One of the most important things to consider for deck construction is how best to configure your manabase. Numerous authors have written on this subject over the past decade and a half, dating as far back as George Baxter’s original works, and perhaps even before that. The primary function of a deck’s manabase is to provide the resources necessary for casting a deck’s spells. Everyone knows this, and there is plenty of literature that talks at length about how many lands of each color you need to support your spells, the value of multicolor lands, etcetera, so I will not rehash those topics here. Instead, what I wish to focus on in this article is the various secondary functions that a deck’s manabase can perform, and to analyze what sorts of tradeoffs are involved in choosing one of these functions over others. The primary goal is not to determine which secondary functions of a manabase (and hence which resultant archetype) is abstractly superior, but rather to demonstrate how to construct a coherent manabase that is consistent with and informed by your deck’s overall strategy.
The way I see it, there are three standard secondary functions of a deck’s manabase, each correlated to an archetype: Aggressive, Control, and Midrange. I categorize the outliers as â€˜Non-standard’ functions because they only come up in niche combo decks and usually only in older formats. Most combo decks, however, adopt a manabase that fits into one of the three standard categories. Let’s now consider each of these secondary functions and their corresponding archetypes.
Minimizing Your Mana: The Aggressive Plan
On one end of the spectrum, the strategy is to minimize the resources necessary to cast your spells. The most obvious way of doing this is to play a low land count and cards that have low mana costs. Consider the Extended Zoo deck Robert Dougherty piloted to a ninth place finish at Pro Tour Austin 2009:
The deck never really wants to draw more than four lands. Once you have domain mana for Tribal Flames, the only way to utilize excess land is Umezawa’s Jitte and Steppe Lynx (and Jitte can only utilize the fourth land). So in order to minimize the chance of drawing more than three or four lands (even with Dark Confidant in play), the deck runs only twenty total lands, eleven of which are fetch lands. So by the time the deck has four lands in play, there is likely only fourteen or so lands left in the deck, and most of the subsequent draw steps will be action spells.
One of the tradeoffs for running a low land count and low cost spells is that, comparatively, your spells are going to be weaker than the higher cost alternatives. This is one of the factors for Zoo mirrors trying to get “slightly bigger” by negating the opposing threats with slightly larger, slightly more dominating, though slightly more expensive cards. The advantage of running the more aggressive strategy is that you will be able to operate off fewer lands and hence not have to rely on hitting three, four, five, or more mana sources to cast all the cards in your hand. Moreover, since you can operate on such little mana, you can afford to play less mana and more spells in your deck, and thereby draw more â€˜action’ cards than your opponent. The key to keep in mind is that when your deck is designed to be on the aggressive plan, you must realize that the chances of being able to cast something like Baneslayer Angel is very remote, and so it is likely best to stick to cards that cost between one and three mana. If you decide you want the larger spells, it is probably best to adjust your manabase to be less aggressive.
Maximizing Your Mana: The Control Plan
At the other end of the spectrum from the aggressive plan is the control plan. The strategy here is to gain maximum value out of excess land. Unlike a committed aggressive plan like Rob’s Zoo deck, where drawing a fifth land (or beyond) is essentially a missed draw step (unless you have Steppe Lynx in play), the control plan thrives on additional lands. Consider a deck that revolutionized the way people thought about control decks, namely the CMU Blue deck that Randy Buehler piloted to a 6-0 record in the Standard portion of the 1999 World Championships:
Prior to the inception of this deck, it was unheard of to play 28 lands in a Control deck, but this deck could make excellent use of each land drawn. It contains utility lands such as Wasteland, Stalking Stones, and Faerie Conclave. It also contains cards such as Whispers of the Muse and Masticore to convert excess mana into card advantage (either through casting Whispers of the Muse with buyback or killing opposing threats with Masticore). Moreover, it had Masticore and Forbid to simply discard the excess lands in times when the utility of having the extra lands in play happened to be less than having the extra card in hand to discard.
