Understanding Mana Curves and Mana Acceleration

Chingsung Chang originally contacted me in response to one of the columns I posed, looking for writers to fill column ideas. His writing was solid but I held off bringing him on as I waded through other possible writers. After a handful of popular pieces he submitted I admitted that I was wrong and have agreed to bring him on as a weekly writer helping fill out our Tuesdays. -- Trick

Last week I wrote a bit about mana curves, within the context of M11 limited. Mana curves are very powerful because they allow you to utilize all your mana every single turn. Because Magic is a game fundamentally about resource utilization (normally the person who utilizes their total resources better is the winner), using all your mana (one of your most important resources) every turn is clearly desirable.

Players also quickly learned that "cheating" spells into play earlier than normal is great too. More expensive spells tended to have larger impacts on games, and thus casting them earlier put you in a better position, frequently good enough to recoup the lost card economy. This was most evident in one of Necro's most famous plays: T1, Swamp, Dark Ritual, Hypnotic Specter.

The basic principle of this play is to use Hypnotic Specter and the accompanied discard ability to recoup the card disadvantage due to the use of Dark Ritual. Spending the Dark Ritual allows you a tempo gain, and the idea is to use that tempo gain to generate a different kind of advantage. Hypnotic Specter could not only recover the lost card, it could also turn into card advantage itself if it hit a second time. Random discard also had the effect of disrupting an opponent's strategy or line of play by hitting a critical card or land. Many games, your opponent would never recover from T1 Hypnotic Specter. You got lucky and hit a land or an important spell, and from there the Specter held them down.

Of course, mana acceleration also comes in creature form. Birds of Paradise and Llanowar Elves have been accelerating out bigger guys since Magic was first created, and now Noble Hierarch has joined their ranks. Obviously mana acceleration affects your curve, but how?

It's important to remember two things about mana acceleration – where you are coming from (mana cost) and where you are going (what you are accelerating into). This is where curve becomes important.

Consider, as an illustration, vanilla creatures at each CMC:
1: Mons's Goblin Raiders
2: Grizzly Bears
3: Trained Armodon
4: Hill Giant/Order of the Sacred Bell
5: Fomori Nomad

The difference between successive mana costs gets smaller and smaller. In other words, if you can cast a two mana spell with the same ease you can cast a one mana spell you have a bigger advantage than someone who can cast a three mana spell with the same ease they can cast a two mana spell. The end result of this is that mana acceleration becomes less valuable as you go up the curve*. Because of this fact, it is important for you to take advantage of mana acceleration while you have it.

This means that you have to have spells you are accelerating into. You have to know where your mana acceleration comes on the curve, but also where it accelerates you to. Let's take a look at the most commonly used mana acceleration in Standard.

1: Noble Hierarch, Birds of Paradise, Llanowar Elves
2: Lotus Cobra, Explore, Rampant Growth, Nest Invader
3: Cultivate, Harrow
4: Garruk Wildspeaker, Kozilek's Predator

The one mana spells all accelerate you from 1 to 3. The two mana spells accelerate you from 2 to 4, and Lotus Cobra can often accelerate you from 2 to 5. Cultivate and Harrow accelerate you from 3 to 5, and the four mana spells accelerate you to 6 or 7, depending on if you are able to naturally make your next land drop.

What does this mean? It means that you have to play spells at the appropriate mana cost to take advantage of your mana acceleration. If you are playing Cultivate alongside a bunch of four drops, Cultivate isn't really doing anything for you, because your four drops are still coming down on turn 4, and not on turn 3.

The deck designer who probably understands mana acceleration the best is Zvi Mowshowitz. Let's take a look at one of his recent creations: Mythic.

The mana acceleration is, of course, Birds, Hierarch, and Cobra. In order to give purpose to the use of these cards, Zvi runs a high concentration of threats in the slots that take advantage of them. He runs 8 3-drops (Knight and War Monk), and takes advantage of the Lotus Cobra acceleration by running a bunch of 4's and 5's (Baneslayer, Finest Hour, Rafiq, and the singleton Thornling). Thus he has 8 one-drops that accelerate into 8 three-drops, and four two-drops that accelerate into 11 4's and 5's. Indeed, Zvi makes very good use of his mana acceleration, and uses Celestial Colonnade and Stirring Wildwood to make sure that his mana does not go to waste later in the game.

The modern evolution of Mythic is based much on the same principle. If you note the deck essentially skips the two drop slot entirely, relying on Knight of the Reliquary, Dauntless Escort, and Rhox War Monk to fill the three slot. Where it really shines though is when you get to 4 and up. Cards like Jace, the Mind Sculptor, Elspeth, Knight-Errant, Baneslayer Angel, and Sovereigns of Lost Alara come down MUCH faster than normal because of the quantity of mana acceleration the deck runs. In essence, Mythic is a deck that showcases the full power of Lotus Cobra.

Let's consider a counterexample. This list is by Kamiya Shogo from the recent PTQ in Kanazawa, Japan.

This deck REALLY wants to hit four mana on turn three. It has Garruk, Jace, and kicked Into the Roil in the 4 slot, not to mention Obstinate Baloth out of the sideboard. Thus, the Cultivates in this list make little sense without seeing the 4th Rampant Growth and Explore. The Cultivate has no real purpose other than ensuring the deck can play a tap land on turn 3 after playing Rampant Growth on turn 2, or hold up Lightning Bolt mana after a turn 2 Growth/Explore. Cultivate does almost nothing for the deck if Growth/Explore has not played before it.

