Introduction to Mana Base, Part 2

Posted in Magic Academy on February 24, 2007

By Jeff Cunningham

Hello, and welcome to Magic Academy! This week we'll continue to look at the aspect of deck construction known as the mana base, this time focusing on nonbasic land, acceleration, and fixing. Check out Part 1 if you missed it.

Nonbasic Land

Quicksand

Land can be classified along a scale according to the number of colors of it produces: no color, one color, two colors, or all colors. All but the one-color category (and even a few of those) are non-basic lands.

Colorless only: (Quicksand) Since basic land is the default, if a land produces colorless mana only, you can expect an additional ability. If your mana base produces more colored mana than you need (as is often seen in mono-colored decks using all basic lands), you will want to consider switching in some colorless lands with useful abilities.

In another case, perhaps your mana base will already be strained for colored mana, but a colorless land's ability will be especially attractive for your deck. Here, you may want to modify your mana base to accommodate a few colorless lands, either by adding lands, converting a few lands to lands that produce more color, or by some combination of the two.

One color: (Forest) These are almost exclusively basic lands, which we looked at last time. Basic lands are the standard by which other lands are measured.

Forest

Decks in deep formats tend to employ more non-basic lands than decks in shallow formats for a variety of reasons, one of which being that there are simply more of them to choose from.

Two colors: (Karplusan Forest) Two-color lands produce double the types of mana that a basic land produces. In exchange for this versatility, it is common for some measure of damage to be involved. Another common penalty is time; sometimes a multi-colored land will come into play tapped or have an irregular untapping schedule.

In general, multi-lands are a great bargain. Their presence in Constructed formats is ubiquitous. Their ability to facilitate powerful and versatile multicolor strategies (by ensuring that spells can be cast despite demanding color requirements) usually outweighs the few points of damage that they cause.

Even in straight two-color decks with relatively undemanding color requirements, a number of multi-lands are often used, since taking a marginal amount of damage usually outweighs an increased risk of having cards stuck in your hand due to color-screw.

Karplusan Forest

That said, there is a balance, and you will not want to go overboard. This is especially true for decks that use their life total as a resource to survive through the early game - chiefly control and combo decks). For aggro, it is less of an issue.

All colors: (City of Brass) Lands that produce all colors of mana are also regularly Constructed mainstays, but tend not to be as prevalent as two-color lands. This is because they have steeper drawbacks. Unless a deck's multi-color requirements are particularly demanding, a mix of two-colored lands can be found that is satisfying.

One common dynamic that often sees the use of all-color lands is when a deck is primarily one or two colors, but has several small splashes for cards of other colors. Another is when a multi-colored land's specific drawback is especially harmless to a certain deck (for instance, Gemstone Mine in a deck that doesn't plan to play spells for more than three turns anyway!) Another is when a few are used as catch-alls on top of a sturdy multi-land base for a deck with demanding color requirements (as seen in Frank Karsten's Greater Gifts deck, which played a pair of Tendo Ice Bridge for good measure).

How should we think of multi-lands? That is, do we count a multi-land as a Forest, a Mountain, or both? The rule of thumb is to count it as both. If you swap a Mountain () for a Stomping Ground ( + ), it is as if you had added a Forest. If you swap a Mountain and a Forest ( + ) for two Stomping Grounds (+, +), it is as if you had added a Mountain and a Forest. In this way, multi-lands let us increase the color-support we can play, and the proportions we can work with, while staying within a designated number of lands.

City of Brass

What guides how many multi-lands to use? That is, why four of each Karplusan Forest and Stomping Ground, and why no City of Brass?

The first consideration is what is reasonably necessary. Without, for now, delving into the math of it (which most players only know by feel anyway), how much mana of each color do we need to play in order to be able to regularly cast our spells? I would say that 17 red mana and 15-16 green mana is about right. We want to be able to hit our double drops in each color, in the early game, with regularity. Furnace of Rath's triple red requirement is very demanding, and we must decide how far we want to go to support it. With these cards last week, we played 13 Mountain (13 red mana) and 12 Forest (12 green mana). Multi-lands allow us to modify these numbers as necessary.

The second consideration is available quality. Multi-lands can vary widely in quality. In a straight red-green deck, Karplusan Forest is much better than City of Brass. Suppose we determined that, according to the mana that felt right, we would need 6 red-green multi-lands. Because Karplusan Forest and Stomping Ground are such reasonable offers, we would decide to just go with a full complement and play 8. But the jump to the next-best multi-land, City of Brass, would be steep enough to indicate for us to stop there.

A third consideration is the specifics of the deck at hand. What details are worth factoring in while we're working on mana? In this deck, there are two main considerations: Rathi Dragon and Llanowar Elves, which incline us to play more Mountains and fewer Forests, respectively.

Acceleration

Rampant Growth

Acceleration refers to mana-production that can occur at a more rapid rate than +1 per turn (i.e., playing a land every turn). In general, mana acceleration spells are non-land, and this means that they require an initial amount of mana before they can be utilized; they can't simply be counted as additional lands, although they will affect your land count.

