Two Techniques

Posted in Top Decks on April 22, 2010

By Mike Flores

This article is going to be a double feature as it were. The first part is going to be a brief discussion of mana curve, and the second part will be an exercise in card selection using mana curve as a contributing lens for deck design.

    What Is the Mana Curve?

Once upon a time players started doing things somewhere around turn four.

For serious.

The world was one of Nevinyrral's Disks, of Wrath of God, the most fearsome and feared offensive creature in all of existence was the Erhnam Djinn. Serra Angel was not just playable, but heavily played, in decks as wide ranging as White Weenie, to Green-White Armageddon, to of course White-Blue Control.

All for serious.

And then the Sligh deck happened.

The first Sligh deck was full of awful—truly awful—spells. This is the deck from which the "Sligh" archetype takes its name (design credit: Jay Schneider):

Paul Sligh's "Sligh/Geeba"

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The cards might not have been so impressive on a per-spell basis, especially when compared with Balance, Land Tax, Necropotence, and so on. But what the Sligh deck did—which few if any decks of the era did well if at all—was start playing turn one.

Unlike most of the one-mana cards that were played at the time—Land Tax and Swords to Plowshares primarily—the Sligh deck would play proactive cards on the first turn. Goblins of the Flarg could get in there.

While the opponent was waiting around until turn four to play a defensive Nevinyrral's Disk, the humble Dwarven Trader could deal 3 or 4 points of damage. And if the opponent stumbled? Make that 5.

An idea that has been very influential on my way of thinking over the past several months is that unspent mana is simply lost. You can hit a land drop and another land drop, have access to both lands and spells ... and still do nothing. Consider the dilemma of a Jund player whose first two plays are both Savage Lands; even if that player has Putrid Leech, he or she can't play it on turn two. The same is true of the player who opens on a Raging Ravine, then runs out a basic Mountain. Some amount of potential mana is lost because it doesn't get tapped. Even if the hand was otherwise a reasonable keep (say it has a third-turn Sprouting Thrinax or Blightning via Dragonskull Summit), in many games the Putrid Leech will never get played. That second turn window is lost, the mana never spent, and the Jund player just has better things to do for the next couple of turns, eventually losing the Leech to the opponent's Blightning (this, by the way, is why Jund decks can look so colossally clumsy in some games while running hotter than Hell's Thunder in others).

The same was true fifteen years ago.

Decks with higher curves—even when they hit their land drops—could lose their windows for action. If you kept a hand of three Swamps, two Nevinyrral's Disks, and two copies of Drain Life, you might ... um ... nothing. Not only would you have nothing to do until turn four minimum, essentially losing access to your turn one, turn two, and turn three mana, if you missed your fourth land drop, the game would be a disaster!

The Sligh deck might not have been doing something as brutally powerful as, say, the Necropotence deck ... but it started down the road to winning the game from the first turn with its curious Dwarven Traders, and left much less mana unspent, especially during those first turns.

The lesson of the Sligh deck is that successful decks tend to be able to deploy threats earlier in a game.

Petr Brozek, 5-1

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Petr Brozek has carved himself a spot as today's inheritor of the legacy of David E. Price. His "Barely Boros" deck is the modern—and much more streamlined—answer to Paul Sligh's mid-1990s PTQ winner. In a world where Jund decks can stumble and white-blue decks have no timely way to win, Petr's deck can begin attacking on the very first turn with Goblin Guide. Let's look at his mana curve:

One: Burst Lightning, Goblin Guide, Lightning Bolt
Two: Hellspark Elemental, Plated Geopede, Zektar Shrine Expedition
Three: Hell's Thunder
Four: Ajani Vengeant
X: Earthquake


One: 12
Two: 12
Three: 4
Four: 4
X: 4

Mana curve–aware decks like Petr's—especially those with relatively easy color requirements—are much less likely to stumble or miss opportunities than those with either expensive spells or lots of gold cards or both.

So today, even the once-glacial white-blue decks are now built on a curve. They can make proactive plays on the first turn, and the really scary ones can play proactively—sometimes drawing extra cards and often setting up to attack—on the second. Let's look at the Dragonmaster's white-blue deck from a recent Grand Prix:

Brian Kibler

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One: Fieldmist Borderpost, Path to Exile
Two: Everflowing Chalice, Knight of the White Orchid, Spreading Seas
Three: Oblivion Ring (alternately Fieldmist Borderpost)
Four: Day of Judgment; Jace, the Mind Sculptor
Five: Baneslayer Angel
X: Martial Coup, Mind Spring


One: 8 (4)
Two: 11
Three: 2 (6)
Four: 6
Five: 4
X: 8

This kind of a deck is a far cry from the white-blue decks of the past. It has for proactive turn one plays (considering Fieldmist Borderpost), not just a Swords to Plowshares; all of its two drops forward the game, by card drawing, by mana manipulation (or both); also, getting in there.

