Zvi Mowshowitz, New Standard, & The Three Constraints

This week respected Magic theorist Adrian Sullivan explains the three constraints on mana when constructing decks and applies them to building decks for Theros Standard.

There are times when I’m working on decks and I put myself into the mindset of other deckbuilders whose work I admire. There seem to be almost a limitless set of ways to approach deckbuilding that have worked for people; I don’t mind thinking about things from perspectives that can at times be radically different than my own.

Usually, when I employ this exercise, I think about people I’ve worked with in the past, people whose perspective I feel like I know fairly well. When I think about a control deck, I tend to think about Mike Donais. When I think about midrange decks, I tend to think about Jamie Wakefield, Brian Kowal, and Sol Malka. When I think about pure aggro, I tend to think about Bill Macey, Dave Price, and a ton of Chicago-area mages from the past, only some of whom you may know (Adam Jansen and Ronny Serio among them).

For more than a few years, though, one person that I think about a lot is Zvi Mowshowitz. When formats rotate and even when new sets become available, I put on my Zvi-inspired thinking cap and ask myself, “What does the mana in this format mean? What is even possible?”

Zvi has gone into this idea more than a few times in the past, but I think other people first took note of it with this deck:

This is a deck that is pushing its mana to do truly powerful things. Eight turn 1 accelerators, Lotus Cobra, Knight of the Reliquary, and a ton of great lands, this deck was doing some truly powerful things, but when Zvi talked about the deck afterwards, one of the things he made clear was that he didn’t make a deck of spells and then find the mana to support the spells. Rather, it was a deck that figured out what kinds of mana were available and then played the most potent spells that the mana could support.

If we think about Magic the way Zvi described—with mana as our first consideration—it is a pretty revolutionary way to think about deckbuilding. There are other schools of thought that have done similar things (I vaguely recall one group of players whose usual Pro Tour plan was to play one less color than they imagined the typical Pro Tour deck would contain).

I’ve sometimes pushed the envelope the other way, trying to see just how much greed I could squeeze out of my mana and still have a deck function properly. In some ways, this can be called “The Ponza Method” or “the crust” principle: find ways to make your lands themselves give you more action.

I played this at the Wisconsin State Championship in 2007, and later that year my friend Zac Hill played it at Worlds (minus one card to hit 60 and with a different board). He called it his “favorite deck I’ve played in a tournament”.

The path I walked to find the deck was largely out of trying to push that concept to its utmost. It did this by running ten lands that could potentially damage the opponent, nine mana accelerators, and sixteen sources of mana that could just do something, all while still supporting the red that the deck needed to have to function. About the only way to get punished for running a plan like this at the time was Detritivore, but that was a pretty uncommon card to see and also largely an unimpressive play against the deck.

Whether you are pushing the edge of greed with your mana or you are using it to guide what you are thinking of playing, you still have to deal with the three natural constraints that mana gives you. I explored this more fully in my 2008 article “Case Studies in Rigorous Mana”; here is a revised version of a small portion of that article that goes into the three constraints on mana:

One – Access.

You need to be able to cast your spells in a timely fashion, so you need a sufficient amount of each color. This means, for example, you need a minimum of nineteen primary red sources (generally called Mountain) if you want to support your RR spell on turn 2 according to my testing. This means that you need some number of Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth if you want a card like Tendrils of Corruption to work in your TSP deck on certain specific turns. This means that you should have enough colored sources to cast both your Thragtusk and your Lifebane Zombie at the appropriate times.

Two – Pain.

Whether you are more aggressive or controlling, the fact remains that you cannot run a deck that takes too much pain from its mana. This isn’t just from cards like fetch lands or Ravnica duals. It is also from your mana coming into play stunted because it is tapped or losing mana from legendary lands. The big reason for basic lands in most decks (notwithstanding Burning Earth) is that basic lands cause the least pain. Taking too much pain, whether in the form of life or time, can make you lose versus an aggressive deck even if you yourself are running an aggressive deck.

One of the key differences between the Access and the Pain constraint: a deck in Modern may be able to cast every spell quickly if it is jam-packed with all of the relevant sac lands and Ravnica duals, but that doesn’t mean it won’t fold due to the other costs of its own mana.

Three – Utility.

As a game goes long, each additional land becomes less and less useful, particularly after you have a sufficient amount and color combination to cast everything. You start having to be governed by thoughts of what happens as a game goes long. This is part of why we see Tectonic Edge in some of the more controlling Modern decks. For aggressive decks, this can mean running an overabundance of fetch lands to power up Deathrite Shaman or reduce the effective land count or running lands with special abilities even if they come into play tapped.

