Pattern Recognition #21 - Mana Rocks
16 March 2017
16 March 2017
I've got a full-time job now, so my articles are being written at a slower pace. For that, I apologize. But work is important as it allows me to buy more Magic cards!
But, on with the show.
Several weeks back, I talked a bit about the concept of the Mana Screw. And one of the promised follow-ups was in showing how Wizards worked to fix that in the past, and into the present. So, this week will be about that!
First, this article will assume that you've read this one, as I will be building up from there. If you want to take a moment to refresh your memory, go ahead, I can wait.
Back? Or never left? Oh well, time to move forward.
Mana Rocks are, as I pointed out, artifacts that are capable of fixing Mana Screw in a deck. But that was not always the case, and in fact the idea of Mana Rocks has evolved over time.
Let me show you what I'm talking about. The first Mana Rocks actually appeared in Alpha, where they existed under a far different paradigm. Confused? Well, you know the six of them better as Black Lotus, Mox Pearl, Mox Sapphire, Mox Jet, Mox Ruby and Mox Emerald. Recall that I have said many times that in those days, decks were more mono-coloured, and multi-coloured decks were the exception. And these early Rocks show that idea off.
The point I want to make here is that the early rocks were less about fixing the mana colours as they were about accelerating your deck. Any ability to 'fix' was a side effect of running cheap mana sources for the other colours you were playing.
This style of mana rocks continued for a while. For example, Prophecy, from the Mercadian Masques Block gave use the Ramos cycle - Tooth of Ramos, Eye of Ramos, Skull of Ramos, Heart of Ramos and Horn of Ramos. Each of these were an attempt to 'balance' the Moxes (Moxen? Moxesse?) by giving them a casting cost of , but allowing you to sacrifice them for an additional point of mana after tapping them for the same.
It took the almighty Invasion block to create the first Mana Rocks as we understand the concept. And oh boy did it ever. There are 33 Artifacts in the Invasion block. The following are the rocks with the relevant colour generation:
Chromatic Sphere, Lotus Guardian, Mana Cylix, Phyrexian Altar, Phyrexian Lens, and Star Compass: Any.
That's 16 artifact based mana sources in the block. Which is a high-point in terms of accessibility as most of these cards were found at uncommon. And these 16 represent every allied colour pair through the Cameo cycle, while the Attendants worked with the colour sets that would later be called Shards.
The next major inclusion in the notion of Mana Rocks is the Signet Cycle from the Ravnica block. This is not to say that the blocks and sets between Invasion and Ravnica were without Mana Rocks, but rather that in my opinion, these are the next important step. Each of the Signets followed the same pattern. They cost , and for , they would generate the two colours of mana relevant to the named Guild.
These were important because they formed a complete cycle for all the colour-pairings in the game, helping to enable sets from the various editions of Commander through to Modern Masters 2017 to have a reliable source of both colours at the same time. Heck, when I was working for my former LGS, it was hard to keep them in stock.
After that, we come to the Shards of Alara block. Yes, I'm skipping blocks at at time here. I'm focusing on the highlights. The five Borderposts were printed in the last set of the block, the only purely multi-coloured set in the history of Magic. While they only generated two different types of mana each (they conceptually represented the core colours of two adjacent Shards - Naya and Bant were reflected on the Wildfield Borderpost), they were quite unusual in that as part of their alternate casting cost, you could drop one on the first turn by playing a basic land, tapping it for the and then bouncing it back to your hand to put the Post into play.
On the other side, the five Obelisks were a more traditional form of rock, allowing players to access all three relevant colours.
OK, enough examples! You're not here to browse card listings! You want to hear/read me prattle, right? Well, let's prattle!
Mana Rocks are flawed. By their very nature, they don't work. "But wait!" I hear you start to interject! Let me finish! The primary flaw with every last mana rock is that they become obsolete. They are temporary stopgap measures to fix your mana (with a minor side of acceleration) until such time as your lands fall in your favour
I mean, sure, in longer or Commander games, you might find a use for having that fourth of fifth instance of a specific colour, but that's the exception, not the rule.
So, to avoid this problem, either in being a dead draw or in wasting space on the table, what can we do with these?
Well, the first response is the easiest. It's already an Artifact, so why not make it a creature as well? An Artifact Creature can
act as is a Mana Dork, allowing it to swing or take a hit when it's not being used as a mana source. Now, there are two ways to go about doing this. The first is what we saw with the Attendant's cycle back in Invasion. A fixed body for the card.
The other way to go about doing this comes from the Monuments cycle from the Khans block. In that instead of making the artifact a creature by default, you make it so that it's an activated ability instead. And you know what? I like the idea. And it's obvious (to me) that it was optimized to work in the Limited formats. By first acting to resolve any mana fixing issues that would come from not getting the lands you wanted, once your mana was secure, you could then spend your excess mana on making a creature to throw into harms way!
I never said that it was an efficient use of your mana, but then again I doubt I ever saw them in a Standard deck, and Modern would eat the Monuments alive for being too slow. Might find a place in Commander though. But I wouldn't place any bets on that. There are far better options.
One neat thing about the Monuments is that they require for an activation cost, the same colours they produced. Which enables you to have multiple Monuments of the same type and use them to activate one, or, if you really have mana to burn, activate multiples!
The next idea is to give them some sort of non-mana effect. Something like the Banners, where after they are used, you could sacrifice them to draw a card. And as anyone who has played more than a handful of turns can tell you, more cards are always useful. Except I don't see a lot of that. What can you create that makes sense and isn't overpowered by putting an ability onto an artifact? I think I would need a Magnifying Glass to properly judge that.
It's a tight design space, but I think it could use some exploration. I for one, am interesting in seeing what Amonkhet will do in this regard. Although I suspect that it will be quite understated so they can focus on the splashy Mythics as usual.
