Yawgmoth’s Whimsy #239 – The Modern Manabase

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Friday, August 15th – I spent last weekend judging feature matches at Grand Prix: Denver. That actually involves a lot less game watching than you might think, but I did see a lot of Magic played. What really impressed me was the potency of the manabases. Sure, Owen Turtenwald’s Mono-Red deck, and the Mono-White aggro decks were consistent and solid, but so was the five color deck that won the whole thing.

I spent last weekend judging feature matches at Grand Prix: Denver. That actually involves a lot less game watching than you might think, but I did see a lot of Magic played. What really impressed me was the potency of the manabases. Sure, Owen Turtenwald Mono-Red deck, and the Mono-White aggro decks were consistent and solid, but so was the five color deck that won the whole thing. This is Block — and the manabases are supporting decks that couldn’t have worked in Extended in years past.

A Quick Note on Feature Match Judging

You would think that being the feature match coordinator would mean I would have a great take on the metagame after the event, and could discuss the various match-ups in detail. You would be wrong. On Saturday, being feature match coordinator meant working the first match, but for all subsequent matches, I would pull another judge off the floor, train that judge, then do that judge’s job while he or she watched the feature matches. On Saturday, I spent a couple of rounds on the paper team, a bit of time doing deck checks, some logistics, and a ton of time on the floor answering questions and collecting match result slips.

Sunday was not much better. I was covering the matches myself, but any time something really interesting was happening, I always had to do something else and I could not watch. Spectators were attempting to fall off chairs, or talking about players’ hands, or someone had a question, or I was dealing with an infraction. More importantly, much of the time you are watching for other problems, not watching for good tactical or strategic plays.

In at least half a dozen matches, I had to ask who won the first game, because I was handling either problems or another match at the time.

All of this means that the official coverage probably teaches as much about the metagame as I possibly could. However, while I did not see many of the critical plays, I did have plenty of time to consider manabases, and watch people struggle — or not — with mana issues.

I have been building and piloting Block, Standard, Extended and Vintage decks since 1999, and I have never seen a card pool that can support the variety of cards that are now in play. I am used to playing much more traditional decks — single and two-color decks that had to look closely at colored mana costs. I remember Mono-Red decks that really were Mono-Red. After reviewing the coverage, I noted that Owen’s Mono-Red deck, at least the version he played in the trials, was actually RB.

Owen Turtenwald – Grand Prix Denver Trials, 1st Place

4 Auntie’s Hovel
4 Graven Cairns
12 Mountain
4 Reflecting Pool

4 Boggart Ram-Gang
4 Demigod of Revenge
4 Figure of Destiny
4 Stigma Lasher
4 Vexing Shusher

4 Flame Javelin
4 Lash Out
4 Puncture Blast
4 Tarfire

4 Festercreep
4 Inside Out
4 Soul Snuffers
3 Spitebellows

More importantly, look at the colored mana symbols in the deck. I counted the on —color mana symbols in the deck. If you count the {R/G} symbols as pure R, since the deck cannot generate Green mana, and ignore the colorless symbols, then here’s the count.

R: 20
RR: 11 (including evoked Spitebellows)
RRR: 8
{R/B}{R/B}{R/B}{R/B}{R/B}: 4
B: 4 (sideboard)
BB: 4 (sideboard)

And this is considered — in the modern world, at least — almost a mono-colored deck. For comparison, here’s the breakdown of Jay Schneiders’s original “Sligh” deck, which really was mono-colored.

Artifacts: 9
R: 27
RR: 12

The original Sligh deck ran 4 Strip Mines, 4 Mishra’s Factories, 13 Mountains and 2 Dwarven Ruins. Two colored mana was the maximum for any spell, and even though Ball Lightning was legal in the format, the deck did not run it. And Sligh was a Standard deck.

Owen’s deck is Block Constructed. Moreover, it is nothing compared to the deck that won GP: Denver.

I am not even going to try to count the spells with a single colored mana in their costs, even for things like Firespout. Instead, I’ll just look at the double and triple — and more — casting cost spells.

WW: 10
{G/W}{G/W}: 4
GG: 3
UUU: 4
{U/W}{U/W}{U/W}: 3

And all of this is in a five-color deck.

