This entry is part 10 of 10 in the series Strategy

UL AVATAR BLACK

By Aaron AKA Uncle Landdrops

 

On the Twitter end, I got the first of what I hope to be many reader-requested topics for articles from @alittlecheeky, who wrote:

“I’m a Deck Construction nerd! Can you talk about mana curves in EDH?”

 

Now, this is more of a tangential contribution to the things I normally talk about, but since I’m still in the “lemonade stand/childhood detective agency” stages of readership and reputation here on CommanderCast, I can afford to give out two free refills and a no-case-too-small guarantee. That’s just good business.

 

Seriously, my Twitter is a 24/7 Magic AMA, and I’m kind of an Encyclopedia Brown when it comes to Commander.

 

Setting The Curve

While there are a lot of reasons I continue to play Commander, I’ve mentioned before that what interests me is learning and understanding the balance of two fundamental qualities involved in playing and deckbuilding – Science and Artistry. Learning how to effectively categorize every decision along the Commander-playing process into one of these two is not only a fascinating study of the player-deck relationship, but it’s also an important part to examine when we reflect on what we define as “success” for a given design.

 

The Science

Decisions and choices made with Science are logical, rational, and tangible. I call it “Science” because we are, in a very crude way, using the Scientific Method. We’re constantly collecting data and compiling this information to engineer and fine tune our decks. Stats like mana curve, or average converted mana cost, is one such statistic, but the most quantifiable pieces of data are going to fall under the Scientific classification.

 

The biggest advantage to Scientific aspects of deckbuilding are that they are finite – numerical data that can be empirically proven, i.e. via testing. What’s more is that as Commander and Magic grow, knowledge and access to these kinds of data are going to get better and more available. Any players who’ve been playing Commander for at least three years can already see the changes I’m talking about. Many of the myths about the format, such as “Commander is a format for junk rares and 9-cost spells,” have become less true, as the influx of new players that entered the format post-Alara have significant access to some of Magic’s more efficient, streamlined spells. Mono-Red is finding its “color,” with access to new color pie design approaches. Look no further for any of this evidence than the kinds of cards we’re seeing get reprinted in Standard, the annual Commander product, and their correlation of value in the secondary market.

 

Artistry

An easy definition of Artistry can be found by subtracting the ideas of Science, but it’s not that simple. Artistry is the intangibles of the game, i.e. the self-expressive, opportunistic, and sometimes suboptimal methods by which we make choices. The key is that we’re not looking at the game or our deck in an “X’s and O’s” context; we’re building a deck or making choices out of the game for our player identity in the game, with inclinations that lead toward both preferences in our styles of play as well preferences in the style we want to play. Whereas a Scientific paradigm would build and play Magic with a masterful understanding of optimal Legendary Creatures, cards, and mana curve, the Artistic construct we are implementing here is a product of the irrational, and sometimes erratic, parts of both self and game design.

What I like about Artistic decisions is that they have high variability, ranging from building the ultimate experience in Magical Christmas Land, to having a more grounded acceptance in expectations for performance of the deck. While the Science approach wants to quantify card types and the like, I find an Artistic approach tends to downplay expectations, ultimately making for more satisfying plays when a deck does work, and therefore a much easier route to feeling out what our deck does well.


That sounds a little counterintuitive, but think of it this way: when you know what you’re playing, and you like what you’re playing, you’re more likely to want to improve the deck’s weak points than to take it apart and start over. Playing with cards you like, cards that you have a connection to, provide additional motivation for keeping something together. And if you’ve got a great thing going, even if it’s not as good, and you’re still doing great stuff, it’s not going to affect whether or not you’re winning or losing. Again, I think this “Timmy” quality applies to Artistry over Science, and it’s one of its biggest strengths, as it enhances our passion and experience for the game and the format.

 

The biggest down side to Artistry is ubiquity, i.e. getting stuck in one style or approach. It’s important for people with a natural Artistic inclination to make sure they are challenging themselves to build different things, and play different cards. If not, it’s possible that you end up playing the same decks and the same games over and over again, likening this format to singleton Vintage.

The other pitfall of Artistry is its high barrier to entry. Unlike Science, the information available to do this in our format is not something we find on the Internet, but for ourselves, in the hours of deckbuilding and playtesting we do.

