The Manabase Police

by Simon Nielsen on 05 February 2019, Tuesday

Simon Nielsen

Whenever there is a new deck list posted in our team forum or on Twitter or among the Magic Online lists, the first thing I do isn’t to marvel in their cute combos or appreciate the cutting-edge metagame technology. It’s simply to count up the numbers in the manabase.

Often, I find manabases to be one of the most overlooked aspects of deckbuilding. People figure out their spells at first and then randomly throw some lands together that seem to fit. Sometimes they even post decklists that just say “24 land” at the end.

I’ll go through the decklists of my teammates and mention that these 1-drops have to be cut or that those lands have to be changed. Or sometimes I claim that a deck is too ambitious based on its nonfunctional manabase. I have all the numbers memorized in my head and have developed my own rules of thumb.

I am, in essence, the manabase police. Don’t get too greedy or you will be restrained!

The reason that the manabase is so important is that consistency is the key to competitive success. Tournaments are long marathons and you need your deck to function at the highest level in as many of the games as possible. If during 20% of your games something goes wrong, your win rate is just going to plummet in the long run. Symptoms of manabase issues might be things like not being able to cast your 1-drops on turn 1, not hitting the double colored requirements of your 4-drop or having a tapland at an inconvenient time.

I strongly prefer to take Zvi Mowshowitz's approach where you first look at what the mana in the format allows you to do, then build a deck within those parameters. Luckily for us, we've had this exact manabase available before. It was six years ago that Gatecrash came out. All ten shocklands and all ten checklands are available to us just as they were back then. That created manabases that easily support three colors and don’t even feel the need to run basic lands!

I want to look through history to see what lessons we can learn from the successful decks back then. But first, here’s an overview of the rules I try to follow whenever I build a manabase.

The code of mana police conduct

I’m a big fan of Frank Karsten's articles where he figures out the numbers of mana sources necessary to cast cards on-curve with at least 90% consistency, which is about the acceptable number for a tournament level deck. Obviously, we’d prefer that our deck functioned more than 90% of the time, so keep in mind that these are minimum numbers and that more is better. Though sometimes your mana can also be "too good", if you end up with a lot of life payments or too many tapped lands. It’s a balance. 

  • 1-drops require 14 sources to be cast on turn 1. Note that checklands like Dragonskull Summit don’t count, because they are never untapped on turn 1.
  • 2-drops with 1 colored symbol (like a cost of 1R) require 12-13 sources. Now you can count your checklands again.
  • Splashing cards that cost more than 2 mana can be done off of 10 sources, but realistically 12 is the most comfortable number, especially if you run multiple cards of that color.
  • 2-drops that cost double colored mana (like RR) require 20 sources. If it’s a multicolored card (e.g. costing RW), you just need 20 sources total of White and Red as well as 13 of each White and Red.
  • 3-drops that cost double colored mana (like 1WW), require 18 sources, but I try to aim for 19 when I can. This also lets me more consistently cast two 1-drops of that color on turn 2.
  • 4-drops that cost double colored mana (like 2BB) require 16 sources. For the twin double colored costed cards from Guilds of Ravnica and Ravnica Allegiance (such as Crackling Drake costing UURR) you need all your lands to tap for one of those colors and 17 of each of Blue and Red.
  • For the triple colored 3-drops (like RRR) I usually aim for 22 sources of that color. But realistically I just want all my lands to be of that color, because I might want to cast that card along with a 1-drop on turn 4.

How to Count Mana Dorks and Cantrips

Note that you can count mana dorks towards your colored sources, but you can’t count them fully as 1 source each because they are fragile and will get removed often. Cantrips like Opt can also help you get to the sources you need, so they can count as a quarter of a source each. For both cases though, make sure you can actually cast the cantrips and mana dorks on time, because they obviously don’t count as mana for themselves.

What this all means is that I’ve made some house rules for myself. All my 1-drops need to have the same color unless I have multiple dual lands that come into play untapped turn 1. Otherwise it’s simply too hard to meet the requirement of 14 sources of each color.

For 2-drops it’s fine that they are another color than my 1-drops. This is both because you need fewer sources for 2-drops, but also because you can count checklands for 1-drops.

For double color costed 3-drops, I want them to have the same color as my 1-drops. There is no scenario where I’d want to try and curve Red 1-drops into History of Benalia, it just doesn’t work.

