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MDV Featured Article - MTG Theory: Mana Base 101 - Land Count. - by Cashew - posted 10/22/08 - discuss here

I'm sure I just lost half the people who read this site from the title alone. However, mana base is a topic of considerable importance that can never be covered enough. Much of the theory and basic rules you've heard time and time again, but it's something that when it finally sticks improves your level of play significantly.

Before we even get into it I want to share something someone told me about a year after I started playing. "You can tell a player's skill level by the lands he puts in his deck." He went on to explain what I'll summarize in this nice chart (yay, a chart and it's only paragraph two!)

Player Skill The Lands He Plays
The Neophyte 33% land (almost entirely basic lands)
The Novice 20 lands in a 60 card deck (almost entirely basic lands)
The Amateur Usually 23 or 24 lands in a 60 card deck (mix of basic and non-basic)
The Pro Appropriate lands in a 60 card deck (very few basics)

I'm not going to try and say this is 100% accurate, but most players when learning to play are told to play one lands for every two non-lands they play to keep a balanced spread. This is the simplest way to describe to a new player to learn the game, and is what I do as well when teaching newcomers deckbuilding. Most new players shouldn't focus on land counts; they should focus on learning the fundamentals. Once they figure those things out they can begin to learn true deck building.

No two decks are the same, as such not every deck needs the same number of lands.

The first mark of a seasoned player is that they drop down to sixty cards in a deck. By being able to limit themselves to the absolute lowest number of cards for a deck they've established that they understand the game and are starting to grasp the concepts of deckbuilding. Somehow during all this learning and growing, most players don't pick up on changing the land count rule and it could be years before they do. Hopefully, if you aren't already playing land appropriately, today is your day. It's time to put the era of twenty lands behind you and become a Magic man.

Today isn't about learning to become a pro, as the lands they choose and use are often out of most player's price range and deck building expertise. Today is simply about learning to find out how many lands your deck should probably have and why. Sound simple enough? Sadly it's not quite or everyone would get it right. Before we go any further we have to define a few terms for some of our readers:

Word or Phrase Definition
Converted Mana Cost (CMC): The total mana it costs to play a spell. For instance Giant Growth is 1 CMC.
Average Converted Mana Cost: The average CMC cost of your entire deck, including lands.
Aggro Deck: A deck that primarily uses creature damage to kill an opponent.
Control Deck: A deck that attempts to slow and control the game using often a sole card to kill an opponent.
Combo Deck: A deck that relies on a combo to kill an opponent.

While there is no one hundred percent method to know the best land count for each individual deck, honing in on a base trial land count is very easy. The first step into learning what your base land count should be is to learn what your deck's average CMC is. The easiest way to do this is to build your decks in a computer program before making them on paper, because obviously averaging your deck's CMC by hand is very time consuming. The reason CMC is important is because it cues you in on how badly you need land. For instance, if your CMC is two, you very rarely need more than two lands to cast any card in your hand. More lands at two average CMC helps you cast more cards faster, getting your hand into play faster and overwhelming an opponent with your fast casting creatures. A higher CMC such as four indicates that you absolutely need lands to play most of your deck. Afterall, until you have enough mana to cast a card, you might as well be holding a blank card.

Typically the higher your average CMC, the more lands you want in your deck.

The other primary thing that goes along with average CMC into determining your land base is your deck's general tempo. Aggro decks tend to play very fast trying to deal twenty damage before slower decks can take control. Many of these decks stutter out and drawing lands instead of a creature or direct damage spell often means the difference between a win and loss. I personally can attest that numerous times I've gotten an opponent within Char range and lost drawing land after land until my opponent had full control of the board. On the opposite end are control and combo decks which generally need more mana to fully control the deck or pull off the major combo. The cards in these decks often require more mana to cost than a simple aggro creature and thus naturally require more mana.

Anyway, lets look at a very handy reference chart now:

Lands Deck Type Average CMC
18-19 Blitz Aggro 1-2 CMC
20 Aggro 2-3 CMC
22-23 Aggro-Control 3-3.5 CMC
24 Generic Deck some high CMC
26 Combo/Control Deck Varies
27-28 Heavy Control Deck Varies

Oh my! What's that you always play control, but never play more than twenty lands? Maybe there are reasons. These are base land counts of where you may want to put them, in fact we'll put some adjustments in later. Often control decks want more land as they tend to attempt control in an opponent's turn and play non-control spells in that turn as well. By having more land they can more easily play non-control spells while maintaining full control on thier opponents. Other control players tend to use excess mana to empower their draw/filter engines such as the recent usage of Scrying Sheets and Sensei's Divining Top. Others run a very low base of land, and do just fine.

