For Love of Mana

On the forums about a month back I started a thread asking how people figured out what lands to use in a deck. I had taken a sabbatical from Magic and was trying to get back in and make competitive decks that weren't net-decks. The strategies were coming to me, but I needed to figure out what lands were only worthwhile and which ones were truly beneficial. There I received three main answers:

1. The right amount of land is something we don't really need to worry that much about. If the idea is good enough and the other cards work together enough, the land will sort itself out.

2. Read this Star City Games article from 2000. And maybe">this article from Daily MTG in 2008 if you feel like it. These say all that we need to about how to start a mana base for our cards.

3. The right amount of land can only be figured out using play testing, a sixth sense, and an overall "Magic feel." Analyzing would do nothing but complicate things.

Why hello there. Long time no see.
The first one is there just to prove a point—that lands are considered so simpleminded that there's no real point in even thinking about them. An argument might run along these lines: "I'm losing with my W/G deck. My Serra Angel is not hitting play often enough and so I should probably take out the Angel and put in something else." Often, the lands being used doesn't even enter the conversation; a wonderful card is tossed away because the mana base is wrong. This first argument is probably the easiest to counter: every aspect of the sixty cards we pick to play should be scrutinized and analyzed.

The second argument is stronger. They are both strong articles. The first provides a fairly workable system for figuring out your mana needs, and the second looks at several mana problems that have arisen since then. They show up as guides for people who are building decks for the first time. But after reading them, I was no closer to feeling that I had any specific answers. I could use their methods to find some mana values, but I didn't understand the process. It was like taking my car to a mechanic and getting it fixed and working again—but having no idea why it was working again. I don't mind that for cars; I didn't build my car. But I'm building my deck and I want to know why it does what it does.

The third argument is a lot like an argument people would use at the art school I went to. "You can't quantify art," they would say. "To try to define it would destroy it." Similarly, people tend to think that looking deeply at the mana base of a deck might disrupt the whole deck. To quote: "Take 24 land, don't put too many pain lands in, and if you're not getting the right land through play testing, change one or two of the lands and try again. This method has worked for years and will continue to work, so if you want to waste your precious time thinking in the abstract go right ahead but it won't change anything."

But as a mathematician, this rings false. The testing is taking the problem and putting it in a real world situation. That doesn't mean it can't be analyzed for better solutions. Real world testing is very important. It is essential to the game and seeing what really works as opposed to what only should work. But getting new ideas and developing ways to think about the problems—that's the area where theory shines. If I were inclined to real world testing, I would have become an engineer. I didn't. I'm a mathematician and I like my theory. That being said, what I truly hope for is a look behind the theory and then be able to use it in the real world. Or at least let the engineers do what they do, only better.

Admit it—you had to reread this
card and if you never see it again,
you're okay with that.
There are many different areas that we can find to focus on when it comes to mana manipulation. The articles referenced above try to find the right mix for a deck. This is probably the most useful area to delve into. But I think that, at least for me, it's a little far down the road yet. As I said before, that article fixes the car without me being able to see the work. Before I get there, I need to be able to see what the parts that I can use are.
Each land, or more specifically each type of land, has both benefits and drawbacks. With the introduction of Conflux, there are 74 different lands that we can use currently in the Standard format. They vary in complexity and usefulness—some have become tournament staples, while others are 14th pick when drafting. But why?

How much mana does a land give you? And how much versatility? If we can answer these two questions, we will have a platform for our conversation to begin.

Back to Basics
Describing a basic land is actually tougher than most of you would think. You've been playing Magic for a while if you're on this site (usually), and you take what they do for granted. In fact, watching most people try to explain the game to others, basic lands are the toughest for them to get across. Sure, there are more complicated cards, but those are explicit in what they do (unless you're being really mean to new players. And usually you don't even try to explain things like why affinity is awesome or mid-combat tricks, at least to start. But if you don't explain basic lands, and explain them well, you're already in trouble. And they don't even have directions on them anymore, just a fancy little symbol that you happen to see on other cards as well (hopefully the ones you have in your hand).

