In Development – All Your Victories Begin Here

Fifteen dual lands.

That’s what we have to work with in Standard right now.

It’s what we had to work with before, too…but things have changed up a bit. From a world of fifteen allied-color duals and five enemy-colored fetches, we’ve transitioned to a mere ten allied-color duals supplemented with another five enemy duals.

But the transition is not nearly as smooth as that glib paragraph might make us think. Given a palette of five “fast” duals and ten “slow” duals, mana bases have suddenly become much, much more complex to figure out.

So let’s take a crack at making that problem much easier, shall we?

Color, tempo, and the Verhey Rule

In this week’s column, I’m going to revisit a discussion of mana base design that I began over half a year ago. As part of this revisiting, I’m presenting you all with my updated, entirely revised mana base worksheet, tailored to Scars-M12-Innistrad Standard. A full explanation of the new worksheet and how to use it appears in the third section of today’s piece. For now though, we want to focus on some of the ideas of mana base design, and how they factor into our understanding of the new Standard.

The colors you need

There are so many quotes about logistics winning wars, it’s almost hard to pick. My favorite of the moment may be “Every unit that is not supported is a defeated unit” (attributed to Maurice de Saxe, the German-born illegitimate son of a Polish King who eventually ended up leading the armies of France — seriously).

Setting aside martial hyperbole, if you can’t cast your spells, you’re not going to win.

So the basic consideration for your mana base is, naturally, will it serve up the colors I need?

The amateur version of thinking about color requirements looks to make sure that you have about the right ratio of lands producing the target color. Of course, the real question is not just “will I have these colors?” but also “will I have them at the right time?” That’s why the first calculation in the mana base worksheet is “How likely am I to get this color in my first seven cards? In my first ten?”

Once again, the details on how this works in the spreadsheet are included below. For now, the salient point here is that if we need a color early, we need a good chance of seeing it early.

How much do you need?

The bonus complexity to color coordinating your mana base, which sparked my first article on the topic, is the question of not just what colors you need, but how much you need.

One of the pressures keeping [card]Garruk, Primal Hunter[/card] from seeing more play is the heavy green commitment he requires. The gulf between double green and triple green is immense – often more so than the gulf between four and five mana. After all, if [card]Garruk Relentless[/card] were priced at 1GGG instead of 2GG, you probably wouldn’t have seen any copies of him in the top decks at the recent Indianapolis Standard Open.

You can reread my old article to get the full details, but this deckbuilding pressure is what drove me to consider “color density” and add it to the spreadsheet.

Briefly, color density is a measure of how much the ability to produce one color overlaps with the other colors in the deck.

Imagine a bizarre Standard environment in which [card]Evolving Wilds[/card] is a basic land – play as many as you like. Sadly, there are no other mana fixing options in this alien Standard. So if you want to play, say, a Bant deck, you could run:

12 Evolving Wilds
4 Plains
4 Island
4 Forest

Now, you will never want for the color of your choice with this mana base. However, imagine if you wanted to run the combination of [card]Garruk, Primal Hunter[/card], [card]Gideon Jura[/card], and [card]Dissipate[/card]. There is no combination of fewer than seven lands from this bizarre mana base that will let you cast all three of these spells.

In contrast, if you used this actual mana base for a Bant deck from a recent Magic-League event:

7 Forest
2 Island
3 Plains
4 [card]Hinterland Harbor[/card]
4 [card]Seachrome Coast[/card]
4 [card]Razorverge Thicket[/card]

…there are many combinations of five lands that will power out all three of those spells.

The difference here is color density. The dual lands let you overlap color production ability not just in terms of card slots in your deck, but lands in play.

The mana worksheet calculates a density for each color a mana base produces. Generally speaking, a low density in a color means you’re not going to be able to easily cast spells that require more than one mana of that color. There’s no strict cutoff, but a density below 0.8 or so is a really bad sign in terms of casting color-intensive spells.

The tempo of your lands

Calculating how likely you are to have a color producer in your first seven or ten lands is a good start to figuring out our mana base’s speed, but it’s not the whole story. After all, if your opening hand contains:

[draft]Inkmoth Nexus
Glacial Fortress
Drowned Catacomb[/draft]

…then you’re going to be off to a very, very slow start.

Given that the five new enemy duals are “buddy duals,” we’re not in a Standard environment where most of the dual lands want to have one or more basics present to come onto the scene untapped.

In the world of artificial intelligence, this kind of situation is sometimes called a “dependency.” That is, having your [card]Glacial Fortress[/card] enter the battlefield untapped depends on already having a Plains or Island on the battlefield under your control. So building an effective mana base that uses M12 or Innistrad duals means making sure you have enough basic lands in the mix so that you don’t get kneecapped by lands that have to enter the battlefield tapped.

I’ve taken to referring to the basic lands required for a given buddy dual as its “priors.” The mana base spreadsheet calculates the odds of you also having at least one of the required “priors” for a given buddy dual in your first seven or ten cads, assuming you’ve drawn that dual.