This variance continues across all formats. To help you find a better modifier for your land count, lets add other factors in. Some of this is based on math, some experience, and some on basic "this is how it's done, ya hear?"

Color Modifications
As a general of thumb, for every additional color you splash into (four or more cards of that color) you want to add an additional land to your count. This does not include hybrid mana though, unless both the hybrid colors fall out of your main color. Using this simple modification, you may want to add +1 to +4 lands to your deck.

A way to keep this modifier down is to play dual lands to ease the color burden. For every four dual lands you play you want to -1 this modifer, meaning it may have no impact on your land count at all. Don't try to make it a negative impact on overall count though, as lands being several colors doesn't change your odds of drawing them. Your range for this modifier are +0 to +4, no negatives!

Acceleration Modifications
Accelerating your mana is a great way to lower your land base. For every source of acceleration you want to lower you land base by -1. Be careful though, you don't want to drop your land count drastically. I don't recommend going lower than -5 land count due to acceleration as acceleration is worthless without mana to cast it.

Accelerators range from land fetchers such as Kodama's Reach to mana generators such as Birds of Paradise or Wild Growth. If it makes "more" mana count it as acceleration. If it just makes "different" or "faster" mana though, it doesn't count.

These kinds of cards count:

These kinds of cards don't count:

Alternate Play Methods
A final modifier area is alternate forms of playing a card. Not all decks play them in the traditional straight from the hand manor. Some use mechanics such as madness and suspend at a reduced cost of play, while others use tricks such as Show and Tell or reanimation to get a card into play. Regardless, if you're always playing a ten cmc card such as Greater Gargadon for one mana, you want to take that into consideration. My best advice is to calculate the CMC's as if it was their lower cost when determining your initial land base.

There, now you should have a much better idea of where to start off on your land bases when building a deck. Obviously these are not die hard rules, and the only true way to find the land count is to playtest a deck and find how much land it really needs. That level of tweaking is done mainly by experienced players on beloved decks and by pro's. Regardless, these methods are much better than always add one third land, or twenty lands, or even twenty-four lands. These methods help identify a better starting point.


Boros Decks Wins
This is a standard tournament deck built off extremely fast play of larger than normal one-two drops that overwhelm a player before they can react. The deck usually finishes with a final alpha strike and a combination of nukes. Needless to say, time is precious with this deck and a single mistake can easily turn a game into a loss. Where's that leave our land count?

According to the chart the playstyle is probably going to Blitz-Aggro leaving us at a base of 18-19 mana. It said Boros in the title, so we know it's probably Red-White, so we're looking at 19-20 mana. Let's check out our deck's stats to make sure:

2 color deck, plenty of duals lands.
Average Creature CMC: 1.5 (1 lowest, 2 highest)
Average Spell CMC: 2.2 (1 lowest, 3 highest)
Overall Average CMC: 1.8 (1 lowest, 3 highest)

Our stats definitely indicate we want a lower count. While the average and creature CMC's are very low, our spell CMC indicates a fair amount of 3 CMC spells, making me want to lean on the safe side and play twenty lands, even though anything in the 19-21 range is probably fair game.

The decklist, as you'll see supports this entirely. In fact, you can tell he takes every care to choose lands that speed up his deck, even forgoing multiple copies of Flagstones of Trokair in fear of actually drawing two and having to deal with a land coming into play tapped. Tons of fetched lands indicate that this land count could easily go either higher or lower with casual play.


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E. McKenzie's Boros Deck Wins.

Lands (20)
4 Sacred Foundry
3 Bloodstained Mire
2 Barbarian Ring
2 Flooded Strand
2 Mountain
2 Plains
2 Windswept Heath
2 Wooded Foothills
1 Flagstones of Trokair

Creatures (22)
4 Goblin Legionnaire
4 Grim Lavamancer
4 Savannah Lions
4 Silver Knight
3 Isamaru, Hound of Konda
3 Soltari Priest

Spells (18)
4 Lightning Helix
4 Molten Rain
4 Sudden Shock
3 Char
3 Firebolt
by E. McKenzie

Next Level Blue
Our second example, changes pace entirely to a pure control environment. Play is slow and control dominates every aspect of the game. This is a lesson in taking charge. The deck relies on basic control elements, coupled with several little combos. Although almost entirely Blue, our deck will utilize Green and splash somewhat into White and Black on the sideboard. Not a pure control deck though, utilizing some powerful creatures to lay aggro on the board.

Off the bat, your eye should go towards the 26 land count. There are combos, control and elements of aggro. You might even debate on the 24 land count labeling this as more of a generic deck than control. While we have four colors only two are played main deck, and even Green is more of a splash than a secondary color. So we'll hold at 26 lands.

