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Price of Progress: Paying the Price

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The letter W!elcome back to another in-depth look at Sealed Deck! Last week, we finished up looking at my four points to help you with your card evaluation skills. Hopefully, everyone feels a little bit better about their ability to evaluate a card's usefulness, especially with Gatecrash coming up in the not-too-distant future. This week, I want to take a look at perhaps the biggest problem and the most frequent mistake players make when building their sealed decks: mana.

A Big Problem

In an average sealed deck, you want to play around seventeen lands in your forty-card deck. That's 42.5% of your deck. How you build your sealed deck will determine the lands you choose to play, and you should keep this in mind when you build it. You need to make sure that, when you are building your deck, you have enough mana sources of the appropriate colors to play all of your spells when you want them. While this can certainly be shored up by adding the correct lands, it gets much more difficult if you aren't careful with your card selection during deck construction.

A few weeks ago, you were given a Sealed Deck pool for homework that contained the following cards: Armada Wurm; Mizzium Mortars; Jarad, Golgari Lich Lord; and Isperia, Supreme Judge. These four cards have serious mana commitments that exclude you from being able to play them all. There is some overlap, such as the double white shared by Isperia and Armada Wurm, and the Wurm's and Jarad's double green. This makes it possible to play more than one of them, if you choose, but deciding on the proper pairing was potentially difficult. It required a long look at the remaining cards in the pool to determine what the deepest, strongest colors were. After all, while your cards will determine what lands you play, the lands you will be forced to play should also factor into your considerations when selecting your cards.


This point is one that often gets overlooked when building a sealed deck, as well as selecting cards in Booster Draft. You want to be able to play all of the cards in your deck, but it can be difficult if you are trying to play too many cards with heavily restrictive mana costs. For example, say your pool has a heavy core of Frostburn Weirds and Annihilating Fires. First, you're pretty lucky. Second, it makes it much more difficult to play the Precinct Captain and Sunspire Griffins in your pool. Sure, you can do it, but it's going to be rough on your mana. Without a dual land or a Guildgate, it's impossible to cast Frostburn Weird on turn two and follow it up with a Sunspire Griffin on the following turn. A concession has to be made.

A Little Math

At the heart of it all, a correctly built mana base has a lot to do with math. That's part of the reason that Wizards of the Coast was able to write an algorithm to suggest a land count in the Sealed Deck builder. But there isn't going to be an easy button to push if you go to a tournament. You'll have to do it on your own. At the same time, you shouldn't need to worry yourself about understanding a lot of complex mathematics simply to play Sealed Deck as efficiently as you can.

The basic tenets behind building your mana base come down to a few points. You have to figure out the cards that are most important to you and when you want to be able to play them. For example, many of the cards in your deck are going to be at their best if they're cast as soon as you are able. Lyev Skyknight, for example, is a great card whenever you play it, but it's exceptional when you play it on turn three. There are some cards, however, that you want to hold off on casting—this is often removal. You aren't likely to find too many spots where you want to cast that Supreme Verdict on turn four. More likely, it's a card for considerably later in the game.


Knowing this, you should construct your mana base so the probability of you drawing the appropriate mana sources at the appropriate times is an acceptable level. Take the earlier example of Frostburn Weird. You want to cast it on turn two. You are on the play with your forty-card deck with seventeen lands. Assuming no mulligans, you will have seen eight cards of your deck by turn two. In these eight cards, two of them need to be mana sources of the appropriate color, Islands in this case. Since you need two cards in eight, or one-quarter of the cards you draw, to be Islands, one-quarter of the deck should be Islands. This means that to ensure that you hit a pair of Islands to cast your Frostburn Weird on every turn two, you should be playing ten Islands in your forty-card deck, or one-quarter of your deck.

Things get a little more difficult when you add in double-mana costs in other colors and try to hit them both. For example, say you are playing white-blue and have both a Frostburn Weird that you want to play on turn two and a Martial Law that you want to play on turn four. We've already decided that you need ten Islands to play the Weird on turn two every time. For the Martial Law, you will have seen ten cards by turn four. Of those ten, two of them, or one-fifth, need to be Plains. That means that one-fifth of the forty-card deck you are playing needs to be Plains, or eight Plains. This gives you a mana base of ten Islands and eight Plains. I wouldn't balk too much at this mana base, but we'll see in a second how this can cause some problems.


Makeup Work

The previous math problems only took into account the desire to play one or two cards. As I hope we all know by now, there are a few more than one or two cards in a sealed deck. The second basic tenet to look at when building your mana base is the color density of your deck. I'm talking about how many blue cards and white cards you are playing.