 

Where Science Meets Art

I know I’ve given the impression that there are two paradigms, subtly proposing the idea that these are two different people, but I don’t believe this at all. Let me reiterate (with buyback) that t the BALANCE these two paradigms is always going to be the best answer, not one or the other.

Now, this comes with a couple of caveats. The first being that the balance between Science and Artistry is an unequivocal ratio for each person, something like 70/30 or 60/40, versus something closer to even. We can’t help it, again, we’re not robots (again, not yet!), and we all have idiosyncrasies.

 

The second is that where we fall on this spectrum will change and shift, sometimes depending on the day, or even the deck you’re playing. Over time, I believe we start favoring and leaning on the Artistic facets of the game. With no experience other than playing related card games, no knowledge other than a basic understanding of the rules, and with no “big brother” player to sit on your shoulder and tell you what’s good, the cards anyone picks at this point are always going to favor Artistry, even if we don’t exactly realize what that sense is yet. Until you’ve developed the fundamentals, and have enough games under your belt to really figure out what’s good, what’s bad, and what you like or don’t like, the Science is going to look like an equation only Will Hunting could solve.

 

However, as soon as you get used to Magic, as well as its turns and rules, it will come more easily, and Science will become a dominant part of your game. As you learn the best decks, you begin to develop your knowledge base and experience together, allowing you to progress deep into expert-level territory.

The most comparable thing I have to playing Magic is learning an instrument. When I first started playing guitar, I didn’t know how to write my own riffs or music. I could barely play AC/DC’s “TNT.” However, through practice, through running up and down scales, listening to music, and soaking up not just the concepts of songwriting, but also building my muscles and calluses up to be able to sustain chord shapes and playing for long periods of time, I was able to not only learn how to write my own music, but I could also learn any AC/DC song just by listening to it.

Once all these fundamentals are in place, we essentially arrive back at Artistry. One of my favorite quotes about music is by guitar virtuoso Carlos Santana, who said, “I learned my sound the second I turned all my lights off in the house. All I had on was my amp, I could barely see my fingers. And I just played, and I listened, until I found what I sounded like.”


Now, I’m not telling you to flip a switch and play Magic in the dark (More so, I’m encouraging you to try out Magic cards from The Dark), but if we want to crack this case, it’s really important to understand these core principles as they relate to us.

 

Solving the Case

I want to answer this question, but I’ve taken the long way around so you can answer it for yourself.

Now it’s time to talk about how I plan mana curves. More importantly, if you didn’t TL;DR most of my article, you are now able to understand the method by which I operate, because to get there I feel that Science and Artistry are a balance we all create innately, and can be highly variable from deck to deck.

There are few instances where I think Converted Mana Cost is important. My Animar list is the best example I have of the Science-y Mana Curve. I wanted to emulate Affinity, and as I began building the deck in early 2013, I came to a lot of the conclusions we all know about Animar decks today: eliminating mana symbols, as well as eliminating the intensity of various colors, and coordinating that to the mana, was the best way to streamline a very, very aggressive all-creatures deck.

 

Animar is also one of the simplest examples I have. After understanding the creature base, catering to the mana base was pretty easy, because the plan requires Animar out on Turn 3, so we need every color of mana at that point. To do that, we go heavy on the non-basics, minimal on the tap lands, add in a few extra lands so we don’t miss a land play, and we’re done. All that was left was to distribute the color ratio, which was so easy even a caveman could do it (please don’t sue me, GEICO).

 

At the same time, the mana curve with regards to CMC along with the creatures in Animar wasn’t something I confined or gave fixed quantities. I got Artistic here, focusing more on what the creature did first, then focusing on its cost. I didn’t assign X number to each casting cost, or anything like that. I just picked what I wanted to play, figuring out quickly that 4-and-5-drop creatures were going to be tricky to pull off if they had double mana symbols, so I did my best there. Something like Hero of Oxid Ridge or Hellrider could bypass my rule for mana symbols, simply because of how dangerous they were in the deck, while other cards, like the Gods, were removed quickly, even if they had aggressive costs, simply because I couldn’t get them online.

One of the weird things about the Animar deck is that it actually registers as the highest average converted mana cost among decks I currently play. It’s been anywhere between 4.24 and its current number, 3.97.

Again, this is an Artistic idiosyncrasy for me. I use this metric a lot, because it tells me about how many lands I need to have in my opening hand before I can play a spell.