This is unprecedented. It exists because Wizards has radically changed the concept of a manabase — and printed a plethora of amazing lands. The current block format has two ten-card cycles of dual lands (the creature lands, like Ancient Amphitheater, and the Graven Cairns cycle), plus the Vivid lands, plus Reflecting Pool, Murmuring Bosk, Primal Beyond, and even lowly Shimmering Grotto. No format has ever had such an abundance of color fixing.

Let’s do some comparison:

Urza’s Block had one five-color land — Thran Quarry — and it sucked. It had great lands — Treetop Village debuted in Urza’s Legacy — but they were all mono-colored.

Masques Block had several lands that could generate two mana of a single color (e.g. Peat Bog), and a single five-colored land: Rhystic Cave. Don’t remember that one? It was probably the worst five-colored land ever: It read: “T: Choose a color. Add one mana of that color to your mana pool unless any player pays 1. Play this ability only any time you could play an instant.” It is a land with a “mana” ability that has to be played prior to announcement of the spell. Suctacular.

Masques block was also the time of super-annoying mana denial, with both Rishadan Port and Dust Bowl being printed. Of course, the block even did mana denial in a truly awful manner — via Wintermoon Mesa, which has to be the worst rare land ever printed.

Masques was followed by Invasion block, which pulled Magic out of the doldrums and reinvented many colored decks. Invasion also had a ton of decent lands, including the sac lands (e.g. Ancient Spring), the taplands (Coastal Tower), the dragon lands (Treva’s Ruins), the enemy colored painlands (Llanowar Wastes), plus oddities like Forsaken City, Meteor Crater, and Terminal Moraine.

Invasion block also offered the first really good artifact mana fixing. True, cards like Barbed Sextant had been around since Ice Ages, and Masques had included the Ramos pieces, but playable mana fixing really began with Invasion, expanded in Mirrodin and continues today.

Odyssey block slipped back a bit. Crystal Cavern was a nice toy, but never quite saw serious play. The rare “dual” land cycle (Darkwater Catacombs, et. al.) gave two allied colors, but was not really anything to cheer about. The rest of the rare and uncommon lands (e.g. Cabal Coffers) supported single colors. The common land cycle did allow you to sacrifice for another color, and both Krosan Verge and Riftstone Portal provided GW, but the block was not known for lands that would see considerable play in multicolored decks. (Okay, barring a few exceptions, like Mirari’s Wake.)

Onslaught block brought us the greatest mana fixers of all times — at least in any format which included dual lands. I refer, of course, to the fetchlands. However, once you get past those five lands, the rest of the block is not all that color friendly. Grand Coliseum is great in casual play, but most of the rest of the lands were single colored. They cycled, they pulled zombies out of graveyards and bounced wizards, but they did not really support multicolored decks.

The same can be said, to a great extent, for Mirrodin and Kamigawa blocks. For the most part, the lands did interesting things, but those things were not really multicolored.
Ravnica brought back the duals, and Time Spiral had some nice stuff, but nothing comes close to Lorwyn / Shadowmoor for pure multicolored madness.

Ancient Block Decks

Let’s look at the manabases a different way. Let’s compare block decks from the past, and look at the manabases they had, and the colors they supported.

The oldest decklists I have access to are from Urza’s Block Constructed, but the list is short. I also do not have any attributions — meaning I don’t know whether I have decks I designed or decks that I pulled from PTQs or larger events. Here’s a typical deck for the block: a Mono-Red Ponza style deck.

Covetous Dragon / Wildfire

16 Mountain
4 Ghitu Encamptment
3 Smoldering Crater

2 Arc Lighting
2 Parch
4 Rain of Salt
4 Wildfire

4 Grim Monolith
4 Temporal Aperture
4 Thran Dynamo
3 Worn Powerstone

4 Avalanche Riders
4 Covetous Dragon
2 Karn, Silver Golem
2 Shivan Hellkite

The breakdown is pretty simple:

Artifact: 17
R: 10
RR: 10

Urza’s Block was heavy on artifact mana acceleration, but the artifacts mainly produced colorless mana. This meant that a lot of the decks were mono-colored. I did play a two color deck, but I also went something like 2-6 at my PTQs, so that does not count. Ingrid just missed Top 8 with a Mono-Green aggro deck, and Accelerated Blue was another powerhouse in the block. Note, however, that although the block did have significant mana acceleration, it was not an artifact-heavy block — at least not compared to Mirrodin. Urza’s block had slightly over 10% artifacts. Masques had about 8% artifacts, while Invasion was down to about 5%. Mirrodin, on the other hand, was almost 45% artifacts.

