Mana screw takes three main forms: proportional lack of mana (mana screw), proportional flood of mana (mana flood), and absence of a main color (color screw). To some degree mana screw can be avoided by making good mulligan decisions, and by building your deck with mana considerations in mind. But everyone runs into mana trouble sooner or later. The question is how to manage as best as possible.
Many times, no matter if you play perfectly, you'll still lose in these positions. You may never draw into the right lands or spells, or even if you do, you might not be able to overcome the initial disadvantage. Still, this means that tight play is especially important in cases of mana screw. The games that are won here are often very close.
Despite having a smaller margin for error, being mana screwed typically means having fewer options. You may not be able to play many of your spells, or you may not have many spells to play. So the upside of being mana screwed is that at least there's a little less to think about.
Mana Screw (too little mana)
You're mana screwed when you have drawn a prohibitively and considerably lower ratio of lands to spells than your decklist would suggest. (Or if enough of these mana sources are destroyed so as to put you in such a position.)
With more draw steps, you have more chances to draw lands. With more lands, you'll be able to play your spells. This motivates the mana screwed player to stall the game as much as possible. For example, to trade off creatures rather than to get into a racing situation.
On the other hand, sometimes an early mana screw can cripple your late game chances, even if you would draw land. In these cases, it may be important to work to end the game before your opponent can make the most of the expensive and powerful spells that they're able to play.
So, the first step to managing a lack of mana is to:
- Assess your specific situation.
If you have a "bomb" you're just a few land short of playing (Wrath of God), it may be worth taking lengths, such as chump blocking, to ensure you survive despite any trick. Here, you want to stall more than you want to stabilize.
If you have the potential to race your opponent, and it looks like you would be in a weak position even if you draw a couple lands, then it might be worth trying to end the game early.
- Calculated risks: Blocking a 3/3 with two 2/2s is a somewhat risky play. If your opponent kills one of the 2/2s with a trick or removal spell, the other one also dies. If you're mana screwed, you may want to accept risks more liberally in order to develop a stable board position. Once you have a stable position, you will have time to draw into lands and develop this position.
Example: You're stuck on three lands with two Serpent Warriors in play. Your opponent attacks with a Phyrexian Hulk. You'll need at least a few turns to be able to play any more spells, so you might as well block sooner than later; you gang block and hope he doesn't have a trick.
- Life total as resource: Your life total can similarly be a factor in establishing a stable board position. You will often want to take damage to make the most favorable blocks.
- Calculated sacrifices: sometimes a smart chump-block will buy you the extra turn you need to play a big creature that stabilizes the board, or give you the extra life that allows you to make a favorable gang-block. Also, remember that creatures that normally have more powerful applications must sometimes be used for basic purposes. For instance, though Gruul Guildmage is extremely powerful with plenty of mana, it can also be traded off with a Grizzly Bears if necessary!
Mana screw is more specific than it may seem. Your general goal is to stall and stabilize so that you have time to draw into mana, but this can motivate different plays depending on the board, on the specific cards you can play, and on the power level of the cards you're waiting to play.
Mana Flood (too much mana)
Like mana screw, the ways to get mana flooded are either to mulligan/not mulligan into a poor situation or to draw into a glut of land over a long game. With more draw steps, you have more chances to draw spells. Here, again, you're looking to stabilize the game (perhaps at the cost of life points or of increased risk) in order to have more draw steps.
- Maximize cards: Make the most of what you've got. If you have an outlet for all of your extra mana or cards (lands potentially held in hand), make sure that you don't trade it off carelessly.
Life as resource: Again, in the effort to stabilize with minimal tools, you may have to prioritize making profitable plays over taking extra damage.
Risks: You may also have to prioritize profitable plays over safe plays.
Many steps are taken in deck construction to help against both mana screw and mana flood. For mana screw, players play a disproportionately high ratio of lands to spells, considering mana cost. Even if the average mana cost of a spell in my deck is 2, I might plan to have three lands by turn three, both so that I can play any spells that might cost more than 2, and just as a statistical buffer. To compensate for this, players sometimes include spells that can be easily maximized even in a mana flood scenario.
Color Screw (missing a main color)
You're color screwed when you have drawn a prohibitively and considerably lower ratio of colored lands to the same color of spells than your decklist would suggest (or if enough of these mana-sources are destroyed so as to put you in such a position).
Being color screwed is similar to being mana screwed, but with a few significant differences.
- You can generally play more of your spells.
- Your opponent doesn't know which cards in your hand you can play and which you can't. While you're mana screwed, they need to fear far fewer tricks than while you're color screwed.
- While you're mana screwed, drawing a land allows you access to only slightly better cards in your hand. (For example, instead of just two-drops, I'm able to play three-drops.) While you're color screwed, drawing a land of the right color can allow you access to the very best cards in your hand (for instance, your choice of the red cards.)
- Fewer draws help your situation. For example, only Mountains, and not Swamps.
What this means is that being color screwed is a less severe position than being mana screwed (though drawing out of it might be less likely). You can operate with less desperation.
Many tenets of managing mana screw are still applicable to color screw. If drawing an appropriate colored land will get you out of the situation, it's wise to try to stall and stabilize the board. If it's too late, or if you don't need it, race.
There are dozens of different ways to get unlucky in any given game of Magic. Ultimately, how well you do in general depends on how well you manage these set backs.
That's my spiel for the day. Now go on out there, get mana screwed, and win anyway.