With one weekend of Battle for Zendikar Standard under my belt, I find myself missing the temple land cycle even more than I thought I would. It's not just the constant stream of deck manipulation they provided that I miss, or the fact that it was a ten-card cycle hitting every color pair -- no, it's having a one-mana effect on a land that I miss most. In terms of maximizing mana efficiency, life was just much easier when we had access to temples. We got to sequence our plays such that we deployed our temples on turns where we didn't have another use for the mana that could be generated by our land drop, and in so doing we got an effect close enough to worth one mana that we barely noticed the inefficiency.
Mana is the heart and soul of Magic. We expect that the more mana we spend to play a card or effect, the more powerful and thus impactful it will be. That is, there is a direct correlation between mana cost and power level. It is not a perfect rule, but in general, in a given match, the player who spends the most mana throughout the game is more likely to win that game. This 'rule' is why we care about the concept of a mana curve and our mana efficiency in general -- these are deck construction / good play principles designed to ensure we utilize as much of our mana as possible on every turn of the game.
In chemistry, the atom was once thought to be the smallest possible unit of matter, the indivisible building block found within every material thing. Sadly for John Dalton and his Solid Sphere Model, we have since discovered that atoms aren't the smallest possible particle and are in fact made up of smaller particles. Magic isn't quite as complex as nature though, and unless Wizards decides to delve into some radical design space for future expansions, I expect that our fundamental unit of mana will continue to simply be one mana. Every expenditure of mana exists as a combination of one mana pieces: two mana on that Elvish Visionary, four mana on this Siege Rhino for a net spending of six mana on turn six. Intuitively, what this means is that on a given turn, we are either perfectly mana efficient or we could also cast a one-mana spell -- The Law of Leftover Mana.
Alternatively, we could play a temple on any turn that we are not being perfectly mana efficient. Hence why I miss the temples so much -- they were an omnipresent way to increase mana efficiency on a given turn that provided an effect that helped to increase mana efficiency on future turns. But the temples aren't the only one-mana equivalent plays that Battle for Zendikar Standard lost in rotation. I present Thoughtseize and Elvish Mystic. The best one-mana spells from last Standard are all gone, and we didn't really gain anything sweet to replace them. The best one-mana spells left are Warden of the First Tree, Wild Slash, and Fiery Impulse which, while fine, hardly manage to maintain the caliber of Thoughtseize and Elvish Mystic.
But Magic, much like time-travel, is all about adapting to the time you find yourself in. Temples are gone, the great one-mana spells are gone, in this brave new world the plethora of things to do with one leftover mana on a turn we have come to know and love are all gone. What does this mean for the future of Standard? As previously discussed, one of the things the abundance of one-mana equivalent effects did was help us fill out our curves as needed. This meant that in deck construction, we didn't have to pay as much attention to the mana curve of our deck as we did in other Standard formats. Now that those one-mana curve-filling effects are gone, solid curves will once again be a critical part of deck construction.
Let's back up for a second. When I say that because of the rotation of most of the good one-mana effects in Standard curves will need to be tighter than they previously were, what I am decidedly not saying is that every deck needs to have a one-drop. One-mana spells are great, and if there is one that fits with the core strategy of your deck, by all means play it. But having such a spell is not necessary. In last Standard, most decks did not cast a spell on turn one -- they played a temple. What those decks were very good at was using all or almost all of their available mana every turn. To duplicate this skill (which is critical to winning at Magic) without access to one-mana effects that are relevant at every point in a game, new Standard decks will have to have a plan for turn five beyond casting a four-CMC spell and using a one-mana effect, because they won't have one-mana effects to play.
The abundance of one-mana curve-filling effects is one of the reasons last format seemed to be such a homogenous blend of Siege Rhino. The fact was that decks could actually cast Siege Rhino turns four, five, and six and be using their mana efficiently. Turn five Thoughtseize, Siege Rhino was brutally efficient in every meaning of the words brutal and efficient. Now, casting a four-drop for three straight turns might still be brutal, but it will be less efficient and hopefully, as a result, more beatable.
I believe the major effects of this raised importance of mana curves will be an increased priority placed on the five-drop slot and a more stringent ratio of two to three-mana spells. Just like in last Standard, the best cards in Battle for Zendikar Standard cost four mana (the printing of Gideon, Ally of Zendikar ensured that this would continue to be the case). These are the spells that define archetypes and decide games, but thanks to the increased importance of curve, this will be less this case in this Standard than it was previously. Five-drops will often be actively sought after instead of played solely as an afterthought, and seeing a deck curve four-drop into five-drop will happen much more frequently than it did previously.