Rampant Growth and Explore serve this deck much better than Cultivate, especially in conjunction with Garruk. Garruk allows the deck to ramp directly to 6 (titans) or 7 (Destructive Force). Cultivate is, in and of itself, an excellent card, but it is out of place in this deck, as it has nothing really at 5 to take advantage of the acceleration Cultivate provides.

It is important to remember when constructing decks that each card you pick must have a purpose. It must justify its place. The most common number to select for a card in deck construction is not one, two, three, or four, but zero. In all formats, you omit more cards than you include, and thus each copy of a card, even the first, must justify itself at the expense of all other potential inclusions. Mana acceleration is one of the aspects where it is critical to think about this, because it affects what is good in your deck and what is not. By understanding where your mana acceleration lies on the curve and where it jumps your curve to, you are able to build the rest of your deck to accommodate that effect.

Let's take a look at a different approach to a card combination Ben Hayes presented last weekKnight of the Reliquary and Destructive Force. Knight of the Reliquary is clearly strongest in more aggressive strategies (Vengevine Naya and Mythic being examples). The problem is that Destructive Force is, at first glance, not very good in aggressive strategies. It is a 7-caster after all.

But, Destructive Force has an interesting effect on the game at 7 mana. By forcing an opponent to sacrifice 5 lands, it can absolutely cripple their ability to respond defensively to any pressure you have been able to keep on the board. Of course, keeping pressure on the board post-force is an issue, as it does 5 damage to everything, but that is something that perhaps can be worked around.

Thus there are two core components to this strategy:

  1. We want a midrange, aggressive deck to take advantage of Knight of the Reliquary.
  2. We want that deck to contain enough threats that survive Destructive Force so that when we cast Force, it will make our opponent unable to stop what pressure remains on the board.

Let's take a look at number 2 first, since that is going to be crucial to how we build our deck. How can we get threats to survive Force?

  1. Sejiri Steppe
  2. Dauntless Escort
  3. Planeswalkers
  4. 6+ toughness
  5. 5+ toughness + exalted trigger

It is also worthwhile to mention that Vengevine sort of survives Force since he can come back after any two creature drops.

Thus we have a core threat set. We need creatures that have 5 and 6 toughness in addition to Knight of the Reliquary. That leaves us with basically titans and Baneslayer Angel (alongside planeswalkers of course). So, let's compile a list of threats in Naya colors – Primeval Titan, Sun Titan, Inferno Titan, Baneslayer Angel, Garruk Wildspeaker, Ajani Vengeant, Gideon Jura, Elspeth, Knight-Errant. These are the threats that will have permanence in our deck.

Garruk, Primeval Titan, Sun Titan, Ajani, and Elspeth seem particularly interesting. The first give us additional consistency in casting Destructive Force (Sun Titan returns fetchlands). Ajani disrupts our opponent's mana while Elspeth creates creatures and makes our own guys bigger. Sun Titan also returns Escort, allowing us to protect our guys better from opposing Wraths and our own Forces. Thus we want to be playing threats at basically 4 and 6.

So, what do we have now? We have Dauntless Escort and Knight of the Reliquary at three, and we have Planeswalkers at 4, Baneslayer at 5, Titans at 6, and Force at 7. This is the curve of the cards we want to play. Seeing this curve means we need some mana acceleration. Going from 1 to 3 as well as 2 to 4 is going to be strong, which means we want a Mythic-like suite of mana acceleration. For starters, let's try the following:

4 Noble Hierarch
2 Birds of Paradise
4 Lotus Cobra

This gives us 10 accelerators, as well as the exalted triggers to help our Baneslayers survive.

Now we add our three mana spells:

4 Knight of the Reliquary
4 Dauntless Escort

This leaves us at 18 spells, which means we have 16 slots left, assuming we want to run 26 lands, which seems fair. Considering we have yet to put Destructive Force in the deck, we have realistically 13 slots, assuming we run 3 Force, which seems like a good place to start.

With 13 slots, I think a good place to start is to divide them as follows:

3 Garruk Wildspeaker
2 Ajani Vengeant
2 Elspeth, Knight-Errant
3 Baneslayer Angel
2 Primeval Titan
1 Sun Titan

This uses all thirteen of our slots. Ideally we would like some room for some utility cards (Path and O-Ring spring to mind), so let's look for potential cuts. The fourth Escort seems like it could be cut, and Elspeth seems like the least important of the threats, so let's cut one of each for a pair of Oblivion Rings. After adding lands, we arrive at the following list.

This list is basically untested. I've only played a few games with it but it's definitely powerful. The manabase seems like the primary weakness thus far. It is a little bit unstable. I'd love to be able to include one or two Tectonic Edge to supplement Ajani and Force, but that is too greedy at the moment. Perhaps there is a good way to stabilize the manabase, but I can't find it right now. Comments are welcome.

The sideboard is also just a starting point, the idea being that the planeswalkers, Escort, and O-Ring probably come in against control while you can board in the Sparkmage/Equip package against aggro. It's possible that there should be more board space dedicated to control and ramp, I'm not sure. For those of you who are qualified for nationals and interested in testing a Destructive Force list, you should give this a shot. Regardless, the list above is an example of what you can do with mana acceleration and how it affects your card choices and curve.

Chingsung Chang
Conelead on most forums and on MTGO

* = Of course, this is only a general trend, and if there are particularly powerful cards in certain mana slots, it can well be worth accelerating into them, even if they are more expensive or off curve.