"Attack for two."
Knight of the White Orchid

The lesson is that as time has gone by, technology improved, and decks have become more beautifully tuned, they have learned, like the Sligh deck, to move forward, earlier. Even the white-blue deck with eight cards that typically require seven or more lands, is setting up the requisite acceleration when it has only one or two on the battlefield.

At this point I hope I've convinced you that in order to compete in 2010 Standard, you need to be willing to build your deck on a curve. So the fun Part Two to this article is going to be evaluating some new Rise of the Eldrazi cards by considering them, competitively, along the curve. The goal here isn't to define many new archetypes but simply to think about new cards in a different way (maybe) for purposes of evaluation.

What are the "standards" in Standard?

I am going to be listing some existing cards out for reference. They are all playable (and sometimes the best cards); if we want to build against them, we have to be able to compete with or beat what's already out there. Consider the one-drops:

White: Path to Exile, Steppe Lynx
Blue: Ponder, Hedron Crab
Black: Duress, Vampire Lacerator
Red: Lightning Bolt, Goblin Guide
Green: Noble Hierarch, Llanowar Elves
Colorless: Pithing Needle, Relic of Progenitus

Interestingly, the strongest colors have the weakest cards at one mana. Duress is fantastic (if no longer a main deck card in Standard), but as good as some of the other blue and black cards might be, they don't remotely compare to the green, red, or white ones.

Green is embarrassingly strong at one mana. Literally an embarrassment of riches. We could easily have listed Birds of Paradise, Wild Nacatl, Scute Mob, or even Vines of the Vastwood (a.k.a. Negate).

The white cards are weaker than the green ones at one, but still quite respectable; in addition we have specialized cards or conditional game-breakers like Harm's Way, Hada Freeblade, and Perimeter Captain.

But the red cards are UN-FREAKING-REAL. Goblin Guide competes as one of the strongest one-mana red spells of all time. Then again, Lightning Bolt is in Standard. Unbelievably, there are other cards at that—while not as strong as Lightning Bolt—hold their own respectably. Goblin Bushwhacker, Dragonmaster Outcast, and Burst Lightning make very competitive.

Student of Warfare is for certain good enough. It is going to make Ranger of Eos a happy Invitational card. Oust looks like it is going to be a tournament staple forever. Path to Exile is heavily played in Standard and basically the most popular card in Extended; it is the kind of card that defines formats. Preliminary soapbox jabbering has been somewhat disparaging of Oust, but I think it's awesome. Just consider a first turn Noble Hierarch. You never want to point a Path to Exile at one, but an Oust would be a beating. Oust is just fantastic against hard-to-deal-with Jund threats like Putrid Leech and especially Sprouting Thrinax. It doesn't have to be a "permanent solution" any more than Hinder did to run circles around alleged inheritor Cancel.

I am skeptical about .

already features one-drops like Deathmark and Disfigure; but I think Vendetta might be good enough [again] due to its flexibility plus very low cost. Inquisition of Kozilek will not do what Duress does better than Duress, but it might see play as a redundancy; it is clearly a life savings against a Red Deck. Players frequently brought in Thoughtseize against red under the theory that paying 2 for Thoughtseize was better than taking 4-6 from a red three-drop. Inquisition of Kozilek doesn't even cost you the 2 life.

is already one of the deepest wells of mana in Standard; there are a fair number of cards that might see play in specialized decks, but the most specialized (and in another sense one of the most widely playable) is Ancient Stirrings. I think that it is much better than Commune with Nature (of which it is quite reminiscent) because of its ability to get an Eldrazi Temple (it's not like they are going to let you get there with Realms Uncharted) or an All Is Dustor a simple Everflowing Chalice. Interestingly, —which is glutted with Birds, Elves, and Hierarchs—has potential competition coming from Joraga Treespeaker (a favorite Rise of the Eldrazi card of one of my favorite writer / deck designers, Billy Moreno).

But ? As we said this is a mana cost that is loaded with some of the best cards ever, and doesn't disappoint with Rise of the Eldrazi. Flame Slash? Awesome. Forked Bolt? Awesome. Neither one is better than Lightning Bolt. Both of them are actually better a fair amount of the time.

We can do the same exercise at every mana cost. Twos:

White: Kazandu Blademaster, Stoneforge Mystic
Blue: Spreading Seas, Treasure Hunt
Black: Gatekeeper of Malakir (arguably three mana), Vampire Hexmage
Red: Punishing Fire, Searing Blaze
Green: Lotus Cobra, Nissa's Chosen
Multicolored: Putrid Leech, Terminate
Colorless: Armillary Sphere, Dragon's Claw

White two-mana spells have always been well above the curve. At times they have been format-defining (Soltari Priest). White still has awesome threat creatures; it can also (some games) end ‘em with just two mana (Luminarch Ascension, Ethersworn Canonist, Kor Firewalker ... even Celestial Purge at times). This is a competitive mana cost. How does Rise of the Eldrazi white stack up at the two?

