In Development – A Series of Harrowing Decisions

A little while ago, I was Winston drafting my Kamigawa cube with my friend Shane. Yes, I have a Cube that is one of each card from Kamigawa block. Early on in my draft, I saw and immediately picked a Gifts Ungiven, eventually splashing blue in an otherwise robust black-red deck almost solely for the purpose of playing that Gifts. I eventually managed to Gifts for this spread of four cards, of which I was quite proud: Gutwrencher Oni, Infernal Kirin, Nezumi Bone-Reader, and Shirei, Shizo’s Caretaker. I won that game, and our Winston draft, but did the ability to run a single copy of Gifts Ungiven merit splashing several Islands into an otherwise very strong two-color deck – a deck that might have been stronger without the splash?

Regardless of my answer to that question, the real “answer” in this situation is, of course, that I drafted and played Gifts because it’s a card I just wanted to play. Gifts does things I love doing in Magic, like searching my library, running one-ofs, and having clever packages to deal with and win in different game situations. I may well have made my draft deck worse because I wanted to play this card.

These are what I tend to think of as aesthetic choices. They’re not simply issues of game style, such as preferring to play aggro, combo, control, midrange, or some other definition of an archetype. They’re more about making decisions based on your preference for drawing lots of cards, interacting with the board, or even something as simple as searching your library. These aesthetic decisions can lead us to draft particular cards we perhaps shouldn’t, and unexamined, they may make us think there’s only one way to achieve our goals.

Finding the optimal path to four colors

For the last two years or so of Standard, if you were planning on going over three colors, you pretty much wanted to go with Vivid lands and Reflecting Pools. Although this didn’t obviate the need to think through the exact parameters of your mana base, it was more an issue of which Vivids to combine with which filters, rather than what overall approach you want to take to building that mana base. Now, post-rotation, we have more decisions to make.

This came up for me in the past week as I worked on playtesting the latest Ascension Pulse build against various decks from the recent Philly $5K. As I’d expected, the deck did well after sideboarding against Boros, and it worked just fine against all the other decks except for, sadly, Jund. With Jund being such a dominating presence in the modern metagame, this represented a potentially deal-ending problem for the deck. This, in turn, had me pondering options that would have expanded Ascension Pulse from a three-color to a four-color deck, such as adding in [card]Wall of Denial[/card].

Suddenly I had to think about generating a more complex mana base, and just as suddenly, I realized I should already have given more thought to this question for the new Standard. The only reason I hadn’t was because of an aesthetic preference.

On the face of it, there are a number of different options we can include in any current mana base. We have Alara tri-lands, Rupture Spires, Terramorphic Expanses, M10 “I care about basic lands” duals, fetchlands, and Zendikar “bonus life” duals. We also have the option of using land-searching cards such as Harrow to find the lands we need to accelerate and fix our mana. These all interact with varying degrees of efficiency with each other, and that’s where we suddenly find ourselves wondering what combination yields the most effective mana base to suit our needs.

Aesthetically, I prefer fetch lands and searching. I admit this is an aesthetic choice, one based on my actual, literal enjoyment of searching my library for stuff. Clearly, these kinds of choices influence why we play the game and how we play it, but if the thing we love is going to lose us the game”¦well, I like winning, too.

So how should we build our four-color mana base? Fetches and duals? Tri-lands and Spires?

In my professional field, biology, there’s a saying that “a day in the library is worth a week in the lab.” That is, you should check first to see what other people have done before you waste a lot of time trying to figure it out yourself. In that spirit, I referred back to three different Pro Tour events to survey environments in which people played four or five-color decks without the benefit of Vivids, to generate a baseline for exploring which approach we want to take now. Coincidentally, two of these Pro Tours happened in Honolulu.

Successful mana-fixing in a non-Vivid world

The more recent PT Honolulu speaks directly to our question, as it saw mana-fixing addressed entirely with Alara cards. Consider the following pair of five-color control builds from Honolulu:

Lucas Blohon’s 5CC


Paul Cheon’s 5CC

The two mana bases are similar enough, but with one notable difference. Whereas Cheon’s version runs fifteen tri-lands and two Panoramas, Blohon relies on ten tri-lands and four Rupture Spires. In aggregate, the decks are roughly similar in the degree to which they give up tempo to manage their mana-fixing, and both use a full set of Exotic Orchards, which is unlikely to succeed in the current Standard environment. Playing an Orchard into a Boros deck is just no fun. Both decks also rely on simply having a lot of lands to hit their land drops, with twenty-six lands in Blohon’s deck and a whopping twenty-eight in Cheon’s.