An advantage to playing a control strategy like this one is that you will miss your early land drops much less frequently than an aggressive deck would since you are playing much more mana in your deck (28 compared to the 20 in Rob’s zoo deck). The tradeoff is that you will be drawing less spells than an opponent who plays fewer lands. The control strategy usually compensates for this fact by playing cards that can generate card advantage, most often in the form of higher casting cost cards (e.g. Dismiss, Masticore, Treachery, Whispers of the Muse, etc.). To compensate for having to play high casting cost card advantage engines and many lands, the control strategy often utilizes cheap efficient ways to recoup the tempo advantage that the more aggressive strategy will inevitably start the game off with. So control decks require cards like Powder Keg, Mana Leak, Counterspell, and Legacy’s Allure. The other side of the tradeoff is that if you do not draw these tempo spells early, your draws can be devastatingly clunky, such as a hand of 4 lands, Forbid, Dismiss, and Treachery. All things considered, the control plan improves as the game progresses since mana development is paramount to recouping the initial tempo advantage gained by the aggressive plan. It also means you get your card advantage engines online sooner (sometimes with counter protection) in the control matchup.
Moderating Your Mana: The Midrange Plan
While the aggressive plan looks to run just enough lands to operate between 2 and 4 mana, the control plan looks to continue drawing lands since it can utilize these extra lands to good effect. The midrange plan is somewhat of a strategic compromise between the two. The hallmark of a well-constructed midrange deck is that it is able to function on few lands while still able to utilize excess lands to worthwhile effect. Consider the Standard Rock deck that Charles Gindy used to win Pro Tour Hollywood 2008:
The deck contains 23 lands, 4 Llanowar Elves, 1 Boreal Druid, and 4 Civic Wayfinders as its mana producers (and sometimes Garruk Wildspeaker). The deck is able to play so many mana sources since it can literally attack with 17 of them (including 4 Mutavaults, 4 Treetop Villages, and the 9 aforementioned elves). It is categorized as a midrange strategy since it can mimic the aggressive plan by operating off few mana sources or it can mimic the control plan by utilizing excess lands. Each strategy in its purest form is compromised to some degree in order to strike a strategic balance. For instance, unlike Rob’s Zoo deck, Gindy’s Rock deck can get stuck on three mana, unable to profitably cast Garruk Wildspeaker, Chameleon Colossus, Profane Command, or in some cases Wren’s Run Vanquisher. However, like Randy’s CMU Blue deck, it can put the excess lands to great use via pumping Chameleon Colossus, casting a large Profane Command, or just attacking with the 17 mentioned mana sources. Unlike CMU Blue, Gindy’s deck tops out at four mana (except for Profane Command). CMU Blue wants to get to five and six mana each game to cast Treachery, Whispers of the Muse with buyback, and Masticore with regeneration mana open. This particular example probably leans more toward the control end of the spectrum than the aggressive end, but I believe it suffices to illustrate the point.
There are a few salient tradeoffs for employing a midrange plan over a more aggressive or a more control plan. One is that you are more adaptive to an opposing strategy. Against a more aggressive plan you can adopt the role of a control strategy, playing an attrition battle that ultimately leaves you with more resources since your spells are in general more powerful and more capable of yielding card advantage. The key factor typical hinges on whether you can trade your excess lands for the extra spells that the opponent draw. For instance, if you can render your Treetop Villages relevant enough to trade for opposing Lightning Bolts, then the power of your higher cost cards will be the variable that gives you the edge. If you cannot do this, say by falling into burn range and not being able to attack, then the aggressive deck’s extra spells might make the difference.
Against a control plan, the midrange strategy can assume a number of roles that the aggressive strategy employs. It can begin the first few turns by establishing tempo and force the control deck to recoup that tempo quickly or die. But then unlike the aggressive strategy, the midrange strategy has a mid-to-late game plan for utilizing its extra mana sources. Often this translates into attacking with those lands, though sometimes it means gaining utility in other ways (e.g. sacrificing unneeded lands to draw cards via Horizon Canopy, discarding them for value via Seismic Assault, or replacing them with new cards via Jace, the Mind Sculptor). The further your strategy moves away from the purely aggressive plan, the more â€˜reach’ the deck gains and hence one has better chances of pulling out a game in the later stages of a game than an aggressive plan typically has. However, the tradeoff is that the initial pressure is often not as strong, and so the control plan has more time to set up and bring the game into the late game. Likewise, various combo strategies start to become more problematic since the clock is not as fast as that of the pure aggressive plan. You also are not as capable of punishing slow starts or early mana stumbles from an opponent.