Even combo decks can include these things despite the fact that their “long game” can happen incredibly early. In Legacy Dredge, Cephalid Coliseum isn’t just a Dredge outlet; it is also a card that can have utility if things have gone poorly and you are trying to find a dredge outlet.

There is a tension between these three constraints. They resist each other. In a completely bizarre metagame, it might be possible to ignore one of the constraints, but usually you do so at your own peril.

During coverage of some StarCityGames.com Opens, Patrick Chapin and I have talked on camera about decks having “too good” of mana. We didn’t mean that the mana was actually too good but rather that it was too concerned with questions of either Access or Utility that it ignored the question of Pain. This meant, for example, using four Azorius Guildgates in Standard to improve the access to blue and white mana even though the deck probably had sufficient mana Access without it.

We’re about to enter a new world of mana once Theros comes into the picture and shoves all of M13 and Innistrad Block out of the world. We’ve become pretty used to cards like Farseek and the “buddy” lands like Dragonskull Summit and Glacial Fortress. We’ve had access to Kessig Wolf Run and Moorland Haunt. Those days are about to end.

Since we’re going to be losing tools, what is there to work with? What are the natural resources from which we can draw? If we were to tap into our own personal Zvi Mowshowitz advisor, what might we say?

And how can we push the edge?

Before Return to Ravnica and M13 came to save us, there really was a huge dearth in access to mana fixing. I remember making use of Shimmering Grotto in a U/W Control deck not because I was excited to be running it as a one-of but because the options were so poor that I didn’t mind running one of the card to try to gain access to a little bit of, well, Access, with a minimum cost in Pain. M13 and Return to Ravnica brought a welcome respite from all of the awful, but I definitely think we’re in for a rude awakening.

Check out two versions of Naya Midrange from this last season, one of which I built pre-M14 (qualifying my friend Ronny Serio for Dublin) and one from the Top 8 of Grand Prix Kitakyushu after M14.

Let’s take a quick count of the mana sources that my build is losing:

-4 Avacyn’s Pilgrim
-4 Farseek
-1 Clifftop Retreat
-1 Gavony Township
-1 Kessig Wolf Run
-4 Rootbound Crag
-4 Sunpetal Grove

Here is the count from Nomura:

-1 Cavern of Souls
-3 Clifftop Retreat
-2 Kessig Wolf Run
-4 Rootbound Crag
-4 Sunpetal Grove

This means one of the most powerful deck archetypes (as a macro-archetype) is losing between about two-thirds and over one-half of its mana. That is a lot.

So what are we working with?

New Standard Mana

There are a lot of ways to think about all of this, but below is my short list. This represents all of the cards that I might consider playing. Many of these cards are a stretch, but it is my feeling that I’d rather stretch a little far in brainstorming sessions and then cull things back after rather than overlook something and never bother playing a card. There are certainly some cards that I haven’t listed (like Seek the Horizon), but I simply don’t think they are worth the time. I’m happy to listen to your reasoning for a card if you think I’ve missed it and it ought to be included. None of this includes one of the best ways to fix your mana:

Drawing cards is always one of the best ways to fix mana; you even do it during your draw phase most turns! But this is an article about actively making your mana better, not having it get better as a consequence of other plays.

There are two basic elements that are being included in this list: things to do to help you gain access to more mana and things to do with your mana if you already have enough.

Here is my short list:

10 Ravnica Duals: Breeding Pool, Overgrown Tomb, Godless Shrine, Sacred Foundry, Steam Vents, Hallowed Fountain, Temple Garden, Stomping Grounds, Blood Crypt, Watery Grave

10 Return to Ravnica Guildgates (+1): Simic Guildgate, Golgari Guildgate, Orzhov Guildgate, Boros Guildgate, Izzet Guildgate, Azorius Guildgate, Selesnya Guildgate, Gruul Guildgate, Rakdos Guildgate, Dimir Guildgate, Maze’s End

5 Temples: Temple of Abandon, Temple of Deceit, Temple of Mystery, Temple of Silence, Temple of Triumph

3 Filter Lands: Transguild Promenade, Shimmering Grotto, Unknown Shores

6 Random Utility Lands: Grove of the Guardian; Nykthos, Shrine to Nix; Mutavault; Encroaching Wastes; Rogue’s Passage; Thespian’s Stage

5 Basic Lands: Forest, Island, Mountain, Plains, Swamp

Artifacts: Darksteel Ingot, Chromatic Lantern, 10 Cluestones, 10 Keyrunes, Burnished Hart, Traveler’s Amulet, Prophetic Prism

Green: Elvish Mystic, Sylvan Caryatid, Voyaging Satyr, Gyre Sage, Mana Bloom, Lay of the Land, Manaweft Sliver, Verdant Haven, Satyr Hedonist, Gatecreeper Vine

The Rest: Realmwright, Plasm Capture, Zhur-Taa Druid, Grisly Salvage, Crypt Ghast, Liliana of the Dark Realms

All told, that’s a pretty short list, and it includes some real stretches.

