The Three-Mana Choke Point In Commander

Too much of a good thing can be a rough thing, and Bennie Smith’s latest theory is a prime example! There are so many good three mana staples in Commander that some are being obsoleted! Read his study here!

I started playing Magic in 1994 with my D&D friends, and for the first
two years it was just multiplayer, kitchen table good times. In 1996 I
started getting interested in playing tournament Magic and lucky for me,
fellow Magic fans started gathering together strategy information on the
internet, on Usenet newgroups – basically forums that people could post
tournament reports and strategy articles so people could read and provide
feedback. Transitioning from the slow, chaotic games of multiplayer to
tight-playing faster duel decks was a culture shock. Naturally, I wanted to
play the sweet, big green monsters I loved playing in multiplayer. But I
kept getting run over by these terrible, small red creatures before I could
even cast more than one or two copies of big, beautiful Erhnam Djinn and
Force of Nature. Gorilla Shaman, Dwarven Soldier, and Brass Man of all
things would kill me while I still had a fistful of cards. Usenet informed
me I was being destroyed by a deck expertly designed by Jay Schneider
utilizing the “sligh curve,” a ratio of cards per casting cost designed to
allow you to maximize your mana each and every turn. This was a
mind-blowing, level up moment for me because up until that point I was
mostly just playing the cards I thought were cool and powerful. Paying
attention to my mana curve has become a fundamental part of how I design
Constructed and Limited decks, and it’s something that I’ve carried over
into Commander too.

My approach for designing a Commander deck with a mana curve is a little
different than for a 2P deck. Generally, multiplayer games give you more
time to develop your mana, and building up to more expensive, splashy
spells is desirable. However, sometimes your opponent is going to lead off
with Sol Ring, Worn Powerstone, or Cultivate and you… you’re playing a
Karoo land like Golgari Rot Farm and having to discard something. By the
time you get anything going the game might be so gone you’ve got no shot.
That’s why even in Commander I think it’s important that you pay attention
to having a reasonable mana curve so that you can impact the game in the
early turns even if you don’t draw explosive mana acceleration.

The challenge is finding meaningful low-cost cards that are still okay to
draw later in a long game of Commander. At zero and one mana, that can be a
challenge once you’ve penciled in Sol Ring and Skullclamp, but if you dig
deep you can find some. I usually try to have somewhere around 6-8 cards
there at least. I’ve found that there are actually a ton of solid,
workhorse style cards you can fill in the two mana slot in addition to
Signets and a Mind Stone, so the peak of my mana curve will generally start
at two mana, and then go down from there. Here’s a chart with a sample mana
curve for a Commander deck running 38 lands.

One big problem I’ve found after many years of building Commander decks
showing respect for a mana curve is that there are way too many good
Commander cards that cost three mana. I mean, seriously, it’s a big
problem. So big that I think it’s something that Wizards R&D should
actually keep in mind as they design new Magic cards.

Let me illustrate.

Let’s say I’m building a multicolor deck that runs green. Here are the
cards that I’d have to dig deep to find a compelling reason not to play:

Kodama's Reach Cultivate Eternal Witness Krosan Grip

Lifecrafter's Bestiary Tireless Tracker Song of the Dryads

That’s seven of our twelve cards right there. But what about these?

Beast Within Arachnogenesis Courser of Kruphix Yavimaya Elder Loxodon Warhammer Sword of Feast and Famine Sword of Light and Shadow Darksteel Plate Managorger Hydra Nissa, Vastwood Seer Ramunap Excavator Shaman of Forgotten Ways Growing Rites of Itlimoc Selvala, Heart of the Wilds Bow of Nylea Champion of Lambholt Beastmaster Ascension

That’s seventeen more cards that are perfectly respectable, powerful
Commander cards. This isn’t even counting cards that might play
specifically into whatever themes or abilities our commander might possess.

And this is just the options we have for green– we haven’t even dipped
into our other colors! What if we’re playing three colors? Four colors?
Five colors?

The sad fact is that most of these won’t make it into our decks. Depending
on how many colors you’re running, you might even have to cut into those
seven awesome cards. At some point you make the hard cuts and put them back
into your cardboard boxes. Maybe they’ll make the cut for another deck. But
maybe they won’t. It’s tough to not play with these cards! To the point
that some people throw regard for the mana curve right out the window.

I did a little digging around in the deck database at EDHREC.com, chose
various green commanders and used the “Average deck” function to generate
sample decklists.

Here’s a mono-green deck for Reki, the History of Kamigawa.

Reki, History of Kamigawa
Bennie Smith
Test deck on 11-05-2018
Magic Card Back

Here’s what the mana curve looks like:

This curve is not all that out of whack but wow, that’s over 20% of our
100-card deck sitting right there at three mana!

