Disclaimer: This article is about some basic concepts and is mostly targeted at newer players. If you're an advanced player, you might find a thing or two, or just a link to Redirect people who ask you about how to make a manabase in Limited.
A couple of days ago, I got to play the Fate Reforged Prereleases in Toulouse. I've been playing Prereleases since Mirage and always enjoyed it, although it was more fun when internet wasn't around and we would discover all the cards at once. It's always a good opportunity to get to play with the new cards, mostly to get familiar with the pictures and meet the more casual players that I wouldn't usually bump into. It's also a good source of inspiration for articles.
Every time I play a Prerelease or a Sealed Deck here, people come to me and ask for advice and opinions on their build. I realized that what I thought was widely known by all was in fact, not that obvious.
In this article, I'll share with you how I feel a good Limited deck should look like in terms of colors and splashing and will give you the decks I played at the Prereleases to support it. I'd like to help the players who have a hard time figuring out a good mix of colors and their mana bases in Limited without using the sometimes inaccurate "land suggestion" from Magic Online.
Khans of Tarkir provides us with an interesting take on Limited multi-colored decks and mana fixing. The previous multi-colored block, the Ravnica Block, was extremely frustrating to me as it felt we were forced to play at least three colors and had very little option to navigate through the mana. You would draft the best cards and put together a mana base that would sometimes miraculously work.
Limited with Khans of Tarkir pretty much follows the same rule as the other Limited formats in terms of mana bases except that you have more options thanks to the dual lands. You are able to stretch the mana bases a little more as a lot of multi-colored cards are late-game cards.
At the Prereleases and some other Sealed Deck tournaments, I've seen a lot of players jamming all their dual lands into one pile and then add their rares before submitting their deck. While this could be a winning formula, this is usually not the way to do it.
When building a Limited deck (Sealed or Draft), I tend to aim at playing only two colors with as many cards in each color. When I pick cards in Draft, I try to stick to these two colors, eventually grab a few cards for a splash, but never try to have a balanced three-color deck. It's pretty much the opposite theory of a concept used by some players long ago who would draft a balanced three-color deck with the best cards in these three colors and add basic lands. That strategy was called the "Diablo" (for its 6-6-6 land mana base). I haven't heard of that strategy in a while, but it's something I try to stay away as much as possible.
The "Diablo" strategy is a bit extreme, but with the Clan theme in Khans, it's not rare to find the newer player not realizing that supporting three colors in a Limited deck can be challenging and therefore will be cutting on the lands from their primary colors.
Considering you'll be playing a 40-card deck, a 9/8 land split for a deck without dual lands usually works. To support your main color, the one with the most cards, you'll need to have a minimum of eight sources, usually nine if you can afford it, coming from your lands. Not having the land of your main colors in the first few turns usually means you won't be able to play most of your cards...and will most likely lose. Nine sources is usually enough to ensure that doesn't happen too often. When your primary color has way more cards than your secondary color, let's say 14/9 (14 cards of your primary color), you can switch to a 10/7 mana base.
If both of your colors have the same number of cards and you don't know which color should have nine and which color should have eight, take these two things into consideration:
-Which color has the most early drops (cards costing two and three)
-Which color has the most mana symbols on their cards.
You should try to have your early drops in the color with the most cards. If they're tied, then your primary color should be the one with the earliest drops, in order to be able to cast them reliably as early as possible. Also keep in mind that a card with double mana in the cost will require you to play more sources. If they cost five or more, eight sources should be able to cast them reliably. If they cost less, they should preferably be in your primary color.
When considering a splash and to figure out how many sources of that color you need, you have to answer the following question:
-What's the card worth in the deck?
-Is it worth making the mana base worse?
-How early in the game do I need to play it?
-Is there a way to Recycle them if you can't cast them ("looting effects")?
To determine whether or not you should splash a card, you have to evaluate the risk you're taking by changing your mana base and the reward you get when things go your way, or most commonly called: the risk/reward ratio. Take our two-color model against the "Diablo" strategy. Even though you won't always have your second color and unless you play a mono-colored deck, it's fairly right to say that the risk you're taking, mana-wise, is minimal. You'll only have to choose cards from two colors only, which might limit the power potential of your deck. When going "Diablo," the risk you're taking with your mana is very high (high risk of color screwing) for a reward that might or might not be worth it (you have access to potentially more powerful cards).
The best way to support the three-color strategy is to take the 8/9 model and adapt it to the splash. Here is a little table to help you determine how many sources you need to add a splash to your deck:
# of cards to support => # of sources required
1 => 3
2 => 4
3–4 => 5
5 => 6
Unless the cards supported are morphs, you never want to play less than the number of sources required to play them. Having cards stuck in your hand because you don't have the mana to play them is one of the reasons you lose at Magic (and that's why "looting effect" might come in handy). When making your mana base, you have to see if that matches the 8/9 model above. You can eventually change that number to 8/8 or 8/7, but the splash has to be worth it.
To match these numbers, you'll need fixers (dual lands, land search spells…) that let you play the same number of lands of your main colors. An Ainok Guide can count as a source for your splash as long as you run the basic land that goes with it.