You might be asking yourself why one of the new stars of Magic isn’t on that list.

A big part of the reason you don’t see Deathrite Shaman on this list is that there is very little reliable way to actually make use of it! There isn’t even anything like Evolving Wilds or Terramorphic Expanse to make it really work. About the only means to reliably get a Deathrite Shaman going is through use of Grisly Salvage, at which point you’re already talking about not actually getting any acceleration until turn 3 at the earliest and then perhaps not even yet! At least the other expensive accelerators can be relied upon. You can drop a Chromatic Lantern or a Cluestone on turn 3 and know that it will provide you mana rather than maybe having an accelerator if you make a small combo happen. I also don’t include very expensive ramping in this list (like Urban Evolution) because while it is a great card, it is a card you play deeply into being established in your mana.

When I look at it all laid out like that, what I do see there is a mana base that has very little cheap, stable acceleration. You have Elvish Mystic, Sylvan Caryatid, Voyaging Satyr, and Mana Bloom. You might claim that Gyre Sage or Manaweft Sliver could count, but you actually don’t get much acceleration from Gyre Sage initially when you think about how it affects the flow of your game—the benefits of the Sage have to accrue—and the Manaweft Sliver just feels like it is asking for too much to go your way—either you are playing a Sliver deck or are playing a two-mana accelerator which can only come in for one. If you have the color to support it, I actually like Zhur-Taa Druid better because it will at least hurt the opponent while it is accelerating. That being said, only those first four I mentioned above are really something to count on.

This means that if you’re looking to speed yourself up to unfair plays, you’re going to have to do it either on the back of a green base or are going to have to wait for new cards to be printed. Even Satyr Hedonist, which gives access to unstable acceleration, still requires that green base.

Accelerating is going to be slow.

Fixing, on the other hand, is in abundance, particularly if you are lucky enough to have access to a Temple. But unfortunately this also means that it is going to be slow and painful.

This is actually particularly bad news for all of the people who have been enjoying playing three-color control decks of all stripes. As I mentioned last month, we can look to Pro Tour Dragon’s Maze for some hope since Esper was so wildly successful and it had access to less good mana than exists in new Standard. Let’s look again at Makihito Mihara’s list from that Pro Tour:

The mana breaks down as follows:

8 Basics
7 Guildgates
12 Ravnica Duals

Compare this to another decklist in the article, Reid Duke list from the same Pro Tour in Bant, and you see a similar story:

8 Basics
6 Guildgates
12 Ravnica Duals
1 Keyrune
3 Gatecreeper Vine
2 Plasm Capture

Plasm Capture is a special case and Gatecreeper Vine is basically just fixing, but otherwise Mihara and Duke have a lot in common in their decks. You’ll notice that they both pushed the pain with all 12 duals and then tried to minimize the pain after with more basics than Guildgates.

In a lot of ways, this speaks poorly for the Temples for the multicolor decks that might choose to employ them. Clearly, a Temple is better for your mana than a Guildgate (barring things like Gatecreeper Vine and Maze’s End), but these decks are not exactly pumped to be running these cards and didn’t have to contend with Encroaching Wastes or Lavamancer saying this to them:

“Your world is formed from the same power that wraps my burning hand around your throat.”

(Bonus points if you know what I’m talking about without looking it up.)

While not to be used in large numbers, the filtering power of Shimmering Grotto and Unknown Shores shouldn’t be ignored for a lot of these decks that are just touching into a third color. Coming into play untapped is an incredibly powerful ability, and there will certainly be times—provided you have enough colorless mana symbols in your deck—that they will be better choices in a build than a Temple or a Guildgate. Still, they have rapidly diminishing returns, and for most such decks, the correct number of these to play is either one (or zero). On a similar note, I wouldn’t be surprised if Traveler’s Amulet in small numbers wasn’t unreasonable, though it is surprisingly close to Transguild Promenade in the amount it demands of you to be useful so it might just be asking too much.

