Zvi Mowshowitz once mentioned that when he approaches a new format, one of the first things he does is look at the available mana sources in the format. Mana is one of the biggest constraints in building decks, despite it being an afterthought for most people. You can have all these awesome spells, but if you have no way of casting them on time and consistently, it won’t matter. These spells better be so incredibly good that they win games all by themselves when you get to cast one.
Think of draft for example. In draft, you almost always build a two-color deck. You probably won’t get enough playables in a single color, otherwise you would most likely only play one. Why? Because especially in a format like Limited, simply being able to curve out and cast all your spells on time is a good start to winning the game. You are less likely to have spells like Supreme Verdict that let you catch up, so keeping up is important.
Obviously, there have been Limited formats where playing two colors was an exception rather than the norm. The original Ravnica-Guildpact-Dissension format was definitely a more-than-two-color format, but this was also almost by necessity: the best cards were multicolored, and each guild was only represented in one of the packs. In the more recent Return to Ravnica, a set also built with a multicolor guild theme in mind, you would still prefer to stick to two colors, despite that it meant almost giving up most of a pack, and despite that there was a very reasonable amount of fixing. Overall, you try to play the fewest of colors where possible.
Consistency wins games, and consistency starts with your mana base. In Modern and Legacy, with fetchlands that can find duals, you can indeed figure out the mana base later and focus on building a deck around whatever powerful interaction strikes your fancy. With the appropriate duals, any fetchland can basically produce all five colors on its own, so you’ll only potentially run into problems if you play a lot of cards (like Jund with Anger of the Gods, Courser of Kruphix, and Liliana of the Veil) that demand double colored sources, or if you need many different colors early (like Zoo). Casting Ultimatums is a piece of cake in Modern, and in Legacy it would be even easier, if only you had time to reach seven mana…
In Standard, however, it’s a whole different ballgame. We currently have 43 playable lands in the format, of which 36 produce colored mana (37 if you count Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx):
– 10 shockduals (Breeding Pool, Sacred Foundry, etc.)
– 10 guildgates
– 8 scrylands (Temple of Silence, Temple of Abandon, etc.)
– 5 basics
– 3 five-color, basically-unplayable lands (Unknown Shores etc.)
What do most of these lands have in common other than that they produce colored mana? Only five make colored mana unconditionally on the turn they come into play: Plains, Island, Swamp, Mountain, and Forest. The good ol’ basics. The rest? Well, we have the very good shockduals, which we can pay life for to not lose tempo, but the rest come into play tapped or set you back a turn if you need colored mana. Now, coming into play tapped isn’t always an issue. People often refer to the Five-Color Control decks in Lorwyn-Alara Standard, whose mana base was basically a ton of Vivids and Reflecting Pool, but even those only played about 11 comes-into-play-tapped lands and about 16 lands that came into play untapped.
In Standard I’m seeing decks like Jund Monsters that play six or seven Temples and nine or ten shockduals, and even decks like Naya aggro with eight or nine Temples and another ten to twelve shockduals. I even saw one in a Premier event that played only two Plains as lands that come into play untapped. That is a slow and painful mana base.
Now, Temples do serve a function in aggro: they can push lands to the bottom, giving you a little more power in the late game. However, they trip you up early unless you have a draw that allows you to play off-curve (multiple one-drops, for example) or unless your curve has holes in it regardless. If you need to curve out to stand a chance… you don’t stand a chance.
This means that, in every aggressive deck, you need to be very aware of the limitations your mana base puts on your deck. You need cards that are either far above the curve (Brimaz?), or you need a ton of one-drops (like the W/B Humans deck in the SCG Open top eight in Seattle), or you need to accept that two colors just aren’t going to happen consistently and hope to spike a tournament (could be a viable strategy in a four or five round tournament with a top-heavy payout like a GP Trial), or suck it up and play a mono-color or nearly mono-color deck.
In the near mono-color decks, you can often play enough basics of your non-splash color to curve out, and you just play your splash card later. This still restricts you, as you can’t really splash for one- or two-drops in your aggro deck. There is a reason one of the more successful splash-a-color aggro decks is UW Devotion, where you splash white for removal and Ephara, cards you can wait to cast.
Another good aggro deck that can afford to play Temples is the deck that won the SCG Open in Seattle: RW Burn. Neil Hartman’s list isn’t the most all-in Burn list I’ve seen lately, almost playing a more Big Red list, with his Chandra, Pyromasters and Stormbreath Dragons, but a lot of the Burn lists look something like this:
RW Burn by Redzone91
This Premier event winning decklist is a more stereotypical Burn list. Not many creatures, they all have haste, and a ton of burn spells. Of particular note here is the Blind Obedience, a card that gives all your burn spells a kicker cost of W to “add one extra damage.” In an aggressive deck that has to play some seven enters-the-battlefield-tapped lands, spending your mana as efficiently as possible is of great value.
This Burn deck is well equipped to handle some lands that don’t enter untapped, as it is not necessarily trying to curve out. Almost all of its spells cost two. This means that it is not a big deal if your first or third land enters the battlefield tapped: you were probably not going to spend that mana anyway. On top of that, the scry effect you get in return is extremely useful when you are just trying to get enough points of burn that together add up to twenty, and pushing away that fifth land (which is basically dead when your spells all cost two) helps that plan a lot.
Among two-color aggressive decks, I think the Burn deck is one of the best. However, the scrylands are simply not at their best in aggressive decks because of the restraints they put on how you build your deck and because they hamper your best draws, the ones where you would curve out. At their best, they are in controlling decks, where manipulating your draws makes sure you hit your land drops, makes sure you draw the right answer in time, and helps recoup the tempo loss of entering the battlefield tapped with powerful spells. So far, this is the best deck for scrylands I’ve seen:
Esper Control by Todd Anderson
This deck is slowly regaining some popularity after Guillaume Wafo-Tapa won a French PTQ with it. The above decklist is Todd Anderson’s update that he has been winning a lot with online. This deck can easily afford to play as many Temples as fit within the colors it plays, as it has access to plenty of powerful cards that let it make up any lost tempo. It gets even better in games two and three, where you can board in more cheap spells in case you play against a deck where the tempo matters more-the low cost spells let you make the most out of your mana on every turn early on.
Because we currently only have access to lands that enter the battlefield tapped to fix our mana in Standard, I sincerely hope we get an alternative in M15. I wouldn’t mind seeing some Brushlands and Sulfurous Springs back in Standard, lands that help multicolor aggro decks cast their spells but that come at a cost for slower decks. Even something like City of Brass would do, and that might be even better as it would prevent people from building three- and four-color aggro decks too easily. It’s even possible we get something like it in Journey to Nyx, as we’ve only got two more Scrylands to go: the blue-red and green-black ones. A City of Brass variant would do wonders in Block too, where we truly only have the scrylands (and Unknown Shores… *barf*).
What I hope to achieve with this article is to have more people think about mana bases and what kind of restrictions they put on you. Think about it when you try to decide which lands you put in your Cube or when you are creating your own fantasy set, but most importantly, think about it when you start building a new deck. It’s such a waste of time to work hours on an idea only to find out the mana base is what’s preventing you from executing it properly.
May your lands always do what you want them to do,
iLansdaal on Twitter and MTGO