Mana in Magic: The Gathering

Magic: The Gathering is a huge and highly entertaining game that a lot of my friends play. But the biggest nuisance in the game is the mana system.

A quick review of the mana system: a deck consists of roughly 60% spells that use mana, and 40% basic land cards which produce mana. Out of a 60 card deck, you draw 7 cards to begin, and generally you need 2-5 of these to be land cards in order to have a playable hand (with 3-4 optimal). After this, you need to draw a nice balance of land because if you have too few, you can’t play your spells, and if you have too many land, you don’t have any spells to play.

Problem: Mana is too unpredictable, causing you to randomly lose the game.

It’s all too common for players to get not enough land (mana screw) or too much land (mana flood). Typically players just grin and bear it (I have heard it said that “it builds character”), but it’s very unfortunate for this to happen, particularly in tournament play. One of my friends consistently loses to me for this very reason when we draft, which is unfortunate because he’s such a strong player and would likely beat me otherwise.

Solution A: Play more mana-fixing.

Some cards allow you to use them either as spells or mana, while being less effective than a pure spell. Others allow you to search your deck for a specific land.

While these are an interesting tradeoff over the course of hundreds of games (does my expected loss from having weaker cards override my expected losses from having bad mana?), in any given game there’s still a lot of luck involved.

Solution B: Stack your deck by mana weaving.

Mana weaving involves evenly distributing your land cards throughout the deck so you will get a nice mix of land and spells. This is illegal in tournament play, but it has happened anyway at major tournaments in the past and certainly does solve the problem. Even if you or your opponent do a few riffles and cuts afterwards, the land will still be more evenly distributed than you would expect from a truly random deck (which would typically have clumps and droughts).

Of course, if both players agree to do it as a form of house rules, it can be a simple way to ensure that the game is not terminated early by one player or the other getting bad mana.

Solution C: Reduce the variance with larger hands or smaller decks.

The larger your hand (say 9 or 10 cards instead of 7), the smaller the chance of getting an exceptionally bad one (picture the limiting case; if your hand was all 60 cards you would always get exactly 40% land). It’s unclear how this affects the game balance right now; aggro decks have a better chance to curve out, while combo decks are more likely to have the pieces they need and control decks are more likely to have appropriate counters.

Smaller decks help in the same way (if your deck was only 7 cards you would always get exactly 40% land). An easy way to try this is to split a 60 card deck into two 30 card decks. An added bonus is that this makes deck construction easier: you no longer have to hunt for four copies of every good card but only two copies.

Solution D: Play the Channeling Land variant where all cards are both spell and land.

This is a more radical solution, but completely eliminates the problem. There’s a good blog post about it here. To summarize, Channeling Land works as follows:

At sorcery speed, you can channel any spell in your hand, which involves taking it completely out of the game and replacing it with a basic land of one of the colors of that spell.

For example, you could channel a Deft Duelist to get either a Plains or an Island.

Spells that search your deck for a land like Civic Wayfinder or Exploding Borders still work; they find the land from your land pile.

There are some variations on whether to allow non-basic lands, but I prefer to just not use them (most of them are expensive anyway, and you need them less).

I also play that the channeled spells are removed face up, so your opponent can see what spells you are getting rid of. This makes for some interesting mind games.

Another special case is channeling colorless cards like Bottle Gnomes: the simplest thing to do here is get a land which produces colorless mana like Naya Panorama, with the understanding that you can’t use the extra ability on the card.

You can play most decks well enough with this variant just by taking out the land cards, but it does change the balance somewhat:

  • Cards like Valley Rannet become useless; since every card effectively has free landcycling, there’s no reason to play them. This is unfortunate, but it’s not clear to me if it’s worth adding a special rule for the sake of a few cards.
  • Land destruction cards like Fulminator Mage become weaker; your opponent is going to just channel another land. Since land destruction is intensely frustrating anyway, this is for the best.
  • Cards like Traumatic Visions are similarly weaker; the ability to get any color land is still nice, but less useful than previously.
  • Cards targeting specific matchups like Smash to Smithereens or Celestial Purge become stronger; normally you wouldn’t want to risk having a useless card in your hand, but knowing you can channel it makes it a lot less risky.
  • One-drops become slightly stronger; normally you don’t want too many because they are dead draws later in the game, but again if you can channel them it’s less risky.
  • The shape of the mana curve changes; you can only get exactly as much as you need and then stop channeling. This makes it viable to run decks with a maximum mana cost of 2, for example. It also means that if you have a lot of 5 cost spells and a couple 6 cost spells, you probably want to cut the 6 cost spells and only channel up to 5 mana.
  • Cards like Oona, Queen of the Fae or Sanity Grinding become stronger since you have no lands in your deck. I typically play Pauper anyway so this is not an issue, but you could easily simulate having lands by “roll die to see if you found a land”.

The convenience of not having to haul around hundreds of basic land is a huge plus for me. I have about 500 basic land, but even this was only enough for 20-some decks; now I can just carry around a pool of 10 of each color and use it for all my decks. It also makes the decks themselves much less bulky.

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