Eat Your Vegetables

Posted in Serious Fun on May 20, 2008

By The Ferrett

Last week, I talked about the glorious plays that make Magic fun. That was dessert, the delightful slice of cake brimming with yummy frosting. This week? It's the spinach, the not-quite-as fun stuff you have to chow through in order to get to that glorious, glorious dessert.

That's right; I'm talking about mana bases.

There's a reason it's called a mana base—without it, your deck collapses like a house of cards (which, you know, it kind of is, being made of cards and all... but let's not get into my mixed metaphors). Too many casual players put in the wrong land mix, then wind up in these ugly situations where they get flooded in the late game or are unable to play the spells they so deeply desire.

Why am I discussing this? Can't I talk about those new, sexy Shadowmoor cards instead? Well, Josh and I have been compiling our list of the Eleven Most Interesting Multiplayer Cards in Shadowmoor, and Josh's top six picks surprised me:

  1. Mystic Gate
  2. Sunken Ruins
  3. Graven Cairns
  4. Wooded Bastion
  5. Fire-Lit Thicket
  6. Reflecting Pool

But after some thinking, I realized he was exactly right. Lands aren't something we think of as being as cool as, say, Demigod of Revenge, but really a set of new lands is something that every casual player should pick up a play set of right away, because anything that makes it easier to play all of these amazing new spells is worth getting.

If you're a casual player like me, lands are a great investment. You can use them in decks for the rest of your life! I purchased a set of dual lands almost a decade ago, and every one of them is in use every deck I have now! The same goes for Onslaught's fetchlands, and Ravnica's dual lands, and Ravnica's bouncelands, and so forth. If you're a casual player who builds decks that don't fit in the usual Standard or Extended mix, I guarantee you that these lands will be used ad infinitum in any number of decks.

And providing double mana on command is something that's vitally important in this land of potent Shadowmoor hybrid double-mixers. Hence, the reason we're discussing mana today.

So let's discuss land and how to use it in a casual deck.

Step #1: Follow the Rules of Jay Moldenhauer-Salazar.

Jay Moldenhauer-SalazarI have referred to it on multiple occasions, but I'll link to it again: Five Rules For Avoiding Mana Screw is your Bible, and you should follow it at all times. I would strongly advise you to click over and read it before you continue further, because I think Jay said what should be said so well that I don't feel comfortable regurgitating his knowledge.

Generally, for a casual multiplayer deck—one that wants to top off with some high-end threats like a six-mana Dragon or a seven-mana sorcery—you're going to want around 25 to 26 lands. You can go with more, but that risks choking your deck with too much mana.

Also, he has the rule that for every two nonland sources of mana, lower the land count by one. That's not a bad rule—but in most casual multiplayer games, mana acceleration isn't as important as it is in a duel.

In a duel it's vital that you come out blazing from the post to knock your opponent on the defensive by turn three... but unless you're gunning to ramp into a quick, table-destroying combo, devoting eight or more cards to mana acceleration means that your chance of drawing a useless Llanowar Elves on turn nine is much higher. And your chance of knocking three or more opponents flat with that additional turn or two of acceleration? Negligible. Hence, it's generally not worth it to ramp way up.

That said, Jay's description of how to figure out what ratio of lands you need to get the proper color of mana upon demand in your deck? Golden. I've used it to create casual decks, I've used it for Sealed, and I've used it to draft. It's a great way of estimating what you need, when you need it.

In case you still haven't clicked through to read the article, let me walk you through an example of how I'd land a deck, using Jay's formula:

1) Separate the spells in your deck by color.

If you have hybrid mana and you're playing spells of both colors, divide them equally—so if you have four Godhead of Awes, put two in the blue pile and two in the white pile. Unless you're playing Godhead in an all-white deck or a deck that pairs white with another color, in which case throw them all in the white pile.

So let's take a Cleric deck of mine that can combo for infinite life:

Black Spells

4 Vile Deacon
4 Cabal Archon
4 Rotlung Reanimator
2 Edgewalker
1 Patriarch's Bidding

White Spells

4 Shaman en-Kor
4 Worthy Cause
4 Daru Spiritualist
2 Edgewalker
1 Celestial Gatekeeper
2 Soltari Visionary
4 Soul Warden

(The combo: you get out a Daru Spiritualist and a Shaman en-Kor, target your Spiritualist a million times to make it a 1/2,000,000, then sacrifice it to Worthy Cause. That's been the engine of an old Extended deck for quite some time. The combo could be more focused, but really I just wanted a fun Cleric deck with a side benefit.)

