We brewers tend to focus on the flashier bits of the creation process like sweet combos, obscure interactions, and rare playables. When we aren’t getting high on our own creativity, we’re busy tuning a project, boning up on the metagame, or testing. Since our articles tend to reflect what we’re working on, it’s rare that we focus on the basics. Fortunately, most of us already grasp the fundamentals of deck creation.
On the other hand, sometimes the finer points of deckbuilding get lost in a jumble of general truths and shortcuts. When constructing a mana base, we turn to helpful tricks to skate by. Mana bases for one midrange deck get recycled into another despite slightly different needs. In Limited, we know that 17 land is typically correct, and our failure to deviate can cost us games. Personally, I scrubbed out of Pro Tour San Diego because I stuck with a typical 17 land mana base instead of adjusting to the needs of my deck.
There are no clear-cut, systematic approaches to building a proper mana base. After all, each deck has different concerns, from color and quantity to format-specific issues like [card]Wasteland[/card]. While we need to factor in all these things and more, mana bases are logical extensions of the decks they serve, and we can always reason our way through the trickiest bits.
There are some basic guidelines that we all consider when determing how many colored sources we need.
1) The amount of each color. You can get away with missing your off color for a few turns if you’re spending the rest of the time casting cards in your main color. In RUG Delver, I don’t mind holding [card]Lightning Bolt[/card] for a turn or two while I run out [card delver of secrets]Delver[/card], hold up [card]Stifle[/card], or cast [card]Ponder[/card], which is why it’s fine that only half of the six colored sources produce red.
2) When do you need the mana? Splashing for removal is sweet, but not if you need it early to be effective. Edict effects are a good example of a kill spell that needs to happen early, and if you’re running them off of a splash, you’ll never draw them and the right mana in time.
If a format is fast enough, it can put severe restrictions on the mana base, as people no longer have time to draw into the correct sources. One of the initial problems with the 5c Meathooks list I wrote about two weeks ago was that [card]Wasteland[/card] didn’t let me cast the sideboard [card]Gaddock Teeg[/card], which needs to come down on turn two to be effective.
Double color requirements necessitate more of that color, but not if they’re high enough on your curve, as you’ll have had more time to draw into them. A 5GGG spell is runnable off of far fewer Forests than a GGG that you need to cast by turn four or so.
3) Acceleration and card draw. With some exceptions like [card]Coalition Relic[/card], acceleration tends to fix for a specific color. In Standard, [card]Farseek[/card] fixes for every color except the first green source. [card]Elvish Mystic[/card] eases cards with multiple green casting costs. The Keyrunes have their guilds. As such, acceleration directly impacts your color counts.
Card draw can also lower your necessary color requirements by increasing the deck’s velocity and drawing into the right mana sooner.
4) Which duals we have access to. Dual lands make everything better. Check out this list from Adrian Sullivan’s Twitter account:
Rakdos MRA, by Adrian Sullivan
[deck]4 Cathedral of War
4 Cavern of Souls
4 Dragonskull Summit
4 Blood Crypt
4 Rakdos Keyrune
3 Diregraf Ghoul
2 Rakdos Cackler
4 Knight of Infamy
4 Lifebane Zombie
4 Falkenrath Aristocrats
4 Thundermaw Hellkite
4 Pillar of Flame
4 Searing Spear[/deck]
Adrian is one of my all time favorite deckbuilders because, no matter the format, he’s usually doing something interesting and new, discovering things that no one else knows. Here he paired [card]Mutavault[/card], one of the best manlands of all time, with [card]Cathedral of War[/card]. Not only does the exalted have synergy, but Muta’s activation is a sink for the colorless Cathedral mana too. Importantly, the fixer for the deck also takes colorless mana, and can even attack to make further use of the exalted triggers.
When calculating the deck’s colored mana, we have to remember that [card cavern of souls]Cavern[/card] can’t cast burn spells and will more often name Zombie than Dragon, making it more of a black land in this deck.
Black: 11 + 4 [card cavern of souls]Cavern[/card] + 4 [card rakdos keyrune]Keyrune[/card] = 19ish sources, eight of which can’t play a one-drop.
Red: 8 + 4 [card cavern of souls]Cavern[/card] + 4 [card rakdos keyrune]Keyrune[/card] = 14ish sources, counting Caverns for half.
That’s barely enough to cast [card thundermaw hellkite]Thundermaw[/card] consistently, and I hate how the Keyrune doesn’t fix for early burn or turn three [card]Lifebane Zombie[/card]. If I don’t play Lifebane on three, I’m not sure when I’m casting it. Next time I play Standard, I’ll be running this with -1 [card]Cathedral of War[/card], -1 [card]Rakdos Keyrune[/card], and +2 [card]Rakdos Guildgate[/card].