An Example from the Pro Tour

Here we see 1-drops of one color, two drops of another color, and History of Benalia. There’s 15 sources towards the 1-drops, 12 for the 2-drops and 19 for History, all done with less than 24 lands. If I had tried to play anything that cost double-Red or a Red 1-drop, the mana would have been much more of a disaster. 

Check your Shocklands

The unique thing about the current manabases is that we can have three-colored decks with 24 dual ;ands and 0 basics where every land still enters the battlefield untapped. This might sound like heaven for aggro decks, but actually it’s not, at least not if you want to play 1-drops.

Let's consider a Naya deck with the following mana base of 4 of each of these lands: Temple Garden, Sacred Foundry, Stomping Ground, Sunpetal Grove, Clifftop Retreat, and Rootbound Crag

We have 16 of each source this way, and so we can comfortably run Rekindling PhoenixAjani, Adversary of Tyrants and Nullhide Ferox in the same deck. We can also comfortably run any combination of multicolored 2-drops, but we don’t quite have enough sources for History of Benalia.

However, we only have 8 sources of each color towards 1-drops. That is far from enough, and this manabase just won’t allow us to play Llanowar Elves turn 1 anywhere near consistently enough.

It’s also an issue that if we don’t draw any shockland early on (which will happen slightly more than 10% of the time), we will have a horrible time because all our lands will come into play tapped. Also, in this specific Standard format cards like Assassin's Trophy and Field of Ruin can punish you very hard for a deck without basic lands.

The Greediest Curve in Standard 

There are other unique mana requirements in the current format. The most greedy one must be Absorb into Kaya's Wrath in Esper Control decks. Is it possible to support 18 Blue sources in the same deck as 17 White and Black sources?

I think this manabase can do it:

4 Godless Shrine 

4 Hallowed Fountain

4 Watery Grave

4 Isolated Chapel 

4 Drowned Catacomb

4 Glacial Fortress

1 Dimir Guildgate

1 Plains 

Maybe there should be one less Godless Shrine and one Swamp added to this deck if the basic land count is too low. This is only 17 of each source, but with some Thought ErasureSearch for Azcanta and/or Revitalize to help you out, I think it’s okay. It might be a lot of shocklands for a control deck, but Esper also has tons of lifegain to make up for it.

How did people tackle the manabase obstacles in the past?

I dug deep into coverage history and took a look at a bunch of decklists.

History lesson

Once Gatecrash came out in early 2013, people felt blessed with these fully-charged manabases. I looked through the top-performing decks from Pro Tour Gatecrash in Montreal, but most of the manabases weren’t actually asking that much. There were a bunch of Jund Midrange and Jeskai Control decks, but none of them played any 1-drops or hard-to-cast 3-drops. Only Liliana of the Veil was tricky in the Jund decks, but even then they played 4 Farseek and just had great manabases.

Here’s Eric Froehlich's Naya Aggro deck:

This “aggro” deck doesn’t even bother with 1-drops at all! And note that cards like Avacyn's Pilgrim and Experiment One were available in this format. Instead, Eric truly embraces the power of the manabase where everything will enter the battlefield untapped in order to consistently curve out from 2 to 5 in three different colors.

Note how he even cut two checklands in order to have lands come into play untapped more consistently. The two basics are also Mountains, which conveniently cast Burning-Tree Emissary and Boros Reckoner and power up Flinthoof Boar. Red is even his only double-coloured cost. This manabase is as smooth as it gets.

So it seems like these manabases really benefit the tri-colored midrange decks. You can be sure that your fifth land will come into play untapped and you can tap into the power of 3 different colors. That’s exactly where midrange wants to be, whether it’s an aggressive stance, like Froehlich's version here, or the controlling ones like the Jeskai builds (which still had a fair share of creatures).

It might be a while before we find the good builds, but I suspect that soon we will see powerful midrange decks in either Sultai, Jund or Abzan colors that build upon the foundation of Golgari Midrange. Even control might get more creature heavy, as we have already seen with Crackling Drake and Niv-Mizzet, Parun.

The Aristocrats

But what if you do want to play 1-drops while also embracing the tri-colored manabases?

Well, Tom Martell did just that with the Aristocrats deck built by Sam Black, and he ended up winning the Pro Tour!

The smart thing here was to have the majority of the creatures be humans and use Cavern of Souls as the extra dual land to hit the crucial 14 White sources for turn 1. This also lets the deck take advantage of Champion of the Parish so that everything works out wonderfully.