As with color density, there are no hard-and-fast rules for this one, but as we’ll see in some of the examples below, prior percentages in the 60% and below range tend to indicate pretty clunky access to the dual land…and that can also mean clunky access to the color it provides.

There’s sort of a corollary problem of mid- and late-game clunkiness with the fast duals from Scars of Mirrodin, but I’m not even clear on what kind of odds we want to calculate around them.

The Verhey Rule

Run more lands.

Seriously, run more lands.

I’ve chosen to have the mana base worksheet calculate odds for your first seven and ten cards because that highlights those times when you’re building mana base that simply doesn’t have enough lands to serve your needs.

With the loss of the Worldwake creature duals, a lot of us will want to cut our lands totals. They just feel more useless if they don’t do anything other than provide mana, right?

Well, no. They let you cast your spells. Watch those odds for viable opening hands, and keep in mind that we’re just calculating the odds on having color access, rather than having color access in worthwhile hands. Given maybe a third or more of your opening hands will be garbage, often for reasons unrelated to mana, it’s critical that you have a deck that can reliably serve up not just the right colors but also enough mana.

The dynamics of our new Standard mana

So, we’ve discussed the theoretical underpinnings of good mana, and down below I’ve included the mana worksheet and instructions for its use. But how do some contemporary Standard decks break out in terms of these ideas?

Let’s take a crack at a few contenders from last weekend’s Standard Open in Indianapolis.

A balanced deal

Ricky Allaer’s HexBlade deck is a decent example of a build that wants to hit both of its colors rapidly and reliably.

HexBlade (Ricky Allaer)

[deck]3 Timely Reinforcements
3 Gitaxian Probe
1 Batterskull
4 Dismember
1 Geist of Saint Traft
3 Snapcaster Mage
3 Oblivion Ring
1 Consecrated Sphinx
2 Sword of Feast and Famine
4 Hero of Bladehold
3 Gideon Jura
4 Mana Leak
2 Day of Judgment
4 Glacial Fortress
4 Inkmoth Nexus
6 Island
1 Moorland Haunt
7 Plains
4 Seachrome Coast
1 Timely Reinforcements
4 Surgical Extraction
1 Mental Misstep
2 Nevermore
1 Oblivion Ring
1 Divine Offering
1 Dissipate
1 Steel Sabotage
2 Ratchet Bomb
1 Day of Judgment[/deck]

Here are its stats:

As you’d expect from such an evenly distributed mana base, we have rapid and early access to both colors the deck demands. The color density could be better, but given that the deck doesn’t want more than two of each color and serves them up so reliably, that’s probably fine.

…and, as we can see, the [card]Glacial Fortress[/card]es are almost always going to come in active.

It’s the essence of a smooth, well-balanced dual-color mana base.

Running the splash

Another frequent dual-color option is the run the second color to splash a few cards. Here’s Joe Bernal’s Wolf Run Red deck, which splashes green to power [card]Kessig Wolf Run[/card], to flashback [card]Ancient Grudge[/card], and to cast [card]Tree of Redemption[/card] and [card]Garruk Relentless[/card].

Wolf Run Red (Joe Bernal)

[deck]4 Stormblood Berserker
4 Chandra’s Phoenix
4 Shrine of Burning Rage
4 Geistflame
4 Brimstone Volley
4 Stromkirk Noble
3 Garruk Relentless
4 Reckless Waif
4 Incinerate
3 Grim Lavamancer
4 Copperline Gorge
1 Forest
3 Kessig Wolf Run
10 Mountain
4 Rootbound Crag
1 Beast Within
3 Blasphemous Act
2 Tree of Redemption
1 Garruk Relentless
3 Traitorous Blood
3 Arc Trail
3 Ancient Grudge[/deck]

The stats:

It’s a general feature of decks running one main and one splash color that the buddy duals come in active more often than not – after all, you’re running a lot of one basic.

However, check out that color density in green, and then return to the idea of actually casting one of those Garruks. We know [card]Garruk, Primal Hunter[/card] would never go in this deck. But even [card]Garruk Wildspeaker[/card] would be a rough call here, as the green density is so low that we aren’t likely to be able to hit GG in a timely fashion. With his very low green requirement – just the one green mana – [card]Garruk Relentless[/card] is a perfect fit for the kind of green splash this deck is running.

A big color mix

Here are two Solar Flare builds from Indianapolis:

Solar Flare (William Allman)

[deck]1 Phantasmal Image
3 Timely Reinforcements
3 Sun Titan
3 Liliana of the Veil
1 Tribute to Hunger
4 Forbidden Alchemy
3 Snapcaster Mage
3 Unburial Rites
3 Oblivion Ring
3 Doom Blade
1 Consecrated Sphinx
1 Wurmcoil Engine
3 Think Twice
3 Day of Judgment
2 Darkslick Shores
3 Drowned Catacomb
4 Glacial Fortress
4 Island
4 Isolated Chapel
5 Plains
1 Seachrome Coast
2 Swamp
1 Timely Reinforcements
2 Surgical Extraction
2 Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite
2 Stony Silence
1 Oblivion Ring
2 Dissipate
2 Revoke Existence
2 Wurmcoil Engine
1 Day of Judgment[/deck]