Previously, the card pool essentially gave us curve-filling effects for free in deck construction. It was a two-for-one special, play the lands you need to fix your mana and get the ability to have a perfect curve every game on the house. It was a great special, but the promotional period is now over and we need to start paying full price again. A renewed emphasis on mana curve in deck construction is great and all, and will do a decent amount of the heavy lifting towards ensuring that games play out in a way that does not waste an excessive amount of mana. But deck construction mana curves are just probabilities and there is always a chance of drawing cards in the wrong order and not curving out the way you intended. This is where curve-filling effects come into play.
By a curve-filling effect, I mean any permanent that lets you chooseto use mana at a time convenient to you for some beneficial effect. For instance, Hangarback Walker. Once cast, the Walker will perform all the standard duties of a creature -- head out and attack, hang back and block, etc., but he will also allow you to spend a mana you had no other use for to increase his effectiveness. This is the kind of curve-filling effect that lets us maximize our utility in games where our curve hasn't quite panned out the way that we wanted.
The absolute best curve-filling effects are the ones that don't punish you when your deck is bringing it's A game. Sometimes you cast Hangarback Walker on two and then curve three-four-five beautifully and your Hangarback is just sitting there with one measly counter, looking kind of dumb and ineffective. The good news is you just cast your dream curve, so the fact that you aren't getting maximum utility out of your two-drop is probably not enough to stop you from being pretty far ahead in this game. Still, it sure would be nice if the card we opted to play to ensure we wouldn't be super mana inefficient in the games where things don't go our way wasn't fairly terrible in the games where our draw does line up.
Enter Jace, Vryn's Prodigy. The card every curve-filling effect aspires to be. The front half of new Jace loots, which doesn't directly curve fill but does help to find the spells we need to curve out with style, and does so without costing us any of our precious mana. The planeswalker half is a curve-filling effect on steroids. On any turn you have excess mana to use you get to choose the best possible instant or sorcery spell in your graveyard to reuse. If you don't have excess mana, Jace, Telepath Unbound increases his loyalty while providing an admittedly-small-but-decidedly-positive effect on the game state. If you draw Jace and play him on two and end up using all your mana for the next six turns without ticking him down at all, it's not similar to the situation where you curved out after playing a Hangarback Walker. Jace does not look at all dumb or unimpressive in this situation -- he's great in your best draws and your worst ones. If you want a reason for Jace's recent price spike aside from being a powerful card in a small Standard format, his role as the actual best curve-filler in a format that desperately wants curve-filler effects is my vote.
So we don't have great one-mana effect options. The next best thing would be two-mana effects, can we just Overload on those and use them as curve fillers? The idea behind this plan is that if you have a two-mana spell in your hand that you don't have enough mana to cast after playing your primary spell for the turn, at worse you wasted one mana this turn (whereas if you had a one-mana effect you couldn't play, you wasted no mana). How bad is wasting one mana a turn, really?
The answer to that question, in scientific terms, is: bad, but not terrible. You don't want to waste mana if you don't have to. Magic is zero-sum, and both players are under the same deck building constraints. So if your solution to the problem of mana efficiency was to play a lot of two-drops as curve filler and accept that sometimes you would be wasting one mana and your opponent found a more elegant solution to the problem, they are likely going to be favored. Small edges add up, and every time your opponent utilizes one more mana than you do they are gaining a small edge. That being said, as a Backup Plan of having a reasonable range of two-drops certainly limits how far behind you can fall in mana efficiency.
Using a bunch of two-drops is likely to be a fine solution for some deck styles. It is another tool in the box to aid with increasing mana efficiency and should be kept in mind. One of the main drawbacks is that many/most two mana spells are low impact, and overloading on them might result in many games where you have been efficiently casting low-CMC spells and find yourself unable to beat the one high-CMC spell your opponent played, despite having spent more mana overall than they have. The thing about last Standard's great one-mana effects was that they were effects that didn't fall behind in card advantage that either developed your mana for the future (temples, Elvish Mystic) or were a relevant, powerful effect at every stage of the game ( Thoughtseize). If the core strategy of your deck provides you with two-mana effect options that are similar, by all means take advantage of them. Just keep in mind the potential pitfalls, and know that you still aren't completely happy accepting the potential to waste one mana.
The take home message here is that Magic changes and we need to pay attention to the ramifications of those changes. Temples leaving Standard is a big change that makes some elements of deck design more important than they used to be. I don't have all the answers as to what curves need to look like now, how many two, three, four, five and six-drops your midrange decks should play, etc. What I do know is that temples spoiled us in terms of needing to build perfect curves into our decks, and now that they are gone mana curve is an element every aspiring deck designer needs to pay more attention to.
Thanks for reading,