Now consider two four-color Gifts decks from the first PT Honolulu and from Worlds 2005:

Frank Karsten’s Greater Good Gifts

Makahito Mihara’s Greater Good Gifts

Clearly, the entire approach differs here. Both decks run significantly leaner mana bases than the Alara examples, with twenty-three lands. They have access to a number of duals, but maintain a large supply of basic lands because they have to, as they’re rich in land-searching. It’s easy to miss it on a first glance through the list, but both Gifts decks run ten land search cards, eight of which can only grab basics. Instead of continually giving up tempo for the sake of mana-fixing, these decks feature “tempo bumps” where they play two- or three-mana spells to fix their mana and accelerate a bit, but each individual land drop maintains normal tempo.

This sets up our basic dichotomy – do we continually sacrifice tempo to achieve mana-fixing, or do we opt for “tempo bumps” and devote slots in our deck to achieving fixing? Which is better?

To continue my analogy from above, once we’ve gone to the library to do our background research, it’s time for us to develop our hypothesis and set up some experiments.

Testing the two approaches

Since my entire interest in this area was prompted by my desire to generate four-color variations of the Ascension Pulse deck, I put together these two test versions that tried to rely on the different core approaches outlined above:

Alara-style Ascension Pulse (not recommended)

This build features twenty-six lands, including eight tri-lands and four Rupture Spires. Note that I didn’t eschew the fetches here, but our commitment to having fetch lands is naturally limited by the paucity of basics in the deck.

Ravnica-style Ascension Pulse (not recommended)

This version goes down to twenty-four lands, but adds in searching in the form of Borderland Ranger and Harrow. There’s an interesting tension here between the fetches and these search spells, since they’re all trying to access a necessarily limited pool of basic lands. That said, we only need to worry about this tension to a degree, because once we hit a certain land count, we’re good and don’t need any more. This mana base can also successfully use the M10 duals, as it will regularly serve up basic lands to bring those in untapped.

The testing process largely involved running both of these variations up against Jund decks taken from the Philly $5K, with a smattering of action against other decks from the same event. I learned a number of useful things here, the first being unrelated to the specific goal of the testing – this happens in biology as well, with the most interesting result having nothing to do with the question we thought we were asking. These adjusted builds still don’t stand up to Jund, although I’ll address that in more detail below. On topic, I learned that there was no significant difference in success and survival between the two approaches. Neither one fundamentally stumbled on mana, neither one had trouble getting the colors it needed, and neither was too slow to compete.

This doesn’t make it a total wash, but it does mean that our choice between these approaches probably depends on how they subtly interact with our other cards. If we’re going to be relying on Knight of the Reliquary as a finisher, then fetches and Harrows are clearly good. If we’re aiming toward a particularly color-intensive finisher, such as Cruel Ultimatum, then tri-lands and Rupture Spires are probably best. The good news is that you can tailor your land choices to these specific needs without worrying that you’re torpedoing your overall likelihood of success.

Back to taking down Jund

As I mentioned above, the inciting incident for all this rumination about mana bases and aesthetic choices was a playtest series against a number of successful decks from the biggest recent Standard event. The good news is that the deck continues to be very successful against many of the archetypes seen in the Philly top sixteen. The Boros matchup, for example, is a little dodgy in game one, but is nicely in our favor after sideboarding. As a fun, take-home fact that I recommend you keep in mind for your own designs, I’ve found that Bloodwitch is a total house in the Boros matchup, as its protection from white means that most of the creatures in the Boros build can’t get past it”¦and, inconveniently for them, the Boros player can’t Path it out of the way, either. Unfortunately, good matchups against much of the variety of the field mean nothing if a deck can’t successfully take down an archetype that constitutes a large percentage of successful finishers. Being unable to take down Jund is a deal breaker right now.

