Are Limited Decks With Only 14 Lands Possible?

To prepare for Grand Prix Lyon, the fine folks from Windmill Slam’s Scrub Club did a practice Team Sealed, with Alex Ball taking the role of an overseer.

“How many cards is this?” Alex said as he looked over the deck that Denis Stranjak had laid out.
“It’s 26,” Denis answered.
Alex immediately realized what this meant. “26? 14 lands?” he asked in agony.
“Yeah, seven of each,” Denis said with delight.
Alex could not hide his disappointment: “You don’t need to be Frank Karsten to know that 14 lands is not enough.”

I gotta admit, it’s pretty weird to hear your own name out of the blue on YouTube.

Anyway, was Alex right? Well, for the deck that Denis had laid out in the video, 14 lands was certainly not enough. In fact, I can confidently state that it wasn’t even close to enough.

But what’s more interesting is why. And whether this is always the case.

In other words, is 14 lands never enough, or are there scenarios where it might be sufficient? These are the questions I’ll answer in this article. I’ll conclude by posing a fun challenge at the end.

First Big Issue: A 14-land deck may miss early land drops

The prevailing wisdom is that Limited decks should have around 17 lands. This corresponds to 25.5 lands in a 60-card deck. As I determined earlier this year, that’s reasonable for midrange/control decks with an average converted mana cost (CMC) of around 3.0 that want to hit their fourth land drop consistently. For the Top 8 deck lists from last weekend’s GPs in Singapore and New Jersey, which were Ixalan Limited, the collective average CMC was 2.99. Even if some of these decks ran 16 lands (especially ones that had at most 5 cards costing 4 mana or more), that CMC is still astonishingly close to the number I found earlier this year, lending credibility to the age-old wisdom that 17 lands is usually correct.

14-land Limited decks correspond to Standard or Modern decks with 21 lands. Examples in Standard are Mono-Black Aggro or G/U Pummeler—in Modern you could think of Merfolk or Burn. These Constructed decks can run a low number of lands (sometimes even 20 or fewer) because they have at least one of two characteristics:

  • A low curve. The average converted mana cost is low, and the deck can function on only two lands. As a rough approximation, the average CMCs are 1.3 for Burn, 1.8 for Mono-Black Aggro, 2.0 for Merfolk, and 2.1 for G/U Pummeler. This does not apply to the typical Limited deck. Indeed, as I showed earlier, the average CMC of decks drafted by successful Ixalan Limited players hovers around 3.0. And a typical Limited deck cannot function on only two lands, especially when they run a handful of 4-drops. With 14 lands, you will miss your fourth land drop 64.7% of time (average of play/draw, taking into account mulligans), which is far from consistent. You need more lands or ways to get lands if you want to curve out.
  • Alternatives to lands: G/U Pummeler cheats on the land count via Attune with Aether and Servant of the Conduit. Merfolk has Spreading Seas and Silvergill Adept to draw into cards and Aether Vial to deploy creatures. In Limited, however, alternatives to lands are hard to find. Most colors in most Limited formats don’t have any ways at common to draw cards or to generate mana. Sometimes they are available, but when you’re at the mercy of your packs, you cannot count on getting them.

Second Big Issue: A 14-land deck may not have enough colored sources

This issue is perhaps even more important than the first. What it means is that even if your curve is insanely low, you may still be unable to cast your cards because you’re frequently color-screwed.

The land-light Constructed decks I mentioned (Mono-Black Aggro, G/U Pummeler, Burn, and Merfolk) circumvent this issue because they are all mono-color or nearly mono-color. Even G/U Pummeler is close to a mono-green deck: almost every land makes green, and most cards can be cast via Forests only.

This is almost never the case in Limited. Unless you’re lucky enough to be the only drafter of a color at the table (or perhaps one of the two drafters of a color) there is no way you can assemble a reasonable mono-color deck. 2-color Limited decks are the norm, often with double-colored spells in both colors.

If you only have 7 of each basic land, then you will run into trouble. The following table clarifies that.

Number of sources of a color Probability of having at least one source in your top 9 cards Probability of having at least two sources in your top 10 cards
7 85.9% 57.2%
8 89.7% 65.9%
9 92.6% 73.4%
10 94.8% 79.6%

This table shows that with 7 Swamp and 7 Plains, you will have the required Plains to cast a turn-3 Territorial Hammerskull only 85.9% of the time (on the play, in absence of mulligans or card selection). So 14.1% of the time, you’re color-screwed.

