I’m so excited to have a guest writer with me today. After last week’s article, Dennis Lackmeyer offered up some very insightful comments about cost reduction. It’s a complex topic with quite a few moving parts, and I definitely feel like his take on the subject adds a lot of value to this discussion, as well as next week’s discussion about amplifying payoffs.
Putting Your Thumb on the Scale
In the first installment of this four-part series, we explored the idea of evaluating cards based on both their setup costs and payoffs, and also how far into a game they become usable. Today, we’ll explore how you can build your deck to reduce setup costs or tip the balance of the game so that you can actually cast your big spells.
We’ll discuss three major strategies for making bigger spells castable:
- Cost reduction
- Cost avoidance
- Board control
Reducing the Setup Cost
The biggest drawback of expensive spells is that it takes a lot of turns to get enough lands to cast them. An 8-mana spell is useless in a game that ends on turn 6. Most EDH decks address this by running various ramp effects. There are several common ways to be able to cast your spells sooner and more reliably:
- Mana rocks are available to every color and come in almost every form imaginable, making them very flexible.
- Mana dorks are mana rocks on a creature and mainly come in green.
- Hard land ramp lets you play more than 1 land per turn. This again resides mainly in green, making it potentially awkward in color-heavy decks and unavailable in many others.
- Soft land ramp doesn’t give you extra land drops, but instead ensures that you have a land to play each turn.
- Cost reduction simply makes your spells require less mana to cast, which can be better than ramp when casting multiple spells per turn.
- Rituals provide a one-time mana boost, usually at a low cost. These are frequently used to power out combos and win before anyone can react.
So at this point, it sounds like ramp is basically free mana — and more is always better, right? Not so fast. Remember that every spell, even ramp, has a setup cost and also vulnerabilities. If you’re casting ramp spells, you’re not casting anything else. That means you’re neither stopping threats nor getting attackers/blockers on to the board. You are also sending a “shields-down” signal to the table, encouraging your opponents to attack and cast their spells without fear of interaction.
Beyond that, if you have a hand full of 6-drops and you need ramp to play, a counterspell on your Cultivate or a Naturalize on your Thran Dynamo is going to set you back far further than your opponents. Does that make anything but hard ramp bad? Absolutely not. But your deck needs to have a plan for when your acceleration is missing. If you’re packing nothing but ramp and expensive beaters, you’re a huge disadvantage against more balanced decks.
Avoiding the Setup Costs
Ramping is still too slow. Say you’ve got Jin-Gitaxias, Core Augur in hand and you want to play it now. Paying mana is for chumps, so let’s not do it. Sound too good to be true? Sort of. There are lots of ways to play things without paying full price, but as always, there’s no such thing as a free lunch. Instead, there are many alternative ways to pay for things.
This is the most common cost-avoidance technique. Put something good in your graveyard with Entomb or Careful Study and yank it to the battlefield with Reanimate or Exhume. This can get a huge threat out in the first couple of turns, but as always there are trade-offs.
Say you were to Entomb/Reanimate your Desolation Twin rather than hard casting it. You could do this as early as turn 2 (or turn 1 with Dark Ritual) by spending 10 life. Even if it took a few turns to find the pieces, Desolation Twin at turn 5 on our previous graph dominates on the board. Sounds perfect right?
Unfortunately, there are always downsides. While reanimating a beater in the early game gives a more immediate payoff than ramping, you need the right cards to do it. Meanwhile, since you’ve invested several cards (and possibly other resources like life) into it, you can get badly blown out by removal or a counterspell before you ever get any value. Cheap, efficient spot removal is abundant, and people generally run a lot of it.
Alternate Casting Costs / Cost Removal
Many creatures or spells have built-in alternative costs. Delve reduces costs by eating your graveyard. Convoke and Improvise can turn all of your creatures or artifacts into mana rocks. Surge can reduce a casting cost, but only if something else was cast first. Madness cards are frequently cheaper when discarded. The common thread is that these generally require a specific game state to work, so sometimes you still have to pay full price.