Daru Spiritualist
Shaman en-Kor

That's 36 cards, leaving room for 24 land. But how do we know how many Plains and Swamps we want in this deck?

2) Count up all the spells in your deck with only a single mana of any given color in their cost (Shock, Terror, Llanowar Elves) and add them together for a temporary "color ratio total."

In this case, it looks like:

Black Spells

4 Cabal Archon
4 Rotlung Reanimator
2 Edgewalker

10 black

White Spells

4 Shaman en-Kor
4 Worthy Cause
4 Daru Spiritualist
2 Edgewalker
4 Soul Warden

18 white

(Note that since the Edgewalkers cost , I put two of them on the "black" side and two of them on the "white" side. You'd do the same with hybrid cards.)

So right now, we have a spell ratio of 10 black to 18 white. But wait! We have the double-mana spells!

3) Count up all the double-mana spells in your deck and count each of them as 1.5 towards the total.

It'd be really easy if every spell cost , but this is the real world, where spells sometimes cost or or even . So take each of those spells with multiple color costs and add them to the total, but each of them is 1.5.

Black Spells

4 Vile Deacon
1 Patriarch's Bidding

That's 5 times 1.5, for a total of 7.5. Add that to the previous total of 10 for black, and we get:

17.5 black

White Spells

1 Celestial Gatekeeper
2 Soltari Visionary

That's 3 times 1.5, for a total of 4.5. Add that to the previous total of 18 for white, and we get 22.5.

4) Figure out the ratio.

The totals look like this:

17.5 black +
22.5 white =
40 total

22.5 / 40 = 56.25% of your lands should produce white mana.

From there, it's a cinch, since you know you're playing 24 lands:

56.25% of 24 = 13.5 Plains

Round that down, and you get a "perfect" mana base of:

13 Plains
11 Swamps

5) Then throw in the nonbasic lands.

Hey, why have something that can only produce one kind of mana? You have cards like Godless Shrine and Scrubland and Caves of Koilos!

4 Godless Shrine
4 Caves of Koilos

That leaves you with 16 lands, and you can do the same ratio:

56.25% of 16 = 9 Plains

So it's:
4 Godless Shrine
4 Caves of Koilos
9 Plains
7 Swamps

And you're good to go!

The only note here is that this is a poor example deck for the very solid Shadowmoor dual lands only because these are not allied colors. If this was a black-red deck instead of white-black, you bet your buns I'd be looking to throw a Graven Cairns in there stat, because something that can get you two mana of either color on demand is pretty darned good.

6) Watch the colorless trick lands!

You're good to go, unless you decide to do something Very Stupid, as I did. Because I wanted Starlit Sanctum as an additional sacrifice outlet, I instead went with this mana base:

So it's:
4 Godless Shrine
4 Caves of Koilos
4 Starlit Sanctum
7 Plains
5 Swamps

Yeah. The addition of four colorless lands in a deck that relies very heavily upon two enemy colors (and the removal of four colors sources) changed the entire tone of my deck. Suddenly, my early color-intensive spells evaporated, and I got color-screwed way more than I should have.

So I'll add the general rule: For every two colorless trick lands in a two-colored deck, add an extra land in. Because really, the Starlit Sanctum is useless unless I can activate it. This deck should have been 26 lands, cutting the Celestial Gatekeeper and perhaps an Edgewalker.

When you have lands like Skargg, the Rage Pits or Mishra's Factory or Mutavault or Faerie Conclave or the like and you have a color-intensive decks, you may want to up the count just so you can ensure you'll be able to use them and cast your spells. This doesn't really apply so much in a mono-White deck, where you're almost guaranteed to draw Plains, but in a two-colored deck it can be the death of you.

7) Memorize the formula.

Really. It's vital. Live it.

Step #2: If Possible, Add Land Thinners.

I'm not a huge fan of mana acceleration in multiplayer, but if you're aiming towards the long game then you're definitely going to want something to pull the lands out of your deck and put them either into play or into your land. Hence, land thinning.