Calculating in Limited
When I first started playing Limited, I was taught the standard mana base of 7-7-3, with 7 of the main colors and 3 of the splash, which was ideally a bomb and a strong piece of removal. When the splash got too heavy the off-land count had to increase, and then the mana base started looking looser and looser.
Today, drafting looks a little different. Colors tend to be deeper, meaning you have more playables and less need to splash at all, and more of the bombs have heavier mana commitments. Consider this example from M14 Limited:
Those of you who watch my draft videos will recognize the deck from last week.
With a curve that stops at five, as well as a few [card]Divination[/card]s to help hit land drops, the typical 17 mana is plenty, quantity-wise.
Unfortunately, that leaves us at 9 white and 7 blue sources, which is barely enough to cast all of our double-colored spells with any consistency. Since being able to cast [card]Celestial Flare[/card] on 2 against an aggro deck could mean life or death, and we need plenty of blue to pump [card]Water Servant[/card], it’s correct to shave some of the weaker slots for more lands.
I ended up cutting the [card]Master of Diversion[/card] and the [card]Fortify[/card] to settle on a 10-8-1 mana base, which isn’t typical but worked out in a deck with plenty of card draw to get through land gluts, removal to slow down the game, and large bodies to create virtual card advantage by shutting down the opponent’s threats. In the above deck, trading out just a few cards that brick the opponent’s plays for cards that get bricked changes everything. For example, having -1 [card]Griffin Sentinel[/card] and -1 [card]Messenger Drake[/card] for +2 [card]Coral Merfolk[/card] makes the 19-land strategy less viable.
Cantrips have always been a way to cheat on your mana, and over the ages players of various tempo decks have calculated how many cantrips can replace a land drop in a deck with a tight curve (usually between 2 and 3). This doesn’t just mean filtering cantrips, but also simple draw-a-cards like [card]Gitaxian Probe[/card]. With Probe, [card]Ponder[/card], and [card]Thought Scour[/card], some Standard Delver lists went down to 18 lands.
Filtering cantrips can serve vastly different functions, however. Caw Blade needed to hit its land drops for the first infinity turns every game but also wanted to be able to bottom basics and time-sensitive cards like [card]Spell Pierce[/card]. As such, [card]Preordain[/card] was the best cantrip possible. Since it was often better as a turn six play than a turn one, it didn’t help cut any lands from the deck, and people ran 27 in some versions.
[card]Brainstorm[/card] can serve a similar role in Legacy. Don’t get me wrong, in combo and aggressive decks it’s often fired off early to hit threats or land drops, reducing the amount of actual lands that you need. In controlling builds, however, Brainstorm is best served as a tool to filter away dead maindeck cards or find a key removal spell. Since you’re holding your cantrip longer, you’re seeing fewer cards in the early game and need a higher land count to hit them naturally.
kessig wolf run[/draft]
It’s important to keep in mind the difference between a card that can mitigate flood and one that needs a lot of mana to operate, which is tricky because sometimes they’re the same thing.
[card]Bloodghast[/card] is an effective little aggro card that can turn extra land drops into damage. While the card can make use of a fifth land, that doesn’t mean that a Bloodghast deck wants to hit it’s fifth land drop, as a deck that can support a two-mana 2/1 is better off with a tight curve full of other efficient threats. As such, despite mitigating flood, Bloodghast is rarely seen in decks with more than 23 lands.
[card]Celestial Colonnade[/card] and [card]Kessig Wolf Run[/card] are other cards that help mitigate flood, but unlike Bloodghast they need a ton of mana to operate. Since both lands can hinder the early development of decks with tight curves, they’re better placed in decks with lots of mana—decks that can consistently activate them and win the game.
How you calculate your fetchland ratios varies depending on the type of deck you’re building. Consider [card]Evolving Wilds[/card]. In a three-color deck, you’re likely to have drawn two of the colors you need, and an Evolving Wilds will tutor for the third. As such, adding a Wilds is close to adding one of each colored source, bringing a 7-6-3 mana base closer to 8-7-4. In a five-color deck, Wilds is even more important, yet it’s less conclusive of a fixer. When you draw it, you’re unlikely to have all of your other colors already, and when you sacrifice it you’re thinning your deck of the land you’re fetching (which is fine since you have it in play now) as well as binning the Wilds itself, thus depleting your access to the other colors that you need.