Artifacts, Enchantments, Land-search: (Fellwar Stone, Overgrowth, Rampant Growth) These accelerators are functionally very similar, in that they are (generally) similarly reliable. If you have factored a mana-acceleration card into your mana base, but the card continually gets destroyed before you can use it, you may struggle to play your spells. These types of acceleration require less of a buffer against this possibility because cards that destroy them are not regularly seen, or are seen only in small numbers, in most decks.

Creatures: (Utopia Tree) Creatures, on the other hand, are less reliable mana accelerators. They are prime targets for removal in the early game.

Rituals (Seething Song) Rituals are spells that provide a single shot of mana - usually sorceries or instants, although I suppose a card like Basal Sliver can be considered a ritual, as can certain lands, like Geothermal Crevice.

Seething Song

Rituals are fairly pure forms of acceleration in that they tend to have only minor effects on your land base. The goal of your mana base is to allow you to regularly cast spells, and Rituals only allow you to cast spells on a single turn. That said, playing Rituals of a color would likely incline you to play fewer land even with a few expensive spells (since you can stop playing land earlier and yet still hit those peaks), and allow you to dedicate less mana to a color if a ritual provides that color (i.e., Seething Song would allow us to player fewer Mountains to support Furnace of Rath).

Lands: (Dreadship Reef) A handful of lands can be thought of as accelerators. Besides the aforementioned Geothermal Crevice, there are also storage lands - lands in which mana can be invested for a large single-turn shot. These lands can allow for easier support of extremely mana-intensive spells (e.g., Blaze, Gigadrowse), but are almost colorless lands for the purposes of the early game.

As with multi-lands, the presence of acceleration in Constructed formats is widespread. Even if it ultimately means playing fewer cards with substance and more cards dedicated to mana production, the ability to play expensive powerful spells earlier in the game is highly valuable.

Dreadship Reef

It is very rare for any single card's worth of mana-acceleration to account for even a single land's worth of mana-base value. That is, playing 4 Fellwar Stones might reasonably allow you to play 2 fewer lands. Playing 4 rituals might allow you to cut a land, depending on the circumstance. This is mainly because these cards require actual land to be played (and, in the case of creatures, because they're more vulnerable than land), and so cutting land too liberally for them can result in their being stranded in your hand.

This does mean, though, that playing several accelerators makes play expensive spells more reasonable. For instance, if you had a deck with 4 Craw Wurm and 26 Land, and then you cut 2 land and 2 other spells for 4 Llanowar Elves, supporting the Craw Wurm would become easier.

One very important thing mana acceleration affects is your mana curve. Consider a deck with 8 one-mana creatures, 8 two-mana creatures, 8 three-mana creatures, and 8 four-mana creatures. If I add 4 Fellwar Stone to this deck, I will draw it in my opening hand roughly half of the time. This means that, about half the time, I'll be able to play it on turn two, and either a three-mana creature, or, ideally, a more powerful four-mana creature on turn three. With this in mind, I will want to bias more creatures at the four-drop and fewer at the three-drop (that we'll be skipping a fair amount of the time). This works in reverse too; if I know my deck naturally needs several 4-drops and doesn't have many 3-drops, I'll be especially inclined to include acceleration.

Fixing

Fixing refers to mana-selection spells. This term also fairly applies to multi-lands, especially land-searching multi-lands (such as Terramorphic Expanse), and so there is some overlap with our first category.

Lay of the Land

The prevalence of pure fixing (Lay of the Land) is fairly marginal; fixing is usually a byproduct of certain acceleration spells. Beyond just finding an extra land, Rampant Growth also finds the color of land we need.

How do fixing aspects affect our mana base?

 

  • Inclines us to dedicate more land to the color of the fixing spells. As long as we can play the fixing spells in one color, we can then use them to find the other color.
  • Fixing's natural tie to acceleration has a few corollaries. Decks that require acceleration are then more able to support multiple colors because of the fixing side-effect. Because acceleration/fixing spells aren't typically played for the first few turns, colors supported this way should aim to use cards that are bit more expensive.
  • Fixing spells, particularly mana-searching, facilitate the use of single-land splashes (e.g., playing 4 Rampant Growth, 4 Utopia Sprawl, and just one Island can function as playing as many as 9 Islands). With these minimal splashes you will want to play cards that are powerful enough to justify the splash, best used around turn four or later, because you won't be casting them for a few turns anyway. Splash spells should also have low color requirements, because getting two specific lands is more difficult than getting one.
  • Of course, fixing just makes demanding color requirements easier to satisfy in general. Especially with regard to expensive spells, a Rampant Growth is almost as good as the land it finds. For instance, if you plan to almost exclusively get Mountains to cast expensive spells like Shivan Dragon with Rampant Growth, then you can almost count it as a Mountain in terms of colored mana (though not land in general, as discussed above).

Now that we've got all the nuts and bolts settled, join me next week when I'll lay out a step-by-step process for approaching a mana base from scratch.

Jeff

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