One important note before attempting to offer any sort of system for building a mana base is that mana bases resist systematic approaches. A deck's mana base is highly specific. It depends on a wide variety of factors - unique cards in the deck, unique ways that these cards interact, potential cards available in the format, and other decks in the format, to name a few. For this reason, any guide to building mana bases must be sufficiently general. Rules of thumb can help to an extent, but if you're aiming to get it right there is no secret formula.
Each mana base presents a new and specific challenge… but these challenges can be approached mathematically and are solvable. In this way, it's a bit of a grind. Many pros love testing draft theories or throwing new deck ideas together but dread having to work out a deck's mana. Others find it comforting; where theories can go awry, and metagame calls can make or break tournaments, working on a mana base improves a deck in a straightforward way.
Where to begin? While a deck eventually exists as 60 cards, mana and non-mana cards working together in unison, deck ideas tend to begin with non-mana cards. When a player is sparked to make a deck, it is usually by the potential of something like a powerful combo or approach to beatdown, etc, and rarely by a certain mana base. The mana base accommodates the rest of the deck.
This said, much compromise exists. Supporting Gravepact, Chlorophant, and Dawn Elemental in the same deck will, in most formats, be too obviously difficult to even be worth trying. When building a mana base, a player puts together a group of non-land cards, the support of which seems at least reasonable for a format (though of course chances can always be taken for the sake of seeing how far you can go), and then assumes the mana will generally work out.
Often, beyond the level of reasonable support, mana does figure in beforehand; a particular accelerant may be attractive (i.e., this deck will work as long as I can make use of the Invasion sac-lands), a particular nonbasic land's ability may be attractive (decks have been based around Scrying Sheets), and particular mana considerations might just be obvious (if you're only playing four Elvish Warriors in green, it might just be obvious to include four inferior cards in another color instead in the interests of mana). Basically, the non-mana cards kick it off, and then both aspects of a deck are alternately compromised until they work together as best as possible.
1. Make sure your deck is at least reasonable for the format.
In deep formats the multi-lands available can facilitate even extreme color requirements. In shallow ones (such as Block constructed, or Standard without Ravnica's multilands), fewer options exist, and you must be more sparing. In Extended, supporting Elvish Warrior and Foul Imp in the same deck (for example) might be feasible. In Standard, or a smaller format, this would be an obvious problem.
Do a quick check before even getting started that your non-mana cards look like they could work with any mana base you would be able to put together.
2. Determine, roughly, how much space you have for mana.
So you have a tentative list of the non-mana cards you'd like to include in a deck…
About how much space should we allocate to lands; do we need to trim any cards from our list, or should we add any?
Here are some considerations:
- Is this deck going to use acceleration? That is, does it have spells that it particularly wants to cast in the earlier game? Or does it have gaps in its mana-curve that acceleration could help shore up? Or does it just have extra room and can put acceleration to good effect? Remember, acceleration is not interchangeable with mana, and so will require more space dedicated to non-mana spells.
Often, players include the acceleration they know they want to use in a decklist, even before they approach the rest of the mana, and tweak it as necessary later on.
- Do I have and expect to play expensive spells? If so, I'm going to need sufficient mana to be able to cast them as much as I want to.
- Do I play many cheap card drawing/manipulation spells? If I'm going to be regularly seeing extra cards in early turns with spells like Brainstorm or Sensei's Divining Top, then I can go a little lighter on the land.
- How long do I expect the game to go? The relationship between game length and mana is somewhat complex. On the one hand, an aggro deck that expects a game to be essentially decided in the first several turns would seem to have justification to play more lands than usual since the possibility of being flooded in the long run wouldn't apply, and a control deck that expects a game to go long would seem to have license to play fewer land since it would have longer time to try and draw them. On the other, while this reasoning does play to an extent (aggro and control decks don't have as wide a disparity in mana-slots as one might expect from how expensive their spells are), an aggro deck still must get a healthy opening draw to win a short game, and a control deck must still not miss any land drops in order to survive to the late game!
Yes, novelties crop up every now and then - decks that play fewer than 16 land, or more than 30 - but most decks play between 22 and 26 mana sources. (22 is the low end of cheap, dedicated aggro decks without acceleration slots, and 26+ is the higher end of control decks that make use of acceleration.)