Aside 1
I'm really not trying to question your knowledge of Magic or to write an article about things that everybody knows already. We need a basis. Stay with me and I will make it worth your while or twice your money back.
Basic lands provide mana. You can use them once a turn, including the turn that they enter play. They cost nothing to play. They provide one type of mana. You may use them once for each of your untap steps. Because we can drop one a turn, we end up with an amount of mana equal to our turns (turn one, one available, turn two, two available, and so on).

We must also contend with overall versatility of a basic land. It produces one type of mana each turn. We cannot store this mana for later turns. We cannot use the land for some other goal (like attacking or throwing at the opposing players). We can play up to five different basic lands, but even assuming a perfect mana draw, we will only be able to use one color on turn one, two colors on turn two, and so forth. And those colors won't change. We can't use, say, green on turn one, and then red and black on turn two. Once we've committed one land to a specific color, it's stuck that way.

When we play, however, we do not always play a land each turn. Sometimes we don't have enough in our hand to allow us to play one land each turn. Perhaps on turn three we have already played the two lands in our starting hand and have not drawn another. We will miss our land drop on turn three. How bad is this for us?

From a subjective standpoint, that depends on the deck. Some decks just won't care while others will. But from an objective standpoint, we can define it in terms of mana production for the rest of the game. Even if we draw lands for the rest of the game and play one each turn, we will be significantly behind. Turn four will only net us three mana, turn five will only net us four, and so on. If we are talking about turn n, we could say that we will have (n-1) mana for each turn of a land drop.

If we do a little math on a missed land drop, we can see that it hurts us more at the beginning of the game than it does later on. Say we expect a game to last ten turns. A missed land drop on the second turn will result in nine missed mana total. A missed land drop on the sixth turn will result in five missed mana total.

Comes Into Play Tapped Lands (CIPT lands)

Certain lands provide extra benefits to a player, given that the player puts them into play tapped (henceforth called "CIPT lands"). There are varying benefits to this, and we need to address those, but before that we should figure out what exactly the cost is of coming into play tapped.
Missing a land drop slows down mana production for the rest of the game—mana production will be (n-1) for each land drop missed. Say we miss a turn three land drop, but hit a land for the rest of the game. That means we have three mana on turn four, four mana on turn five, and so on. This inhibits the mana production for the rest of the game.

CIPT lands, on the other hand, miss a land drop for one turn and then catch back up. Say we play Jungle Shrine on our first turn. We can produce no mana that turn. But on our second turn, again assuming normal land drop for turn two, we are able to produce the normal amount of mana. And on turn three. It only affects the turn it comes into play.

CIPT lands don't affect overall mana production like missed land drops do. Because we are, in essence, missing one mana for one turn, it doesn't matter in a grand sense when it happens. A missed land drop affects you more the closer to the beginning of the game it happens. Coming into play tapped doesn't. Because of mana curves, needed mana per turn, and other such factors, it may be more detrimental to play a CIPT land on some turns than others—this is deeper game analysis that we can discuss at a later date. But the cost of the spell, the actual coming into play ability, is the same turn one as it is turn seventeen.

There are myriad types of lands that come into play tapped, and they all do different things, but the focus is versatility. We will probably need to break down the specific CIPT lands in a different article; remember that the goal of this article is to talk about the costs of these lands, not whether one is inherently better than another.

Fetch Lands
I define fetch lands as those that allow you to filter through your library searching for other lands. Examples of these would be Jund Panorama, Terramorphic Expanse, and Bloodstained Mire. There are others out there, but these three can give us an idea of the cost. These lands offer an advantage that other lands cannot: they rid your deck of unwanted lands.

Land drops are important to the game of Magic, but we all know the pain and suffering that occurs when you need to top deck an answer... and you draw your tenth Forest. We have to play a certain amount of land in a deck to ensure consistency, but towards the end of a game, this can be very detrimental. Most decks tend to have a high end of mana that they need, and after that the extra mana is meaningless. The fetch lands allow us to filter out these extra lands while at the same time providing versatility as to what mana we can provide ourselves.