Let’s move forward a block. I won my first PTQ Top 8 pin in a Masques block PTQ with a UW deck. It was reasonably typical of the two color decks in the format — decks like GW Rebels and GB Roshambo. The other powerhouse decks from the block were Mono-White Rebels and the base Blue Rising Waters decks. That said, here’s my UW control deck.

U/W Control, a.k.a. “Muddy Waters”

10 Plains
12 Islands
2 Kor Haven
2 Tooth of Ramos

4 Drake Hatchling
4 Stinging Barrier
2 Blinding Angel
2 Jeweled Spirit

4 Counterspell
3 Thwart
2 Foil
2 Bribery
2 Dominate
2 Wave of Reckoning
1 Disenchant
1 Seal of Cleansing
1 Aura Fracture

4 Accumulated Knowledge
1 Gush

The sideboard was weird and random, so I’ll skip it. the breakdown of the maindeck was as follows:

Artifact: 2
W: 5
WW: 4
U: 9
UU: 17
UUU: none — the manabase could not handle it

Masques block was not really a multicolored block, so the fact that the manabase did not support wildly colorful spells is not that surprising. The following block, on the other hand, was all about gold cards and cards of many colors. It was Invasion, one of the most colorful blocks ever. Invasion had a number of decks, so choosing one was difficult. I decided to grab a strong deck from a major tournament towards the end of the season, so I looked for a GP: London deck. I also looked for the most colorful deck available — which means a 5 color Domain deck. Here it is.

Kai Budde Domain — GP: London 2001

7 Forest
1 Yavimaya Coast
2 Llanowar Wastes
5 Island
3 Swamp
2 Mountain
1 Plains

4 Chromatic Sphere
1 Legacy Weapon

4 Lay of the Land
4 Harrow
4 Collective Restraint
4 Allied Strategies
4 Worldly Council
4 Evasive Action
2 Void
1 Ordered Migration
1 Goblin Trenches
2 Destructive Flow
1 Overgrown Estate
2 Pernicious Deed

1 Destructive Flow
1 Legacy Weapon
3 Spiritmonger
3 Penumbra Bobcat
1 Overgrown Estate
1 Void
2 Pernicious Deed
3 Addle

Invasion block had a number of different multicolor decks, but most were two- or three-color. Domain was different, in that it ran all five colors. It ran gold cards, and lots of cards with just a single colored mana in the casting costs. What it did not run was anything with two of the same colored mana symbols in the mana costs. It also ran only five copies of two cards that had three colors in their casting cost — those being Overgrown Estate and Destructive Flow.

Most of the decks in the block had this same mana structure — lots of cards with casting costs of 1XY, where X and Y are random colors, but only a few counterspells (e.g. Absorb, Undermine) were routinely played and had double colors in the mana costs. The only card with two double colors in the casting cost I can remember off the top of my head was Desolation Angel (BB in the cost, plus WW in the kicker). [There’s Desolation Giant too — Craig.]

Odyssey block was not a multicolored block. Odyssey had a couple of standout decks. Mono-Black Control is pretty obviously not a multicolor deck, and certainly not a five-color deck. The primary multicolored deck was UG Madness. Here’s a typical early version.

Quiet SpeculationKai Budde, Worlds 2002

10 Forest
13 Island

3 Basking Rootwalla
4 Wild Mongrel
3 Wonder

4 Careful Study
3 Catalyst Stone
1 Deep Analysis
3 Envelop
3 Grizzly Fate
4 Mental Note
1 Moment’s Peace
4 Quiet Speculation
4 Roar of the Wurm

3 Aether Burst
1 Alter Reality
1 Catalyst Stone
1 Deep Analysis
1 Envelop
1 Grizzly Fate
2 Moment’s Peace
2 Ray of Revelation
3 Upheaval

One interesting note — I am having more trouble remembering the casting costs of a lot of these cards than I did those of Urza’s, Masques, or Invasion blocks. That may be because I really did not enjoy this block very much. Whatever — but if I mess up the numbers, you know why.