Here are the three mana cards:

Azusa, Lost but Seeking Beast Within Bow of Nylea Cultivate Dosan the Falling Leaf Growing Rites of Itlimoc Hall of Triumph Hua Tuo, Honored Physician Kodama's Reach Krosan Grip Lifecrafter's Bestiary Mirri, Cat Warrior Nissa, Vastwood Seer Omnath, Locus of Mana Reki, the History of Kamigawa Rhonas the Indomitable Rhonas's Monument Rishkar, Peema Renegade Selvala, Heart of the Wilds Yisan, the Wanderer Bard

How many of these would you want to cut from your Reki deck? You want most
if not all of your creatures to be legendary, and there aren’t but so many
legendary creatures that cost less than three.

Which has me wondering-why don’t we have more two mana legendary creatures?

Okay, let’s take a look at a two-color green deck, The Gitrog Monster.

The Gitrog Monster
Bennie Smith
Test deck on 11-05-2018
Magic Card Back

Here’s what the mana curve looks like:

We see the mana curves up to three mana before dropping dramatically at
four, bumps up at five and that’s about it.

Here are the three-mana cards:

Azusa, Lost but Seeking Beast Within Courser of Kruphix Crucible of Worlds Cultivate Eternal Witness Harrow Kodama's Reach Krosan Grip Pernicious Deed Putrefy Ramunap Excavator Realms Uncharted Stinkweed Imp Sylvan Awakening Turntimber Sower Wayward Swordtooth

Which of these would you want to trim? All of these are perfectly good
inclusions into a deck built around The Gitrog Monster.

Let’s take a look at a three-color green deck, Gishath, Sun’s Avatar.

Gishath, Sun's Avatar
Bennie Smith
Test deck on 11-05-2018
Magic Card Back

Here’s the mana curve:

This is a very rough mana curve, pushed out of whack by the fact that you
want a lot of dinosaurs for Gishath triggers and Dinosaurs tend to have a
high mana cost, and the fact that there are a lot of three mana spells
you’d want in your Naya colored, Dinosaur tribal-ish deck.

Here are the three mana spells:

Atzocan Seer Congregation at Dawn Cultivate Deathgorge Scavenger Dinosaur Stampede Growing Rites of Itlimoc Herald's Horn Kinjalli's Sunwing Kodama's Reach Naya Charm Rampaging Ferocidon Ranging Raptors Runic Armasaur Savage Stomp Thrashing Brontodon Urza's Incubator Wayward Swordtooth

What would you want to cut here? Since we’re tribal Dinosaurs we certainly
want to run Urza’s Incubator and Herald’s Horn, so that puts even more
pressure on the other three mana inclusions. We can count Savage Stomp as a
virtual one mana spell to help a little bit.

Can I take a moment to point out how filthy Congregation at Dawn is with a
Gishath trigger on the stack? Oof!

Now let’s take a look at a four-color green deck:

Kynaios and Tiro of Meletis
Bennie Smith
Test deck on 11-05-2018
Magic Card Back

Here’s the mana curve:

Ugh, now that’s a horrible looking mana curve. You know why? Because you’ve
got four colors worth of great three-mana spells you want to squeeze into
the deck!

Here are the three-mana spells:

Beast Within Chasm Skulker Chromatic Lantern Commander's Sphere Cultivate Dictate of Kruphix Edric, Spymaster of Trest Estrid's Invocation Eternal Witness Fevered Visions Ghostly Prison Gwafa Hazid, Profiteer Horn of Greed Jace Beleren Kodama's Reach Ludevic, Necro-Alchemist Oblation Orzhov Advokist Propaganda Rhystic Study Rites of Flourishing Satyr Enchanter Selvala, Explorer Returned Temple Bell

Which of these would you trim? Truth be told, there are a ton of great
three mana cards across these four colors that could easily swap in for

The moral of this story is that I can’t really blame people for having a
wacked out mana curve when building their Commander decks-there are just
way too many good three mana spells, and the more colors you play the more
difficult it is to keep a mana curve discipline.

The problem is only going to get worse with time. Each Magic set that comes
out, whether it’s for Standard or a supplemental product, are going to
include cards that are great for Commander and cost three mana. Personally,
each time I see one I flinch, because I know that it’s going to have a
really high bar to make the cut, and if it does, that means that some other
fantastic three-mana card is going to hit the bench. Either that, or the
mana curve is going out the window. I would like to take up a call to arms,
for all of us to encourage the awesome crew at Wizards R&D to keep in
mind the overabundance of great three mana cards, and consider when turning
the various knobs to tune the final design to consider other mana costs
than three. For instance, from Guilds of Ravnica:

I know this is designed to be a sweet bomb in Limited and to be a funky,
build-around card for casual Izzet decks, and I’m sure it was thought to be
something cool to have for Commander. But I’m not sure it’s going to see
play outside of Brudiclad, Telchor Engineer decks. What if it had cost 3U
instead? You could have maybe made it an instant, and if that was too good
make it five mana.

