This, of course, begs the question: why are we even bothering to fix mana on a card by card basis? Shouldn't we fix it at a global level? This isn't the topic of today's column, so I'll just cut to the short answer: no, we shouldn't. Magic's mana system is complex and has many moving pieces. It's doing valuable work; just leave it be. As they say, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it" (and yes, I am saying it ain't broke).
The mana system of the game has a high variance. Deck building is all about lowering variances. Thus, we make sure in every set to give players that care the ability to better manipulate their mana. This falls into two major categories—mana boosting and color fixing. What I mean by "mana boosting" is making sure your deck can get to the amounts of mana needed to play your cards at the time you want to play them. "Color fixing" is about making sure you have all the colors you need to play your cards when you want to play them. Today's column is going to look into these two categories and walk through all the options designers have to address them. These design uses will reflect the default for a large set. (Obviously, as each Magic set is unique this is only the jumping off point.)
The Usual Suspects
My plan is to walk you through all the different kinds of mana fixing cards. For each one, I'll talk about what they are, where they go in the color pie, which type of mana fixing they are, and whatever assorted miscellaneous tidbits I think up about them.
I decided to be thorough so I'm going to start with the obvious. No five cards in Magic do more to help players get their mana and play their spells than these cards. In fact, Plains, Island, Swamp, Mountain, and Forest are the only five cards that I believe will always be in the game. Magic 2010 brings us down to only eight other cards that have existed during every moment of Magic's existence. With time I believe that number will drop to zero, leaving the basic lands as the only constant throughout the game's existence. One of R&D's long term goals with mana fixing is making sure that the basic lands always have a role in the game. If Top 8 deck lists consistently show up without any basic lands, that would be a sign that something has gone amiss. Moving forward, plan for all large sets to continue having the five basic lands. (Which allows me to do my "I'll tell you five cards in the next set" joke again and again.)
Every large set has these five cards.
I'm defining duals lands as lands that produce two colors of mana. These cards are solely for color fixing, but they are probably the most important cards we make to fulfill this role. The reason is simple: dual lands get the job done without wasting any space. Players already have to play lands, so these cards help out without requiring players to find extra space for them in their deck.
The big challenge of this group of cards is finding ways to make them such that they don't obsolete basic lands. In addition, we need to be careful to make sure that the lands help keep the sanctity of the color wheel intact. One only needs to look at the original dual lands from Alpha to see how a high power level can make it too easy to play whatever colors you want.
There are a number of rules concerning land design. I spelled out the important ones in my column This Land Is My Land. In that article I also walk through the most popular drawbacks for dual lands' designs. The biggest design challenges dual lands create are twofold. First, dual lands' design space is one that we've mined pretty heavily and thus becomes harder and harder to find new designs for. Second, we demand more elegance of dual lands than we do of most cards, because dual lands fill a land slot that by design is meant to be simpler than most cards. If all the lands get more complex it brings up the overall complexity of each deck, something we are obviously working very hard not to do. The one advantage dual lands do have going for them is that the added focus means R&D has spent more time thinking about their designs than just about any other subset of cards and thus has come up with numerous cool ideas. Magic 2010 has some pretty exciting new dual lands.
Most blocks have at least one cycle of dual lands, and more often than not it's found in the large set. The dual lands are either uncommon or rare depending on their role in that set. Multicolor blocks are more likely to have uncommon (or even common) duals and to have more than one cycle.
There's not much to add about tri-lands. They're basically just dual lands with a harder work ethic. The two biggest design constraints are this: one, they need a greater drawback than dual lands, and two, we have to make sure to create environments where they make sense. Shards of Alara, obviously, was the perfect environment as it specifically promoted three-color play. As with dual lands, tri-lands only provide color fixing.
Seldom used, never a default.
The next step up is to lands that can produce any color mana. (Yes, I understand I've skipped right past quad lands but until we go to the home plane of the Nephilim I think you're out of luck; you heard me, I don't think the Nephilim were from Ravnica—discuss) These lands are always very popular but we have to be extra careful in both power level and volume of these kinds of cards. When we make access to five colors too easy (as I believe we did recently with the Vivid lands), it limits the importance of the color pie as decks can too easily access other colors.
Like dual lands, the challenge of the design is to find drawbacks that are easily grokable and simple yet potent enough to offset such a huge advantage. Of all of the lands that tap for extra colors, this is the category most likely to burn us. Even a single five-color land of a significant power level can hugely warp a play environment.
Most blocks have at least one rare. More often than not, it appears in the large set. The exception is for environments that require the need to access more colors.
Mana Boosting Lands
So far I've just talked about color fixing lands. Lands can also help with mana boosting. To do this, they have to be able to produce more than one mana. But wait—Rule #3 in my Nonbasic Land Week article says that we aren't supposed to create lands that produce more than one mana. What gives? The answer is basically that this category gives. As a general rule of thumb, we don't make cards in this category any more. There are occasional exceptions, though (such as Cabal Coffers or Temple of the False God). The trick with these cards is that they can help you produce extra mana but not until the later stages of the game. A turn-one land drop that can produce two mana—you're probably never going to see one of those again. (Okay, never is a bit harsh in a game like Magic; let's just say it will probably be a while and even then expect a whopper of a drawback.)