With that said, let me show you the deck I had in my last Prerelease:
1 Heir of the Wilds
1 Jeskai Sage
1 Ainok Guide
1 Whisperer of the Wilds
1 Alpine Grizzly
1 Snowhorn Rider
1 Temur Sabertooth
1 Mistfire Adept
1 Bear's Companion
2 Torrent Elemental
1 Thousand Winds
1 Wild Slash
1 Savage Punch
1 Force Away
1 Bathe in Dragonfire
1 Whisk Away
1 Write into Being
1 Ethereal Ambush
1 Enhanced Awareness
1 Will of the Naga
1 Supplant Form
1 Wooded Foothills
1 Frontier Bivouac
1 Rugged Highlands
This deck is insanely good mostly due to its rares, but you could replace them by other cards and the deck would still be good. The reason was because the mana could easily support the cards of all three colors. I had a lot of other playable red cards in my sideboard such as two Bathe in Dragonfireand a Shockmaw Dragon. I like these cards and I would have played them if they were green or blue. However, the mana base is only able to support three or four red cards, and nothing with double red in the cost. In general, avoid splashing for double-colored cards.
It might have been different had I opened more dual lands, but with "only" three in my colors, I managed to have something that works reliably. The mistakes most new players do it is to get super greedy with their splash. They would play a few more red cards because they have five red sources. The risk of not having the mana is just too high compared to the low reward of having a slightly better card in a splash color.
The risk/reward concept is skewed for a lot of people because of an emotional aspect. When you're playing that guy who lays a UB dual land, then a GW dual land, plays a white card, a blue card, a green card, and a black card, it feels like there's no reason not to run all your colors, it looks so easy. However, you don't see the five other games that guy plays where he can't play a single card from his hand. The same goes when you've faced this rare once that you couldn't deal with, and now you want to run it at any cost, stretch your mana as much as possible in order to play it. The five-color strategy exists in this format and can be a successful one, but it's not what we're looking at here.
Here is the other deck I played at my first Prerelease:
1 Jeskai Barricade
1 Wandering Champion
1 Jeskai Sage
2 Soul Summons
1 Jeskai Infiltrator
1 Sage-Eye Harrier
1 Hewed Stone Retainers
1 Icefeather Aven
2 Write into Being
1 Alabaster Kirin
1 Mistfire Adept
1 Abzan Skycaptain
1 High Sentinels of Arashin
2 Aven Surveyor
1 Crippling Chill
1 Jeskai Runemark
1 Will of the Naga
1 Dromoka, the Eternal
1 Singing Bell Strike
1 Opulent Palace
1 Thornwood Falls
1 Tranquil Cove
My deck was pretty good without being totally insane. I was missing a win condition and was going to play Thornwood Falls and Opulent Palace for Icefeather Aven anyway, so I only needed an extra green source to play Dromoka. The two Write into Being would help me get to that green mana or just make sure I don't draw the Dragon when I don't have my green mana yet. It wasn't before I considered all my options that I added it. Playing one Forest only for the Dragon (and the Icefeather Aven) feels very awkward. I would have loved another fixer than a basic forest, but I simply didn't have it. "Basic Forest" is a very bad card in a deck that requires white and blue mana early and double blue later in the game. In that case, Dromoka is a card that would simply win games on its own, at almost any time you could cast it. The risk of being annoyed by this Forest existed, but was made up for by the potential of the Dragon.
I had another option as well. In my pool, I had a Debilitating Injury, a Jungle Hollow and a Dismal Backwater. Along with Opulent Palace, that would be three black sources that I could run easily (replace an Island by the Dismal Backwater, the Forest by the Jungle Hollow, and voila!)
This UW deck is definitely lacking removal spells (it has none, just bounce spells). I really like Debilitating Injury, but it's not worth the splash in the main. Having the double splash (green and black), gives you an extra chance to jam your hand with an unplayable card and make the deck a bit more unstable.
I did bring the black package in a very specific situation, when I was facing the extremely annoying Soulfire Grand Master, as I had no other way to deal with it. Before bringing it in, I thought:
-what are the chances I lose to that card if I have no answer?
-how much worse would my mana base be?
-how likely is Debilitating Injury to jam my hand the entire game?
-how early do I need it in the game?
Adding the black didn't hurt my manabase that much. I wasn't replacing any of the white or blue sources for a swamp. I would have more enters-the-battlefield tapped lands, but nothing that would be too bad. Its reward could be huge if I took care of the Grand Master in a timely manner.
I'm still unsure what I would have done if the Debilitating Injury been a Murderous Cut in my pool. Murderous Cut is a much more versatile card that might have been worth splashing main deck…
When building your deck, unless you have enough fixers to support the splash card, always try to cut the cards from the lightest color. Your deck might lose power overall, but will gain in stability. Remember that it's not because you have ways to cast the card that you have to run it.
From the numbers I mentioned above, you can figure out what you need to play a balanced three-color deck. A three-color deck would require a minimum of eight sources of each, which means a minimum of six dual-lands in the right colors. I'll let you figure that for a four-color deck...
I'm highlighting the importance of the dual lands in Khans Limited. I'm not saying that you should first pick them (even if they could be first pick material; Khans triple lands are definitely first pick material), but that they play a crucial role in the risk/reward equation when it comes to splashing. When an "off-color" dual wouldn't get you anywhere, an "on-color" one might make your risk of playing splashed cards much lower and overall make the risk/reward ratio much lower, therefore making your deck that much stronger.
Being able to evaluate each card individually in Limited is only half the job; being able to match them together is the other half. The equation behind the risk/reward ratio is a complicated one that would be very hard to put on paper with x's and y's, much harder than it would be in Poker. For each situation, you'll have to experiment and find out what works best.
There are very rare situations when you just don't have the choice, your two-color deck is just too weak and you have no fixers. In that case, you will either have to go for broke, jam the good cards you have and hope for the best, or decide for a safer and sad option to go for a two-color deck full of filler and bad cards. While the first option is tempting, I suggest you go for stability over power when power comes at too big of a risk.