Building a Mana Base

Today, I’d like to talk a bit about deckbuilding and more specifically, the mana base.  

It’s something you’re going to have to think about any time you build a new deck and I’d like to share some general guidelines and rules of thumb. 

A good way to approach deckbuilding in a new format, especially one with a fairly limited number of cards, can be to start by looking at what the mana is like and what dual lands or other nonbasic lands are available to you. Typically, in a format like Standard, how creative you can get and how many colors you can play is going to be defined by how good these dual and other nonbasic lands are going to be. I’d say it’s especially true for aggressive decks since you usually want to start your curve with one-mana spells and can’t really afford too many tapped lands or a shaky mana base. 

The Number One Rule 

Don’t cheat on lands! This is something we’ve all been guilty of, especially when we first started playing Magic. It’s still one of the most common mistakes I see when people share their decklists with me and it’s even a mistake some of the best players in the world can make.  

When Patrick Chapin won Pro Tour Journey Into Nyx in 2014 in Atlanta, he did with his Abzan Midrange deck, but the rest of the team and I played a Sultai Control deck which Jamie Parke and Reid Duke also ended up making Top 8 with. What was Team ChannelFireball back then also showed up with their own build of Sultai Control.  

Our lists had two major differences though. The first one: the Team CFB members were playing four copies of Ashiok, Nightmare Weaver in their main deck whereas we had our three copies in the sideboard. The second: while we settled on 26 lands and were even considering playing 27, they only played 24. 

Throughout the weekend, my teammates and I got paired in the pseudo-mirror against players from Team CFB multiple times and it seemed that often, games would come down to the CFB players having mana issues. Keep in mind that there were no open deck lists back then, so we just chalked it up to some good fortune. That is, until deck lists were revealed for the Top 8 and we found out they were playing a full two lands less than us. I’m not going to lie - we had a good laugh about it at dinner and my memory is a bit fuzzy, but I’m guessing we made sure to rub it in every chance we got for the rest of the weekend.  

The whole thing culminated in Josh Utter-Leyton getting stuck on lands twice in the semifinals against Chapin, and the rest as they say is History. 

Colored Mana 

Generally, if you have single-colored early game spells, let’s say you’re trying to cast turn one Birds of Paradise consistently, you’re going to want access to at least 14 mana sources of that color. 14 sources will give you an 86 percent chance of having one in your opening hand.  

Birds of Paradise

If you need to cast a double-colored spell on turn two, let’s say something like an Eidolon of the Great Revel, you’ll want 20 or more red sources.  

No matter how perfectly built your deck is, mana issues are inevitable, but to give you a rough idea, I would say that when you run the numbers, anything over 85 percent for the early game is reliable.  

Speaking of running the numbers, a good way to do so is to use a hypergeometric calculator. The name is a bit scary, but it’s easy to use and you can just google one up. I usually know what I’m looking for when I build a mana base, but I still like to go back to a calculator to double-check things once in a while.  

The most common use of the hypergeometric calculator will be to check opening hand math, but you can also use it to check what it will take to be able to cast a WWW spell on turn three or what the odds are of having drawn X number of lands by turn Y. While you should aim for that 85 percent rule for early game stats, it’s not always realistic to have the same standards for every stage of the game. For example, to have an 85 percent chance of hitting five lands by turn five when you’re on the play, you’d have to play 33 lands in your 60-card deck, and while some decks might want to go to such extremes (Dryad of the Ilysian Grove decks in Modern, for example), it’s usually not the case. 

How Many Lands Total 

For an aggressive deck, the number of lands can vary widely. It can be as low as 18 in a deck like Izzet Prowess, full of one mana spells and cantrips or go up to 24 if you’re running a bunch of manlands. 

For a midrange deck, you’ll usually want to play about 25 lands if your curve tops at five mana spells. 

In a control deck, you’ll typically want to play 26 or 27.  

Of course, you might want to slightly deviate from these numbers. While you don’t want to cut a land straight up for every mana-creature you play, you usually can’t afford to have 40 mana sources in your midrange deck either. I think a ratio of cutting one land for every four mana-creatures is reasonable, so something like 23 lands and eight mana-creatures might be fine. The reason is mana-creatures can be fragile and it can defeat the purpose of trying to ramp into bigger spells if you’re going to miss land drops down the road anyways.  

I have about the same rule for cantrips, cards like Opt or Mishra’s Bauble, and I’ll usually cut one land for every four cantrips I intend on playing.

OptMishra's Bauble

These are all guidelines for 60-card decks, but the ratios apply to pretty much any constructed formats so if you’re more of a Commander player, you’ll have to do a little extra math. 

Deckbuilding choices are all about tradeoffs and, no matter how good your mana base or your curve is, you’re going to get screwed occasionally. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t give yourself the best chance in the first place though. In the long run, while it might be tempting to squeeze in that extra spell, you’ll be rewarded for playing the proper amount and the right mix of lands.  

Autor: Gabriel Nassif

Magic: The Gathering Hall of Fame, Member of Team CFBUltimateGuard

While Gab has one of the most storied and prolific careers in Magic, he came from humble beginnings, learning Magic in middle school around when Ice Age came out. While Gab is known for being a Constructed specialist and considered one of the best deckbuilders of all time, he has a deep love for Limited in all forms. Learn more about Gab.