fbpx

Mana Dorks That Changed MTG Forever

The inclusion of mana dorks in Magic: the Gathering decks has been a game-shaping dynamic ceded in the original MTG sets and that’s where today’s history lesson begins.

Birds of ParadiseLlanowar Elves

Mana dork is commonplace MTG slang for a creature with a low converted mana cost (typically a one or two-drop) that produces mana to help a deck cast its spells more efficiently. The role of these creatures within a strategy is to help smooth out draws and cast the other spells in the deck more efficiently, on time and on curve. Essentially, mana dorks are an extension of a deck’s mana base but always in the form of creatures.

It’s also significant to note that because mana dorks are always creatures, they die to the various creature removal spells that people tend to play and so the key dynamic is that they create significant tactical advantages in terms of accelerating, ramping and fixing your mana, but always contingent on upon the mana dork surviving a full turn cycle to be able to use its activated ability to produce mana.

Lightning Bolt

“Bolt the Bird” is a fundamental interaction in 1v1 dueling formats as old as Magic itself (considering Lightning Bolt and Birds of Paradise both appear in MTG’s original set of cards and remained fixtures of the Core Set for many, many years). It’s a basic and significant interaction because there are several pieces of strategic insight latent in that statement:

  1. Subsets of mana dork creatures, when deployed on the first or second turn, have great capacity to accelerate a player into bigger or more impactful sequences ahead of the curve. 
  2. Using removal to curtail this burst of mana acceleration is commonplace counterplay to mana dork strategies. 
  3. Mana dorks are typically not “threats” in the sense that they are used to pressure an opponent’s life total in a significant way, but rather their “threat level” is contingent upon providing access to more or better mana because they break the parity of the one land per turn rule. 

Many mana dorks do have some amount of offensive capabilities to pressure an opponent’s life total but also their planeswalkers. If you don’t need an extra green mana on a particular turn, Llanowar Elves can and often attack for one point of damage. While not a reliable threat in the combat step, the ability to also function as an output of combat damage (as well as a chump blocker) is another source of value that a mana dork has. I wouldn’t put a Llanowar Elves into my deck because it’s a strong attacker or blocker (I’d put it into my deck to make mana!) but the fact that it can attack is non-trivial and can certainly swing games. We generally call this dynamic “chip damage,” in the sense that we are chipping away at an opponent’s life total or planeswalkers. 

 

 

Another dynamic we should always keep in mind when thinking about mana dorks is the role they provide within mana fixing as a larger archetype within the game. Mana dorks have traditionally been green creatures, a trend that began in Alpha and continues to this day. It’s also significant that mana dorks are not the only way to fix or accelerate mana:

Mox EmeraldEmerald MedallionRampant GrowthHarrowGolgari Signet

Artifacts, instants and sorceries can also accelerate and smooth a deck’s mana production which informs a deck’s strategy. A deck’s strategic objectives inform which kind of mana fixing it wants to incorporate. 

“Mana rocks,” like a Signet, or “ramp spells,” like Rampant Growth, are not countered by a Lightning Bolt or swept up by a creature board sweeper such as Wrath of God

Wrath of God (039/332)

We’d typically not want to pair creature sweepers and mana dorks in the same deck because they don’t have natural synergy. A Signet into a Wrath of God is much more synergistic. 

While mana dorks typically don’t synergize well with certain strategies (mass removal for instance), their ability to provide chip damage does synergize and lend itself to other types of strategies: for instance, combo, mana denial and Equipment-based decks. 

ArmageddonIce Storm

A turn one Birds of Paradise into a Stone Rain or Ice Storm was a fairly defining interaction of early Magic and represents a huge swing in tempo and access to mana in the early stages of a game. Decks that play a lot of mana dorks could also leverage mass land destruction such as Armageddon in a way that incorporated and maximized the efficiency of leveraging chip damage against an opponent struggling to keep up and cast spells. Ernhamgeddon decks harnessed all of these elements of strategy successfully and was a popular tournament deck in the early days of MTG: leverage the acceleration of mana dorks to present threats and use the threats as a smokescreen to hamstring an opponent’s mana base. 

Quirion Ranger

The first creature that really expanded “mana dorkiness” beyond being a one-drop that taps for a mana next turn is the mighty Quirion Ranger. Quiron Ranger synergized with other mana dorks (by virtue of untapping them for a double dip on the same turn) but also its drawback of returning a land to hand was straight upside in the type of Ernhamgeddon decks that first incorporated the Ranger. Not only could an Elf or Bird be used twice in the same turn, but tapping a land for mana, returning it to hand and then playing it again allowed players to play less lands in their deck. It’s also a nice synergy to pick up a land, play Armageddon and then replay the land. 

