UB Trippin’

Posted in Feature on April 21, 2005

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."

The most difficult hurdle in tuning a good deck is without a doubt "getting the mana right." You might have your core idea down, you might iron out the last creature in the last slot of your deck, but sub-optimal mana decisions might not surface until you are deep into an actual tournament.

For example, back at Bob Maher's Pro Tour-Chicago, there was a Blue-green-white mid-range deck that played with just enough Plains (specifically Savannahs and Scrublands) to Tithe for two four times; what never came up until the tournament was that Demonic Consultation could screw up that precise math. After the first couple of turns of sequencing land normally, an ostensibly correct Demonic Consultation for Tithe might yield a library no longer capable of producing two Plains, and worse yet, a deck that still had Tithes in it..

Building a deck around the subtleties of your mana count can also distinguish ingenious players. Jon Sonne, back before he was a Grand Prix champion, was one hell of a PTQ competitor, very consistent from format to format. During the 2000 Rebel-era Masques Block PTQs, Jon realized that if he had room for exactly seven "bears" in his deck, it was right to play four Fresh Volunteers and only three Steadfast Guards... EVEN THOUGH HIS DECK WAS MONOWHITE.

Why? Because, under the old Legend Rules, playing Kor Haven or Rath's Edge on turn one or two could generate a huge advantage in the mirror; the opponent would not be able to play his copy, and might in fact go from a fine draw to mana-screwed. If Jon led with a Ramosian Sergeant and wanted to follow up with a bear, he would actually show more consistent performance over many games in the white-dominated field if he played the WORSE card.

Getting the mana right for a three-, four-, or five-color deck makes things much harder. With all kinds of Elfhame Palaces, Cities of Brass, and Cloudcrest Lakes available, balancing the correct dual lands with staple basics is a challenge of no small measure. It doesn't matter how powerful your deck is, or how strong or synergistic your spells, if you can't get the right mana to play them out of your hand. Sometimes you make your land drops but have too many "comes into play tapped" lands to keep pace. Figuring out the correct ratio -- if it even exists -- of making your colors and tapping your lands on time can be the difference between a showstopper and a steaming pile that is not viable in competitive play.

From the basics standpoint, the most important thing to do from the get go is to play the right minimum number of lands. When I first started playing, paring my decks down to 60 cards was bad enough, but "more experienced" players gave me bad advice to boot. I was playing entirely two colored piles with 10 Forests and 10 Mountains or some other split-down-the-middle mess of 20 basics in all my decks. Here's the proper rule of thumb: play 24 lands. I know, I know. You really want to fit that last Kumano, Master Yamabushi. Face facts, buddy: the old man is a lot less impressive in a deck that never hits five lands.

Now, not all decks play exactly 24, but most decks should play AT LEAST that many. Got that? Okay, now that you know the rule, let's get to breaking it.

Even though most archetypes need at least 24 lands to operate correctly, players can safely decrease their required operating mana by playing cheap (read 1-2 mana) card drawing. Usually these cards take shape in blue cantrips, but other colors, primarily black, can also lower the count. The reason we include only 1-2 mana cards such as Brainstorm and Accumulated Knowledge, and not more expensive cards like Repulse or Exclude, is that (all things held equal, over many games) you're not going to keep a hand on the strength of a three-mana cantrip fixing your hand if you don't already have sufficient mana.

Consider this innovative deck:

Turbo Xerox - Alan Comer

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The principle of the original Xerox deck is that for every four 1-2 mana cantrips, you can remove two lands. Therefore, even though Alan played only 17 actual Islands, the Foreshadows, Impulses, and Portents raised his effective count considerably. In the early game, Alan would have to use his cantrips to find land, but in the late game, he could use them to always have a counter in hand (it's not like he'd ever need another land once Waterspout started going anyway). This deck had some cool late-game combinations such as Portent + Foreshadow and Memory Lapse + Foreshadow for even more card drawing, too.

By contrast, here is a monoblue deck from the same era as Alan's SoCal finalist:

Elliot Fertik

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Elliot's deck has a theoretically better long game with Browse, but is essentially limited to the same basic offense, Suq'Ata Firewalkers and 4/4 flyers. Notice how his deck simultaneously has less "stuff" (fewer counters) AND fewer Islands to get his game going. I'm not saying that Fertik's deck wasn't effective for its era, but it is easy to see how the California contemporary can generate more action early and last longer on less mana, Portenting and Foreshadowing into counters while putting the opponent completely on tilt.

