When it comes to deck building, there are plenty of areas where one might find success and just as easily plenty of places where one might struggle. That is to say that "being a good deck builder" is far too general to really be useful in any in depth discussion. Just as saying Lebron is a good basketball player works at the most casual of levels but does not really offer anything once you upgrade to even just general sports fans.
Of course, the exact set of categories for being a deck builder is not as rigid as something like a basketball player. There you get to track specific stats and look for specific techniques to define a player. While you can certainly do that for Magic deck building, it is going to be nowhere near as telling or potentially even accurate. Magic deck building combines a level of science and art that tends to be very hard to quantify. Certainly some deck builders are all numbers based, but many aren't.
The list of categories could go on and on depending on who you asked. Some common ones might be things like breaking it down into archetype masters (ie "control deck builder") or go into detail on the mana bases a deck builder might build, or the ingenuity they display, perhaps their sideboarding prowess. There are many areas where one might improve the more general "deck building" label that we are so used to.
Today, I wanted to focus on a specific area of deck building which is simply the number of lands you generally include. Getting into things like color breakdown or utility optimization is important, but is an entire different topic.
If you have ever looked at a friend's brew before, there is a good chance that deck was either a few lands short (most likely) or a few lands over where it should be. The issue here is that deck builders tend to build fantasy mana bases one way or another and then those mana bases do not receive the criticism that they should.
When a buddy shows you his new brew, how often do you even look at the mana base? I mean, I cannot blame you of course. Checking out all of the combos and sweet spells in the deck is certainly the more exciting aspect of what you are being offered. But if everyone does this to that brew, it is very likely that not enough eyes or hours will go into that mana base and it will end up being wrong in some way.
So my first piece of advice is simply to start treating your mana base with the same respect as the rest of your deck.Too Few Lands
I would say that the most common instance of mana miscount is when a builder uses too few lands. The explanation for this can be just about anything, but usually it is because there were too many solid spells that they wanted to include and in order to make the whole thing work, they just cut a few lands.
Generally when you see a midrange deck packing 22 lands or so, it was an early version of the deck because those strategies almost always want more mana. Generally, this can be solved in quite the easy fashion, even if it sounds lame. Play with the deck. It is as simple as that. A couple of things are going to emerge pretty quickly if you are being astute.
1) You will be mulliganing or missing land drops too often. Do not take free mulligans. Be honest with yourself.
2) By actually playing with the deck you will begin to notice those cards that pile up in your hand or are not quite as useful as you may have thought.
This second point is an important one. For example, maybe it was something as simple as not realizing just how punishing the legendary rule was on your Polukranos that made you trim it to three copies. That can be a big deal and an additional land that your deck desperately needs. Or perhaps you come to realize that Nissa just isn't quite as good in your deck as you originally hoped. Cutting down to two copies of it and all of a sudden we are at 25 lands and good to go.
On paper, all of these cards all work toward this grand fantasy that we have and they never fail. Every time we dream it up they come out swingin and we get a home run. All it takes is bringing the idea to reality sometimes to wake up the builder and show them that you need to hit your lands and your Nissa does not ultimate every single game.Too Many Lands
This is a much rarer problem just due to the tendency for people to want to play with more of their toys, usually of which lands are not included. But, on occasion there will be lists that run too many lands. Typically, the big mana decks we think about are control decks, but those tend to not be the culprit. Even if your control deck has something like 29 lands, there is a chance it functions fine at that count. And I think it's safe to say that no one is running around constantly starting new lists at 30 lands.
Where builders run too many lands are in lists that demand significantly less. Right off the bat your mind probably switched from control to aggro, which is a good way to look at it, but there are still plenty of aggro decks that want 23 or 24 lands too. The specific type of aggro decks here are the ones that tend to play out more like a combo deck, with each spell being a certain sum of the part but being very limited in quantity.
