While your creatures and spells are the flashy pieces that will propel you toward victory, your three-color control deck probably wouldn't be able to win too many games if the only lands you could draw were Plains. Competitive Magic is commonly a game of small edges, and putting that little bit of extra effort into your mana base can be the difference between going 6–2 at your local PTQ and winning the extra game necessary to clinch that Top 8 slot.
Writing an article on building mana bases has been a popular request ever since I began writing this column, and today is finally the time to cover the steps that go into making a solid one. This is a topic that can be applied to nearly every deck you ever make.
Ready? Here we go!
Step 1: Size Up Real Estate
The first thing I always do, before even figuring out which lands I'm going to be looking at, is figure out about how many lands I'm going to want to play. This way, when I'm adding lands, I know how many I have left.
For example, if you're building a three-color aggressive deck with twenty lands and the first thing you do is add in twelve Temples, it's good to know that you only have eight more land slots left—you're probably going to want to have the rest of your lands come into play untapped.
Now, you don't always have to pick the exact right number the first time—deck building is a process of refinement, after all. Generally, I target a number of lands fully knowing that I have leeway to go plus or minus one land if I need to.
How do you know how many lands you're going to need? Well, it starts by looking at the spells!
Some deck builders will start with the lands available in the format and then add spells from there—but that's not how you're most commonly going to build decks. Most of the time, you will have a core of your deck outlined and then be looking to add in lands. The higher your mana curve—and the more you can make use of excess lands—the more lands you're going to want.
For example, most control decks will start at twenty-five to twenty-seven lands. Why is that? Because they expect the game to go long and want to play lands every turn. They often have big, mana-intensive spells like Sphinx's Revelation or Elspeth, Sun's Champion and/or want to be able to cast these spells with countermagic mana available. They're going to draw a lot of cards, and they want to be able to deploy their spells all in a timely manner.
Conversely, highly aggressive decks can go as low as twenty lands. They need to draw a lot of action early on to maximize their damage output or they will be overpowered in the late game. Most of their creatures and spells have a very low mana cost.
As a general rule of thumb, here are what I would expect the land count for any given sixty-card Standard deck to be. (Modern and Legacy are a little different, thanks to the relative cheapness of all their spells and card filtering spells like Serum Visions.)
- 18 or fewer lands: A very rare occurrence. Only correct in unusual scenarios for an extremely low-curve aggressive deck (for example, a beatdown deck with almost all one-drops) or a combo deck that only needs a couple lands to combo off. If your deck has this few lands, there had better be a good reason.
- 19–22 lands: Most commonly a feature of low-curve beatdown decks, or simply burn decks that can't afford to draw excess lands. These decks probably don't have anything that costs more than three mana (maybe one or two copies of a four-drop, at most) with an emphasis on the lower end.
- 23–24 lands: Most commonly, this range is where you start to see midrange and aggro-control decks start. Midrange decks that top out at a handful of four- or five-mana cards should usually be playing twenty-four lands. Additionally, beatdown decks that have some four- or five-drops they want to get to fit here. For example, an aggressive Boros deck featuring Firemane Avenger and Assemble the Legion might want to play twenty-three or twenty-four lands so that it can cast them on time, yet not get mana flooded.
- 25 lands: The sweet spot where midrange decks commonly hang out; you can also find some control decks. If you're playing a couple six-mana spells and plenty of cards in the three- to five-mana range, twenty-five lands is a good place to be. On the occasions a ramp deck is in Standard, twenty-five is also a fairly common number for that, since you want to play lands every turn but don't want to be flooded.
- 26 lands: Most often, twenty-six lands is used for control decks. It gives you plenty of lands to cast your expensive spells and to maximize X spells like Sphinx's Revelation. Twenty-six lands is also the top end of what I would usually expect a midrange deck to run if it curves really high. (For example, if you are playing a lot of five- and six-drops.) On occasion, there's a ramp deck that will want twenty-six lands as well.
- 27+ lands: With rare exceptions, twenty-seven or more is usually a place reserved for control decks. You'll occasionally find a midrange deck that fits this high (especially if there are a lot of man lands around—more on those later), but this is generally for control decks that are mana intensive and don't have a lot of card drawing to help find more lands. (Meaning they need to naturally play one every turn for the first several turns.)