Earlier in this article we mentioned Demonic Consultation, a card that can definitely help shave those mana numbers. Many of the best Black decks of the past have used this powerful instant to pick up a second land going into turn two, setting up their action-laden six-spell hands. Even though you can't really rely on Demonic Consultation for this purpose in competitive constructed events any more, its spirit -- at least in terms of smoothing out early game draws -- lives on in descendents like Undead Gladiator and Twisted Abomination.

Consider these two Odyssey Block decks:

Rob Dougherty

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Gary Wise

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Even though Gary had access to a full additional set over Rob (Judgment), you'd never know it -- these decks are nearly identical. Sure, some of the numbers fudge a little, and Rob has more creatures in his maindeck, but the philosophies of the decks are the same. Kill all the creatures, clear the opponent's hand, empty his library or win with one of exactly four giant Nantuko Shades boosted by one of exactly three Cabal Coffers.

Skeletal Scrying
The fundamental structural difference is that Gary plays with two fewer lands, even though his cards aren't really much less expensive. Why can he get away with this?

Gary has upped the number of Skeletal Scryings to three (over Rob's one) and added three Tainted Pacts (sometimes called "the Black Impulse"). We can assume that maybe the first Skeletal Scrying will act as a short burst of one or two cards, and that the third is a second bomb or Mind Sludge recovery tool. Along with the Tainted Pacts, the early game Skeletal Scrying alters the land and spell balance in Gary's deck.

Let's assume that Rob is "right" and a mana-hungry monoblack deck requires 28 lands. Quick math says that he is looking at approximately 46-47 percent mana. At 26/60, Gary is down to 43 percent mana, more than the average deck but less than a monoblack deck needs according to Rob's correct list. What happens when you start pulling out those cantrips? Each cantrip makes Gary's deck functionally a card smaller, Tainted Pact by its rules text is more intense, and one of those Skeletal Scryings will probably get in the mix. What is 26/57? 26/56? All of a sudden, Gary is in the 46 percent range, very close to Rob's original 28/60.

But why go to all this effort? Why not just play the lands? The cool thing about cantrip-driven decks is that while they increase your potential mana, THEY ALSO INCREASE YOUR "STUFF" count. Imagine you need to kill a swarm of creatures or you'll lose the game on the next turn and you have three cards left in your library. Two are Wrath of Gods. If you need that creature kill to help immediately, would you rather the third card were a simple cantrip or something different?

Cabal Coffers
By the same token, Gary's deck can play as if it has slightly more Cabal Coffers, even though, like Rob, he only has exactly three copies in his deck. In this sense, Gary's undefeated Worlds deck is a structural improvement over Rob's first-place Pro Tour deck because it has more options . . . sure, he can use Tainted Pact to hit his land drops in the first few turns, but late game, where Rob's 28/60 mana balance might screw him under pressure, Gary can glide into a Mutilate.

In the past, mages have had great luxury in their cantrip choices, with Accumulated Knowledge, Fire/Ice, or Renewed Faith really showcasing the quality and power that these cards can display. In some formats, even green got into the act with Wall of Blossoms and Gaea's Blessing. In today's Standard, the best blue options seem to be Reach Through Mists or Serum Visions; sadly, the cheaper early-game manipulation cards such as Peer Through Depths and Merchant Scroll can't find lands.

Probably because Mirrodin Block was designed AS an artifact block, artifacts have some legitimate candidates for the first time since the glory days of Urza's Bauble or Tsabo's Web. Scrabbling Claws is a potentially powerful monkey wrench . . . but doesn't really have an enemy without Eternal Dragon or Patriarch's Bidding in the mix. Its opposite though -- Conjurer's Bauble -- seems an underplayed option to me. In especially one of these new-fangled shuffle decks with Sakura-Tribe Elder, Kodama's Reach, or even The Unspeakable, the baby Gaea's Blessing should help smooth out mana and also offer a much-wanted element of recursion.

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