Solar Flare (AJ Sacher)

[deck]2 Phantasmal Image
3 Sun Titan
2 Dismember
3 Forbidden Alchemy
2 Unburial Rites
2 Snapcaster Mage
4 Liliana of the Veil
2 Oblivion Ring
1 Dissipate
2 Go for the Throat
1 Gideon Jura
4 Mana Leak
4 Think Twice
2 Day of Judgment
4 Darkslick Shores
2 Drowned Catacomb
4 Glacial Fortress
4 Island
4 Isolated Chapel
2 Plains
4 Seachrome Coast
2 Swamp
3 Timely Reinforcements
1 Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite
2 Surgical Extraction
1 Ghost Quarter
2 Curse of Death’s Hold
1 Oblivion Ring
2 Disperse
2 Revoke Existence
1 Day of Judgment[/deck]

Here are the two sets of stats:

Sacher’s deck also runs the full eight-pack of fast duals, so it will likely run into tempo complications based on them, as well.

What we have here is a tradeoff – Sacher’s Solar Flare mana base emphasizes color density at the expense of tempo, as measured by active buddy duals and simple color access. This emphasis shift is motivated by the desire to reliably cast [card]Day of Judgment[/card] (WW), [card]Dissipate[/card] (UU) and [card liliana of the veil]Liliana[/card] (BB) off of the same lands in play. Allman’s deck, in contrast, is more likely to generate sets of lands on the battlefield that can’t cover all these mana needs simultaneously…but he’ll get access to his mana faster, on average, than Sacher will.

This is also where it really is important to keep track of your priors. These Solar Flare builds typically run five different dual lands, three of which depend on some combination of three basic lands as their priors. It’s this kind of situation that motivated me to make a spreadsheet in the first place.

Your new mana base tools

Since I first presented it, my mana base development spreadsheet has naturally undergone many updates – that was over half a year ago, after all. In preparing this week’s column, I’ve refined it into a tool that is specifically tailored to the current Scars-M12-Innistrad Standard environment.

In its refined form, the mana base worksheet is a plug-and-play device for figuring out your mana bases without requiring that you tinker with the guts of the calculations at all.

Click here to download the worksheet in Excel format

Click here to download the worksheet in Excel 2007+ Format
Here’s how it works.

What we need from you

An empty worksheet looks like this:

Looks complex, I know.

I’ve specifically “grayed out” some of the numbers on the sheet so that you’ll hopefully ignore them. Those are required for the sheet’s calculations, and they’re there if you want to dissect what the sheet is doing, but you don’t need to pay attention to them.

Literally all you need to do is type the number of a given land that you want to have in the yellow column (and on the right row, naturally). So if your deck is going to have three copies of [card]Razorverge Thicket[/card], type “3” in the yellow space. That’s it – the spreadsheet will handle everything else.

What you get

As you add your prospective land totals into the spreadsheet, it’s calculating all sorts of things. This happens dynamically (that is, as you do it) so you can just keep going and watch the various values change. Of course, since many of the values also depend on your total land count, some of them will be meaningless until you’ve entered all your lands.

The sheet tallies your total land count at the bottom of the “Number” column. Pretty straightforward. That’s how many lands you have in the deck.

From your input data, the spreadsheet calculates the number of lands in each color, the chance of hitting a color, the active ratio on your buddy duals, the deck’s density in each color, and a couple other random stats. We’ll take these in turn.

The number of lands stat is exactly what it says it is, and is included as a sort of FYI.

The chance of color stats calculate the likelihood that you’ll have one or more lands producing that color in your first seven or ten cards. This does not account for mulligans, and it also doesn’t account for the fact that something like 40% of all opening hands are probably garbage, but it still gives you a good basis for deciding if your deck is going to serve up the colors you need.

As described above, color density is a notional gauge of how “isolated” a given color is from the other colors in the deck. In general, if your density in a color is low, you’re going to have trouble casting spells that require more than one mana in that color. There’s no hard cutoff, but a density of 0.8 or lower is certainly “low” by that standard.

The active ratio stats let you know how often you have a buddy dual in your 7 or 10 cards along with one of the basic lands required to activate it. Like density, this was covered up above.

In the “other trivia” department, the spreadsheet tallies up your total number of fast duals (the Mirrodin duals) and creature lands (just Inkmoth Nexus right now) and lets you know what percent of your mana base they are. See above for more discussion on this as well.

…and that’s about it. Once you’ve plugged in your numbers, you can start tinkering, adjusting the counts until you’re satisfied with the resulting combination of chance in color, active ratio, color density, and so forth. You’ll also probably have a much easier time understanding just why that mana base you threw together at the last minute ended up being such a disaster.

Start with a steady base

If you’re slapping your lands on after you pick your spells, you’re probably doing it wrong.

Whether you like to use these tools or have some other approach to getting your mana together, it really should be close to the first element of a deck that you solidify during your initial design process. It is, in a very literal way, the basis of any other success your deck might have.

What do you think? How do you approach mana base design?

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