During the week, when I am preparing for a tournament, I scroll through a lot of decklists. Most of the time it's to get a sense of what decks are doing well recently so I can tune my list accordingly, but sometimes it is to draw inspiration as to what deck to play when I am unsure. Regardless, there is one criticism that I levy against decklists much more often than any other.
People do not play enough lands.
Whether aggro, control, midrange, or even combo, it seems that most players try to play the fewest number of lands they can reasonably get away with, and sometimes even fewer. When thinking about obvious changes to these decks, I invariably look to add at least one land, sometimes two or more.
On the surface, I believe this is a product of how we build decks. No one starts their list by listing a bunch of Temples and basics. They start with the much more exciting part of the deck: one mana green creatures! Or Brainstorm and Force of Will if that's your thing, I guess.
When players think of new deck ideas during spoiler season, they are thinking of how best to build around a sweet mythic dragon or synergistic combo. The manabase of these decks is too often an afterthought. It is a puzzle to be solved during testing once the real part of the list is determined.
With that said, how often do you brew a deck and end up with too few spells? If your answer is anything other than approximately never, you, sir or madam, are a filthy liar. When that last slot comes down to a choice between a 24th land and another sweet spell that you could need to topdeck in game 3 of the finals, it is only natural to side with the spell.
The disciplined deckbuilder will resist this temptation since they view lands and spells as equal. Sure it is true that if you draw too many lands you will not have enough action to defeat your opponent. But if you do not draw enough lands, you are left to stare at all the pretty cards in your hand, unable to use them. Without both parts working in unison, the deck fails.
The other factor I believe has caused this phenomenon is due to the psychological differences between mana screw and mana flood.
It has been posited that control decks appear better than aggro decks even if their win percentages are identical because the control deck spends more total time playing games it wins than the aggro deck does. Even if you only win fifty percent of the games played, you may spend seventy percent of the time played in a winning position, which is more satisfying. On the contrary, aggressive decks win when they end the game quickly, resulting in less total time spent winning, and therefore. less time gaining a positive impression of the deck.
The same dichotomy exists between mana screw and mana flood. Games lost to screw are often quick, brutal affairs in which the mana-light player is never able to establish themselves, whereas games lost to flood are more painful, often games in which the losing player was at parity or even ahead until a pocket of lands left them with no means to close the game. Many times, only one good draw is needed to reverse the outcome, and the vanquished is left to bemoan their luck and wonder what might have been had one of those many lands been a key Stoke the Flames, Dig Through Time, or Elspeth, Sun's Champion.
The undue time spent playing games involving mana flood relative to those involving mana screw creates the same aversion to flooding that players may develop to aggro decks. Obviously we would like to avoid both mana screw and mana flood simultaneously, but this appears to be impossible as one requires playing more lands, and the other fewer. However, this is only the most clearly apparent means by which we can affect the consistency of our land draws. The other has to do with the non-land cards we select.
To combat mana screw even with a lower land count, you can simply lower your curve. This is most evident in the variousBoss Sligh lists that Tom Ross terrorized Standard with last summer. Those decks operated on one or two lands very easily, and thus were able to operate with a very low land total-seventeen. However, this comes at a significant cost of power level. Boss Sligh would often draw more spells than other decks over the course of the game and be able to deploy them faster, but if it is unable to end the game quickly, can have those advantages easily erased by more powerful cards.
This creates a tension where even though the deck may be able to operate reasonably well on a single land, it really needs to see a second or even a third to be able to leverage its cheap spells before the opponent's more powerful cards can be deployed. As such, this is a somewhat unstable means of combating flood, and one that I personally try to avoid. However, if you are able to maintain a very low curve without sacrificing much in terms of raw power, such as with Legacy Delver decks, this is a powerful deckbuilding tactic to employ.
Legacy Delver decks are also well-known for employing cantrips like Ponder, Gitaxian Probe, and even Thought Scour, which allow for a lower than normal land count. These cards increase a deck's velocity, that is the rate at which you are able to see further into your library. A 60-card deck with ten cantrips functions more closely to a 50-card deck, and thus, in theory, requires only five-sixths of the lands it otherwise would.
However, I err on the high side of such estimates because the mana investment involved in casting cantrips can interfere with your early development. Another benefit of increasing your deck's velocity is that you see your high impact cards more often, so it offers some insurance against flood as well. It is no surprise then that cheap blue cantrips are among the most powerful cards in the game, as the best of them are Legacy staples and banned in Modern. Unfortunately, we likely will not see cantrips of that power ever again, so what are we to do?
Another structural means of combating screw is to move the other direction and raise your land count above what is merely necessary while reducing the increased risk of flood via your choice of non-land cards. There are always plenty of powerful mana sinks available, highlighted in current Standard by cards with monstrous, bestow, and morph. All of these mechanics allow you the flexibility of playing a card early if necessary but also have more impactful draws if you have a few more lands than expected. With enough lands, even an individual mana sink can take over a game by itself, even if it takes three hours to do so.
I point out Mastery of the Unseen, in particular, because one of the most powerful abilities of a mana sink is for it to naturally extend the game, which often occurs through lifegain. This gives the card a way to naturally feed itself by giving you the time necessary to leverage the resource advantage a mana sink generates each turn. That is what made Sphinx's Revelation so powerful. The first one gave you the time to set up the second, which either ended the game or led to a third that certainly ended the game.
The most efficient way to mitigate flood in this way is through the use of utility lands which are, unsurprisingly, my favorite cards to play with. It was no coincidence that Mutavault was the most played card in Standard last year; it existed without much competition. Many players pointed to the synergy the card had with Pack Rat or Master of Waves as reasons for its importance, but in reality it was the added consistency and resiliency that Mutavault offered that made it so potent. Even the control decks started playing several copies, partially as a way to combat them from the opposition but also to defend their planeswalkers and pressure their opponents'.