The ability to filter out the lands is powerful depending on how long you expect the game to go. Once you've reached your critical amount of available mana, you want to make sure you stay stocked with relevant cards in hand. Any time you draw a spell and they draw a useless land, you've effectively drawn a free card. The more lands you've seen and gotten rid of, the more chances you have to draw the top deck that gets you the game. Your personal mileage will vary.

Terramorphic Expanse is probably the least complicated of the three—when it comes into play, you search for a basic land and put it into play no questions asked. This makes any basic land in your deck a CIPT land, which seems like a terrible deal at first. But the versatility is strong—if you are playing a deck with more than one color, it allows you to search for the type of land that you need for the cards in your hand. The more colors you are playing, the more versatile this card is since it allows you to find what you need. At the same time, it becomes a CIPT land, so you must wait a turn before you can access the mana.

Aside 2
As you can see, the grouping of lands in the way I have done is preferential at best. Many lands impinge on different areas. Terramorphic Expanse is a CIPT land in disguise that also fetches. Bloodstained Mire fetches but also comes at a cost of life. Jund Panorama might fit well in the "Colorless Production" section. The ability to look at a card and figure out which areas it falls into are crucial so that you can truly judge whether or not the benefits (versatility) outweighs the costs.
Bloodstained Mire, on the other hand, doesn't force you to wait. It has slightly less versatility—only allowing you to search for two different types of land—but allows you to use the mana on that turn since the land comes into play untapped. It is a mana fixer and a land fetcher, but it comes at a cost of 1 life. This transfer of life is non-negotiable if you want this land to produce mana, for it cannot give you anything on its own. As for the cost of life, we will discuss that lower down in the "Pain Land/Shock Land" section.

Jund Panorama is somewhere in between these two. It provides mana on its first turn out, but only of a colorless nature. It filters for you, but the land comes into play tapped and you have to tap another land for it all to work out. Thus it is a CIPT land for colored mana (and can only search for three different ones), but if you play it on turn four and don't need a specific color, you can put off the cost for a later turn. Either way, it is generally considered a weaker card than the two described above—it has higher costs than Terramorphic Expanse for less versatility (assuming you are playing four or five colors) and, unlike Bloodstained Mire, doesn't allow for instant access to necessary mana.

Oh hai. I'm in your deck, stealing your life.
Pain Lands/Shock Lands
Generally, pain lands are one of the first types of rare lands that people start dabbling with. They provide a good service—for the low cost of one life, you can have one mana of your choice between two different colors. If you don't need colored mana, you can always get a free colorless mana. They do not come into play tapped, so at the start of a game, this seems like a great deal.

The first time you use a pain land, it takes 1/20th of your life.
The second time you use it, 1/19th of your remaining life.
And so on.

How much is too much? Using it five times takes 25% of your available life. For some decks, this is acceptable because they need the mana to start. For others, this loss of life starts to put them in the danger zone. Decks with fast starts and rush strategies love to see the opponent play pain lands. It's harder to quantify this cost—there are other cards that make you gain life and obviously your opponent is trying to make sure you have none. 1 life is nothing when you have 20, but everything when you only have 1.

Another option is the so called shock lands. Shock lands offer the opportunity of coming into play untapped at a cost of 2 life. After that, they provide two different types of mana at the rate of one per turn. Comparing this to the pain lands, we can make a fairly easy observation: if you plan to tap a pain land more than twice for colored mana, it is better to run the shock land. There are other nuances to this as well—shock lands have basic land types for domain and other similar abilities. But since this is not strictly mana related, we'll leave it for a later date.

Conditional Color Production
Let's take a quick break for a second and I'll make a little confession. I've wanted to write this article for a while, and each time I try, there are a couple of lands that stymie me. All of them fall in this category. This is because they are the most complicated, both play-wise and mathematically.

