My apologies for missing an article last week. My brother just entered the blissful (or hellish, depending on who you ask) state of marriage over Memorial Day weekend here in the US. Between that and work travel immediately following the wedding I didn’t get my article cranked out like I'd have liked last week. To make up for it, today I’m going to talk about the nearly ubiquitous inclusion of mana ramping cards in Commander decks, and which ones you should play, and in which decks, to give you the leg up on one of the most important parts of a deck.
Regardless of color choices, there are many different strategies to ramp in Commander. It’s a universal truth that you should at least consider having a few ramp cards in your 99, regardless of what archetype you’ve chosen to play. From the most “broken” ramp cards like Sol Ring, to the humble Rampant Growth, there’s a huge array of cards to choose from for the average deck builder.
The Broken (Undercosted and Overplayed)
This category includes the cards that pretty much everyone wants to run in every deck, with Sol Ring and Mana Crypt being the two primary offenders. Very few decks want to skip out on these two for one simple reason: they give you a net increase in mana when you play them, and stick around to keep doing it turn after turn. These cards are almost always better than another land in your deck because they let you cheat your curve. Playing a 4-drop on turn 2 will often put you way ahead of your opponents in board development, card quality, or whatever angle you’ve decided to attack from with your choice of deck.
Short Aside: These types of cards are frequently brought up for a possible banning by members of the Commander community who feel the banned list should be balanced for one-versus-one play, as well as multiplayer. Thankfully, the Commander Rules Committee understands the value of having a format that is based around multiplayer play and does not cater to the more competitive crowd, and these cards remain unbanned. For those who wish to play solely one-on-one I would recommend banning these types of cards as a local ban.
Non-broken Artifact Ramp
The other form of acceleration available to every color, artifact ramping has its plusses and its minuses. In the days of Tolarian Academy being legal, it was noticeably more powerful, but these days it has fallen off in popularity. Many decks still run mana fixing acceleration like Darksteel Ingot and Gilded Lotus because of the bonus mana and the color fixing provided by those artifacts. Neither one is particularly stellar, but they both do the job. Sometimes you’ll see a Medallion (that is, Sapphire Medallion and friends) in a mono color deck, or a Diamond (like Ruby Sapphire) because if you only need one color, you might as well get the acceleration going as early as possible.
There are also the few gems like Wayfarer's Bauble that let any color play green’s game and search up basics and put them directly onto the battlefield. If you’re playing in a heavy artifact-hate meta, cards like the Bauble can get the job done without exposing you to as much of the hate.
Green “Land onto the Battlefield” Effects
If there is one thing that makes green much better in Commander than it is in other formats, it is the strength of ramp. Commander is oftentimes about having your haymakers start landing before those of your opponents, and no color enables ridiculously costed haymaker spells and creatures like green can. There are two main types of these effects: tutoring up a land and putting it directly onto the battlefield, and getting additional land drops. Tutoring is the more universally powerful effect, but additional land drops can make for some silly combos in the right deck.
It’s safe to say that pretty much anything that generates card advantage independent of number of players is a solid multiplayer card. Green land fetching has that in spades starting at three mana. Kodama's Reach, and the new non-Arcane subtypeless version Cultivate, are both are great cards for ramping, as are the put-both-on-the-battlefield versions in Skyshroud Claim and Explosive Vegetation. The Rampant Growth variants are less powerful simply because you’re only getting one card in the deal, but you can also start ramping sooner which might matter depending on your curve. In most of my green decks, I play all four of Cultivate, Kodama's Reach, Skyshroud Claim, and Explosive Vegetation unless I’m leaving them out for flavor reasons.
The second type, extra land drops, is a type of ramp usually left to dedicated ramp and land focused decks because it’s fairly narrow. However, in these types of decks, it’s extremely powerful. Oracle of Mul Daya is a prime example of how powerful this effect can be: for four mana, you get to see the top card of your library and play it if it’s a land every turn, letting you get to the business spells that much faster. Other effects like Exploration and Rites of Flourishing see play as well. The mana-ramp-into-huge-threat strategy is powerful enough that Asuza, Lost but Seeking sees play as a mono-green general just to play Eldrazi faster. If you’re looking to play things far earlier than anyone has the right to be playing them, green is your go-to color.
“Land into Hand” Effects
If you have a top heavy curve, and you need to make all your land drops for the first few turns, playing effects that let you find additional lands is a great way to go when you aren’t in green. (While green has this ability in large quantities too, you’re usually better off playing the spells that put them directly onto the battlefield for you, with the exception of cards like Yavimaya Elder that give you additional card advantage.)
