The Elegant Mana Base

Posted in Feature on December 14, 2006

By Mike Flores

Michael Flores is the author of Deckade and The Official Miser's Guide; the designer of numerous State, Regional, Grand Prix, National, and Pro Tour–winning decks; and the onetime editor-in-chief of The Magic Dojo. He'd claim allegiance to Dimir (if such a Guild existed)… but instead will just shrug "Simic."

Worth Wollpert, who today sits in hallowed Renton, WA (I can only assume Wizards of the Coast headquarters was the myth behind the reality of Prahv, Spires of Order), was, ten years ago, a mentor of sorts to me as I became more serious about tournament Magic. Worth dazzled me with an early qualification for Pro Tour Columbus (Hall of Famer Olle Råde's Columbus), using a Howling Mine / Erhnam Djinn deck of his own design. Worth always maintained that the idea of a good deck was never the problem. The tuning wasn't really the rub, either (though getting to sixty is never, or at least should never, really be easy for a great deck)… It was the mana base of a polychromatic deck that separated the men from the mice.

Over the years, as the quality of dual lands has fluctuated, tournament Magic players have had varying incentives to their mana bases. There have been formats, like Standard at the end of the last century, where the best decks were all one color… Wasteland and then Rishadan Port could blank a hand of expensive off-color spells and drive you to the precipice of suicidal frustration. Other formats, like today's tier-two-rich mishmash of Karoos, “shock” lands, Ice Age and Apocalypse “pain” lands, Snow engines, Ravnica Signets, and even Time Spiral “storage” lands is clearly a far different animal.

When my friend Jamie Parke made the Top 8 of the 1999 World Championships, he probably didn't have to work too hard on his mana base. His deck was only one color, which gave him some room for the risky Ancient Tombs (second turn Stone Rain) without disrupting his colored mana production. Now obviously his mana control deck would pack four Wastelands… The rest of his lands all made sure to be able to play Jackal Pup, Avalanche Riders, and Arc Lightning.

Jamie Parke – Sped Red

As we branch into more colors, we don't necessarily get enough rope to hang ourselves. For some two-color decks, the mana base is actually pretty easy to build, because you just don't have the options to build an extravagant mana base. The main question you have to ask yourself in these cases is simply how brave am I, again?

Alan Comer – Miracle Grow

Though the more famous pre–Kibler and Rubin version of Miracle Grow was the Werebear version from Grand Prix – Sendai about a week later, the mana base and the legend of Miracle Grow began with Alan Comer at Grand Prix – Las Vegas.

Alan actually went undefeated on Day 1 only to miss Top 8 on tiebreakers, but that doesn't make this deck – its mana base in particular – any less significant. How fearless do you have to be, exactly, to be the first guy to play this deck? Jon Finkel and Pat Chapin will tell you that the limit of skill in Constructed only goes as far as it takes to copy, but Alan as the first? Ten lands? Comer has always been noted for his playing slightly fewer lands than other pros, but for this deck, he had to be positively Matt Murdock.

The reason this mana base worked was because Alan could “cheat” on early drops with Land Grant and Gush. It wasn't too hard to get two Islands if he started with one land, and that could set up the lethal Gush / Winter Orb combination. Sure, Alan might not have very many physical lands, but his opponent would not, for practical purposes, have many – or any – more than he did.

Ken Ho – Upheaval / Squirrel Nest

Alan's deck was Extended feeding into Ken's Odyssey Block Pro Tour from about the same era. This mana base was both ingenious and horrifying. Most U/G Madness decks you see in Extended today have more Islands than Forests because of Wonder and such considerations, but Ken's deck from the pre-Judgment Block spot had more Forests to help his early game… an early game that received no help from automatic inclusion Careful Study!

The really unique element, of course, is Tarnished Citadel, a controversial card to say the least, but one that Ken needed to tap for both green and blue mana in the Top 8 in the finals to take Pro Tour – Osaka.

The capacity to play a scary or scoffed-at mana base is one thing, but what about tapping lands? Most people will recognize that you should – all things held equal, not facing Wasteland + Crucible of Worlds, let's say – tap Island before you tap Tundra or Hallowed Fountain; tapping a basic and leaving a dual land will give you more options, if only options to bluff. However, what about tapping “identical” mana? Is there a time when you would err one way rather than the other?

Here's a nod to my old buddy Zvi Mowshowitz and our dear departed “The Play's the Thing,” onetime finest column in all of Dominaria:

You have four available mana () from three lands: Forest, Island, and Simic Growth Chamber. You want to play Coiling Oracle this turn, and have a Mana Leak in hand. Now all things considered, which lands do you tap to play out the underrated and underplayed Snake Elf Druid?

This is actually a pretty easy problem. All things considered equal, you should tap the basics to play the Coiling Oracle. Why? Because the chances of your flipping a Karoo of some sort are probably higher than the chances that your opponent will point a Ghost Quarter at your existing Simic Growth Chamber the next turn!

A Ghost Quarter will rob your ability to play the Mana Leak even though you get to replace the lost Karoo with a basic of your choice. If you can expect uncounterable – or at least fairly-hard-to-counter – mana denial the next turn, it's probably worth the gamble to tap the Simic Growth Chamber, even though you are exposing yourself to a suboptimal possibility when that top card is revealed.

Now we come to the more complicated mana bases of Ravnica-enabled 60-card decks. Here is the deck my friend Josh Ravitz played at the 2006 World Championships:

Josh Ravitz – Firemane Reanimator

Tuning this mana base was actually pretty fun. You can plug the colored mana requirements into a spreadsheet and it will tell you how many lands you need of each color (or something like that), but present day technology will not give you precisely the mana base, considering the things you need to consider in order to build the optimal mana base.

