Is Big Mana Dead in Modern?
- Filip Skórnicki
When considering macro-archetypes, we usually distinguish the following: aggro, midrange, control, combo, big mana. The presence of all five in a format speaks to how healthy the metagame is. All of them can coexist as they prey upon one another. Currently, Modern sees a fair share of four of them …
What Are Big Mana Decks?
The name is very much self-descriptive. It's used to talk about decks that operate using copious amounts of mana. They don't tend to cheat anything into play but rather find their own way to generate a lot of mana, usually in the form of ramping. Let's look at some examples.
Tron & Eldrazi Tron: They use the combination of Urza's Tower, Urza's Power Plant, and Urza's Mine to generate seven colorless mana as early as turn three. The Eldrazi variant doesn't need to go quite as big and is often fine with an Eldrazi Temple or two.
Amulet Titan: With the help of so-called karoo or bounce lands such as Simic Growth Chamber or Golgari Rot Farm the deck can produce two mana off of a single land. It makes multiple land drops a turn thanks to Azusa, Lost but Seeking and Dryad of the Ilysian Grove and untaps the karoos with Amulet of Vigor. It's a multi-card puzzle but the reward is a fast Primeval Titan.
These are arguably the most popular big mana archetypes in Modern, but they're not nearly as popular anymore as they once were. For a long time, they've always been a huge part of the metagame—not infrequently tier one warping the whole format.
Magic theory shows us that big mana is especially good when midrange and control decks run rampant. Midrange decks tend to eschew countermagic, so the ramp decks can just keep slamming big threat after big threat and go over the top of any midrange game plan. These big spells may also have cast triggers, which are especially strong against counterspells. Titan decks can also run Cavern of Souls to invalidate all the Archmage's Charms. Are there no midrange or control decks to prey on?
Enter Modern Horizons 2
Shortly after the set's release, players were beyond excited to play with new cards. There was one card in particular whose wording and rules baggage caused a good deal of confusion early on—the seemingly innocuous Urza's Saga. Amulet Titan players were actually among the first to pick it up. Not only did it give the deck a strong plan B of generating an army of Constructs. It also guaranteed an Amulet of Vigor via the third chapter's search ability. I remember players clamoring for either Saga's or Amulet's ban, because its power looked unstoppable. Well, it was very much stoppable.
The issue that big mana decks had to face head on were the other MH2 cards and decks born from them. Ragavan, Nimble Pilferer and Dragon's Rage Channeler were universally adopted in plenty of shells and posed quite a challenge to ramp decks. Not only are they one-drops, which put pressure on the opponent from the very early turns. Both also provide other forms of advantage. Ragavan pressures and creatures Treasure tokens—highly relevant in the blue-based decks that also run permission. It allows them to attack, deploy more threats, and still have mana up for Counterspell.
Urza's Saga started seeing play in Hammertime too, a deck that presents turn two and turn three kills—not something a ramp deck can realistically deal with. These decks are rather known for being linear, uninteractive, and hoping their plan is enough. Lastly, the ubiquity of Urza's Saga made everyone play a ton of artifact and enchantment hate. It hurt all Tron and Amulet players significantly. They don't want their Amulet of Vigor, Expedition Map, or Oblivion Stone destroyed by some main-deck hate.
Poised for a Return
The thing is that the metagame has settled a bit and I think big mana ought to come back. First, there are not as many Hammers and Murktides floating around. People have started to play around with some Jund Sacrifice, Esper Reanimator, and other ambitious new constructions. Tron can act as excellent fun police in such a scenario and show these newcomers where they belong.
In addition, ramp decks have some high-tier competitors to prey upon themselves. While Murktide and Hammer pose a problem, White-Blue Control, Jund, and Elementals don't. They are the classic archetypes that historically struggle with the Trons of the world. I believe that they can be pushed back with a few Karns and Titans. Cavern of Souls stops permission, Jund or Rakdos Lurrus is a midrange discard deck that cannot stop threats off the top of the library, and Elementals are heavy on creature removal, which is pretty bad against Tron and its planeswalkers.
White-Blue Control has regained its position on the back of Chalice of the Void, because it can play it and still roughly maintain its own game plan. Big mana decks are rarely hit by Chalices and could run them themselves. Eldrazi Tron has already been playing Chalice for as long as the deck even exists. The adoption of Chalice, whether main or in the sideboard, could give them a solid edge at large.
Finally, while Ragavan puts on a good amount of pressure, its hits are almost always empty. This is the inherent advantage of playing a lot of expensive spells—Ragavan exiling your cards is rarely more than that, exiling. While the card itself wouldn't be an argument to play ramp, it's an often overlooked bonus. And you can still play Dismember or Spatial Contortion to be able to interact early in the game.
For all the aforementioned reasons, I believe that the time is ripe for big mana to make a comeback. Not only is it already in a good shape. It can also adapt to the current environment to combat its biggest predators. As always—please remember to hold my hand and pass the turn together. Cheers!
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