Foreword: I started writing this article a few years ago, when Theros was just entering Standard, so some of my logic and examples are a little dated, but I think that the overarching theory is still applicable, especially with Kaladesh about to enter the fray.
Edit: Errrr…. this might be a little awkward, but Kaladesh came out a while ago and we’re deep into Rivals of Ixalan. So, yes, this is at least the fourth time I’ve worked on this article adding bits and bobs here and there. Regardless, I felt the need to revisit this article after playing a PPTQ this weekend and examining not only my own deck, but many others in the room. Anyway, here’s the article:
Cast your damn spells! Simple enough right? Apparently not. Time and time again, specifically in Standard, I hear people complaining about losing to variance. So I ask to see their decks. Time and time again, I see Midrange decks with 8-12 lands that enter the battlefield tapped, but have important cards that they want to cast on curve on turns 2, 3, 4, and 5. Let’s take a moment to realize what those 8-12 ETB (enters the battlefield) tapped cards really mean.
Let’s assume that you want to cast a spell on turn two and a spell on turn three. If roughly 40% of your lands enter tapped, there’s a good chance that you won’t be able to cast Seeker of the Way or Sylvan Caryatid on two and Mantis Rider or Courser of Kruphix on three.
Who’s seen this hand on the play before?
This hand sucks! Nice turn 3 Sylvan Caryatid, my friend! Now, how much better is this hand look?
It’s an ideal hand for the deck!
Let’s take the Sylvan Caryatid deck a bit further. First, let’s look at the manabase of the conventional Jund Monsters deck that was found at the beginning of the Theros/Khans of Tarkir Standard format:
- 4 Temple of Malady
- 4 Temple of Malice
- 2 Temple of Abandon
- 3 Wooded Foothills
- 3 Bloodstained Mire
- 2 Swamp
- 2 Mountain
- 3 Forest
- 1 Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth
10! 10 lands that enter the battlefield tapped! The critical turns for using all of your mana in this style of G/x/x midrange/ramp decks are turns 2, 3, 4, and 5. With 42% of your lands entering the battlefield tapped, your odds of not being able to utilize your mana to the fullest on each turn are really high! And in the (not so) rare case your hand has 2 lands, but both are Temples, then your opponent has essentially cast Time Walk, which this style of deck is not good at combating. Once behind, these decks struggle to regain footing in the game.
Eventually, the manabases of these midrange decks evolved to include slightly fewer scrylands. Here is Shahar Shenhar’s winning manabase from the 2014 Magic World Championship:
- 1 Evolving Wilds
- 3 Forest
- 1 Island
- 4 Llanowar Wastes
- 1 Mana Confluence
- 4 Opulent Palace
- 2 Polluted Delta
- 2 Swamp
- 2 Temple of Malady
- 1 Temple of Mystery
- 2 Yavimaya Coast
Similar to the Jund Monsters deck mentioned above, the critical turns for this deck are 2, 3, and 4, with 5+ being a nice bonus. This deck only has 8 (including Evolving Wilds) of its 23 lands coming into play tapped. However, the thing that drew people to Sidisi Whip was that it played the midrange game “harder” than any other deck and could have a very respectable late game.
With this in mind, lets go back to the value of missing a land drop, which, if you are playing Jund Monsters, is your opponent casting Time Walk. This is slightly less impactful in Sidisi Whip, which thrives when the boardstate is at parity or even when you are slightly behind, so having 8 lands that enter the battlefield tapped is more acceptable within the context of what the deck wants to be doing.
This is the manabase of a Temur Planeswalkers deck that I played to a 12th place finish at the SCG Open in New Jersey, which was the first Open where Khans of Tarkir was legal in the format.
I did well at this tournament for two reasons. First, I played 12 planeswalkers in a format where people were trying to answer threats with Bile Blight, so overloading their maximum 4 copies of Hero’s Downfall was a no-brainer. The second, larger reason, was that I cast my damn spells. My deck was bad. It was built wrong, and I threw numbers together that felt right and just stuck with them after limited testing. My sideboard was a joke, as were the 3 copies of Temur Charm in my mainboard. I was playing only 3 copies of Courser of Kruphix, for God’s sake!
This deck wanted to be proactive, so casting spells where they logically fit into my curve was the only thing that mattered. I played 4 Temple of Abandon as my only lands that entered the battlefield tapped. I played 8 basics out of 24 lands in an aggressively 3 color deck. And I ran people over. I finished 8-2, losing only to Green Devotion once out of the 3 times I played it and a Mono Red player who topdecked lethal burn in game 3 the turn that I had lethal on the swing back. Mind you, that was the round before he did this to Chris VanMeter.
I got 12th place in a SCG Open with a really bad deck, because my manabase was better than everybody else’s. I was frequently asked about the deck after the tournament. The most frequent question was “What would you change”? The answer was that I would cut the Temur Charms for 1 Courser of Kruphix, the 4th Xenagos, the Reveler, and the 4th Kiora, the Crashing Wave. I would also take out 1 Temple of Abandon for another Forest. If I could have played the tournament over, I would only have played 3 total scrylands, and I still believe that that would have been correct to this day.
The New Player Example
I think that a good illustration of the point I’m trying to make comes when you explain Magic to a new player. You tell them that there are 5 colors of cards, and artifacts which can be cast using any color of mana. They inevitably ask you why you don’t just play the best cards from each color. You tell them that you just can’t. It doesn’t work that way. That is obviously because as a competent Magic player, you’ve been taught that manabases are a delicate thing that ought not be messed with.