The first consideration in putting this mana base together was to play four copies of Flagstones of Trokair. This nonbasic land is one of the best cards in Standard, and we were predicting Solar Pox to be a popular deck; there is no better defense against Smallpox than Firemane Angel + Flagstones of Trokair. There are more white requirements than anything else, so there is no downside to playing the maximum number of Flagstones the way there may be in even a two-color deck like G/W Ghazi-Glare. Immediately after choosing to play those Flagstones of Trokair, adding four Sacred Foundries and four Hallowed Fountains is automatic; Flagstones of Trokair is a sort of Flooded Strand as well as a puncture-resistant plains proxy, so when you reach for your duals, you want the duals that the Flagstones can search up. We also want at least one basic plains (check!)… We'll get to that in a minute.

Flagstones of Trokair
You can only play so many “shock” lands, so the deck has to err towards Shivan Reef rather than Steam Vents. You want a reasonable number of lands that come into play untapped without hurting you, just to run out your Signets early or make non-color-intensive plays like Compulsive Research.

Let's accept Flagstones of Trokair as a staple of the format that guides our initial decisions on dual lands. As we continue to balance the mana, how do we answer questions like, “What is the difference between Azorius Signet and Azorius Chancery, or from a mana balance standpoint, Adarkar Wastes?” and “What is the difference between a Boros Garrison and a Battlefield Forge?”

I had the idea that I wanted to play four to six Signets in my deck, along with four Karoos. Scanning the mana costs, it was obvious that (Boros) was the most important two-color combination. Initially I had all Boros Signets and Boros Garrisons, but there were other matters to attend. Obviously I wanted as many Boros-somethings as possible, so I went with the Garrisons. However, this deck really wants to hit Compulsive Research on turn three. The best play is probably turn two Signet, followed by Compulsive Research and a Karoo. The best way you can ensure this play is to make sure your Signet makes blue mana. Careful Consideration is the next best card advantage spell, and is even better with Firemane Angels. Hitting in this deck isn't hard, but it isn't automatic… A blue-producing Signet for especially the third-turn Careful Consideration is a bonus there, too… But beyond the internal color requirements, there is one more factor to consider:

Blood Moon
Blood Moon.

Blood Moon is going to disrupt an awful lot of this deck's mana, but at least we are a Red Deck of sorts. However, we can prevent all-out disaster by balancing our mana properly. That one Plains? That card is part of the anti-Blood Moon (and, I suppose, anti-Ghost Quarter) “aggressive reaction” woven into this deck's design. The basic Islands give us access to blue as well as ehite mana (we don't need a basic Mountain because we'll have all the basic Mountains we can ever need under Blood Moon). Our blue-producing Signets, though? These two drops are a place where we can build value. The Signets should clearly be Azorius. Azorius Signets give us the ability to play essentially everything (most importantly Wrath of God, I'd wager).

Sometimes small splashes are harder to do well than three- or even four-color dedicated mana bases.

For example, I am working on a Mono-Blue UrzaTron deck (kind of a BlueTooth) update for Extended. One thing that came up early was wanting to deal with Affinity or perhaps Goblins. Blue doesn't have great – or at least quick – answers to the best of the swarm decks, but white sloughs them off like old skin cells. I didn't have a lot of space to play with white-producing mana sources, because 13 of my 23-25 lands come spoken for. I figured, though, that I might have room for four Onslaught search duals (which are good with my Tops anyway), one Hallowed Fountain main, and one Hallowed Fountain side. The automatic would be this:

1 Academy Ruins
4 Flooded Strand
1 Hallowed Fountain
5 Island
4 Urza's Mine
4 Urza's Power Plant
4 Urza's Tower

+ 1 Hallowed Fountain

After thinking about it, though, why is that best? You can make the argument that the sideboarded land should actually be a basic Plains, because you are siding it in when you bring in some kind of Kataki or Sphere of Law package and against swarm decks you don't necessarily want to be taking three damage when you can take one, but I didn't like that argument.

This mana base is almost strictly better:

1 Academy Ruins
2 Flooded Strand
1 Hallowed Fountain
5 Island
2 Polluted Delta
4 Urza's Mine
4 Urza's Power Plant
4 Urza's Tower

+ 1 Hallowed Fountain

Polluted Delta
Why is this so much better? Well, no matter what land you are searching for, it is always an Island. Polluted Delta can find Hallowed Fountain just as well as Flooded Strand. In addition to doing the exact same thing as Flooded Strand in this deck, Polluted Delta gives the deck a small measure of defense. You don't want to lose to a random Pithing Needle just because you opened on two sac lands. Polluted Delta lets you mix it up a bit. More importantly, though, you get to pretend you are ‘Tog on the first turn. You might draw out a screwup if you can string the other guy along early. Swapping out two Flooded Strands for two Polluted Deltas might not seem like a very big decision, but if you want to play cool, different, and generally less powerful decks in tournaments (but still kick the teeth down the throats of the first tier), the only way you can accomplish that is by paying attention to the places where you can get an edge, possibly mislead the other guy, in order to bust them wide open and score a few extra wins.

It's Easter Egg Week, so I thought I'd close with a little-known Easter Egg from the annals of the Pro Tour, even if it doesn't have anything to do with understanding or getting an edge from your mana base… quite the opposite, in fact.

Mark Justice – Pro Tour I

A lot of people wonder why Justice's deck, which already had Howling Mines to draw extra cards, would deign to play a lonely Elkin Bottle. The reason is that a magazine had printed a review of Ice Age and declared Elkin Bottle unplayable. Justice, in an Easter Egg-like protest that would make sense only to those who knew about the review, played the seemingly misplaced Bottle in his Pro Tour I Top 8 deck!

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