For example, the mana base that we came up with above for our fictitious deck is eight Plains and ten Islands. This works out very well if the deck is heavily blue, with fewer white cards. But what if it's the exact opposite? What if the deck is mostly white, with only a few blue cards in it? Chances are that we are going to find ourselves in a situation where we can't play our cards.

The overall composition of cards in a deck is very important. If your deck has twenty-four white mana symbols in the costs and twelve blue mana symbols, based on that alone, you need two-thirds of your mana base to produce white mana and the remaining third to produce blue mana. This leads to an eighteen-land mana base of twelve Plains and six Islands. In this case, only six out of forty cards in your deck, or 15%, are Islands. Now, say you have a Jace, Architect of Thought that you want to play as early as possible. With only 15% of your deck composed of Islands, you need to see fourteen cards before you see two Islands, on average. Counting seven of those as your opening hand, you won't be able to cast Jace until turn eight! Call me crazy, but I want to get him on the table as soon as possible...


This example illustrates the dangers in splashing cards, especially those with restrictive mana costs. I'm sure we've all lost games because we didn't draw the lands required to cast the bomb rare we splashed into our deck. Worse than that are the times we haven't been able to cast the bombs that are in our main colors because we've drawn the mana sources for our splash, but not the ones for our main color! Don't forget that every time you splash, you are taking out mana sources for your main colors to make room for the splashed ones.

This brings me to a tiny rant. I see players make this mistake all the time, and it makes no logical sense to me. Do not splash for mana fixers. Don't splash green for Axebane Guardian or Gatecreeper Vine. Sure, you only need one mana source to cast them. But you want to cast mana-fixing early, while it's still relevant. In order to play these cards when you want to, you have to play at least five Forests, based on the math we've seen so far. And that's only to ensure that you have the Forest to cast them. You only have a one-in-sixty-four chance of drawing both the Forest and the Gatecreeper Vine by turn two. Do you really want to try those odds? Besides, if you're trying to fix your mana to make it easier to play your spells, you actually make it easier if you simply play mana sources of the color you're trying to fix in those slots! Bottom line: don't splash for mana fixing. Just don't.

Putting it Together

I'm hoping it's apparent to you now that both of these factors we've discussed can be mutually exclusive. You can build a deck that wants to cast restrictive cards early, like a deck with multiple Frostburn Weirds or Rakdos Shred-Freaks, but it's possible that those cards might be of a color that's a minority in your deck. An example of this is if those Weirds are part of an Azorius deck where the white mana symbols significantly outweigh the blue.

This is a problem, and one of the most common problems in Sealed Deck. Making this kind of mana mistake is probably more common than card evaluation errors. Simply put, you can't play a deck like that, not because I'm telling you not to (which I am), but because it's a mathematical improbability. In order to build this deck, you are making a sacrifice somewhere. In our previous two examples, you needed a mana base with ten Islands and eight Plains to play your cards when you wanted to, but you needed a mana base with twelve Plains and six Islands to account for all of your mana costs in the deck. These don't line up.


This is something that is very important to keep an eye on as you're building your deck. What are your mana requirements going to be? You don't have to do the math, but it should be apparent simply by looking at the deck. If you have a small number of cards of a certain color, but they all require two mana of the appropriate color, that's going to be a problem. If your secondary color is all cards that you are going to want to cast early, that is going to be a problem. If your bomb is something that requires a large mana commitment, possibly to a splashed color, that is going to be a problem. These are things you need to consider, and you need to find a way to address these problems before you run out of time.

In a vacuum, the solution to these problems is quite simple: don't play the problematic cards. If your deck can't support a card, don't play it. It often hurts your deck far more to include a card that your deck can't support, or to make concessions for that card, than to simply exclude it. Take the Jace example earlier. Sure, you can probably skew you mana sources in such a way that Jace can come down well before turn eight. But at what cost? To make him come down by turn five at the latest requires seven Islands. If you're splashing for Jace, do you really want to commit just under a half of your mana sources to getting him into play? Think of how much more difficult that will make playing every other spell in your deck. In my mind, and hopefully in yours, it's just not worth it.


This will do it for the first part of our discussion on mana. There are a lot of problems that one can encounter when building a Sealed Deck, and most of the major ones relate to mana. From needing too many mana sources to support a secondary color to having the wrong number of mana sources to play the cards you want when you want them, mana issues can seriously affect both the quality of your deck and your experience playing it. Magic is no fun when you can't cast your spells! Fortunately, Return to Ravnica has plenty of ways built in to help us with many of these issues. After all, if you are going to build a set around wanting people to be multiple colors, it makes no sense if you don't support that! Next week, we'll take a look at some of the ways that Return to Ravnica alleviates these mana issues, and we'll look a little deeper at how to turn math into intuition.