Also keep an eye for anything specific about your deck (i.e., a certain card or cards), that inclines you to play more or less land.
Get a feel for about how many spots you should have for mana (and trim or add as necessary).
3. Determine, roughly, what quantities of colored mana you'll require.
About how much colored mana will we need of each color to support our various spells? What proportion of lands should we play that provide each color? How many, and which, multi-lands will we need to use, if any? Will we have room for colorless-mana lands with abilities?
Here are some considerations:
- How many cards of each color do I play? This will provide a rough guide of what proportions of mana you should be using, but remember to bias towards the middle. Even if you have only 4 red cards, and 32 green ones, you will want to play more than 4/36 red mana.
- How many cards have especially demanding color requirements and what are they? Supporting a double-symbol spell, especially a cheap one, is much easier to manage in a color with plenty of support (a main color), but can be very difficult to support in a more marginal color. The marginal color will no longer be supportable by mana-fixing alone (say, relying on Rampant Growths to fetch a one-of land), and will have to be play considerably more mana sources of the color to reliably hit multiples of it.
Besides proportions, some decks may have more intense color requirements than others (i.e., total mana symbols). If my red-green deck uses all one-symbol spells, I may have a stable enough mana-base to be able to fit in a few colorless producing lands with abilities. If my red-green deck uses several multi-symbol spells, I may have to dedicate extra multi-lands to the cause.
Also be sure to factor in spells that provide incentive for playing a certain color of mana, such as Frozen Shade.
- How expensive are the cards of each color? The more expensive the spell, the more cards you'll have seen before needing to play it, the higher the chance you'll have had at drawing the appropriate land, the less color support you'll need for it.
The basic principal behind fulfilling color requirements is this: You want to be able to play all the spells in your hand. What this means is that, even if you only play two white spells in your entire deck, when you draw them, you want to be able to play them. If you played a proportional amount of white mana, the odds that you'd draw both the mana and the spells would be slim. Instead, we play enough white mana to be able to play the spells most games, even if we end up not drawing them. A white card in hand with no white mana in play is (basically) useless. A Plains in play but no white card in hand still does something significant.
Considering we see either 7 or 8 cards by our first turn, and we play a 60 card deck, if we want to see a Plains, on average, every game, we should play at least 8 - fewer when we consider a splash card's mana cost is usually high, but more if we want to have a buffer.
8 mana sources is on the low end of what you need to support even the smallest splashes. Even if you only play 1 actual Plains, you could also play 4 Rampant Growth, and a few Signets, or take any number of other approaches.
Conversely, considering the same information, even for a main color with plenty of cards and mana symbols, 16-24 sources might be more than enough support.
Again, remember to take specifics of the deck into account.
Get a feel for about how many mana sources you'll want dedicated to each color. (And remember, some mana sources can satisfy all colors at once - at a price!)
4. Take a first pass.
Now that you have an idea of the amount of slots you have, and the amount of color you need, take a first shot at putting together a mana base.
A goal you set for yourself might look like this: I have 26 slots for mana, and I want to devote 3 to acceleration. I want to fit in 10 white sources, 20 blue sources, and 13 red sources. What would this look like?
Make sure you consider all of the lands available in the format, as well as acceleration and fixing. If a land is a particularly good fit (for instance, Karplusan Forest in a R/G deck), you can put it in right away. If you're overloaded with "particularly good fits," evaluate what actually works best.
The specific deck plays a huge part here. All of these lands produce blue and white mana - which one's drawback is easiest on your particular deck? Often, the cards' power levels are close enough that a compromise is the best solution - an Adarkar Wastes and a Hallowed Fountain in an opening hand gives you more options than two of either.
- Consider mana curve. If you have no one-mana spells, you will be able to painlessly play Hallowed Fountain a large amount of the time. If you mainly only need Adarkar Wastes for colorless mana, but want to know you'll have access to both white and blue in more marginal situations, maybe Wastes is the right choice.
- Consider lands' power levels. On a general power scale, Hallowed Fountain is probably a bit stronger than Adarkar Wastes, and a lot stronger than Coastal Tower. You'll want to err on the side of the lands that are generally more powerful.