That is probably too much fancy language but this is easy to picture when you look at a burn deck. In a perfect world, let us say that we have a burn deck where every nonland card is a burn spell that hits your opponent. If we took all of those cards and added up their damage, we would arrive at a number. (Lightning Bolt is 3, Flame Javelin is 4, etc.). For this example, let's say your deck can deal a total of 100 damage. Well, we know there are 60 cards in your deck and now can break down exactly how much damage each draw step yields.
So, every single card you draw is roughly worth 1.66 damage. Ignoring casting costs and all of that stuff, this means that you are going to need to draw 13 cards before you can kill your opponent. Every land that you draw in that time is going to hurt and every land that you add to your deck is going to drop that average damage per card count down.
Imagine instead that we had 60 spells with no lands. Our damage total would jump to 150 and we would almost be able to kill people with just our opening hand.
So with these types of strategies, it can be a tough balance to find exactly how many lands you need to cast your spells, but without going over and saturating your deck with too many zero damage cards. Occasionally you will be able to Remedy this with lands that Deal Damage, whether they are manlands or something else, and these hyper aggressive strategies tend to do better then.
At the Pro Tour, I played a monored aggro deck that only had 17 lands. It has picked up in popularity a bit, so I am sure you can find newer lists, but this is what I ran.
This list actually demonstrates the land light concept pretty well. As you can see, our main deck has 17 lands and they contain absolutely nothing fancy. But if you look at the cards in our deck, what most people consider a curve is actually just a line here.
Most decks would have some one-drops, some-two drops, etc. up the chain until they topped off at five, six, maybe even seven. If you look at our spells though, we have a much different scape.
1 drops-352 drops-53 drops-04 drops-35 drops-06 drops-0
And keep in mind that those four drops are Stoke the Flames which are hardly actually four mana. Our deck can actually function on a single land. While two or even three lands might be optimal over the course of a game, a single land is all we need to be competitive.
And 17 lands is still quite a few. Statistically we are going to draw one or two lands in our opening hands with that count. Once that opening hand is over though, the deck cannot really afford to entertain too many lands off the top because that is going to directly slow down the rate at which the deck can win and once the opponent has enough time to set up defenses, that's a wrap.
So instead we walk the fine line of having just enough lands to be able to cast what spells we do have but not too many as to oversaturate our draw step with cards we do not need.
But if you mosey on over to the sideboard, you can see an odd sight. Beyond the base 17 lands in our main deck, we have two more chillin' in the board. Sometimes decks will have one land but it generally serves some utility, so two basics is quite strange. Essentially though, we recognized that our post board plan was different enough from our maindeck plan that our mana base also needed to be different to support that.
If we do the same exercise we did earlier but include the cards from our sideboard, here is where we stand.
1 drops-362 drops-103 drops-64 drops-45 drops-06 drops-0
So while we did add another one-drop, we also doubled our two-drops, added six three-drops that were not there before, and then even finished out the Stoke the Flames as the fake four-drop it is. That is a significant increase in mana costs, especially when you consider that the cards being cut for all of those things are one-drops, which doubly impacts the curve.
To be realistic, we bring in two lands so that we can more reliably cast our Minotaur Skullcleavers on turn three or four and actually Deal Damage to them. We increased our damage per card in theory, so a few lands won't hurt all too much and we need to be able to cast our spells for them to matter anyway.Just Right
Constructing a mana base is complicated and even settling on the right number is going to be tough. In today's Standard, we have all sorts of factors that are going to alter the number of lands you are going to want to run. Obviously cards like Elvish Mystic and Sylvan Caryatid matter, but even something as simple as scrylands can change how much mana you want to run.
A deck with four copies of Divination might get away with one less land than a similar control deck without, for example. Or maybe you just wanted Divination to hit your land drops and so you actually run the same amount! There are many ways to go and many preferences to have, but at the end of the day all that matters is that you are actually paying attention to it all.
Facing down your mana base and have explanation and reasons for your decisions, even if those decisions happen to be wrong, is all that we can ask for. Pay attention to your mana base and your decks are going to improve. Thanks for reading!