There is something valuable to be looked to in the form of other artifact mana possibilities for these slower, controlling decks. Darksteel Ingot’s indestructibility is no joke; sure, it can be placed in a Detention Sphere, but there are only a few cards capable of stopping it as a form of acceleration. On another note, the far more fragile Rakdos Keyrune may be more easily removed and make a lot less diversity of mana, but the 3/1 first strike portion of that Keyrune is actually shockingly good. Other Keyrune’s are also reasonable, but there are very few that I’ve found that can actually change a game in the way that the Rakdos Keyrune is capable of.

In the opposite direction from trying to make sure that all of your mana works comes the safe space that the aggressive decks get to live in. By way of example, take Craig Wescoe Pro Tour-winning decklist, which has far less to worry about when it comes to its mana:

Even before we address the fact that this deck is going to want to include Fleecemane Lion immediately, we’re still talking about a deck that is looking for early and immediate access to both white and green. Even despite that, the deck runs a mana base that almost entirely comes into play untapped despite access to more color fixing:

18 Basics
4 Ravnica Duals
1 Guildgate

Craig had access to Grove of the Guardian as a possible card but didn’t bother. While this two-color deck might be a bad candidate for a card like that (or Mutavault) simply on account of its huge color requirements, other decks that are making the rounds don’t have to be so concerned about that constraint.

As I’ve been looking at this card:

I’ve been picturing the resurrection of a Ponza-style deck that really pushes that funky mana hard. I don’t know what it is going to look like, but it is very easy to imagine the following:

2-4 Nykthos, Shrine to Nix
4 Mutavault
3-4 Encroaching Wastes
14-16 other mana
4 Ember Swallower
1+ Hammer of Purphoros
4-8 Lightning Strike & Magma Jet
4 Boros Reckoner
4 Stormbreath Dragon
+ other cards

I don’t know what it is actually going to end up looking like, but I do know that there are going to be a fair number of decks, particularly those who can make use of high mana counts and monstrosity, that are going to get a lot out of Mutavault and the other greedier mana sources out there. Most of these decks are going to be monocolored, but the specific flavor could be quite varied.

Despite the lack of choices compared to where we were even a short time ago, there are still a lot of options to be thinking about, particularly if you hold back a little to go with a two-color or one-color approach. This may sound counterintuitive, but simply put, when you are worried less about Access, questions of Pain aren’t as problematic, and questions of utility can be even more fully explored. At this point, in fact, there are enough artifact cards and other tricks that I even imagine there might be a Trading Post deck* in there somewhere worth considering!

There are two cards that I think actually require a little special consideration when it comes to talking about them: Maze’s End and Liliana of the Dark Realms. Both of these cards are fully capable of completely fixing the colors of mana in a deck as well as providing card advantage if given enough time. I know from experience that the four-mana Liliana can actually be a really relentless card to deal with provided you have anything else going on in your deck. In addition, it makes splashing even wildly crazy things (like, say, Nicol Bolas, Planeswalker in current Standard, at least for the next few days) actually possible. Maze’s End is a bit more cumbersome in some ways simply because the endless coming into play tapped is a real deal, but it is also at least a single card strategy for winning (okay, technically eleven cards, but you know what I mean).

In the coming weeks, we’re going to start seeing some real decks emerging. Before then, though, we’re largely living in the land of conjecture. I know that as I’m working through brewing lists with friends of mine who are going to Dublin and just in preparation for upcoming StarCityGames.com events, I’m going to keep my list of mana handy, as I know it will be a useful guidepost when it comes to figuring out what is possible and just how far I can push it.

Until next week,

Adrian L. Sullivan

@AdrianLSullivan on Twitter

*Bonus decklist!

This list is something I’m tinkering with, but I haven’t had a chance to do any real testing with it since the spoiler’s been fully out. Most of my testing is on Magic Online and occasionally at work, so this is largely a deck that I’d call “a brainstorm.” Like most brainstorms, if they’re handled properly, they end up getting tossed out in the end, but in the meantime they can at least be fuel for ideas.

Here is my brainstorm of an Orzhov Trading Post deck:

The mana curve on this deck is almost certainly too high, but I do like a lot of the things that it has going on in it. The Trading Post angle (largely courtesy of Andrew Cuneo) really feels quite powerful, and it is a great way to recover from the pain that a Thoughtseize draw can provide. In addition, one of the major downfalls of a control deck that isn’t running counterspells is the need to provide specific answers to various questions that another deck might bring forth but potentially just having the wrong answer at the wrong time. Trading Post actually solves that problem provided you have enough fuel for it to eat. This deck has only thirteen artifacts, so it is possible that it might need a few more, but that is on par with what Cuneo ran.

This deck is certainly an untested second draft (other than test draws), but I think it has a lot of interesting angles going on in it that are potentially worth exploring. I’m hoping that something among them will end up panning out, but please realize that this is a far from finished list.