Grading Homework

This week, I was more interested in how players evaluated certain blocks of cards when building their decks than anything else. First, there is definitely a strong populate theme among the cards in this pool. You have almost every one of the good token-generating cards, including Centaur's Herald, Selesnya Charm, Call of the Conclave, Eyes in the Skies, Knightly Valor, Seller of Songbirds, Coursers' Accord, and Vitu-Ghazi Guildmage. This package of cards is very strong, and there are even the supporting populate cards to reinforce it. If you didn't use this as the core of your deck, I'm very surprised.


Beyond this, there are a couple of rares that warrant examination. First is the big bomb, Supreme Verdict. Personally, I think that this card is far too powerful not to play, especially considering that it only requires a single blue to cast. Add to that the fact that you generally aren't going to be casting it until much later in the game than turn four and it becomes an easy splash that doesn't impact mana too greatly. About the only things that would give me pause about its inclusion are the fact that this deck really wants to have access to both a Plains and Forest on turn two, and the fact that populate decks thrive on building up token creatures to populate from, which is counter to what Verdict does. However, I feel that the late-game nature of Verdict makes it possible to splash without devoting too many mana sources to the blue, making the first point irrelevant. Secondly, since you are the one casting the Verdict, you can plan accordingly and save token generators. Given how rapidly populate can add creatures to the board, you actually recover far faster than an opponent would after a Verdict, making it that much stronger.

After Verdict, there is the issue of Volatile Rig. Often, I love this card. The fact that it is a massive 4/4 for four mana is often overlooked by people who read its abilities. It ends games quickly. I've lost a few games to a Rig when it seemed like I was relatively in control simply because it hits so hard. Unfortunately, unlike Verdict, whose board-clearing is carefully controlled, the Rig could explode at any time. This unpredictability makes me wary of playing it in a deck that relies on building up creatures. Considering that this deck should be capable of churning out 3/3s, the loss of one 4/4 doesn't seem all that important to me.


Lastly, there is what to do with the other two rares. While I think that dipping into blue for Verdict is ok, there isn't nearly enough in the pool to support dipping in for the double blue required for Sphinx of the Chimes. In my mind, the Sphinx sits. Then you have Underworld Connections. While adding black makes the Stonefare Crocodiles better and gives access to a couple of potential removal spells, I don't believe it's worth it in this deck. First, I don't want to rely on a splash color for an activated ability. I'm much more content simply looking at the Crocs as 3/2s for three. Secondly, the deck already has a bunch of reasonable removal in the many combat tricks, Arrest, and double Trostani's Judgment. Add to that the fact that there isn't the mana help to support the double black, and I'd leave the Connections in the board. That said, here's what I came up with:


I'm splashing two cards: Supreme Verdict and New Prahv Guildmage. The Guildmage is deceptive since it has a mana cost of two, but I'm counting it as a much later card. I have many other good two-drops, and it's far more useful later in the game when I get to lift my large creatures or detain something useful. It can hit the table on turn eight and I'd be perfectly happy. That being said, I'm really gearing for these splash cards to become useful around turn eight. Based on the math I've presented to you in this article, that works out to three blue mana sources.

There are a couple of other decisions I've made that may be different than what you came up with. First, I chose to only run one of the Coursers' Accords in the pool. With multiple other sources of Centaur tokens, I didn't really feel like playing a second six-drop. This helped me keep my curve relatively reasonable. Secondly, I didn't play Ethereal Armor. I really like this card, and I liked that it combos well with the Arrest, but I have five other good ways to increase a creature's power and toughness, and I figured that would be enough. Lastly, I left out Stonefare Crocodile and Rubbleback Rhino. Both cards are good creatures for their respective costs, but I had to make concessions to the populate theme of the deck. While I am playing arguably weaker cards in Seller of Songbirds and Keening Apparition, I feel this is the correct choice. I wanted to keep the mana curve low, and there are a number of cards in the deck that are much better with the creation of the flying token, including Knightly Valor, Wayfaring Temple, and Chorus of Might.


With my deck presented and all of my choices explained, let's take a gander at what some of you have come up with!

First off, we have Lleowyn, who built a self-described "Seleszorius" deck from the pool.


While I do believe that having the Izzet Keyrune and Izzet Guildgate give plenty of ability to splash the Street Spasm, this version of the deck might be better off without adding the fourth color. Beyond that, I do like the solid, aggressive Azorius build that this pool is capable of making. There are four detain creatures and a boatload of flying creatures, including the giant Sphinx of the Chimes. Combined with the Hussar Patrol to hold the ground, this deck is certainly a fine build.