Mono-Blue Devotion was able to play 25 lands as an aggro deck with a curve that ended at four, which greatly decreased how often it would stumble in the earlygame, and it sacrificed little if it drew too many lands because it could use excess mana activating Thassa, God of the Sea and Mutavault or overloading Cyclonic Rift. It may seem like having so many lands in your aggro deck is a demerit, but the opposite is true. Just ask our esteemed editor:
Figure of Destiny is one of the most potent mana sinks ever printed, and as such, was among the best cards in Standard for its entire existence in the format. We also see an extensive use of utility lands from the aforementioned Mutavault to former staple Windbrisk Heights, even the innocuous Rustic Clachan. The sideboard is also filled with high end cards to ensure an ability to play into the lategame while retaining its advantage in the earlygame.
The temptation to trim a land or two is also prevalent among midrange and control players, perhaps even moreso given that these decks already run an above average number of lands and are thus more prone to flood. However, the nature of those decks requires such high land counts, and I always cringe slightly when I see an Abzan deck with a scant 24 or 25 lands, or a U/B Control list with a minimal 26.
The reason these decks require such inflated land counts? Card advantage. Especially in the form of straight card draw spells like Jace's Ingenuity or Read the Bones. When you plan to spend a key turn of the game not affecting the board, you cannot afford to fall further behind by missing a land drop. The tempo loss from card advantage spells also makes it important to begin casting multiple spells in a turn as early as possible, further increasing the desire to make as many land drops as possible.
As with mana sinks, card advantage spells provide a natural protection against flood since the resource advantage gained will ultimately put you ahead in total spells drawn, even if the ratio of spells to lands you draw is significantly lower. Moreover, midrange and control decks often play only the most powerful threats, meaning that they are more able to win games with fewer relevant cards to begin with. When in doubt, I always play an extra land in these decks.
One complication for many players with the midrange decks in this format is the presence of Sylvan Caryatid. Most players look at mana accelerants, whether they be creatures or spells, as mana sources just like lands, and are thus afraid to overload on them for fear of flood. However, mana accelerants operate in a distinctly different fashion than regular lands-they accelerate of course!
What I mean by that is that when playing these cards you need to make land drops as normal in order to leverage them properly and cast your higher costing spells ahead of curve. Playing a Sylvan Caryatid on turn 2 does very little if you do not have a third land to play your Siege Rhino or Thunderbreak Regent. It may as well have been a land. Even worse, if your mana creature dies to a removal spell as Elvish Mystic and Rattleclaw Mystic are prone to. As such, employing mana creatures means you want to play more lands, not fewer, even if the total number of mana sources in the deck rises above 30.
Consequently, decks with mana accelerants are under even more pressure to have cards that mitigate flood, which is why monstrous creatures like Polukranos, World Eater and Stormbreath Dragon have been so widely adopted in ramp decks since Theros. Many of my losses with G/R Aggro at the Season One Invitational were due to missing early land drops, which allowed my opponents to trade for my threats on curve.
What I did not realize at the time was that the printing of Thunderbreak Regent as another powerful four-drop flier combined with the metagame shift towards cheaper removal weakening threats like Heir of the Wilds and Goblin Rabblemaster means that I should have been building a ramp deck as opposed to an aggro deck. The presence of four copies of Rattleclaw Mystic was an obvious sign, as that card was rather poor in the previous iterations of the deck that were aggressively tilted. My deck was built with those aggressive elements intact rather than having more ways to win through flood.
Chris VanMeter wisely re-imagined it as a midrange ramp deck through the inclusion of Courser of Kruphix and maindeck Xenagos, the Reveler to gain some much needed card advantage and Dragonlord Atarka as a high-end threat that can win a game by itself. The extra card advantage is important here because having such a high mana count means you are more vulnerable to spot removal spells. Xenagos and Courser both leave you ahead in many trades, and often that advantage need only manifest into sticking one big threat to take over a game.
He also wisely added the 24th land, and I would even consider playing a 25th in this deck, especially with multiple copies of Haven of the Spirit Dragon that can turn into spells in the lategame. Overall this deck is much more cohesive and strategically sound than the list I played, and Chris was justly rewarded.
As a final thought, note that these principles also apply to Limited deck construction but often in the reverse. In general, Limited decks are of a much lower power level than Constructed decks. As the individual power level of cards decreases, the importance of card quantity increases relative to card quality, which makes mana flood a more serious issue since it effectively deprives you of card quantity.
Moreover, games last longer and you are also less likely to be punished by a slow start in Limited, making mana screw of less concern. As such, trimming lands in Limited decks is much more defensible than in Constructed.
Still, if you find yourself with plenty of mana sinks, several bombs, and/or lots of card draw spells, then you will want to look at an 18th or even 19th land as a possibility.
I say that as a reminder that the principles I have laid out are only guidelines, and learning when and how to deviate from them is important for reaching the highest levels of Magic. If your Standard opponent is playing a very slow deck, and you do not have the means of consistently avoiding an attrition battle, then trimming lands in your midrange deck may be prudent because hurting your earlygame is of little consequence. Similarly, if your Sealed opponent has a fast deck (or you are playing a fast format akin to Zendikar or Gatecrash), you will want to make sure you do not stumble and should consider adding an extra land.
My purpose in writing this piece was not simply to elucidate a set of rules to follow but to awaken in you a sense that your manabase is as relevant a part of your deck as your creatures and spells. Treat it as such, and you will find that the variance bug does not bite nearly as often as you would be made to believe.