Aside 3
The problems I was having all deal with odds of having the mana you need for a specific card on a specific turn based upon what the odds were for drawing lands. Reflecting Pool makes this complicated. Actually, it makes it really complicated if you take into consideration all the iterations. Vivid lands make it less complicated, which is why people play them in tandem (well, that and because all the cool kids do it). I hope to do an article dedicated exclusively to this card. But just thinking about it makes my insides feel a little queasy. Maybe I can just wait eight months and declare it irrelevant. That's the ticket.
Take for example Reflecting Pool. This card single-handedly made me hold off on publication for a week as I tried to grapple with it. But then I realized the problem I was having with it isn't cogent to this specific conversation. Reflecting Pool actually has a fairly simple ability: the more varied the mana you can already produce, the stronger the card is. Because of this, it produces one mana on any turn—except for turn one. If you play Reflecting Pool on turn one, it cannot produce mana. One turn two, it is as useful as the land you played on turn two. It is one of the few lands out there that is conditional based upon your other lands, but after turn one it produces one mana a turn, just like pretty much everything else. But its versatility grows, which is what makes it such a popular card. And such a good one—almost no other land grows in versatility as the game goes on. Some even depreciate.

Another trouble spot is the mana fixers from Shadowmoor and Eventide. They come into play untapped and even produce colorless, so we don't need to worry too much about that. But their true ability only shines when you have other sources of colored mana available. Overall, they are a great deal. The main issue is playing too many of them. Each one that you play removes a card that can always produce colored mana. If we are playing three colors and run four of each that can help us, we are up to twelve of these mana fixers. What can happen is that leaves us with, on average, ten available options for getting the mana we need to make these cards "go off." It's an odds issue that can disrupt the best game play. The down side is more nuanced then that of CIPT lands or other such issues and can be overlooked until you start relying too heavily on them to fix your mana.

My weakness is I try to do too much
Colorless Production

The last area I will discuss in detail is those lands that produce only colorless mana. Only Mutavault is played more than casually at this point in Standard, but there have been many others over the years. Colorless mana is useful for most cards you will play, and this is often not too detrimental. It plays poorly with the aforementioned mana fixers, but most cards require at least some colorless mana in their costs. Producing only colorless mana is not a truly terrible drawback—in moderation. It must be balanced with the other versatilities that the card offers. This is why Mutavault has been such a staple since its creation. A 2/2 that is pretty much safe from disruption during the opponent's turn is strong. Stronger then the staple "man lands" that found their way into Tenth Edition. As a cost, colorless mana actually matters less than almost any of the other detriments. Some lands, like the pain lands, even offer colorless mana in a way that makes them stronger than they would be without it (compare City of Brass to Karplusian Forest). As always, there are decks and situations that make my sweeping generalization less than true, but not too many.

. . .So What?
I've just spent almost four thousand words describing the types of land available to us. And for what? Many of you already knew what we have described here. Part of it has to do with my need to classify and codify known knowledge and put it all into one easily accessible place. More of it, however, has to do with a need for people to be speaking a common language. If we truly want to look at mana bases, we need to know who the options are and what those options can do for us—and at what cost the versatility arrives.

Depending on our deck, some of these disadvantages are worse than others. There is a discussion right now about using Terramorphic Expanse in a deck combined with Knight of the Reliquary. The synergy available is astounding—an extra land in the graveyard giving our Knight an extra +1/+1, also searching for a Plains or a Forest which we can then sacrifice and help us out yet again. The down side of Terramorphic Expanse—CIPT added to a basic land—becomes less of an issue. Tempo is not directly affected unless you play the Expanse before you play the Knight.

This focus on tempo is useful in analyzing new cards. Rupture Spire shows us an example: the versatility is through the roof, but the tempo requirements are heavy. Not only does it come into play tapped, but it also forces another land to tap... a double CIPT, if you will. As discussed with CIPT, this is a tempo loss of land for one turn. There are a few other nuances with this example. It cannot be played first turn, for example. But once in play, it is more resilient than Reflecting Pool as it does not require any other costs or conditions to be met after the one time cost.

But it will most likely see significantly less play than Reflecting Pool. The Spire causes more of a tempo loss then Reflecting Pool. A lot more. And this loss of tempo can change the entire course of a game—consider a Bitterblossom turn two instead of turn three. Or a third turn Woolly Thoctar compared to turn five. The concepts shown here very briefly will be the focus of my next article—tempo and timely mana.

Until next time, may your land drops be useful and your mana be plentiful (but just plentiful enough).


Posts Quoted:
Clear All Quotes