Frank Karsten is known for a few things on the Pro Tour. He's a Hall of Fame player with a career spanning a decade and a half, racking up 6 Grand Prix and 3 Pro Tour Top 8s alongside a mammoth 363 Pro Points. As a longtime writer of the game, his methods of analysis are read the world over and led him to join the coverage team at Grand Prix when he's not otherwise busy. Last, but certainly not least or alone, his skill with the Affinity archetype makes him a leader of the deck and contributed to his success through the Modern rounds of Day One, where he went 5-0 in Constructed.
Part of his process of analyzing decks includes managing mana configurations. The difference between consistently casting your deck's spells and not is obvious, and Karsten takes that seriously. One of his many contributions to his team's testing is understanding how important, or not, good mana in Limited is. While the three-color focus of and numerous nonbasic lands at common and uncommon in Khans of Tarkir make mana matter, Fate Reforged is decidedly more reserved. The focus on making a great three-color deck, or drafting enough nonbasic lands to play four or more colors, has shifted to maximizing two-color decks and minimizing splashes while maximizing power.
Or has it?
At both Grand Prix last weekend—San Jose and Mexico City—players continued to talk about how important mana is in Fate Reforged remains, and it was an oft-pointed factor in how teams and players tackled building their Limited decks. We went to Karsten to better understand why.
"Mana is still important because you want to cast your spells consistently, obviously," Karsten said. "If you're a three-color deck then not much has changed. You still need to pick up the lands reasonably early. You still need to be aware of the spells with single or double mana costs. It's why I took a Scaldkin over a Summit Prowler late in my draft today."
But some things have changed. "However, with Fate Reforged, it's slightly more likely you can end up in a two-color deck. There are no strong three-color cards in the set," he said. "If you end up in a straight two-color deck you don't need to put that much emphasis on the lands. If you pick up one it's nice for your mana, but unless you have double colored cards you don't need to pick them up. You can spend your middle picks on more powerful cards."
Hall of Famer Frank Karsten, known for crunching the numbers, offers some insight on mana in a post-Fate Reforged Limited environment.
"In general, if you are three colors then you should still pick up the lands early enough," he continued. "You never want to be in a situation where you drafted a nice three color deck but have to make do with a six-six-six manabase," referring to using six of three different basic lands. "That's the worst situation to be in. Strike a balance between picking the lands early, keeping yourself open, and picking the powerful cards. Also keep an eye on the number of playables. If after two packs I have eighteen playables in my two colors I'll emphasize lands because I don't want end up with way more cards than I can use, so I'd rather improve my mana considerably than my card selection slightly. If I have only fourteen I'll take the good cards and hope the lands come, or make do with a weaker mana-base."
The evaluation of lands has remained consistent after adding the new set to the mix, though Karsten has a slight twist to it. "I actually prefer the fetch lands over the common lands: It comes into play untapped," he explained, comparing the Polluted Delta cycle to Dismal Backwater and company. "It's actually very close and not a big difference. You don't have the three-color lands in Fate Reforged and that's the reason you see more two-color decks."
So are the three-color lands still the premier land to pick up? "Yes," Karsten said with authority. "They're fine first or second picks if you are those three colors. I like picking them up that early. Whenever you have it in your opening hand your mana-base is pretty much set for the entire game, and that's a pretty nice feeling."
Karsten makes it sound easy, and the quality of his Pro Tour testing team meant everyone had an excellent handle on Khans of Tarkir going into Fate Reforged. The balance of competing needs sounds simple, but if you're learning the format still, Karsten shared the biggest pitfalls to avoid.
"Players don't take the [nonbasic] lands highly enough, or weigh the advantage of two colors highly enough. They get swayed by sweet three colored cards that can't fit in their mana-base," he said. "They also don't keep track of what their main colors will be. For example if you're going to run ten Islands and seven Mountains with double blue cards, whether or not you pick that double color card in another color is something to keep in mind."
"Don't be greedy. Run the numbers," he summed, in a very Karsten-esque quote. "If you want to go for an eight-eight-five mana-base, make sure you pick up those three additional lands."