Now, these are all just guidelines and guidelines are often meant to be broken—but if you're building a new deck, they're a good place to start. If you're not exactly sure how all kinds of other factors will play in (man lands, mana acceleration, and so on—we'll get to those in a bit) I would recommend choosing the one that feels slightly on the high side.
Okay, have a number you're targeting? Great! Let's go onto the next step.
Step 2: Mana Fixing
In almost every Standard format, there is some form of dual lands available. And if you're not playing a monocolor deck, you're probably going to want to be playing them.
Whenever somebody asks me what cards they should be trading for out of a new block or set, I always tell them the dual lands. They're going to be applicable in numerous decks and will likely still even be relevant in older formats. In my budget articles, they are the one kind of rare I will add. While they aren't as flashy as some other cards, they are unbelievably crucial. There's little worse in Magic than not being able to cast your spells—and dual lands help you avoid that problem.
This step is simple, but not to be overlooked: identify all of the dual lands in your deck's colors and earmark them to potentially be used. You may not end up using all of them, but it's still good to make a list of every available one so you know what your options are. For now, if you don't have an idea of which ones you want to use, just put them all into the decklist. We can trim the list down later.
Step 3: A Little Bit Extra
In most formats, in additional to straight dual lands, there are plenty of other lands running around as well. Mutavault. Kessig Wolf Run. Encroaching Wastes. These lands are often (but not always) colorless—and the tradeoff you get by playing some colorless lands is additional power.
These lands are some of the best reason to play extra lands in your decks. Remember earlier, when I told you that, when in doubt, to aim a little high on your land counts? Well, these are a major reason why.
Being mana flooded is only bad because, inherently, you have nothing to do with all of those excess lands. But if those lands do something else, it's not so bad at all! This is why in Worldwake-era Standard, when you had five multicolored man lands (Celestial Colonnade, Raging Ravine, and their friends) you would see aggressive decks with twenty-five lands, and control/midrange decks with twenty-seven or twenty-eight. Their "excess" lands weren't excess at all!
Considering that these lands also help you cast your spells, it's often a great idea to add in some of these as extra lands. If you're mana screwed and you draw them, then great: you have lands! If you don't need extra lands, don't worry: these lands can do something else.
Or, in other words: there's a reason why Mutavault is one of the most sought after cards in Standard right now.
Look through the list of lands in the format and see what you come up that would fit your deck well. Not every deck wants every land (for example, a low-curve beatdown deck isn't going to be able to activate Encroaching Wastes often enough to make it worth it) but it's worth making a list and adding the ones that make the cut into your initial land list.
On a quick note, while this article is mostly geared for Standard, this part is especially relevant in Modern and Legacy. Modern has a lot of lands that are easy to forget about. Often, playing one or two Horizon Canopy in your green and/or white decks doesn't hurt at all. Tectonic Edge can be a game changer. Murmuring Bosk is easy to forget about, but in decks that are white, green, and black, having a copy to search for with fetch lands can be a worthwhile inclusion. Whenever I build a Modern deck, I always just search all of the Modern-legal nonbasic lands on Gatherer to ensure there's nothing I missed.
Step 4: Evaluate!
Okay, so we've added in a bunch of lands. What now?
Well, it's time to take a look at what you've written down as a whole and note any trends or contextual problems.
One common thing to look for here is how many of your lands enter the battlefield tapped. If you've made a long list of dual lands, there's a good chance many enter the battlefield tapped and you are going to be playing a turn behind your opponent for the entire game. This impacts aggressive decks the most, but even control decks don't want all of their lands entering tapped. A twelve-Temple mana base is fine for control... but if you start piling Guildgates on top of them, that's going to be way too many.
Keep in mind: your goal is to be able to maximize casting your spells while suffering the minimal amount of setbacks necessary. If your deck is two colors and uses twenty-four dual lands, that's probably worse than using twelve dual lands and suffering fewer consequences of all your lands entering the battlefield tapped. If your mana base works as soon as you draw one or two dual lands, you don't need to ensure you draw six.
In general, as a very rough guideline, I'd say in an aggressive deck try to limit yourself to four enters-the-battlefield-tapped lands; in a midrange deck, eight; and in a control deck, twelve—but those numbers depend very heavily on the deck and quality of mana fixing. However, if you aren't sure where to start, begin with those guidelines and work from there.
In addition to looking at the lands, you should be looking at your spells as well. Is there anything that wants you to have a ton of lands like, Sphinx's Revelation? Does your deck have a far lower mana curve than you realized? This is a place to make tweaks to accommodate things like that.