The only other suggestion I would make involves the inclusion of Call of the Conclave. I understand that the pull of populate is especially strong in this pool. However, in order for it to be good, you have to start making tokens early. I'm not keen on having an early-drop token generator in a splashed color. If you are going to splash green, remember your deck's identity. As a swarming, aggressive, flier-based deck, you would do much better splashing green for Common Bond and Chorus of Might. These cards combine incredibly well with your fliers and aid the deck's goal: to kill opponents as quickly as possible through the air.

Here's another from Pianoman7:


This deck has the Selesnya populate base, splashing blue for Supreme Verdict and red for a quintet of cards. This deck has a lot going on that I like and a couple of things that concern me. First, I like the idea of splashing for, as Pianoman7 put it, "game-ending cards." Street Spasm and Dynacharge really can end games out of nowhere, and they are relatively easy on the mana, only requiring a single red mana each. Since neither has to be cast in a particularly timely fashion, there's no particular reason to play an abundance of red mana sources. Three should be enough. I also like taking advantage of the populate theme to take full advantage of Dynacharge. The Selesnya deck is able to put out more creatures, on average, than any other guild, and that translates into big damage.


Unfortunately, I think five cards is a bit too many to truly consider a splash, especially one with only four mana sources. Cards like Lobber Crew and Guttersnipe are very good cards, but they are at their best when they come down early, giving you as many chances to use their abilities as possible. To get them down early in a reliable manner, you need more red mana sources than this list currently has. Secondly, they don't help what your deck is trying to do. Remember, one of the first things I tried to hammer home is to get a good idea of what your deck is trying to do. This is a populate deck, not the spell-heavy Snipe deck that both of those cards shine in. By cutting them, you free up more space for cards that enhance the deck's plan, as well as making the mana base much better. As for Explosive Impact, I'll leave that one up to you. It's not hard to cast, does two things very well, and isn't an early-game card. I'm on the fence. Lastly, I've already made mention of splashing for a fourth color. You can easily do the mental gymnastics that makes it seem like a reasonable idea, but the bottom line is that doing so strips space from your deck that could be used for cards that make your deck more consistent. Even though the mana sources you are adding are able to accommodate both splash colors, I don't like what it does to the deck.


We'll take a look at one more deck I received, this time from Kevin Sherman:


This deck is representative of the dozens of people who decided to run with the pure Selesnya build. What I love about Kevin's build is how close it is to the exact deck that I built. In fact, barring lands, there are only three cards different between our versions. In mine, I played Rootborn Defenses and touched blue for Supreme Verdict and New Prahv Guildmage. In his, he has the second Coursers' Accord, Axebane Stag, and a Golgari Decoy.


While I've already covered my decision to play blue for the Verdict, I did want to look at Kevin's inclusion of Golgari Decoy. I mulled for quite some time as to whether or not I should include the Decoy in my build. The card really is exceptional in the archetype, and it's possible that I'm making a mistake by not including it. Selesnya decks, especially those with a strong populate theme, tend to reach creature stalls more than other decks. As such, having a way to break those creature stalls and possibly win is an incredibly powerful effect. While I personally prefer to go the direction I went, I highlight this deck because I think it is an incredibly valid choice. Honestly, I'm not sure which version is better. So remember, just because I'm telling you I have a preference for something doesn't mean I'm right. It's not my preferences I'm trying to teach you, simply the right ways to think about things. After that, you can make your own decisions.

That brings me to my final point. I received a number of questions and comments about my decision not to run Mizzium Mortars in my deck last week. I certainly agree that the deck would have an issue with a card like Vitu-Ghazi Guildmage, or any creatures whose strength lies in their abilities rather than their power or toughness. Honestly, my decision not to run it was more of a personal preference than anything else. I felt that I had the tools necessary to beat a deck like that without relying on drawing a splashed card and the mana sources I added to cast it. After all, assuming I add three mana sources for the Mortars, I'm only about 2% likely to draw both a mana source and the Mortars in a forty-card deck. To me, that's not really worth it. If you decided to play it, though, I would definitely go with the suggestion to treat it like a "slightly more expensive Flame Slash." The card is a good removal spell for two mana, and if you ignore the overload cost, it would be far more worth playing. It's when you start to construct your deck or your play to take advantage of the overload that it becomes a real issue.


Next Lesson

Here's the card pool for this week's homework:



Check back next week, as I continue my discussion about mana and Sealed Deck construction, this time with a little more focus on Return to Ravnica. I'll also have another guest Sealed Deck builder lined up, so make sure you bring your A-game!


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