Non-Standard Manabases: The Niche Combo Plan
Sometimes in Legacy and Vintage formats a combo deck will spawn that utilizes a manabase that breaks with the standard spectrum of functions. One example is a 43 land strategy that has driven The Tabernacle at Pendrell Vale to a three hundred dollar price tag and recently earned Chris Woltereck the StarCityGames.com Indianapolis Legacy Open title, found here. To call this deck a super-control deck would be a misnomer, I think. Rather, it as an outlier niche combo deck whose manabase breaks with the standard functions. Similarly, and I suppose at the other end of the spectrum, Stephen Menendian suggested a Manaless Ichorid deck for Vintage in a 2007 article that can be found here. The deck essentially operates off zero mana by getting dredge spells into the graveyard via Bazaar of Baghdad and various discard outlets and then dredging for the rest of the game. Two-land Goblin Charbelcher decks operate in a similar vein in Legacy, though they still run non-land mana sources. I mention these fringe decks only to point out that not every deck’s manabase adheres to the general rules I lay out in this article. However, as I said, these are outlier cases and it should be obvious if your deck is one of these outliers. Combo decks in general are difficult to classify, though they most frequently fall more toward the aggressive spectrum since the mana in the deck usually functions only to assemble the combo — not to make excess mana useful after the combo has been set up (though sometimes present as a backup or incidental plan).
Choosing the Appropriate Secondary Function
Choosing the appropriate secondary function for your manabase largely boils down to intuition, though by this I do not mean mere whim. Intuition should be informed by play testing and matchup considerations. Fortunately there are some rules of thumb for helping you to attune your intuition to make the right decisions in these matters.
Rule 1: If you decide you want to play higher end cards (e.g. Baneslayer Angel, Broodmate Dragon, Prophetic Bolt, etc.), then you need to increase the amount of mana production in your deck. And if you do this, you must incorporate some way to reliably utilize excess mana to make up for the extra mana you are playing. This can take the form of Jace, the Mind Sculptor, man lands, equipment spells, Goblin Trenches, Masticore, Whispers of the Muse, etcetera. If you do not compensate for the added mana, your strategy will lend toward mana flooding and you will essentially fail to adequately utilize a resource that your deck reliably produces (e.g. more mana).
Rule 2: If you decide to decrease your mana count, make sure you also decrease your curve and are not compromising the primary function of the manabase. For example, if you cut Noble Hierarch from your zoo deck and go down to twenty lands, you likely cannot afford to play Ranger of Eos or Treetop Village in multiples since they will clunk up your hand and slow you down, which is about the worst possible hindrance to the aggressive plan. Your plan now involves operating off fewer mana resources, which in turn makes it paramount that those few sources provide you the necessary colors of mana to cast all the extra non-mana cards you are drawing. If you fail to appropriately accommodate for this, your strategy will lend toward mana screw and you will essentially fail to adequately utilize a resource your deck reliably produces (e.g. more action cards).
When deciding how to configure your manabase, you should consider what your overall strategy entails. Are you looking to cast mid-to-late game cards that take over the game and recoup lost tempo from early turns? Are you looking to come out of the gates blazing and kill the opponent before they are able to set up? Are you trying to gain incremental advantages while applying early game pressure and set up for a midgame finish? Any of these strategies are typically reasonable, given a relatively balanced format. The important thing to consider is that your deck is internally consistent and you are playing a manabase that functions in a way that maximizes the impact the rest of the cards in your deck will have on the game. I have offered two standard rules of thumb for adjusting your manabase to cohere with the deck’s overall strategy and an analysis of the tradeoffs for each of the secondary functions. A manabase does more than just help you cast your spells, and determining what secondary function serves your deck best can prove crucial for the success or failure of your deck.