I’m not sure if I’d call Quirion Ranger a true mana dork, but it’s clearly an extremely innovative design that had a profound impact upon how mana dorks were leveraged. It’s also just a very powerful card cost at a single green mana to cast and remains a fixture of Elf strategies in eternal formats where it’s legal, such as Pauper and Legacy. 

Urza’s Saga block (1998) was the first set to really toy with what a mana dork could be beyond the template of Birds of Paradise and Llanowar Elves. In particular…

Priest of TitaniaMetalworker

Priest of Titania requires specific tribal synergies (other Elves in play) but it’s a relatively cheap mana dork capable of generating a tremendous abundance of green mana with a single activation. 

Metalworker is also a unique design for similar reasons to Priest of Titania. It’s a card that can be deployed at the front end of the curve to accelerate into a huge quantity of mana the following turn. Metalworker is also unique because unlike previously high impact mana dorks, it’s colorless as opposed to green. 

Ancient TombMox DiamondLotus PetalCity of Traitors

Metalworker is the OG artifact mana dork and its Standard and Extended context was heavily informed by lands that tap for two. In the same way that Priest of Titania was intended as a card to play on the second turn to ramp into a big turn three, so was Metalworker designed to provide the same utility in an artifact deck. 

I would argue Metalworker functions as a mana dork (and an extremely powerful one at that!) in any format that allows lands that tap for more than a single mana.

Ancient TombMishra's Workshop

The lesson of these designs is that mana dorks (or any mana acceleration piece) that uses synergy to springboard from a low cost to deploy into exponential mana output is problematic for game play.

Tolarian AcademyGaea's Cradle

Now, we generally see the rate of ramping as fixed as opposed to informed by synergy and left open-ended and informed by contextual synergies. Furthermore, in the context of multiplayer formats such as Commander where the incentive to play one-for-one interaction is greatly diminished, the downside of putting cards like these into a deck (from a strategic standpoint) is greatly diminished. 

If the downside of a Birds of Paradise is that it can be Bolted, the relative value of putting Birds of Paradise into a deck goes up when the other players are not fielding strategies that are looking to “Bolt the Bird.” The dynamic is leveraged further when a mana dork represents the capacity to ramp a player from two mana up to five or more available mana the following turn. Notably, these creatures do still get swept up by the board sweepers, but they are still able to facilitate game-shaping turns and sequences with only a single activation. 

It’s very uncommon that cards see print that provide such a dynamic as a mana dork, but when they do see print, we can safely assume the card will be impactful.

Urza’s Saga really played with how mana works in Magic in a lot of different ways and across all of the colors. 

Cloud of Faeries

The “untap lands when this spell resolves” creatures like Cloud of Faeries allowed strategies to leverage mana in new ways. A chip damage threat that can be played on turn two that untaps the requisite amount of lands to hold up Counterspell is a very effective mana dork that informs a particular play pattern of maximizing mana efficiency in a way that’s useful to blue decks. 

Goblin Lackey

Goblin Lackey doesn’t “make mana” per say, but when it connects in combat (often on the second turn), it allows a player to simply put a Goblin from hand into play, which can obviously shortcut a lot of mana cost in a single sequence. In a Goblin deck, Goblin Lackey is one of the most powerful mana dorks ever created despite the fact that it doesn’t actually produce mana, but rather offsets paying it. 

Skirk ProspectorGoblin Warchief

While Goblin Lackey tends to fall into that “off the charts” synergy mana production designs of Saga block, the design of red’s Goblin tribe brought a lot of new ways of thinking about mana dork synergy and applied to the play patterns of that subset of creature type. A combination of haste, cost reducers and the ability to turn unused resources into more mana gives Goblin mana dorks a uniquely aggressive and combo-y red feel. 

Gold MyrSilver MyrLeaden MyrIron MyrCopper Myr

This subset of mana dorks from Mirrodin (and later revived years later in Scars of Mirrodin) may not have impacted Constructed Magic in any tangible way, but are noteworthy because they are an example of mana dorks being utilized for Limited formats like Draft and Sealed in a way that’ss not fixed in green’s slice of the color pie. It’s a smart design and I’d expect to see some variation of this in every subsequent return to Mirrodin/New Phyrexia. 

Sakura-Tribe Elder

The beloved mana dork that does not give hoot about a Lightning Bolt. As I’ve laid out, the drawback of mana dorks is that they only fix your mana assuming they live to the next untap step. Donny is a mana dork that’s designed to die and mana ramp in the face of Lightning Bolts and cheap removal. 