 

As such, I tend to use my Science-ness to turn curves low, not only as part of the Artistic flavor of the deck, but also as a way to make sure I have options and cards to play. Personally, I’ve found I’ve had a ton of success when my average CMC is between 2.5 and 3.5, with a plus-minus of .25. Excluding Animar, all of my decks tend to fall into this range, because I’m either playing low-cost things with access to ramp and card draw, or playing a lot of land and bigger spells to counterbalance.

These techniques are something I picked up from Grandpa Growth. Back when we were doing a lot of deck testing, he figured out that it’s a lot easier to lose the conventional curve structure and concentrate on balancing your deck with the marginal individual card (AKA Average CMC), versus trying to come up with cards to play on every turn.

 

I’ve taken this plan and run with it, and I have to tell you, it’s increased my capacity to be intuitive with  what kinds of cards I want in the deck. I’ve also gotten very good at assessing quickly just how many lands I want to play, even how many lands my opponent might want to play (again, more Artistry through all the Scientific investment). I usually end up adjusting my numbers a little bit, but not much. In addition to my mana numbers, here’s a few extra Artistic things I tend to do in deck design:

 

  • My decks run 37-41 lands, depending on access to ramp. The more ramp, the less land I play, and I generally pick the number arbitrarily and adjust if need be. The more big things I want to be able to cast, the more I add. My big exception to this is Titania, where the lands are basically what I’m using to interact with my opponents, so I need more to cast spells AND get value in the same turn. I think the count there is around 45.

  • With very, very few exception (again, Animar), I instantly run 25+ basics. This dates back to the days I was playing with Grandpa Growth, where he loved to mulligan for Tectonic Edge or Strip Mine. I also play a lot of mono-colored decks, so that also factors into my decisions.

  • I don’t believe 1-mana dorks are good for most decks. Without a lot of ways to get them back, or abuse them for value with other cards, I keep away from them in order to avoid eating a card on a Wrath of God, and because I’d rather have an answer or a basic land.

  • On the other end of the curve, I have what I call the 6-mana test. All cards costing more than six really need to be vital, playable, and/or contribute seriously to most games if they have a chance of making my Fightin’ 99. I don’t ever like to get overextended and fully tap out, but if I do, it has to have a serious impact or benefit on the game. Terastodon is a decent example of a card like this. I also don’t mind doing this with X spells.

 

Learn To Love The Goldfish Test

“Goldfishing,” or “Magic Solitaire,” for those who are unfamiliar with these terms, is a phase of testing where we get to take our deck out for a sample test spin.


I understand that there are a lot of people who don’t like testing their decks against nothing, and it makes sense, particularly for Control players. If you have people around you that will welcome any excuse to play Magic with you, or you have MtGO, then you are in a much better position to do better testing.

Personally, I love Goldfishing. It’s the best opportunity to sculpt and fine tune your deck before anyone else gets to see your creation, and a great environment to understand the balance of these Science and Art elements we’ve been playing around with on our mana curve.

 

If you don’t already, draw a sample hand and play out a few turns with your newer decks. I’d recommend it for any number of reasons. The best reason is to give the deck a final once-over, checking for anything you may have missed or miscounted. Many times I’ll forget that I wanted to add a removal spell or a specific creature to the mix, and remember it halfway through this phase because I’m saying to myself, “Man, it’d be great to have X right now!” This is a great instinct, and one that can be developed in Goldfishing to enhance your deckbuilding and playing skills. The more specific you can get with this, the better. The weirder the card you ask for, the the more artistic you’re becoming. Even if you don’t know, being able to hammer out a converted mana cost and function will go a long way.

Goldfishing also helps you feel prepared. I know not everyone wants or has the kind of time to sit down by themselves and run through interactions, but it’s worth it – especially if you play any Limited formats. Not only do you get to learn exactly what your best cards are in the deck, but you also get to navigate through tricky spots, like weird rules interactions, and other counterintuitive things so you can avoid them in game.

All of these things help contribute to mana curve because you want to be able to play everything in a paced, time-attentive manner. By placing value on your identity as player and deckbuilder, playing 5-7 cost spells on curve become a lot easier to manage.

 

Do you have a more Scientific mind or an Artistic one? What’s your approach to building a mana base? Be sure to share it with us in the comments below!

 

 

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