I tested many options against Jund – too many to go into detail about here. Most of the early testing centered on attempting to avoid giving the Jund deck removal targets. Most critically, I wanted to avoid giving it Bituminous Blast targets, as this provides a hook onto which the deck can latch a cascade chain that often churns up a whole new threat to wreck you. This prompted consideration of a blue splash for Wall of Denial or a red splash for Uril, but I realized there wasn’t a critical mass of shroud critters available to really support that approach. More to the point, I realized that it wasn’t losing my guys to removal that was the key issue, but rather the deck’s ability to hit my hand with Blightnings and to reload its attackers even in the face of mass removal from my side. Obviously, the combination of cascade spells and Broodmates powers this reload. Less obviously but much more problematically, Thrinaxes meant that I couldn’t just wipe the board with a Day of Judgment and call it, well, a day.

Testing like this is an iterative process, and I tried a number of loops through Gatherer searching for cards that generated card advantage for me or that might help pull me back from the edge. I finally settled on two key additions for the Jund matchup, which appear in this current Ascension Pulse decklist:

Ascension Pulse, Jund-tuned


Clearly, I’ve diverged from last week’s build. Nissa and friends are simply gone, banished due to her vulnerability to Blightning. In testing, she was initially pushed to the sideboard, with her Chosen staying in as speedbumps. Eventually, however, her worth in other matchups wasn’t enough to find space in the total seventy-five of a deck that was going to have to face down Jund round after round, and she simply had to go. This build increases the amount of land search, in accord with what I’ve termed the “Ravnica“ model, adding in four Borderland Ranger as combined mana-fixers and speedbumps. The most glaring addition is probably those Felidar Sovereigns. They’ve proven to be an excellent top of my curve in the Jund matchup, as they take a lot to kill, and can recover your life total while remaining back on defence. This is distinct from the role of Baneslayer in this same slot, which requires an active race between you and the opponent. Given how often Jund reloads into a hasty attacker, it’s very useful to be able to have a 4/6 lifelink on both offense and defense. The other potentially curious addition is Lightcaster. Where other players are running Celestial Purge, I choose to run Lightcaster. Like Purge, it can de-Thrinax the board, paving the way for a devastating Judgment. Unlike Purge, it can also hang around and block Thrinaxes and Leeches all day, dodging Terminates and Bituminous Blasts.

For clarity’s sake, here are the key sideboarding notes:

Against Jund
+4 Devout Lightcaster
+1 Felidar Sovereign
+1 Martial Coup

-2 Malakir Bloodwitch
-1 Luminarch Ascension
-2 Liliana Vess
-1 Identity Crisis

Against Aggro
+4 Pitfall Trap
-2 Liliana Vess
-1 Identity Crisis
-1 Martial Coup

“¦and adjust the Sovereign/Bloodwitch mix to match the opposition. For example, you want a full four Bloodwitches against Boros, versus a full four Sovereigns against Mono-Red Aggro.

Against Control
+2 Malakir Bloodwitch

-1 Day of Judgment
-1 Felidar Sovereign

As I mentioned above, when the differences between fundamental game outcomes of different mana base approaches are slight, it all comes down to how the details affect us on a case-by-case basis. For this Ascension Pulse build, we leverage one of the extremely valuable aspects of the fetch-and-search approach to allow us to run a seemingly curious mix of cards. When we want triple white for Lightcaster in the Jund matchup, we can side out the Bloodwitches so that we no longer need to hit more than one Swamp per game. This, in turn, means we can fetch for, and search for, Plains. Similarly, when we’re in the control or Boros matchup and we want those Bloodwitches as soon as possible, we can devote these same resources to giving us double black as soon as we hit five mana. This is versatility in searching is amazingly handy in this case, but simply would not work in a deck that wants to hit a turn seven Cruel Ultimatum, where on-board mana versatility is probably key.

Happily, it looks like we’ve transitioned from the free pass of Vivids and Pools into a period not of forced mana base simplicity, but of a number of different, entirely workable approaches to building the three, four, or five-color manabase we need for a complex control deck. As far as I can tell, the differences between the approaches are subtle and case-dependent, making them fertile ground for creative design. My homework assignment for myself in the new Standard will be to continue to use this fertile ground to evaluate my own choices, aesthetic or otherwise, and see which ones work best.


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