Artifact: 4
G: 14
GG: 4
U: 25
UU: 3
W: 2 (but G on flashback)

I could continue through Onslaught block (Astral Slide, Mono-White Control, etc.), but I think the point is made. Ravnica block decks show more colors, as you would expect from another multicolored block, but even decks like Ruel’s four-color Pillar build did not have the wildly different casting costs that Gerry’s Quick n’ Toast deck does. Here’s the Pillar deck:

Four-Color Pillar Aggro – Olivier Ruel

4 Stomping Ground
4 Pillar of the Paruns
4 Temple Garden
4 Sacred Foundry
4 Blood Crypt
2 Godless Shrine
2 Overgrown Tomb

4 Skyknight Legionnaire
2 Gruul Guildmage
2 Boros Guildmage
4 Watchwolf
4 Burning-Tree Shaman
4 Giant Solifuge
2 Blind Hunter

3 Char
3 Seal of Fire
4 Lightning Helix
4 Hit / Run

4 Loxodon Hierarch
2 Orzhov Pontiff
2 Bottled Cloister
3 Castigate
2 Rain of Gore
2 Mortify

Once again, the deck has a lot of gold cards, but nothing with more than one of any given color in the mana cost. What I mean is that the deck has casting costs of 1RG, 1WB, 2GW, 2R, RW, etc. — but the closest thing to a card that requires two of the same colored mana is Giant Solifuge, at 2{R/G}{R/G}. Certainly nothing like a 1UUU or 2GGGG.

Kamigawa block had a few multicolored decks, starting with the Gifts Ungiven archetype, but again the decks did not feature many casting costs with more than one of any given colored of mana. The decks were more colorful — Wizards was beginning to print better lands and limit land destruction — but nothing like the current block.

For that matter, I remember Extended metagames that had nowhere near the color diversity of this block. Let’s look at a couple of the most colorful Extended decks from the era of the true dual lands, and later.

Counterslivers, Sean Fitzgerald, Champion, GP: Phoenix

4 Flood Plains
4 City of Brass
2 Gemstone Mine
4 Tundra
1 Tropical Island
1 Savannah
4 Underground Sea
1 Volcanic Island
1 Scrubland[/author]“][author name="Scrubland"]Scrubland[/author]
1 Undiscovered Paradise

4 Muscle Sliver
4 Crystalline Sliver
4 Hibernation Sliver
3 Acidic Sliver
4 Force of Will
3 Demonic Consultation
3 Swords to Plowshares
3 Seal of Cleansing
3 Winged Sliver
3 Counterspell
2 Duress
1 Misdirection

4 Pyroblast
2 Volrath’s Stronghold
3 Honorable Passage
2 Misdirection
1 Swords to Plowshares
1 Seal of Cleansing
2 Erase

Let’s break down the casting costs.

G: 4
R: 4
W: 13
B: 5
UU: 10 (although many are pitch spells)
two color (e.g. UW): 11

PTJunk2k — Adrian Sullivan

4 Treetop Village
4 Wasteland
4 Scrubland[/author]“][author name="Scrubland"]Scrubland[/author]
3 Savannah
2 Grassland
3 Bayou

3 Cursed Scroll
2 Powder Keg
3 Mox Diamond

3 Skyshroud Elite
4 River Boa
4 Phyrexian Negator
4 Blastoderm

4 Tithe
4 Duress
3 Demonic Consultation
3 Swords to Plowshares
3 Seal of Cleansing

3 Wax/Wane
3 Honorable Passage
3 Ebony Charm
3 Perish
3 Massacre

This deck is, once again, a classic multicolored deck, but it has zero multicolored cards, and zero cards with more than an single colored mana in the casting cost (okay, Massacre has BB, but no one paid BB to cast it.) I should also note that this deck, even when it is stripped down in this way, was highly vulnerable to Wasteland. Wasteland was also a great answer to Counterslivers.

I also looked through more recent Extended decks — decks from the era after wasteland had rotated out. Even those decks are not wildly colorful in the way that Quick n Toast is. I looked at decks like TEPS, Boros, Scepter Chant, Gaea’s Might Get There, etc. Still no compassion.

We have entered a new era of Magic — an era when it is easy to assemble a manabase that supports anything and everything. It’s a new world.


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