In Legacy, fetches have a variety of other uses, including shuffling off dead cards, pumping [card]Knight of the Reliquary[/card], and even tutoring up [card]Dryad Arbor[/card]. You’d think that adding all these alternate uses would overly tax them, but it turns out that a critical mass of fetches and dual lands means you just have perfect mana all the time.
Not that a Legacy mana base isn’t intricate. Consider what I ended up with for my Punishing RUG list:
4 [card]Grove of the Burnwillows[/card]
3 [card]Volcanic Island[/card]
2 [card]Tropical Island[/card]
4 [card]Misty Rainforest[/card]
3 [card]Scalding Tarn[/card]
Every number has a reason behind it, including the inversion between the color emphasis in the fetches and duals. Since I want more red mana than green for [card]Punishing Fire[/card] recursion, it makes more sense to have more red producing lands. If I’m naturally drawing more red duals than green, it’s more important to be able to fetch a green basic to not get Wasted off a color, hence more Mistys than Tarns.
From the Ground Up
Aggro decks have the most restrictions placed on them. In aggro, you need to be able to cast your threats as soon as possible, and a stumble means death. As such, one of the more complicated piles of fetches I’ve ever put together was a four-color Zoo list. This deck clearly isn’t legal anymore, but it’s a good example of pushing mana as far as it’ll go:
3 [card]Grim Lavamancer[/card]
3 [card]Jace, the Mind Sculptor[/card]
3 [card]Knight of the Reliquary[/card]
4 [card]Noble Hierarch[/card]
2 [card]Qasali Pridemage[/card]
4 [card]Wild Nacatl[/card]
3 [card]Green Sun’s Zenith[/card]
4 [card]Lightning Bolt[/card]
3 [card]Mental Misstep[/card]
4 [card]Swords to Plowshares[/card]
To figure out what the mana base needs to look like, we have to first figure out what the deck needs to operate:
1) It needs a green source on turn one. Without that, we have no [card]Noble Hierarch[/card], no [card]Wild Nacatl[/card], and no pressure.
Progressing from that, [card]Tropical Island[/card] is the best turn one Forest because it lets us untap and go [card]Brainstorm[/card] + fetchland on turn two. Since our turn one Wild Nacatl needs both a Plains and a Mountain to pump it, the mana base should emphasize Tropical Island into [card]Plateau[/card].
2) It needs enough fetchlands to support [card]Brainstorm[/card] and [card]Knight of the Reliquary[/card] as well as a few utility lands for Knight to tutor up.
3) It needs enough red to consistently activate [card]Grim Lavamancer[/card] through a [card]Wasteland[/card] or two, and enough blue to cast [card jace, the mind sculptor]Jace[/card] on turn three. Fortunately, [card]Noble Hierarch[/card] both accelerates and fixes for Jace.
4) It needs a [card]Dryad Arbor[/card] for [card]Green Sun’s Zenith[/card]. With a Dryad Arbor in the deck, the fetchlands should be green-based, if possible.
1 [card]Dryad Arbor[/card]
2 [card]Tropical Island[/card]
1 [card]Volcanic Island[/card]
2 [card]Misty Rainforest[/card]
4 [card]Windswept Heath[/card]
4 [card]Wooded Foothills[/card]
Note that, while it does emphasize the Trop into Plateau pair, it also realizes the need for other duals based on uncommon openings.
One of the more subtle, yet important things about this mana base is the fetchand distribution. Since we want all green fetches for Dryad Arbor and the basic Forest, and Trop into Plateau is the emphasis, [card]Windswept Heath[/card] and [card]Wooded Foothills[/card] are the best choices by far. Unfortunately, 8 is not enough fetchlands to pump [card]Knight of the Reliquary[/card], to consistently tutor up the right colors, or to shuffle off blind [card]Brainstorm[/card]s. Since we’re not running black for [card]Verdant Catacombs[/card], [card]Misty Rainforest[/card] fills the final fetch slot.
And that’s where deck knowledge and tight play collide. Since we know that Misty Rainforest is the worst land in the deck, we know to crack it first for that turn one Tropical Island. Similarly, a straight two-color deck should crack the off-color fetchlands first. Sometimes, fetching a basic is important, and you never know when you’ll have to beat a [card]Choke[/card], [card]Blood Moon[/card], or [card]Back to Basics[/card].
Feel free to post in the comments like usual, though I might not be as prompt to reply as usual. After I send this in, I’ll be consumed by Gen Con. If you’re unfamiliar, it’s basically a sort of nerd Mecca that magically appears once a year in Indianapolis, and it’s consistently the best week of my year.