference in the matchups where you’re bringing in Castigate. The fact that turn 2 Chancery, turn 3 Descendant is a perfectly legitimate play puts it ahead of Dimir Aqueduct in my book, even though it will ding you for one against aggro decks if you have to cast a Condemn off it.

All things considered, Chancery seems to be the “best” bounceland for this deck, and I think it’s enough ahead of the other two that it’s not worth doing a Kamiel-esque 2-2 split between Chanceries and Basilicas or Aqueducts (or a 2-1-1 split, for that matter).

If I were to re-work Paul’s manabase, I’d do it with four Chanceries.

Okay, so how might we go about doing such a re-working? Glad you asked.

From looking at Paul’s current list, we can observe that it has the following attributes.

23 total lands
6 total Signets
4 total bouncelands

7 Fixed lands: (these need to be in the deck and aren’t going anywhere)
2 Tendo Ice Bridge
1 Shizo, Death’s Storehouse
1 Eiganjo Castle
1 Minamo, School at Water’s Edge
1 Miren, the Moaning Well
1 Mikokoro, Center of the Sea

22 Variable mana sources (6 of which are Signets and 4 of which are bouncelands), which add up to provide us with:
15 White sources
13 Black sources
12 Blue sources

We’ve decided we want the four bouncelands to be Azorius Chanceries; let’s add those to the “fixed” pile. Now our variable pile, which has gone down by four White sources, four Blue sources, four total mana sources, and the “four of which are bouncelands” requirement, looks like this:

18 Variable mana sources (6 of which are Signets), which add up to provide us with:
11 White sources
13 Black sources
8 Blue sources

We figured out earlier that our optimal Signet mix is four Dimir, two Azorius, so let’s add those to the fixed pile. Our variable pile has now gone down by six Blue sources, four Black sources, two White sources, six total mana sources, and the “six of which are Signets” requirement. That leaves us with the following.

12 Variable mana sources, which add up to provide us with:
9 White sources
9 Black sources
2 Blue sources

Taking a glance back at Paul’s list, it looks like he tried to include at least one of his three basic land types (and two Swamp), presumably out of respect for Ghost Quarter and/or Blood Moon. We can accommodate that; let’s add two Swamp, one Island, one Plains to the fixed pile. Now our variable pile is down to this:

8 Variable mana sources, which add up to provide us with:
8 White sources
7 Black sources
1 Blue source

Adding one Hallowed Fountain puts us in this pretty position:

7 Variable mana sources, which add up to provide us with:
7 White sources
7 Black sources

From here, our only remaining decision is whether to play four Godless Shrine and three Caves of Koilos, or the other way around. Paul had Shrines outnumbering Caves in his original list, so let’s keep that the same and go four Shrine, three Caves this time around. The final, re-worked manabase:

2 Tendo Ice Bridge
1 Shizo, Death’s Storehouse
1 Eiganjo Castle
1 Minamo, School at Water’s Edge
1 Miren, the Moaning Well
1 Mikokoro, Center of the Sea
1 Plains
1 Island
2 Swamp
4 Godless Shrine
3 Caves of Koilos
1 Hallowed Fountain
4 Azorius Chancery

4 Dimir Signet
2 Azorius Signet

If you count up the total number of lands, total number of Signets, total number of special-purpose lands (the Tendos, Legendary lands, and the basic lands), and the total number of Blue, White, and Black sources in the manabase, you’ll find that this new manabase lines up perfectly with the one that Paul played. The only difference is that the new one has distributed its colors to get more involvement out of Azorius Chancery and Dimir Signet than the previous list, which, as we determined earlier, is desirable.

Non-Recurring Mana Sources

You may have noticed that I shied away from analyzing Tendo Ice Bridge’s effect on Cheon’s manabase in the previous section. Cards like Tendo, Chromatic Sphere, and Lotus Petal are tricky to involve in calculations, as they only provide the colored requirement for one spell. Moreover, they all do different things when they aren’t providing that one color: Sphere taps for nothing before you pop it to get the color you need, and then taps for nothing once again after you’ve used it to fix your colors. Petal is the same, but it provides an extra point of mana instead of just “filtering” as the Sphere does, and Tendo provides colorless mana both before and after you tap it for colored mana.

Because of this, you really can’t include them in your regular “color counts” when adding up a mana base. As we saw in Part 2 and Part 3 of the series, Tendo Ice Bridge in a Gifts Ungiven deck functions at all times as a normal mana source in terms of “total mana count,” and reliably serves as both a one-shot Green and a one-shot Blue source as long as you use it strategically to either turn a one-time Green source into a full-time Green source (via Elder or Reach), or to use it as a one-time Blue source for your one Blue card (Gifts Ungiven).

Really, the correct way to evaluate the effect these cards have on your manabase is to think about how you plan on using them. If you’re Affinity, and you have only three total colored spells in your deck, you can pretty much treat Chromatic Sphere as a normal colored mana producer. If you’re going to use Tendo Ice Bridge for Blue mana, or as an emergency Green source, count it as a Green and Blue source, but not as a Black source. If you plan to on using it for any of your primary colors (as Paul seems to have), and can replenish it with a bounceland, you might estimate each Tendo as counting for “half a White, half a Black, and half a Blue” source. The most important thing is that you need to consider what role these cards will be playing in your deck in order to evaluate their impact on your manabase; there is no hard-and-fast rule for what effect they will have.

Chrome Mox

I played Affinity at a PTQ awhile back and had four Chrome Mox running alongside a colored spell compliment of four Shrapnel Blast, four Fire / Ice, and four Thoughtcast. In other words, if I wanted to get Blue out of my Mox, I had to draw one of my eight Blue spells, and in order to get Red out of it, I had to draw one of my eight Red spells.

Chrome Mox is an oddity among commonly-played mana producers in that its color production capabilities depend on the rest of your deck. If your hand contains no colored spells, the Mox not only produces no colored mana, it produces no mana at all. Thus, you must have a critical mass of legal Imprint targets (I consider twelve to be enough) in order to play the Mox at all, and must consider the colors of those spells in order to figure out what its colored mana production capabilities are.

To evaluate these capabilities, I would take a look at your colored spells as though they were colored mana producers. “If my Green spells were Forests, would I expect to reliably have one in my opening hand?” If so, Chrome Mox can be considered a reliable source of Green mana. Do this for all the different colors in your deck, and you’ll have a decent idea of what you can expect from your Mox.

My one last piece of advice regarding this card is not to count colored spells you’ll be unwilling to Imprint in this calculation. If you’re splashing black just for Cranial Extraction, for example, it’s pretty safe to say you won’t ever be Imprinting a valuable Cranial on a Mox, so really the Mox shouldn’t count as a Black producer at all.

And that, folks, is just about the lifetime sum of my expertise on Constructed manabases. As I said in the beginning of this series, my goal is not to be comprehensive, but rather to be thorough. There’s a good chance I’ve under-explained certain things, and a 100% chance that Constructed manabases are more complicated than four articles’ worth of explanation, but my goal in writing this series was merely to lay out what I’ve learned about them over the years.

In any case, I hope the experience has been useful to all you aspiring deckbuilders out there.

Until next time!

Richard Feldman
Team Check Minus
[email protected]