That’s already bad, but it gets worse once you consider double-colored spells. You’re only 57.2%—slightly over half the games—to have at least 2 Swamp to cast a turn-4 Sanctum Seeker (on the play, in absence of mulligans or card selection.) Admittedly, this number is a bit misleading because it also includes scenarios where you didn’t draw a fourth land yet, but it does include all the “3 Plains, 1 Swamp” scenarios that are at the heart of the problem.

When I build Limited decks, I often aim for at least 8 sources for any main color and at least 10 sources if I have double-color spells. (In fact, I prefer 11-12 sources for double-colored spells, but that’s rarely realistic unless you have multiple dual lands.) In absence of extenuating factors, a 7-7 mana base doesn’t cut it.

Yet, extenuating factors exist.

Historically, 14-land Limited decks have found occasional success

Based on what we learned so far, any potential 14-card Limited deck should have a low curve, alternatives to lands, and be close to mono-color. If all those factors are in place, then it can work.

Case in point: Mike Turian’s Top 8 deck from a Draft Pro Tour 13 years ago, at a time where someone could theoretically have the following opening hand in Limited.

Mirrodin block was great. Anyway, I digress. Here’s Turian’s deck.

Mirrodin Draft Deck

Mike Turian, Top 8 at Pro Tour Amsterdam

Mirrodin satisfied all necessary aspects:

  • From Annul to Bonesplitter, there were plenty of good cards with low CMC. The affinity mechanic reduced costs even further.
  • With mana-producers like Gold Myr and card-drawers like Pyrite Spellbomb, there were plenty of land alternatives.
  • Since this was a block based around artifacts—the card type that you can cast with any configuration of lands—many decks had relatively low demands on colored mana.

Guided by the perfect storm of some of these principles, Hall-of-Famer Mike Turian confidently registered a 14-land deck. In the Top 8. Of a Pro Tour. And it wasn’t even that much of a surprise to his fellow competitors who understood the format. Even though he didn’t end up winning the tournament, he knew that under certain circumstances, land-light strategies can be successful.

14-land decks are possible in Ixalan Limited too

As the Top Moments of last weekend’s Grand Prix New Jersey reveal, Gerard Fabiano apparently went 3-0 with a 15-land red-white deck on his way to the Top 8. Those Scrub Club guys were on to something!

We should take this with a grain of salt, as Gerard is one of the most superstitious players out there, and his choice of playing only 15 lands in his Top 8 deck adds to my skepticism. That deck had a relatively high average CMC of 2.8 along with multiple double-red cards, making it the type of deck where I’d much rather register 16 lands. I know that it worked for Gerard, but since red-white has little ways to draw cards or generate mana, I wouldn’t recommend his approach for most red-white decks.

When it comes to deck types that might thrive on super low land counts, Daniel Weiser’s Top 8 deck is more promising.

Even though he registered 16 lands (which I believe is correct for his pool), his deck has all the right features: Almost every 2-mana creature draws a card, Opt to find lands, and the overall curve is rather low with an extremely small average CMC of 2.29. If those aspects would have been more heavily emphasized, along with a way to fix the still-lingering color-screw issue, then a dive to 14 lands wouldn’t be out of the question.

Here’s a challenge for brave Ixalan drafters

My challenge is simple: Draft a 14-land deck, and win the draft!

Before you misinterpret this as strategic advice, let me make it abundantly clear: It’s not. Sure, GP New Jersey gave some indications that low-land light decks could work in Ixalan Limited, but I’m taking it way further. If you take this challenge, you are deliberately handicapping yourself, and the stipulation won’t maximize your chance to win. It’s just for fun, meant as a suggestion for players who have grown bored with Ixalan Limited and who crave a new experience that forces you to re-evaluate cards in a new light.

I’m one of those players. I mean, I once managed to post a positive record with a singleton deck at a Constructed Pro Tour, so I enjoy these funky challenges. I gave it a try and fired up Magic Online. Realizing that green-blue has land-searchers like Commune with Dinosaurs, mana-producers like Drover of the Mighty, and treasure-generators like Depths of Desire, I forced green-blue.

I tried to keep my curve low, probably over-emphasized Sailor of Means and New Horizons in an attempt to compensate for color issues, never saw Pillar of Origins or Prying Blade, and assembled a weird concoction in the end.

I had a ton of fun during the Draft but unceremoniously lost the first round. As this sample hand shows, I sometimes couldn’t tell whether I was mana screwed or mana flooded, so I hadn’t quite perfected the craft yet.

I’m curious to hear your thoughts. Have you ever drafted a 14-land deck?

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