Not only do land thinners get more land onto the board, allowing you to play your big-daddy spells, they also increase the likelihood that you'll draw a business spell. This is a significant advantage when your opponents are drawing lands.

Arguably the best block of all time for land-thinning was Kamigawa block, which featured the amazing triple-team of land-fetchers:

Kodama's Reach
Sakura-Tribe Elder, which can not only serve as an early chump blocker, but also bump you up a land. (Also, it's major fun with Deathrender.)

Kodama's Reach, one of the best three-mana land-fetching spells for green, ensuring that you'll get to five mana and pulling two lands out of your deck.

Journeyer's Kite, a cheap artifact that I've grown to love. It allows you to fetch a land when you have nothing better to do, making your late draws very potent.

That said, the big daddy of all time for land-thinning is Land Tax, an early enchantment that often goes overlooked. But it's crazy good.

You're generally looking to get more than a single card out of it—using a Rampant Growth means you've traded one card for one land, which isn't the best deal. You're looking for something that can either serve double-duty (like Sakura-Tribe Elder) or will get you two or more land (like Kodama's Reach and Journeyer's Kite). And you're looking for it cheap—Onslaught's Explosive Vegetation, at four mana, is about the top end of what you're looking to get. Generally, you want three mana or under. Wood Elves are a good option.

'Course, that's easy if you're in green (or sometimes white). If you're in blue, well, then you'll have to settle for drawing lots of cards, which is the poor man's land-thinning. Oh, I pity you, drawing all those cards.

(That is sarcasm, by the way.)

In black, your options are more limited, and you're stuck with cards like Twisted Abomination—which is great, as long as you know when to cycle it. Don't be afraid to toss away an early A-Bomb! You need mana now, my friend, and that sixth mana is a long time comin'!

Step #3: If it's a Monocolored (or Nearly Monocolored) Deck, Add Cycling Lands

Lonely Sandbar
Yeah, they're kind of old at this point, but they were all commons and so they should be easy to get. Specifically, you're looking for the Onslaught cycling lands (Barren Moor, Forgotten Cave, Lonely Sandbar, Secluded Steppe, and Tranquil Thicket), which are awesome.

Or you can go even more old-school and get Urza block cycling lands (Blasted Landscape, Drifting Meadow, Polluted Mire, Remote Isle, Slippery Karst, and Smoldering Crater), which aren't quite as cool because they require two mana to cycle.

In any monocolored deck, even with thinning, you're going to hit a top end where you've hit eight lands and you don't need any more. The cycling lands always make it easy to turn an excess land draw into a possibly-valid card. Yes, sometimes you'll need to lay one tapped in the early game, but as I've noted before, the early game is generally a little less important in multiplayer (and in many casual duels). You can afford the minor tempo loss.

Step #4: If it's a Two-Colored Deck, Think Seriously about Adding Ravnica Bouncelands

Again, they're commons, so they should be fairly easy to find—and the bouncelands (Azorius Chancery, Boros Garrison, Dimir Aqueduct, Golgari Rot Farm, Gruul Turf, Izzet Boilerworks, Orzhov Basilica, Rakdos Carnarium, Selesnya Sanctuary, and Simic Growth Chamber) really help you lower the land count without color-screwing you. In general, I've found you can swap four bouncelands in and lower the overall land count by two without much appreciable effect (as long as you have at least 24 lands total). Just watch out for Magus of the Moon!

Step #5: Never Forget the Urzatron.

Urza's Tower
If you don't have a whole lot of colored mana but you do have lots of expensive spells and/or artifacts, you might seriously want to think about the Urzatron: Urza's Mine, Urza's Tower, and Urza's Power Plant. They can get you some seriously good mana, and are great in green or red decks that want to power out pricey dragons and titans as fast as possible.

'Course, since they take up twelve slots, you have to be very careful. Twelve slots is a lot of land, almost half your total land in many decks. That's pretty much a full color to itself! If you're going two colors and the Urzatron, just make sure you know what you're doing.

Step #6: Profit.

That should be enough to set you on your way towards solid mana bases. It's not always sexy, but it is always something you want to pay attention to. Do so, and you'll get more of those luscious wins and have more fun along the way.

No, I'm not going to tell you that you'll be strong to the finish if you eat your spinach. Who do you think I yam?

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