If you had to distill the reason why you don’t just play the best cards from every single color, it would boil down directly to card advantage. Each card that you aren’t able to cast because your manabase doesn’t work is effectively a free card that you’ve given away. This same principle can be applied to why aggressive decks are so successful even though they play mostly lower power cards. It doesn’t really matter how good your opponent’s cards are if they never get the opportunity to play them! You can read more about similar thoughts on card advantage in Ryan Saxe’s article discussing how to beat a mulligan, here.
When applying this principle to more complex manabases that are used to support
3-color decks, we not only see the same downfall as the new player wanting to play all the best cards from every color, we also see intense card disadvantage from not being able to cast your cards on time. Let’s revisit that hand from above. As a refresher, it was this on the play:
This hand, assuming you don’t draw an untapped land immediately, is incredibly reliant on Sylvan Caryatid. Especially in a deck like this one, but certainly in general with mana dorks, these cards are on serious diminishing returns. The turn they’re intended to be played (turn 1 for Llanowar Elves and the like, and turn 2 for Sylvan Caryatid), is where they’re at their best.
However, a turn 4 Sylvan Caryatid is fairly close to a dead card, as there are simply better things to be doing with your time and mana at that point in the game. While that’s not a full card lost, it’s pretty close, as you want your draws during that point in the game to be worth around one card (if not more). A turn 3 Sylvan Caryatid isn’t quite as bad,
but it’s not nearly as impactful on the game as a turn 2 Caryatid. It’s extremely hard (if possible) to quantify how much of a card is being lost by getting the 0/3 down on turn 3 versus turn 2, but I would guess it’s around 1/2 of a card on the play, and even more on the draw.
The Humans Example
Let’s use an example from a more contemporary format.
The W/r Humans deck from the Shadows over Innistrad Standard format splashed red out of the sideboard for Reckless Bushwhacker (and Needle Spires, to a lesser extent), but only played 4 Battlefield Forge in the maindeck. Why did they never mainboard Needle Spires or Reckless Bushwhacker? Because casting all of their spells without suffering through enter the battlefield tapped lands was critical to the deck’s success, especially in game 1 when the deck could dodge sideboarded hate cards.
A 2-land hand with a few 1-drops was excellent, but if one of those lands was a Needle Spires, the hand suddenly becomes extremely unappetizing. Since the deck’s cards were significantly lower power level than other decks in the format, it needed to dump its hand on the board quickly, and anything preventing that would be a serious issue.
Why This is Relevant Now
I’ve been playing U/W Approach in Standard a lot over the last several months, both on MtGO and in real life. The mana in that deck is great and is one of the main reasons why I was so drawn to the deck. I had a lot of success with it but I decided to shelve it for the last two PPTQs I played in in favor of Grixis Energy and Sultai Climb (Snakes & Ladders is definitely my preferred name for it).
What I noticed is that I kept struggling over and over again with casting my spells on time consistently turn after turn. It finally came together for me when I was talking to another local player and they said, “Well that’s the thing about this format. All the 3 color decks have terrible mana and all the 2 color decks suck.” While I think that’s reactionary to a certain extent, it can certainly be seen when examining the format. Leaving Mono-Red to the side, the two color decks are all underpowered or are Control decks that are seriously lacking in one way or another (cheap removal for U/W Approach and board wipes for U/B Control). The 3 color decks on the other hand are quite good in this format but are only held back by mana. Here’s the manabase I played this weekend:
- 4 Blooming Marsh
- 4 Botanical Sanctum
- 3 Fetid Pools
- 2 Hashep Oasis
- 1 Ifnir Deadlands
- 4 Aether Hub
- 2 Foul Orchard
- 3 Forest
- 1 Swamp
On the surface, this one’s pretty consistent and good! Only 5 lands out of the 24 come in tapped if they’re the first, second, or third land. However, if it’s turn 4 and you really want to cast your Bristling Hydra (probably the best card in the deck and one that is extremely well positioned in this format), a staggering 13 of your 24 lands enter tapped!
Now let’s say you’re looking to curve Winding Constrictor into Jadelight Ranger into Bristling Hydra. Now, keep in mind that we’re curving B/G into G/G into G/G, which hasn’t been guaranteed in Standard recently. Still, this curve is incredibly hard to pull off, as we’ll need one of the 19 lands that enters untapped on both turn 2 and 3, and then on top of that one of the 11 lands that enter untapped on the following turn. Assuming that you get 4 lands, my basic and probably statistically flawed math says that you only have a 28.7% chance to hit your curve.
In most formats (if not all), what decks are successful is defined almost entirely by the balance that’s struck with power of cards versus the consistency of the mana. Before it was banned, Attune with Aether enabled 4-Color midrange decks very easily, and so other midrange decks were somewhat pushed out of the format. In decks with worse mana, like say the same Theros format we mentioned above, mana was terrible and so we saw the rise of Mono-Colored Midrange decks. Of course, the presence of devotion helped, but over time it became clear that the truly Mono-Colored decks, that didn’t even splash to increase power level, were more consistent and thus much better positioned in the format.
So What’s the Takeaway?
While I’m not telling you to take all of the ETB tapped lands out of your deck, I hope that you’ll take the time to examine your manabases a little closer. For a deck like Sultai Climb, I personally didn’t consider the manabase vs. power level tug-of-war enough before picking up the deck. Going forward, when you’re examining a new format, building a deck, tweaking a manabase, or examining success or failure in a tournament, do yourself a favor and look at it through the lens of card advantage (or disadvantage) brought by casting your spells on time (or not), and if your deck’s power level is high enough to warrant any potential disadvantage brought from a non-perfect manabase.
Until next time,
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