Notice again how the 12 Shocklands are a staple, but checklands are easily cuttable. I suspect this will be the case for most decks except the hardcore control decks, where the life payment isn’t desirable.

There were also other decks in this format, like Naya Humans and Jund Zombies, that took advantage of Cavern of Souls's ability to act as a color fixer. Aside from monocolored aggro decks, these tribal decks were basically the only ones that got to play 1-drops.

Back to the Future: How to apply this to Standard with RNA

Luckily for my comparison-based article we actually do have a variant of Cavern of Souls in Standard! 

Unclaimed Territory can’t make your stuff uncounterable, but it fixes your mana just as well. One interesting take on this is a current version of the aggressive Humans-based Mardu deck, built by Reddit user yoman5. 

Only with the help of Unclaimed Territory can you run Benalish Marshal and Judith, the Scourge Diva in the same deck for the full 8 "anthem creatures". This deck also plays enough multicolored spells to take advantage of one of the new stars of Ravnica Allegiance, Hero of Precinct One.

This deck could turn out to be the premier aggro deck of the new format. There’s at least a lot of hype going on about it, and curving Hero into Judith into Heroic Reinforcements attacks for a whopping 19 damage!

I edited the 2-drop slot a little. You could run Imperious Oligarch like the original, but since we don’t have many sacrifice outlets, I preferred the better aggressive options with the Boros 2-drops. I don’t know which one is better. Boros Challenger works great with your 1-drops, and Swiftblade Vindicator works great with your pump effects, and since they work so well together, I decided just to split the difference.

The sideboard is very random at this point, as I have no idea what this deck wants to do postboard and how many multicolored spells are necessary.

Ignoring this advice: Could there be an advantage in a bad manabase?

As the format in 2013 matured, most decks continued to be reasonable with their mana, even in their 3-colored decks. Except for one deck that kept popping up in my research. Back then in Standard, we had access to multiple cheap and good hexproof creatures as well as some of the best auras that still see play to this day in Modern Bogles.

There was a hexproof deck, and it kept top 8’ing Grands Prix despite its horrible manabase. 

I played this deck at my very first constructed Grand Prix in Bochum, way earlier, before Gatecrash came out (and when the deck was significantly weaker). We dubbed the deck “Suit Up!” and showed up to the tournament all wearing suits. Ah, good times.

These decks ran 7-8 Green 1-drops with 8-9 sources (most didn’t even play the lone Forest). They relied heavily on Avacyn's Pilgrim to be able to cast their 1WW-costed 3-drops, even though the Pilgrim itself had to wait until turn 2 to be played in most games.

I wonder why this deck kept seeing so much success despite going against all I believe in. I think part of the answer lies in the high-powered upside this deck can produce.

Essentially you sacrifice some consistency of your nut draws for the ability to just have those nut draws. Also, if you hit your sources in a timely manner, this deck can be hard to beat even if it stumbles.

Avacyn's Pilgrim might not be of much use after turn 1, but it still helps fix your mana and provides insurance against Liliana of the Veil. On the other hand, it enables the perfect opening of turn 2 Geist of Saint Traft. And while that might not happen that often, building your mana base in a different way makes you lose out on the wonderful smoothness of a full shockland/checkland-manabase.

The same thing can be said for Gladecover Scout by the way. Even if it doesn’t get down until turn 2, that’s still very much accessible and you can probably even suit it up right away with an Ethereal Armor.

Going Suboptimal

It seems like the takeaway here is that as long as your 1-drops can wait and there is high enough upside, it can still be worth it to run an imperfect manabase like this. Having a tricolored manabase of checklands and shocklands is really an advantage in itself, even if you have to take some consistency hits to run it.

I don’t have a great example of how this applies to current Standard. But when I think of 1-drops that can wait, Snubhorn Sentry and Legion's Landing are my first thoughts.

It wouldn’t be a Simon Nielsen article without a Snubby deck. This one also happens to take advantage of Hero of Precinct One as building decks around it has become my new favorite hobby and it does work well with Snubhorn.

I’ll leave you with this decklist and a note that this isn’t as much of a competitive suggestion as it is an example to prove my point. I’m not sure that the “high upside” aspect is present in this jank:

This article was written by Simon Nielsen in a media collaboration with

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