Step 5: Color Check and Basic Lands
Now that you have a bunch of your nonbasics chosen and it seems to match your mana curve, it's time to make sure your mana base actually matches the colors you need and then try and plug the missing holes with basic lands.
A lot of people will count the mana symbols on all of their cards and determine a mana base that way. While that's a useful heuristic to keep in the back of your head, it can be incredibly misleading. What actually matters most is not how many of a symbol you need, but when you need them.
In general, to have a certain source on turn two, I like to have about thirteen lands that make that color in my deck. (Although, if you can fit more, that doesn't hurt.) And keep in mind: if you want to play a two-drop on turn two, then you need to have a land that enters the battlefield untapped for the second turn. This is even truer for one-drops. If you want to consistently be able to cast Elvish Mystic on the first turn, then you are going to need to play a lot of green mana sources that enter the battlefield untapped.
Fortunately, there are some tricks you can do to help with this.
For example, let's say you're a black-red-green deck in current Standard that really wants to be able to play Elvish Mystic on the first turn but also needs a lot of mana fixing. Well, you can focus your enters-the-battlefield-tapped dual lands in red and black and then make sure you're playing both Overgrown Tomb and Stomping Ground, since they are green sources that enter the battlefield untapped. If you play those two dual lands and fill out with five Forests, you should be good to go.
Similarly, if you need double (or triple!) of one color, you'll want to focus heavier on that color (especially with dual lands) to ensure you hit the mana you need.
And finally, be wary of playing cards side by side that require hard-to-achieve mana costs early on. For example, playing Kalonian Tusker and Vendilion Clique and expecting to curve one into the other is going to be difficult. If this is absolutely crucial to your deck, though, then your mana base is the place to work on that. You're going to want to fill out all of the blue-green dual lands you can to help achieve this.
Step 6: Reevaluate!
You already evaluated once—but now that the entire thing is in front of you, it's time to double check the big picture again.
Do too many of your lands enter the battlefield tapped? Do all of the colorless lands you added still fit with the image of your deck? I'd recommend counting up the total sources of each color andthe total sources that enter the battlefield untapped to make sure that it aligns with your vision of how your mana base should play out.
This is also a time to look over the rest of your deck and take it into account. Are you playing any colorless mana stones like Azorius Signet? If you are, you may need fewer sources of that color... and if you're playing enough of them, you may even be able to play fewer lands. How about creature accelerators like Sylvan Caryatid? You might want an extra green source over something else to ensure you can cast it on time, since it already helps fix your other colors. This is the moment to figure these elements out.
And finally, don't forget to take a look at your sideboard as well! If you have a sideboard built, make sure your mana base is built to accommodate the cards you want to play. If your only main-deck black cards are expensive to cast, so you included fewer black sources, but it's crucial you are able to cast your sideboard Thoughtseizes in the first couple turns, you may need to modify that. (Or potentially even sideboard a land to facilitate the change.)
And with all that said, voilà! You should have a wonderful, working mana base in front of you. Of course, these are all just guidelines—you'll learn the most by actually playing with it. But it certainly helps to start in the right place and make small changes than have to wildly guess all over.
Decklist Danger Room
Curious to put these mana base–making skills into action? Here are three Standard decklists... that are missing a mana base! Try using the mana base–building techniques you learned here to fill them out yourself. Post your finished versions in the forums, and perhaps we can get some discussion going! If you feel like a deck could use one fewer land than the space allotted, feel free to cut a card as appropriate.
Mana Base Application
Now that you've tried your hands at building a mana base for a few of the decklists above, hopefully you can take what you've learned to build your Standard decks for the upcoming challenge. Ready? Here's what I'm looking for in two weeks:
Restrictions: Your deck must be at least three colors
Deadline: March 10, at 6 p.m. Pacific Time
Submit all decklists by clicking on "respond via email" below. Please submit decklists using the following template. (The specific numbers below are arbitrary, so please don't feel a need to use them—it's just how an example of how a decklist should look when laid out.)
4 Other Spell
4 Other Spell
Let's try putting what you learned into action! You're going to need to make at least a three-color mana base. I'm excited to see how it turns out!
In the meantime, if you have any thoughts on this article, feel free to send me your feedback on Twitter or by posting in the forums. I'm curious to see how you build the mana bases for the above decks as well!
I'll be back next week with a look at Standard. Talk with you then!