Amusingly enough, the color that can do this the best is probably white, for no other reason than a single card: Land Tax. Land Tax is so incredibly underrated it’s almost criminal. How would you like an enchantment that said “At the beginning of your upkeep, if an opponent controls more lands than you, draw 3 cards.”? Would you run that? I sure would. When you look at Land Tax and how important it is to make sure you hit your land drops for as long as possible, along with the nice thinning effect multiple triggers gets you, it’s hard not to read Land Tax that way. If for some reason you’ve mostly eschewed basics in your deck, then Land Tax might not be right for you, but if you play at least 9 basics I’d say you should probably be running it in your white decks. White and artifacts both have several one shot ways to do this, as well as the basic landcycling cycle from Conflux, but what makes Land Tax awesome is the repeat usage.
The other nice thing about this effect is being able to get any land, rather than just basics. White will often let you get Plains on the one shot effects, and multiple green spells will let you tutor for lands with a basic land type, so you can find those pricey Revised duals (or slightly cheaper Ravnica versions) if you have them. In green and artifacts, you have effects like Sylvan Scrying and Expedition Map which let you find any land you might need. These become an auto-include when trying to take advantage of particularly powerful lands, such as Cabal Coffers or Gaea's Cradle, because they become "additional copies" of the card you’re really looking for.
Aside #2: Some people may feel these cards go against the spirit of Commander because you’re only running them to be a second/third/whatever copy of some broken land in your deck. As always, check with your playgroup to make sure people won’t be upset when you use Sylvan Scrying to get Gaea's Cradle almost every game.
Mana Doubling Effects
There are many ways to double your mana for double the fun, and every color has one or two besides white. Red gives you the oldie-but-goodies of Mana Flare and Gauntlet of Might but not much else in the reusable department. Blue gives you the classic combo-enabler High Tide. Black has the virtual mana doublers of Cabal Coffers and Magus of the Coffers. Green has the colorshifted-to-the-right-color Mana Flare, Heartbeat of Spring as well as ones that only work for them in Mirari's Wake (I know it’s white, but it’s really green) and Mana Reflection. Choose your own colors in artifacts gives you Gauntlet of Power and the new-and-improve version, Caged Sun. Playing one of these at the right time will often catapult you miles ahead of your opponents, provided you have the cards to take advantage of all that mana goodness. Obviously, X spells are great for this, but don’t forget about multikicker cards as well. The flexibility lets you go big when you can, but still lets you play them if someone forced you to deal with them instead of continuing to ramp early.
Lands to Ramp Ratio
One important thing to remember when building your deck is to never cut lands because you’re playing ramp spells with the exception of the cards like Sol Ring and Mana Crypt. Nothing is more of a downer than having Skyshroud Claim and Gauntlet of Power sitting in your hand and only three lands on the battlefield.
When building a deck, I aim for 40-45 mana sources on average, hedging one way or the other depending on the average converted mana cost of my spells. If I’m playing a particularly small curve, I might go as low as 36 actual lands with 3-4 additional ramp effects, but that’s the bare minimum and it’s exceptionally greedy when you’ll almost always want to get to 10 or more mana available in a game. With any average converted mana cost over 4.0 or so, I’d recommend 38-40 actual mana producing lands and five to six additional mana sources. It may look like a lot, but you’ll be much happier when you have the mana to play your spells on time.
Mana flood in Commander is often mitigated by using your commander more aggressively since you’ll have the mana to replay him or her even if someone kills them. In my dedicated ramp deck that plays big silly spells, I run upwards of 55 lands and ramp spells and I’ve never felt mana flooded. If you aren’t experiencing occasional mana flood, you probably aren’t running enough mana sources in your decks.
Go Big or Go Home
While I hit the major points, I didn’t hit everything. There are many, many different approaches to mana ramping in Commander. Not every strategy fits how you may want to play. For more aggressive players, putting additional lands into play is huge, because it lets them get the aggro on faster. For a more control oriented player it’s highly likely they need to make sure they hit every land drop consistently rather than just getting ahead of the curve. It all depends on the goal for your deck, so pick the ramp strategy that works best for you. Next week I’ll share one of my ramp-oriented decks that does silly things with some of the mana doublers I mentioned above.
Until next time, may you always hit the gas before the brakes.