How about Wall of Omens? This is my early pick for the most heavily played Rise of the Eldrazi card, period. Wall of Omens won't displace any of the previously listed two-mana spells, but it will enable different decks, act as the starting point of others, and enhance existing defensive monsters, namely white-blue.

The playable blue two-mana spells are largely a mix of card drawing and counterspells. The counterspells have varied widely in where—and I meam where—they are played. White-blue deck? Not so much anymore, not main deck anyway—not even Essence Scatter in creature-heavy Standard (not when the default creature is Bloodbraid Elf). Flashfreeze was a more common main-deck card as Blightning defense, whereas Negate might have performed best in Extended Zoo decks. The card drawing, on the other hand, is bonkers. I think Spreading Seas is a Top 10 card in Standard, more important to the success of many blue variants than any Ultimatum, planeswalker, or Sphinx you might expect.

Rise of the Eldrazi has a card in each two-mana drawer worth looking at. For card drawing, See Beyond. Not only does it help fix your early game draws, it can shuffle Emrakul, the Aeons Torn back into your deck (whew). For permission's sake, Deprive; I don't love this card on turn two, but it is fine Mind Sludge or Cruel Ultimatum defense (compare with Countersquall) that can also stop, say, a Broodmate Dragon. Deprive makes Halimar Depths better, and can pull a Spreading Seas off your Celestial Colonnade.

Unified Will is just an easier-to-play Counterspell in a fair number of matchups.

In addition to some sometimes outstanding burn spells, red's Standard two-mana spells include a wide variety of exciting—usually hasty—attackers: Akoum Battlesinger, Hellspark Elemental, Zektar Shrine Expedition. The most obvious option out of Rise of the Eldrazi is Kargan Dragonlord; I can see some of the Eldrazi Spawn–producers seeing play, but I knowKargan Dragonlord will.

Most of the frequently played green two-mana spells are highly specialized... mana acceleration like Rampant Growth or Explore, or super specialized cards like Nissa's Chosen (that is, despite the presence of onetime top two drop River Boa, Standard lacks a Tarmogoyf). Nest Invader?

The threes:

White: Devout Lightcaster, Oblivion Ring
Blue: Divination, Jace Beleren
Black: Fleshbag Marauder, Vampire Nighthawk
Red: Cunning Sparkmage, Hell's Thunder
Green: Borderland Ranger, Great Sable Stag
Multicolored: Blightning, Esper Charm
Colorless: N/A

There are no particularly strong three-mana artifacts (that is, colorless ones ... Fieldmist Borderpost is quite good), but the rest of the threes are crazy good to make up. There is basically nothing better than a Blightning or Esper Charm, with Blightning arguably the #1 spell in all of Standard, the planeswalker-slaying, mulligan-punishing, Bloodbraid Elf-busting glue that holds together Jund. For those willing to put three colored mana into a card, Leatherback Baloth and Devout Lightcaster are fantastic and fantastic. Vampire Nighthawk? There is a reason it gets played—even sideboarded—in Grixis control decks.

How can Rise of the Eldrazi compare at three?

Transcendent Master spits in the face of all that is good and true; Survival Cache seems like a jerk thing to do ... I can see it being mad annoying (and can also see it being played not at all). White threes are not exactly white twos in Rise.

Sea Gate Oracle is going to be a Staple in Standard; Phantasmal Abomination might be an awesome sideboard card.

Arrogant Bloodlord is in kind of the same boat as Phantasmal Abomination; running scared of Eldrazi Spawn, but Phyrexian Negator the rest of the time. I don't see it displacing Vampire Nighthawk, but it will probably be a fine anti-control sideboard threat.

Staggershock and Tuktuk the Explorer are both playable threes. Staggershock is basically a Char on a time delay, and will often be better ... almost Arc Lightning–like (but at instant—make that half-instant—speed); Staggershock (great name by the way) will likely see Staple. Tuktuk probably won't make main-deck muster, but he is kind of exactly the kind of card red has always wanted against green. Meet a Leatherback Baloth with Tuktuk ... Fog the 4, then answer with an even bigger beater. Quite the option, don't you think? Also, great defense against mass removal or some kind of Edict.

Green has several flat out awesome cards at three. They don't so much compete with existing green threes as enable completely different strategies.

Awakening Zone: It's like a Green Goblin Assault! Except the exact opposite; instead of being forced to attack every turn, you can chump block forever, or use the tokens to produce gigantic Eldrazi (cheats or retail).