Next is the sacrifice effect. While I could drone on and on about using artifacts to pump up an Atog to stupid levels, the idea comes to me from the Banners. After you're done with 'em, blow 'em up! Popping baubles like that is nothing strange to Wizards. Heck, the Commander's Sphere does that job well, though the idea dates all the way back to the Astrolabe or the entire Cluestone cycle or even the Terrarion.
The nice thing about self-destruction in this regard is that it also cleans up the board state. And I'm certain some decks would love to have more cards in the Graveyard than ever.
So, here's the summary;
Mana Rocks are VITAL. By not being a land, they can accelerate a deck, and by making the casting cost without colour, they can be played regardless of a person's mana situation. However, the problem is what to do with them after! There is no real easy solution to this as each implementation I have seen has strengths and weaknesses and for the most part, the weaknesses seem to be winning.
Join me next week when I really let loose. I have years worth of problems to unload, and I can only hope that I can give my opinion justice.
I'm going to talk about Jace Beleren.
Until then, I'm selling out! Or is that tapping out? Basic donors get a preview copy of the final article, while advanced donors get that as well as the opportunity to join me in a podcast version of the series!
I've always separated mana rocks into two categories. There are those that you cast later to fix your mana or ramp into very large spells, and there are those that you cast earlier to accelerate your mana at all cost. There is some overlap of course, but I think you play something like Gruul Cluestone for fundamentally different reasons than you play something like Sol Ring. I think the distinction is important because I believe the former variety of rock is healthy for the game while the latter is unhealthy.
I don't think there's anything inherently wrong with mana ramp, I just think it shouldn't be so easily accessible to every color. Why play green for ramp spells when you could just play a pile of rocks? On top of that, many of the older options cost so little themselves that they provide lethal acceleration in the earliest (and thus most important) turns of the game. I feel this gives a distinct advantage to aggressive decks that are often already able to outpace midrange and control decks. A deck trying to cast an 8-drop doesn't care whether their 2 mana comes from Mana Crypt or from Hedron Archive. The deck trying to blow you out of the game before turn 4 most certainly does.
I should admit that this is all based on the presupposed idea that slower, more interactive games are better for almost every format in Magic. Since this is a subjective position, I do acknowledge that there are those who prefer speed and power above all else, and that isn't a position without merit. I just personally don't enjoy losing commander games because an opponent had a Sol Ring turn 1 and I didn't. You can imagine that the number of games I've lost to Gruul Cluestone is pretty low by comparison.
March 16, 2017 2:06 p.m.
March 16, 2017 2:55 p.m.
I mean, there's a fringe mana-rock based deck in Standard actually. You mostly use Hedron Archives and Cultivator's Caravan to power out Metalwork Colossus as fast as possible. So that can be your mana rock deck if you want :)
March 16, 2017 3:13 p.m.
zephramtripp: Cheaper, but less effective in the long run. If I was designing a Limited oriented deck, I'd go for the Keyrunes though - because of the cost.
March 16, 2017 6:58 p.m.
I don't mind if you're articles are a bit late, as long as you keep writing to them :) Since I started reading them, I find myself looking forward to them week to week.
As a new player (Started around the end of Khans, just before Origins release), I find they're really informative. It's good learning about Magic's history.
March 17, 2017 2:01 a.m.
For one you can have a "mana rock" deck through animation effects like the original Karn, Silver Golem , or Sydri, Galvanic Genius, or even mass animation like March of the Machines. For two though I find it interesting how most lower mana rocks have started to become balanced through more than just ETB tapped effects; like how Corrupted Grafstone also requires you to have a spell of some color in the grave.
Grafstone was also indicative of a shift away from the magic of the Eldrazi in that colorless/devoid cards couldn't use that type of pseudo-death based magic that is common to all of Innistrad. That kind of built in thematic mechanics has always been the best part of MTG to me.
March 17, 2017 2:35 p.m.
TheVectornaut I have to disagree here, mostly because having access to more speed (and also the means to prevent too fast plays) is what makes formats with a larger card pool more interesting. Having the possibility to kill in turns 1-4 doesn't mean the games won't ever last longer, the possibility of these powerplays simply increases the tension in the game. Last week we played Legacy for fun at the local shop and it took us over 1,5 hours to finish a match with 2:1. Later on our commander regular's table we had an even higher power level and the decks that had potential turn 1-4 kills would take half an hour or more to eventually push their win through all the obstacles on the table...
What I mean to say is: the accelerating mana rock creates tension in the game, the slow colour fixing mana rock is mostly crap. There are fetchlands and duals for that, no need to play an artifact that has a more than 2:1 cost/production rate, if it hasn't some other good ability like Chromatic Lantern or Coalition Relic or can draw cards or whatever.
Signets are great colour fixers, also the talismans from Mirrodin...but they only cost 2 and produce 1 without a drawback, which is reasonable, and still they aren't often seen in modern, because even in a format that has no access to accelerating mana rocks with a 1:1 or 1:2 cost/production rate there are better methods to fix colours. This says a lot about just how irrelevant mana rocks with a drawback are apart from the most casual or limited environments.
March 17, 2017 4:37 p.m.
So where do rocks like Mox Diamond, Lion's Eye Diamond, and Chrome Mox fit into things? Is it just Wizard's attempt to re-balance something like a Mox Pearl or Black Lotus by providing an additional negative cost?
March 19, 2017 12:32 a.m.
Mana rocks are only relevant in limited and EDH, unless they are part of a combo or affinity. Paying 2 or 3 mana for one mana sets you back 1-2 turns and is pretty worthless. If mana rocks cost 1 mana like Sol Ring you would see them played more often MAYBE. Players run fetches and duals to fix and green to ramp (generally speaking).