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Deck Building Concepts 2: The Mana Curve

2019-08-23 | Share: Twitter | Reddit | WhatsApp

We started the series with a concept that carried an emotional aspect. The second part will be more technical. The second part will be targeted at beginners who want to advance their understanding of deck building. Whether you want to build your own competitive deck or you're looking to understand current meta decks, this article aims at broadening your grasp on the theory behind Magic decks.

The topic of this article is the mana curve. If you're following competitive Magic that's a term you probably heard before. It's an often used term because it is a crucial concept to build functioning decks.

I'll repeat myself but the following is important for this series: In this article series I want to introduce a selection of deck building concepts. Each article will convey one of them. I challenge you in each article to build a deck and apply the described concept. But don’t take these concepts as definitive rules. They just represent one of many aspects of deck building. So take it as an exercise to broaden your thought process behind deck construction.

What Is a Mana Curve?

Take the cards of your deck excluding lands and sideboard. Now sum up your remaining cards per CMC. CMC is short for "converted mana cost" - to get the CMC of a card add the amount of mana symbols to the generic mana cost. E.g. the CMC of Teferi, Time Raveler is three because you add a blue mana (1+) to a white mana (1+1+) to a generic mana (1+1+1=3). Once you summed up your cards per CMC, you put the result in an ascending order by CMC. Then you can visualize your data in a line or bar graph to see your mana curve. For an example visit the following link and on the right side you'll find a box called "Mana Curve":

The Mana Curve's Purpose

Extracting data from a decklist to transform it into a mana curve is easy. But why is this information important? There are two aspects I want to highlight why the mana curve is helpful.

The Mana Curve Indicates the Speed of a Deck

Again I have to confront you with a vague term. What does "speed of a deck" mean? By speed of a deck I determine a range of turns in which a deck is most effective. Furthermore I will divide the speed of decks in three categories.

Fast Decks (Turn 1 - 4)

Fast decks excel between their first and fourth turn. Usually they are aggro decks like Mono R Aggro or Orzhov Vampires that are designed to create a game winning advantage in the first few turns. Looking at a fast deck's mana curve the highest concentration of cards is between one and three mana.


Midrange Decks (Turn 2 - 6)

Midrange decks develop control over the game between turn one and three. They aren't the strongest in the early game but prepare their mid-game power. Turn four to six are then used to play powerful cards that mold the game to your advantage. Esper Hero is a fitting example for this category of speed. Looking at a midrange deck's mana curve the highest concentration of cards is between two and four mana.


Lategame Decks (Turn 4 - ?)

Lategame decks are designed to grow stronger over time. They are able to leverage huge amounts of mana into huge advantage. Bant Ramp and Bant Scapeshift are good examples. Both use cards like Hydroid-Krasis or Scapeshift in combination with Field of the Dead that benefit from the later stage of a game. These decks use cards that scale into the lategame. Another example are control decks. They are also slow lategame decks that operate the best in long games. Looking at a lategame deck's mana curve the highest concentration of cards is between three and six mana with outliers beyond six mana or cards with X in their mana cost.


(Note: In this case four copies of the eight cards at two CMC are cards with X in the mana cost. They count as cards with higher CMC starting from four.)

The Mana Curve Enables You to Play Along the Curve

This article is bursting with technical jargon. Don't be discouraged by the heavy use of technical terms. I'll try to explain everything as clear as possible. If you're struggling with some terms, feel free to contact me via Twitter (

Let's return to the topic: Before I can continue there is one assumption we have to define: We assume that we hit a land drop on every turn. So what does "playing along the curve" mean? It means that you use your whole mana with one card in each turn. E.g. on turn one you play a card with CMC one, on turn two you play a card with CMC two, on turn three you play a card with CMC three, and so on. The idea underneath is that you are using all of your resources efficiently each turn. Also it takes for granted that expensive cards impact the game heavier than cheap cards. It's a nice rule of thumb to help you decide which cards to play in your turn.

To be able to play along the curve a deck needs to be crafted with a mana curve in mind. You won't be able to play cards in the first few turn when your deck mainly consists of five mana spells.

How to Utilize the Mana Curve

When you sit down to build a deck, how does the mana curve help you? First, you shouldn't design a deck following a mana curve in your head. You'll assign an amount of cards per CMC and then look for fitting cards. But what if there aren't enough good cards to fill your CMC slots? You'll choose bad cards just to smoothen your curve. Additionally those curve fillers occupy space in your deck which you could use for good cards.

Instead start with a core of cards that can win games. Once you have assembled the core of your deck you can start to consider your mana curve. Your core consists of only four and five CMC cards? That hints at a midrange deck. So you need to smoothen your mana curve by adding cards for your one, two, three, and maybe six CMC slots. Now is the time to think about the current meta. Is there a plethora of fast creature-based decks? It's smart to focus on early removal spells between one and two CMC instead of more expensive removal. Is the meta dominated by midrange and control decks that play their most important cards at turn four? Consider focusing on finding cards at three CMC that are effective against those turn four threats. Maybe put a counter spell like Absorb in your deck to fight your opponent's turn four play. Alternatively you could try to go bigger than your opponents and fill your six CMC slot with powerful cards. Albeit keep in mind to create a sensible mana curve without major holes.

Coming back to the start of this section: If you can't find enough playable cards for a certain CMC slot, don't force it. There aren't reasonable cards at one CMC? Leave this slot empty. There is only one cards that fits in at three CMC? Put four copies of it in your deck and accept the small hole in your mana curve. You are struggling to find any other good cards that support the core of your deck? Maybe there aren't enough cards in Standard to make your deck idea work.

To end this article I will analyze Esper Hero as an example. You can find the deck I am talking about here: What is the core of this deck? What are the cards that are the reason to build this deck? They are Hero of Precinct One, Teferi, Time Raveler, and Teferi, Hero of Dominaria. These cards inhabit the top tier of Standard cards. Playing with these cards promises to win a lot of games. Hero of Precinct One can block an early onslaught of creatures or pressure slower decks. Teferi, Time Raveler provides card advantage and disrupts your opponent. Teferi, Hero of Dominaria is a win condition as soon as you make him roll. This is a core that is worth building around. Next you need to complete the deck and incorporate a meaningful mana curve.

Mono Red Aggro was a dominant deck when Esper Hero was created. So when building a deck you had to account for a fast aggro deck. Today Mono Red Aggro is still a player but not as dominant as in the past. Anyway there is still a fast deck that needs to be respected: Orzhov Vampire. This fact makes the curve considerations of Esper Hero still valid for the current meta. In the first turns you need to be able to protect your life total and board state to stand a chance of winning. Hence it is wise to focus on the CMC slots between one and three mana. In this range you need to find enough playable removal spells to effectively fight aggro decks. When you look at the deck you'll notice that this is the case with the exception of Thought Erasure. At four CMC there is now a hole. Luckily there are some good options that fit the curve and core of the deck. Elite Guardmage fuels your life total and card advantage while leaving a body behind. Hostage Taker is a removal spell that can swing games back in your favor. Conveniently both are multi-colored to synergize with Hero of Precinct One. At this point there isn't much space left in the deck. So one mass removal spell was chosen at five CMC and two catch-up spells at six CMC. There are so few six CMC plays because the format is pretty fast due to Orzhov Vampire and Boros Feather. You can't afford to not concentrate on your early plays.

What you ended up with is a potent midrange deck. You're curve allows you to stay in the game and disrupt your opponent for the first few turns. With the purpose of taking over the game with expensive cards like Teferi, Hero of Dominaria. From there on you need to uphold your advantage and win the game.

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