The card pretty much did it all when it was printed in Champions of Kamigawa and to me represents an anti-mana dork because while it is similar in function to other mana dorks in the sense that it ramps and fixes mana, we’d typically put STE into exactly the opposite type of decks where mana dorks tend to provide synergistic upside. STE is a mana dork that goes into decks that want to play Wrath of Gods and come over the top.

Its utility as a creature is to provide a chump block, a free shuffle (which is nice with Sensei’s Divining Top – which also first appeared in Champions of Kamigawa) and ramp/fix colors by finding a basic land. Combat damage used the stack during the era that STE was first printed, which means it could participate in combat, put its one point of damage onto the stack and then sacrifice itself for a land. 

In a practical sense, it was a great defensive card especially against efficient X/1 red attackers like Jackal Pup and Goblin Lackey. Functionally, it still is good against these cards, just a little bit less so without damage using the stack. STE also provides chip damage against planeswalkers in a pinch. 

Bloom Tender

For all the same reasons that Priest of Titania and Metalworker are good, so is Bloom Tender in a deck with a lot of multicolored permanents. It has that special power to boost up production a lot the following turn with proper support. 

Devoted Druid

Devoted Druid is an interesting card because it very much toys with some of the parameters we’d expect to see in a mana dork. It doesn’t represent chip damage, but it does offer the capability to ramp from two to four on turn three. It has a cap on how much mana it can normally produce but because of how the card is worded, it can be “uncapped” when combined with other cards, i.e. it’s a mana dork that can can be infinitely uncapped by a single enabler to generate an infinite mana loop. 

Melira, Sylvok OutcastVizier of RemediesLuxior, Giada's Gift

It reminds me a bit of putting Quirion Ranger and Priest of Titania on the same deck. While that combination doesn’t create an infinite loop like Devoted Druid, the concept of a mana dork with uncapped potential plus a synergy card has long been been a fixture of decks that quickly set up a big combo off turn. 

Joraga Treespeaker

The same can be said for Joraga Treespeaker. While these cards can be deployed on the first or second turn and represent synergy opportunities to ramp production by more than one, I’d note that their production is fixed as opposed to being open-ended depending upon synergy – these cards don’t continue to scale up beyond their capped values.

In addition to Treespeaker, the first Zendikar block also featured a design that I’d personally cite as one of the most innovative and impactful mana dorks of all time:

Lotus Cobra

Lotus Cobra’s ability to ramp from two mana on turn two up to a whopping five mana on turn three (with the help of a fetchland – a card that naturally fits into a landfall deck) had a tremendous impact on shaping how the game was played and continues to be played. I would argue that Lotus Cobra’s capacity to generate boundless mana (like Priest of Titania) is only capped by the one-land-per-turn rule and can be offset in eternal formats via effects that allow additional lands to be played. 

Explore

Even in Standard, there were ways around the cap. I had a lot of fun playing the card in combination with Fastbond in Vintage where its uncapped potential could really be opened up and taken for a ride to perform sprawling sequences with copious amounts of mana. So, as we can see from the examples, some mana dorks actually have the potential to function as mana engines depending upon whether their production is capped or uncapped. 

Noble Hierarch

Noble Hierarch stands out as a significant mana dork because it represents an example of extremely efficient fixing with an emphasis on also being a useful source of pressure and chip damage. Not only does Hierarch provide excellent ramp and fixing, but its chip damage can be applied to the combat step on a turn when it also needs to tap for mana. The exalted boost was also impactful in ways that were important at the time. Allowing a Tarmogoyf to attack into an opponent’s defensive Tarmogoyf that would normally be able to brick wall it. 

Ignoble Hierarch

Noble is such a popular and useful card that it even spawned a friend in Modern Horizons 2!

Knight of the White Orchid

We don’t often see mana dorks in colors outside of green and the ones that do exist tend to be outclassed by green’s stronger and more efficient variants. Knight of the White Orchid is an interesting conditional rampy mana dork that can be utilized in aggressive white decks as well as controlling decks with sweepers. 

Loyal Warhound

WOTC recently returned to the KOTWO style of mana dork in Adventures in the Forgotten Realms. I’m actually a big fan of when design finds ways to work mana development into colors that are not green. Mana is such a fundamental part of playing Magic that every color should realistically have unique ways to improve their mana. If there’s a reason why green has slowly been trending from the worst color in Magic (make no mistake – it was the worst color in Magic by a wide margin in the early years) into debatably the best color in Magic presently, it’s because green has been given and retains a monopoly over effective ways to have efficient mana in terms of quality and quality of new options printed each year. 