We almost never do these.
Artifact Mana Sources – Single Mana
After lands, the most common source of mana is artifacts. These tend to help both in mana boosting and in color fixing. They help the former because they are not subject to the "one per turn" limitation of lands. When you play an artifact mana source, it is most often in addition to whatever land mana sources you could play. They help the latter because many of them produce colored mana yet, as artifacts, require only generic mana to play.
We've recently got into the habit of including at least one of these in common. Most often a cycle if the block has a multicolor theme or an artifact theme.
Artifact Mana Sources – Multiple Mana
The last category was capable of producing a single mana. This group of artifacts can produce even more. As such, this group of artifacts leans closer to mana boosting than color fixing. You most often play these artifacts because you want to play something that costs a lot of mana. As with the lands that produce multiple mana, these cards also have some inherent power issues. Usually the cheaper you can play them, the more dangerous they become.
This is never a default. They happen from time to time, but we never purposely slot them in.
But wait, there's one more permanent that also likes adding mana to the old mana pool: creatures. This ability skews greatly toward green in the color pie. Most often these creatures are small and inexpensive, allowing players to quickly ramp up to get out their larger creatures. While this subset is more about mana boosting than color fixing, there is the occasional card like Birds of Paradise that helps players splash into other colors.
Green usually has a common creature and often a second one at uncommon or rare. The common almost always just produces green mana (except in the cases of multicolor blocks), and the uncommon / rare produces any color.
If you can't make mana, the next trick is to make the spell require less mana. This subset is all about cost reduction. This ability started in artifacts and has been cycled through all the colors numerous times. Apparently any color can reduce costs of spells that it has some (pardon the pun) affinity for.
These cards are never a default.
I'm not sure whether this belongs here but it is an extension of the previous category. What's better than making a spell cost less? How about making it cost nothing? This subset allows you to play cards (or more often get them into play) without paying their mana costs. As with the last section, these cards have fallen all over the map as far as color is concerned. These cards are definitely splashy but are dangerous to design, as avoiding mana cost has been one of the things that has burned us the most in the past. (We haven't done too well with "draw seven cards" either.)
Even less of a default than the last category.
Rituals – One Shot
This next category gets you mana but has the drawback that the gain is only temporary. When the game started this ability was found in artifact and black, but over the years it has moved out of black and into red to represent red's "live for the present often at the detriment of the future" flavor. One of the biggest splits mechanically between green and red is that green produces mana sources it can use turn after turn while red creates mana it has to use right away.
Red more often than not will have at least one ritual in a block, but it tends to show up in different rarities, usually common or uncommon.
Rituals – Repeatable
Some "rituals" sit on permanents and can be reused. The major difference between this and mana producing permanents is that these cards require some cost to use most often the sacrifice of a permanent. These types of cards tend to show up in black, red, and artifact.
This isn't ever a default.
Another way to help fix mana is to get extra lands into play, mostly from your library. This ability is primarily green but gets used a little in white and in the other colors in heavy multicolor environments. This subset most often helps both mana boosting and color fixing as it permanently raises the amount of mana available and can help find needed colors whose sources haven't yet been drawn.
Green will almost always have a land-fetching spell at common, occasionally a creature with a "comes into play" or sacrifice ability. Usually artifacts will also have one at common but at a power level lower than green. This slot is sometimes given to a land rather than to an artifact.
Land fetching also shows up on permanents, mostly in green, artifacts and land. Usually these cards are one-for-one, meaning you trade them in to fetch an appropriate land.
The permanents are less of a default. I would say only large sets of multicolor blocks would have a few of these for sure.
This category is solely about color fixing, as it never increases your mana, it just turns it into the color you need. This ability is primarily green and artifacts but has been spread around most of the colors, usually limited to getting colors into that permanent's color. The next most common color to get this is blue with its ability to change the land types of land for the turn—a different kind of mana filtering. We have also allowed white to dip its toe into filtering in heavy multicolor blocks. In addition, in those same sets we've begin playing around with letting black trade life for filtering. Red's trick in multicolor blocks is to allow its rituals to add colors other than red. Another popular item for heavy multicolor blocks is a one-shot artifact that color-fixes once and most often draws you a card to make the card playable.
The most common card we do in this category is the one-shot, card-drawing artifact I talked about above.
Mixing and Matching
As you can see, the role of mana fixing is mostly left to green and artifact, occasionally with land stepping in to help. The other colors tend to get mana fixing only in multicolor blocks where we pull out the stops to help everyone get the mana they need to play their spells.
The one other block theme that ups the number of mana producers is an artifact-themed block. This happens for two reasons. One, mana producing is one of the abilities assigned to artifacts so a set with a lot of them just tends to have more. Two, artifact sets tend to have larger costs to build up to and the support is usually laid out to help players get there.
And there in thousands of words is everything you probably ever wanted to know about the design of mana fixing cards. As you can see, a lot of time and energy goes into this facet of design even though its focus is minimal to the players. It's important though, because it is one of the things that can most easily make for unfun play experiences if it's messed up.
That's all I got for today. Join me next week when I look at one of the biggest pitfalls of new designers.
Until then, may you get the mana you need when you need it.