- Consider unique aspects of the lands. Azorius Chancery affects your manabase in a very particular way. Hallowed Fountain has basic land subtypes (IslandPlains), unlike most nonbasic lands, and this means it can be searched out in ways that other nonbasics can't be (say, with Gift of Estates).
This is a difficult question that bears consideration with each new deck. If I need to add one red source, one blue source, and one white source to a deck, which land should be a multi-land and which land should be a basic?
- Consider how to minimize the lands' drawbacks (damage, in this case) for your deck. Let's say that, while I want to play all of my spells whenever I draw them, I know that I will mostly be using red mana, and white and blue mana only on occasion. This will mean that I will want several painless and reliable red mana sources (Mountains) at first (and so, to balance, Adarkar Wastes) but that beyond this base, I will want a mix of Reefs and Forges (and so a few Islands and Plains), to increase the chances that I can cast my blue and white spells more often.
- Consider how best to cast your spells. This exact issue is complex enough to warrant its own article, but I will at least outline the problem. Let's say we are playing with Boros Swiftblade. This means we will want to have both one red-producing land and one white-producing land by turn two. On the one hand, playing Battlefield Forge would seem to be the way to go; it allows us to play the Swiftblade off of either a Mountain or a Plains. On the other, considering we have a limited amount of mana-slots, packing two into one card (when we need both to play Swiftblade) decreases our chances of playing it. Two factors seem to be at work, but in general, the more lands that you can play that produce either red or white here, and the fewer you can play that produce neither, outweighs the benefit of playing as many as you can that produce both.
- Also, consider cards you'll usually be playing with other cards in the same turn. For example, if I'm playing a deck with both Flying Men and Mana Tithe, I will want to play Shivan Reef and Plains over Adarkar Wastes and Mountain, because one configuration will allow me to play both spells in one turn and the other won't.
Sometimes, if the deck has no real specific demands, these lands will be basically interchangeable. (Adarkar Wastes + Mountain vs. Shivan Reef + Plains). And, again, having a Shivan Reef and an Adarkar Wastes in hand gives us more options than having two of either; all things being equal, mixing is good.
- Consider basic-land relevant cards (for instance, Rathi Dragon requires Mountains), and mana-fixing search spells that can only find basic land (encouraging us to play at least one basic land of each color we intend to search for).
- Consider land you'll be using a lot. If you plan on using green mana every turn, you'll want it from a stable and painless source.
How to decide which lands to use? Say I have 3 slots to include 2 red sources, a white source, and a blue source. I'll have to decide (i) which multilands to use (Adarkar Wastes vs. Hallowed Fountain vs. Azorius Chancery) (ii) what mix of multilands to use (Adarkar Wastes vs. Shivan Reef vs. Battlefield Forge) and (iii) which source should be a basic land?
If you find your mana requirements very easily satisfied, you will want to consider either adding nonbasic lands with abilities or incorporating a splash color that affords your deck increased power and versatility.
5. Make adjustments.
Take a step back and look over the mana base in relation to the deck. Is it working?
- Are you forced to use so many multi-lands that generally negligible drawbacks (such as taking a point of damage each time you tap Adarkar Wastes or Shivan Reef for colored mana) become serious liabilities?
- Does it seem like you'll be able to cast every spell by the turn you'd want to cast it? (If you want to be able to reliably play Wrath of God by turn three, do you have enough acceleration that you can rely on accelerating your mana on turn two, enough land to have three in play by turn three, and enough white mana to pay by turn three?)
- Do you see any obvious room for improvement? (For instance, you might have one only moderately important card that is requiring heavy support.)
Any number of things can be adjusted. You can either take another shot at the lands themselves or head back to the core decklist and try to make it more tenable.
6. Take a second pass.
Try again and repeat as necessary.
7. Fine tune.
The final step can take place after some actual playtesting. Do certain issues continue to come up? Is a certain card consistently stuck in your hand? When you notice these things it's time to head back to the drawing board for tweaks.
Join me next week for our final chapter in this series: a mana base walkthrough using these principles with an actual deck. Post your rough decklists in the forums and I'll choose one to tackle.