Growth Spasm: I won a PTQ with Wood Elves in my deck a few years ago. The past two years I have rarely been without a Civic Wayfinder. Growth Spasm isn't equal to Borderland Ranger, exactly, but it is much better in, say, a Polymorph deck. An additional short-term mana boost should make this great for producing gigantic Eldrazi 2.5 ways, therefore.

Realms Uncharted: It's like a green Gifts Ungiven! I see this card stockpiling creature-lands or setting up Terramorphic Expanse, or setting up, say, a Grim Discovery.

White: Elspeth, Knight-Errant; Ranger of Eos
Blue: Fatestitcher; Jace, the Mind Sculptor
Black: Tendrils of Corruption, Vampire Nocturnus
Red: Manabarbs, Quenchable Fire
Green: Master of the Wild Hunt, Wolfbriar Elemental
Multicolored: Ajani Vengeant, Bloodbraid Elf
Colorless: Font of Mythos

White in particular is strong on four, and widely so: Day of Judgment is best of breed ... so is Ranger of Eos. Both are white fours. Until Jace, the Mind Sculptor appeared, the four-mana white planeswalkers were considered far and away better than all the others; Ajani Goldmane was the best planeswalker about a year ago, largely alternating with Ajani Vengeant and Elspeth, Knight-Errant for that title. Interestingly, Rise of the Eldrazi gives us some options that do what the pre-Rise Standard staples did, even better.

A good example is Consuming Vapors. Part Cruel Edict, part Tendrils of Corruption (but one that can gobble up Emrakul, the Aeons Torn ... and sometimes merely an Eldrazi Spawn token), part Time Walk; I predict Consuming Vapors will replace Tendrils of Corruption in the same way Firebolt did Shock; Consuming Vapors will also be played in more, different, decks due to being less Swamps-reliant than the original.

Domestication may seem like Control Magic-minus, but I think it will still prove fine in the same way that Threads of Disloyalty (similarly size restricted) did; sideboard only, likely.

Green largely makes up for any shortcomings in the rest of the Rise of the Eldrazi fours. Kozilek's Predator and Ondu Giant will both be playable, though mana acceleration when you already have four mana might seem dubious. Vengevine, on the other hand, is going to be an uncontested bomb; while Vengevine is not quite on the level of the holy triumvirate of Standard threat creatures—two of which are also fours—it is not so far behind them. Momentous Fall doesn't seem like a great fit in many existing green decks, but it might—like Greater Good—spawn a new way of playing.

White: Baneslayer Angel, Conqueror's Pledge
Blue: Sphinx of Lost Truths, Time Warp
Black: Malakir Bloodwitch, Mind Sludge
Red: Siege-Gang Commander, Chandra Nalaar
Green: Ant Queen, Thornling
Multicolored: Bituminous Blast, Finest Hour
Colorless: Eldrazi Monument

White fives will be hard to crack; the best large creature of all time next to a pretty good threat itself. Blue fives will be less so; red feels somewhat arbitrary, even on the top end, as does green. Their fives mostly blend all together.

On the other hand, black is near white in five-mana quality, with the next-best creature—Malakir Bloodwitch—a card so good that it warps White Weenie decks into playing Day of Judgment and 4/2 creature-lands main deck. Black has the best five mana spell, as well; the only non-creature threat devastating enough to really make blue decks actually consider countering target spell.

Can Rise of the Eldrazi crack fives?

The planeswalkers will!

White is the most competitive of the colors at this mana cost, and it is met with Gideon Jura (remember: white has got a lot of choose from, planeswalker-wise).

The lone gold card in this set will slide right into the existing Jund deck.

Neither one has an Ultimate exactly. Who cares?

Other fives that might matter include the non-displacing Explosive Revelation (tag team with Liliana Vess and Emrakul, the Aeons Torn) and Drana, Kalastria Bloodchief. Drana is like a Masticore, a doer of dirty work and lots of it. Go, fight, win; kill; fight again.

I decided to stop at fives for a couple of reasons. First of all, very high mana cost cards tend to be very specialized. Is Sphinx of Magosi better than Sphinx of Jwar Isle? I think so (especially on nine mana); a lot of other players probably won't (they are wrong). But especially looking at Rise of the Eldrazi, when we start hitting the very high mana costs—the tens, elevens, and fifteens—we have no prior frame of reference.

This article wasn't meant to be an exhaustive look at Rise of the Eldrazi, but to get readers thinking about two things. One of them was to keep an eye out for curve; I find a common error to be erring on the side of "power" rather than opportunity. Naya Lightsaber played all twelve of the best threats in Standard, but it started with seventeen one-mana spells, first.

The other is the idea of what makes a card playable, at least in Standard. The cards I highlighted in this article typically fell into one of three categories: Either they are better than something you might otherwise consider playing (like the red one-drops), or they are possible centerpieces (Explosive Revelation) or sideboard cards (Arrogant Bloodlord).

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