How about from Commander 2018?

What if this was a 1/1 for two mana? Would it have been too good? How about
a 3/2 for 3W?

Upping the mana cost on these two would have been an improvement since it
would fit in more decks with commander that cost more mana.

If this was designed as a pseudo-hoser for Sol Ring and its ilk, making it
two mana would have been much, much better!

Varchild is a cool card with some great flavor. But it’s hard for me to see
it getting the nod in most Commander decks because competition is stiff at
this mana cost and the effect is low impact, even if you build in a lot of
shenanigans. I’m not sure if there’s room for more abilities-trample, haste
for instance-but I’d have liked to see it be a more sizable threat for a
bit more mana.

Super cool card that is going to be rarely played. Of all the colors, green
is choking in fantastic three mana spells. I feel that you could have made
it an extra mana, added “when Myth Unbound enters the battlefield, draw a
card” and you’d have minted a classic.

So, what do you think? How do you deal with mana curve when you’re building
your Commander decks? How do you make the hard cuts when it comes to three
mana cards?

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Deck Database

Below I’ve got links to decks I’ve written about going back to January
2017. If you want to read the associated article, just put “Bennie Smith”
and the commander name into the Google and it should pop right up. I’ve
written a lot about Commander – and Magic in general – so if you want to
explore further the

StarCityGames.com article archives

have my articles all the way back to January 2000!

Guilds of Ravnica

Niv Mizzet, Parun

Emmara, Soul of the Accord


Lazav, the Multifarious (decklist in the comments)


Tajic, Legion’s Edge


Etrata, the Silencer


Izoni, Thousand-Eyed

Commander 2018

Aminatou, the Fateshifter


Xantcha, Sleeper Agent

, Lord Windgrace

Core Set 2019

Sai, Master Thopterist


Goreclaw, Terror of Qal Sisma


Vaevictis Asmadi, the Dire


Chromium, the Mutable


Grothama, All-Devouring


Teshar, Ancestor’s Apostle

, Grand Warlord Radha
, Arvad the Cursed,

Muldrotha, the Grave Tide


Slimefoot, the Stowaway


Yargle, Glutton of Urborg

, Squee, the Immortal

Firesong and Sunspeaker


Jodah, Archmage Eternal

Masters 25

Hannah, Ship’s Navigator

Rivals of Ixalan

Azor, the Lawbringer

, Etali, Primal Storm

Nezahal, Primal Tide


Zacama, Primal Calamity


Tetzimoc, Primal Death


Zetalpa, Primal Dawn


Ghalta, Primal Hunger


Grusilda, Monster Masher


Dr. Julius Jumblemorph


Vona, Butcher of Magan


Tishana, Voice of Thunder


Admiral Beckett Brass


Gishath, Sun’s Avatar

Commander 2017

Nazahn, Revered Bladesmith


Inalla, Archmage Ritualist


Mirri, Weatherlight Duelist


O-Kagachi, Vengeful Kami


Mairsil, the Pretender


Taigam, Ojutai Master

Hour of Devastation

Razaketh, the Foulblooded

, Zur, the Enchanter
(Mummy’s Curse),

Djeru, With Eyes Open

, The Locust God, Karona, False God
(All the Deserts),Nicol Bolas, Neheb, the Eternal


Oketra the True

Temmet, Vizier of Naktamun

, Atogatog
(Cartouches & Trials),

Hapatra, Vizier of Poisons


Samut, Voice of Dissent


Rhonas the Indomitable

, Hazoret the Fervent

Kaladesh Block

Yahenni, Undying Partisan

, Nicol Bolas, Child of Alara (5
Color Energy),

Rishkar, Peema Renegade


Kari Zev, Skyship Raider


Sram, Senior Edificer

Commander 2016

Breya, Etherium Shaper


Atraxa, Praetors’ Voice


Tymna the Weaver // Ravos, Soultender

Other Commander Decks

Anafenza, the Foremost

(shutting down shenanigans),

Momir Vig, Simic Visionary

(no green creatures),

Kytheon, Hero of Akros

(Tribal Gideon)

Commander Strategy

Let’s Talk About Lands

Who Should I Attack?

Targeted Removal in Commander