Additionally, there are many of cards in Magic that let you play other cards for free at the expense of various downsides or other setup costs. Omniscience makes all your spells free, but it costs 10 mana itself to cast. Show and Tell gives you something for 3 mana, but your opponents get something too, and they’ll get the first attack. Lurking Predators can give free creatures, but only if they’re on top of your library when your opponents cast spells. Sneak Attack gives you free hasty attackers, but only for a turn. Fist of Suns makes everything 5 mana, but you need every color for it to work. Jhoira of the Ghitu can repeatedly give you anything for 2 mana as long as you can survive 4 turns.
This all Sounds Awful!
Looking at this list, it probably feels like all of these options for cheating things into play are situational, fragile, expensive, or all of the above, and maybe just running a lot of ramp spells is the way to go. Sometimes ramping is enough, but most of these things are going to get you something huge faster than ramping ever could. The repeatable effects can even continually produce big threats while leaving your mana open to deal with the board.
Having drawbacks doesn’t make a card unplayable. But it does mean you need to build your deck around managing those costs. Fist of Suns needs a lot of ramp to give access to your colors. If you want to reanimate things, along with cards that load up your graveyard, running some Delve or Flashback will help you keep playing if your fatty dies. Sneak Attack’s downside doesn’t seem so bad if you have Evolutionary Leap or Phyrexian Reclamation. In the right deck, almost any drawback is an advantage.
Stalling Out the Game
However you intend to cast your big spells, the most important resource you need to get there is time. Your opponents aren’t just going to wait for you to ramp into Ugin, and they’ll be eager to knock you out before you get there if you leave the board open. So how do we buy more time?
Wipe the Board
If you’ve been ramping while your opponents play threats, board wipes will reset the board, leaving you with more resources to rebuild faster or with bigger threats. While creature wipes like Wrath of God are the most common option, you may also consider running broader cards like Hour of Revelation, which can also sweep away your opponent’s mana rocks. This can be especially powerful if you’re running hard land ramp or just holding on to your own mana rocks until after you’ve cleared the table.
Lock Down the Table
This just wouldn’t be a Metaworker article if we didn’t give a shout out to stax strategies in some way. Rather than just racing to amass resources or dodging mana costs, you can take things in the opposite direction and slow the game down by denying resources to your opponents. Some options include increasing mana costs with Thalia, Guardian of Thraben, making it undesirable for people to attack you with Propaganda, or tying up your opponent’s mana with Static Orb or Pendrell Mists. While the rest of the table spends all their mana to play and maintain a few small threats, you can build up your own resources in peace.
Mitigating Card Disadvantage
Every card you play to facilitate playing your big creatures is one less threat in your hand or deck. If you dump your hand to power out one big creature and it gets removed, you need a way to keep the pressure on. To give an extreme example, imagine two theoretical decks: Ramp Deck is 33 lands, 33 ramp spells, and 33 big creatures. Weenie Deck is 33 lands, 33 doom blades, and 33 grizzly bears.
In this scenario, once Ramp Deck reaches enough mana to cast its big creatures, 2/3s of its deck is dead. Weenie Deck meanwhile has only 1/3 of its deck dead from 4 lands on, and in most games will win as a result. So what do we do about that? We’ve previously discussed using board wipes to take out multiple cards worth of value with a single card. That should help stop us from dying, but it’s not enough here. We’ll still have trouble sticking a threat and end up dying to the weenies. What else can we do?
The simple answer is to draw more cards. So let’s take our deck and cut some ramp spells and creatures to make room for 10 board wipes and 10 draw effects like Elemental Bond. We’ll start casting creatures a little later, but we can wipe the board a couple of times to avoid dying. Then, once we start casting creatures, we’ll quickly overwhelm opposing removal with our draw power and have a good chance of ultimately winning.
Checking Your Curve
Once you’ve chosen your big threats and put all the support pieces together that you think you need to play them, you should go back and take another look at your mana curve. There are a few things that you want to consider at this point:
- What are your most common mana costs? If you have a lot of things to do at 3 mana, then having more ramp at 2 mana is a good idea. If you don’t really come online until 4+ mana, some of the 3-4 mana ramp options with some cheap interaction may fit well.