Heavy Blue, some Green, traces of Black and White
Average Creature CMC: 3.1 (2 lowest, 5 highest)
Average Spell CMC: 2.1 (0 lowest, 3 highest)
Overall Average CMC: 2.4 (0 lowest, 5 highest)

This deck's hard to judge. It stretches color bounds, and nothing about it is basic with CMC's ranging from zero to five in casting cost, then again I've probably held something back from you I shouldn't have. The main combos are Divining Top + Counterbalance and Veldaken Shackles into Miren's. All of a sudden the mana requirements for this deck just plummeted! Counterbalance control is the cheapest form of control there is, and verifies without acceleration we need somewhere between 24-26 mana. Let's see where this pro-player went. To further verify this, many other pro's play nearly the same list, with 4x Chrome Moxes, dropping their land count to 21. On a side note, this deck is one of the main reasons Sensei's Divining Top is now banned in Extended.


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D. Irvine Next Level Blue.

Lands (25)
7 Island
4 Breeding Pool
4 Flooded Strand
3 Polluted Delta
1 Academy Ruins
1 Hallowed Fountain
1 Miren, The Moaning Well
1 Riptide Laboratory
1 Seat Of The Synod
1 Tolaria West
1 Watery Grave

Creatures (11)
4 Tarmogoyf
3 Trinket Mage
2 Meloku The Clouded Mirror
2 Venser, Shaper Savant

Spells (23)
4 Counterspell
4 Spell Snare
3 Counterbalance
3 Thirst For Knowledge
3 Vedalken Shackles
2 Engineered Explosives
2 Threads Of Disloyalty
1 Pithing Needle
1 Sensei's Divining Top
1 Tormod's Crypt
by D. Irvine

Doran Rock
Okay, for those not familiar with Doran Rock, it's heavily played in Standard. The basic deck is a mix of cheap fat creatures similar to Zoo with elements of control. It runs heavily in Green and Black with a splash of White usually used just for Doran and Sideboard cards. It primarily wins thru heavy aggro, but uses control elements to retain board dominance. Sounds like aggro-control pure and simple to me. So the assumption is 22-23 lands as our base, although you might treat it as a generic deck as well and go 24.

We also know it's composed of three colors so we might as well go ahead and plan for 25-26 lands. In our favor, though will be plenty of dual lands and Birds of Paradise included. Thus, it really comes down to our CMC to determine the cost.

Heavy Black and Green, some White
Average Creature CMC: 2.3 (1 lowest, 4 highest)
Average Spell CMC: 1.9 (1 lowest, 3 highest)
Overall Average CMC: 2.2 (1 lowest, 4 highest)

Our CMC's indicate that we're dealing with a faster deck, and that's it's more aggro than control. You could classify it as Aggro almost, but the abundance of three and four drops indicates a better choice at Aggro-Control. So lets leave our count at 23 although anything between 22-24 is probably fine. What did the pro say?


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M. Juza's Doran Rock.

Lands (23)
4 Caves of Koilos
4 Forest
4 Gilt-Leaf Palace
4 Murmuring Bosk
4 Treetop Village
2 Horizon Canopy
1 Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth

Creatures (24)
4 Birds of Paradise
4 Doran, the Siege Tower
4 Tarmogoyf
4 Wren's Run Vanquisher
3 Chameleon Colossus
3 Wilt-Leaf Cavaliers
2 Llanowar Elves

Spells (11)
4 Nameless Inversion
4 Thoughtseize
3 Slaughter Pact
2 Profane Command
by M. Juza

Obviously, I tried to find good examples to show how the method matches up, but the fact that the method matches any of the pro's speaks words to it's general accuracy. Granted, this is a simple way to find land counts with no testing, so it isn't 100% accurate, and it's not even the best way to do it. It's just a simple, easy way for people who struggle with land counts to find a starting point for their land base. The best way is tried and trued playtesting.

There are thousands of factors that might go into your lands as well beyond what we discussed. Do you want to put them in the graveyard? Do you want man-lands or lands that don't even make mana? Are you using mass mana lands such as Urzatron or Cloudpost-Vesuva? Or heck, does your deck even need land at all? So take all things in consideration.


You can discuss this article in the MDV forums here.
Find other articles by this author here.
Find other articles from this series here.

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The Apprentice Magician - Part Six.
Design on a Dime: The Lunch Meat Edition!
Fit the Flavor 2008 - FINALE!
The Games People Play - Market & EDH.
Sarpadian Empires, Vol VII: Foreword.
More Evil Than Evil.
Pauper Chronicles: Top O' the Morningtide to You!
Words from the Streetz: Uncommon and Common Magical Treasures.
The Writers Guild: The Inside Scoop.

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