Deathrite Shaman

Ultimately, in terms of what you pay up front relative to what the card provides, Deathrite Shaman is not only the best mana dork of all time, but likely the best creature of all time. It’s functionally a mana dork that costs one and taps for one in any format where fetchlands are legal. In addition to being an easier to cast Birds of Paradise, it also provides graveyard hate, life gain, a recursive source of instant speed damage that does not use the combat step and can functionally be played as a mono-black mana dork. 

Sylvan Caryatid

Sylvan Caryatid is a card I believe deserves to be in the same conversation as many of these all-time stars of mana dork history because it was a unique design that toyed with the typical X’s and O’s we’d previously seen on these types of cards. Hexproof is huge because it takes the “Bolt the Bird” counterplay off the table much in the same way Sakura-Tribe Elder did but in a different way that enables a different set of synergies. 

Jeskai Ascendancy

I like Caryatid a lot in decks where it’s going to function as a combo piece because it protects itself with its own ability. It’s a card that requires an Edict or sweeper to remove once deployed. It’s also effective at blocking (like Sakura-Tribe Elder). It matches up well against one drop attackers like Goblin Guide or Ragavan, Nimble Pilferer

Utopia Tree

I also like that it harkens back to a previous design that was big flavor but fairly inconsequential as a playable card. 

Gilded Goose

Gilded Goose’s real claim to fame was ramping out a turn two Oko, Thief of Crowns and also benefitting from a few niche Food synergies. It does evoke Deathrite Shaman with its conditional mana production and opportunities to produce other resources (in this case, life via Food tokens). It’s a card limited by access to Food synergy support but I also view it as design tinkering with how to make a card that is similar to Deathrite Shaman with a more reasonable power level. 

Since we are quickly approaching the here and now in today’s voyage across the sea of time, I’d like to wrap up with two fairly recent printing that I see as “all time” powerful mana dorks and apply the history from today’s lesson to the cards:

Dockside ExtortionistRagavan, Nimble Pilferer

Make no mistake – both of these cards are mana dorks that play with the conception of what a mana dork can and should do. Notably, both of these cards are red (and not green) which introduces effective mana dorks into a color that has traditionally not received them at such a powerful or flexible clip. 

Dockside Extortionist breaks virtually every single rule of what is safe or consistently applied to mana dorks. First, it is “uncapped” and the amount of mana it can make depends upon context. It also creates Treasure tokens as an ETB ability which can be tapped for mana the same turn Dockside is cast – essentially providing it functional haste and allowing it to be used as a same turn mana acceleration or “ritual.” Because it generates Treasure as an ETB ability and the Treasure will be immediately usable, it is essentially immune to the “Bolt the Bird” counterplay and in any format where we have multiple opponents, most of whom are using artifacts as an extension of their mana base, it’s power quickly and exponentially scales. 

Ragavan, Nimble Pilferer is sort of a greatest hits of the best one-drop mana dorks of all time, shuffled up and applied to a single red card. While it can be Bolted on-curve, it does a lot more in play than a Bird ever could when it isn’t immediately neutralized. Similarly to Goblin Lackey (the OG boss red mana dork), it needs to connect with an opponent in order to “make mana” in the form of a Treasure token but unlike Goblin Lackey, it doesn’t require a deck full of Goblins for its synergy to have teeth. 

Functionally, Ragavan hits twice as hard as Noble Hierarch and doesn’t require any specific kind of synergy to provide a lot of potential upside for a single red to deploy. Part of what makes Ragavan so good (in the same way Deathrite Shaman is so good) is that it doesn’t need special help to be great, but rather naturally synergizes with other generically efficient cards like cheap counterspells and removal to help ensure it connects early and often. 

One thing I’ve learned from writing Magic content over the years is that contexts always change and become more complicated as the card pool grows each year. For me, a big part of what makes learning to play Magic and continuing to play it over time is seeing how the old cards often inform new designs. In terms of mana dorks, many of our expectations for how they work are baked right into Magic’s first set and boil down to “Bolt the Bird!” Yet over time, new designs toy with those expectations and allow mana decks to play different roles better suited to different strategies. Some are better at chipping damage, some can produce uncapped amounts of mana in the right deck, some simply have a lot of abilities and thus application, and different colors tend to have different amounts of access to different types of mana dorks. 

After reading today’s article, anytime you see a new “mana dork” on a spoiler you’ll be able to identify what sets it apart from other game-shaping mana dorks and better understand what types of decks would benefit most from using a new variant instead of, or in addition to, similar cards that have came before. 

I tend to spend a lot of time in my articles talking about how fundamentally important I believe understanding how mana works is to playing Magic well; perhaps going so deep into making sure I can always cast my spells on time and on curve makes me a bit of a mana dork!

 

Leave a Reply

Scroll to Top