- How do you stay alive if you get stuck on mana? Even if you’re not making forward progress sitting at 4 mana, having spells you can cast to survive until you draw more land is critical.
- How much mana does the deck need to thrive? A high average CMC, needing to cast multiple spells a turn, or having activated abilities to use can all increase how much mana you need. Think about what you’d want to do in an ideal turn. If that costs a lot of mana, make sure you can get there by when you’d like to.
Putting It All Together
So, we’ve established that while you can’t just build a deck full of lands and big spells and hope to get far, there are deck-building strategies to help prevent the big spells you do run from being dead. Getting to your big stuff requires not just resources in game, but also devoting deck slots to the support cards needed. That means you have a limited number of slots for big bombs, so whatever you do choose to run should be the very best.
To illustrate the impact of running big spells on deck construction, let’s look at a deck featuring the new battlecruiser commander The Ur-Dragon. Dragons as a tribe are obviously full of expensive, splashy creatures, and as a result we need to really load up on strategies to mitigate those costs. Let’s dig into what that means.
Some of these are standard fare like mana rocks and spells, but we also have options like Wood Elves, Krosan Verge, and Crucible of the Spirit Dragon, which provide some ramp options that can dodge counterspells or artifact removal like Vandalblast or Merciless Eviction. Since most of our dragons cost 5, things like Cultivate are extremely powerful, and we also have a space in our mana curve for 4-mana ramp like Hedron Archive.
Cost Reduction / Avoidance
The most obvious enabler is our commander, who makes every dragon cost 1 less for the entire game. This guaranteed discount comes with a cost. At 9 mana, our commander spends very little time actually on the field, but that’s a reasonable exchange. This theme is expanded with four other cost reducers, which gives us a decent chance of having one in a game.
We have a couple of ways to play with our graveyard. Unburial Rites and Teneb, the Harvester can both give us multiple dragons for a single card while Bladewing the Risen comes in with a friend. While none of these are cheap on their own, they all give a cost discount on whatever we’re bringing back. Both Monastery Siege and Scion of the Ur-Dragon can help us get things in the graveyard to reanimate.
Alternate Casting Costs / Cost Removal
We can repeatedly cheat things into play from our hand with Fist of Suns or Dragon Arch. While these don’t necessarily provide a huge discount, they can simplify casting dragons that need multiple mana of the same color. They also let us jump directly from 5 mana to our most expensive dragons. If we get really lucky, Sarkhan Unbroken can cheat in every dragon in our deck and burn out the table with Scourge of Valkas.
Stalling Out the game
Now that we have ways to play our dragons, we need to survive the early game. We do this primarily with board wipes. There are traditional sweepers like Day of Judgment and Earthquake along with more conditional options like Ryusei, the Falling Star and Deathbringer Regent, which can both give us presence on the board and wipe away opposing threats as soon as we start hitting the top of our curve. All told, we have around 10 cards with some form of board wipe potential.
Since we’re spending a lot of cards to ramp and play our stuff, we need to ensure that we’re drawing enough threats to stay on the board. We tend to need a lot of mana late, so our card draw comes primarily from cheap permanents that continue to give us cards as we play our dragons, things like Elemental Bond, Herald’s Horn, Temur Ascendancy, Monastery Siege, and Sarkhan Unbroken. Most of these cards also have multiple effects or modes, so they’re still useful when our hand is full.
Evaluating The Mana Curve
Despite being a battlecruiser-style deck, we only have half a dozen 7+ mana dragons, with most of our dragons costing 5 after the commander discount. While many of our biggest threats will win the game alongside other dragons, none of them will save us from the brink of death, so we can’t expect to win just because we hit managed to get to 8 mana. This more conservative creature curve also means that if we miss entirely on ramp, we can still start wiping the board and playing threats early enough to have a chance against more aggressive decks.
In part 3, we’ll take a look at strategies to get the most out of our expensive spells, and how to decide whether they’re good enough to make the deck. Until then, I’ll pose you the question: What cards in our Ur-Dragon list can be used to get the most value out of our dragons. Are there other support cards you’d add to make the deck stronger? Are there different dragons or other payoff cards that you’d run in this deck?
Let us know below, and Happy Brewing!