Introduction to Efficiency

Posted in Magic Academy on July 7, 2007

By Jeff Cunningham

Hello and welcome to Magic Academy! This week we'll be looking at some basic and important rules of thumb. They all fall under the category of efficiency.

Over several games of Magic, minor advantages (or disadvantages) will begin to add up. With this in mind, it's important to design your approach to the game to be as efficient as possible. That is, to maximize the usefulness of your cards.

Most of these tenets apply mainly to deck building, although sometimes they require conscious application in-game.

Maximize Mana Use

A basic unit of power in Magic is mana. Ideally, you want to be using all of your mana every turn. Any mana left unused has gone to waste. Design your deck to use all of its mana.

This means a full and carefully balanced mana curve. A full mana curve means having some way of utilizing your mana once you have an abundance of it (this is the top of your curve). One way to do this without danger of clogging your opening hands with expensive spells is to include cards that make use of mana but can also be played cheaply. For instance, Blaze can be played for 2 mana against a 2/1 on Turn 2. It can also scale up to use all of your mana on Turn 10 for a powerful 9-point game-ender.

It also means the inclusion of Turn 1 and 2 plays, even if they may not be as powerful as more expensive cards. If you have no plans to otherwise use your mana in these first few turns, any cheap spell you include might as well be free! They have a much lower chance of being clogged in your hand than expensive spells. Considered in this way, it's easy to see why simple cards like Sleight of Hand are so useful. Even though their effect may seem relatively marginal, the fact that they are so easy to play (especially if you're not using the mana to do anything else) makes them a good deal.

Another reason why cheap spells are efficient is because they can be easily adapted to the mana requirements of a given hand. Whereas a 4-drop will almost always demand a full turn's mana, a 1 or 2-drop can be used to fill the holes in a turn's play, and ensure that mana doesn't go unused.

This leads us to what I mean by a balanced mana curve. Ideally, we might want to play a 1-drop on Turn 1, a 2-drop on Turn 2, a 3-drop on Turn 3, a 4-drop on Turn 4, and so on, which would suggest an even mana curve. However, to best manage for uneven draws, and to give ourselves as many options as possible (possible spells to play on a given turn), we balance our deck on the cheap end. In general, you want to have more cheap spells (2 and 3-drops) than expensive ones.

Mana acceleration (Rampant Growth) plays an important role in the mana curve. It both uses early mana, and gets you playing powerful spells sooner. It also alters your mana curve. If a deck plays 4 Rampant Growth and 4 Fellwar Stone, then the importance of the 3-drop is diminished, and the importance of the 4-drop increased.

Maximizing your mana use also requires attention in-game. If you get your spells out of your hand faster than your opponent, you will be poised to put them on the back foot; an advantageous position. I try to organize my early-game plays to make the best use of my mana.

For example, consider a hand with a Blade of the Sixth Pride, a Venerable Monk, and a Glory Seekers. It is turn 3. Here, the best creature may be the Blade of the Sixth Pride. But by playing it now, rather than the Venerable Monk, I restrict myself to only one play rather than two next turn. In general here, I would probably play the Monk.

Maximize Spell Utility

Let's look at a few ways to make the most of your spells.

Synchronize mana cost with purpose: Depending on the deck, certain effects (counter-magic, card-drawing) will be best suited to a certain phase of the game. Include cards with costs that allow them to be played during this phase of the game. For example, while Haunting Hymn is a more powerful discard spell, hypothetically the reason you are including discard in the first place is to help ensure that your deck's critical Grave Pact resolves on Turn 4. Coercion would be a better choice in that case, since you can play it before you would want to play Grave Pact.

In-game, play cards in an order that suits your purpose. Consider a hand with Air Elemental and Tidings on Turn 5. Here, generally speaking, it is best to play the Air Elemental first, and then the Tidings. The main purpose of the Tidings is to ensure you can play a steady stream of threats or answers. In this case you already have a good threat and don't need to refill yet.

Resilience: If possible, choose cards and strategies that are difficult to deal with, and have staying power. Some Combo decks do this by choosing avenues to victory that are unusual. This may leave conventional disruption useless. For example, recent decks based on the Dredge mechanic are extremely difficult for unprepared opposition to beat since they operate using an unexpected resource (the graveyard).

Does your deck have any sort of defense against heaps of hand destruction? Or against a quick creature deck? These are questions to ask yourself. Having multiple avenues to victory (for example, a Combo deck that can also win just by attacking with creatures), is a nice feature some decks have.

In short, spells involved in strategies that are offbeat or difficult gain value.

Shadowmage Infiltrator
Manage density: In "Sealed Deck Walthrough" we looked at a concept I call density. Density is a card's capacity to win the game on its own. Shadowmage Infiltrator is a dense card; unabated, it will quickly swing the game in favor of its owner. Smother is not a dense card; at best, it will trade with a small creature, end of story.

Though dense cards are more recognizable as Sealed Deck bombs and tournament powerhouses, it is important to balance your deck with both.

Dense cards need support. A Mana Tithe, which may be useless beyond the early game, and may only serve the function of trading 1-for-1 at best, helps buy time for more powerful cards to come online—make sure you have those powerful cards! What are you going to do to make best use of all those extra cards from Shadowmage Infiltrator? Once you're ahead on cards, cheap 1-for-1s are a great deal!

Synergy: Choose cards that naturally work well together. A deck need not be "Combo" in order to contain beneficial synergies, and to avoid dissonances.

Grove of the Burnwillows makes a R/G manabase more stable. With Kavu Predator, the Burnwillows' drawback becomes a major bonus.

The better your cards work with each other, the more value you extract from each card.

Unifying_TheoryTailor the numbers: Fine tune your deck.

Let's review some basic numbers. 60 cards, of course, is the standard for tight tournament decks. This is to ensure the best chance of drawing the best cards, and also to maximize the predictability of the mix. There may be fringe reasons for going above 60 cards, but they are very marginal. 4 of a card is the maximum (not counting basic land). Generally, we want to play 4 of our deck's better cards; this gives us our highest chance of drawing them.

As you learn your deck more thoroughly, you will be able to fine tune the numbers. Here are a few ideas to keep in mind when fine tuning:

  • If you only play 1 of a card, and your opponent sees it, they will probably assume you're playing more and (mis)play accordingly. This is a bonus for playing 1-ofs
  • Playing 1-ofs (or even just diversifying cards in general) may give you more options. If you have two slots, and assess two cards to be of very similar power level, then rather than playing one or the other, playing one of each might be correct. If you draw both, now you have a choice.
  • Playing 1-ofs ensures that you will never draw multiples of a card that is redundant.
  • Of course, with tutors (like Diabolic Tutor), playing 1-ofs allows you to cover many bases at minimal cost.
  • My rule of thumb for playing 2-of a card: I want to be able to draw one if the game goes long. I never want to draw two.
  • My rule of thumb for playing 3-of a card: I want to see one of these once a game, but not 2.

That concludes our tally of efficiency reminders for deck-building. Of course, one of the most difficult (and fun) aspects of deck-building is not just to recognize these factors, but to manage them all at once.

That's it for this week! See you next time,


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