Welcome Week: The Landscape of the Pioneer Manabase

When the Pioneer format was created, only five cards were on the banlist. Those cards were the Fetch Lands, and their absence from the format has had an immense impact on how manabases are constructed. Here, WonkyWombat gives a detailed overview of the lands available in Pioneer and constructing a manabase around them.

Introduction

When the Pioneer format was created, only five cards were on the banlist. Those cards were the Fetch Lands, and their absence from the format has had an immense impact on how manabases are constructed. This, combined with the prevalence of powerful utility lands, along with the general speed and play patterns present in Pioneer leads to Pioneer’s manabases being constructed quite differently to nearly every other popular format. Because of this I feel that it is a topic worth discussing, due to the surprising amount going on in them, all of which may not be incredibly intuitive to newer players.

Lack of Manabase Parity

To start off: the elephant in the room. Allied color pairs and enemy color pairs do not have access to the same fixing. The most notable of these differences is the lack of Fast and Pain Lands for allied color pairs, along with the shard Triomes (though New Capenna will be releasing soon, at which point that specifically will no longer be an issue). One notable result of this is that aggressive decks in allied color pairs suffer due to lacking access to as many untapped pieces of fixing that allow the decks to curve out. There is a reason that the top tier competitive aggro decks of the format have historically almost all been either mono colored or an enemy color pair, with examples being Boros Burn, Orzhov Auras, Mono Black Aggro, Boros Heroic, Mono Red Aggro, et cetera. There certainly have been exceptions to this, such as Gruul Aggro and Selesnya Humans, so it is not to say that lack of access to these lands makes any ally colored aggressive deck unplayable, but it does increases the bar for the decks when the manabases of enemy colored decks or mono colored decks are so superior. Of course I do not want to imply that this is only an issue for aggressive decks, as many strategies would benefit from these lands, but aggressive strategies feel this disparity the most acutely.

Manabases as Fixing

The most obvious function that comes to mind when people think of a manabase is its ability to “fix” a deck’s mana. That is to say its ability to ensure that a deck has the types of mana it needs on the turns it will need them. This aspect of manabases at face value seems like it would be quite simple, one just runs the best lands that tap for the colors they need. However in Pioneer it isn’t quite that simple, due to a number of factors. The most obvious differentiator from several other popular non-rotating formats is, as I mentioned in the introduction of this article, the fact that Fetch Lands were banned at the inception of the Pioneer format. The lack of Fetch Lands here is notable for a few reasons, with the first being that, obviously, manabases are straight up just not as good. Fetch Lands are the most powerful cycle of dual lands that have ever printed (yes I’m including OG dual lands in that, fight me) due to their ability to represent multiple different dual lands in a deck simultaneously, thus making three-color manabases almost free, and four and five-color manabases far easier than one unfamiliar with them may expect. In two color decks they have a less profound impact, but they are still incredibly strong, as they allow decks to essentially run as many of whatever the formats typed land cycle is, while still providing the ability to find a basic lands should that be preferable. All that to essentially say that Fetch Lands are absurdly powerful, and Pioneer not having them is a fundamental thing that sets the format apart from many other non-rotating formats. As a result of this, decks in Pioneer are forced to dig deeper into the barrel of mana fixing, resulting in some rather significant diversity in the lands that do see play. Because of this I feel that briefly going over each cycle of lands that see play, and explaining what types of decks play them and when they should be included in decks.

Shock Lands

The most ubiquitous cycle of dual lands in the format are undoubtedly the Shock Lands. They are, in my opinion, the only true auto-include land cycle in the format. Basically any two color deck will play their respective Shock Land, and three plus color decks will typically have Shock Lands comprise a non-trivial portion of their manabase, because Shock Lands are simply very strong. The ability to always enter untapped at any point in the game (or not and be painless should the situation call for it) means that they are just very consistently going to do what a deck needs them to with relatively little downside.

 

Check Lands

Aside from Shock Lands, Check Lands are one of the most played land cycles in Pioneer. They see a lot of play in higher colored decks such as Four color Ascendency and Niv to Light, along with most two colored allied decks. They see play in allied two color decks often largely due to those decks simply not having access to better lands, as while they are not amazing in decks such as Selesnya Humans or Azorius Spirits, those decks simply do not have better options for lands that are able to enter untapped by turn two. In other allied two color decks however they are actually quite strong, with examples being UB and UW control. The reason that they are good in those decks is partially just because they can afford to have lands that will enter the battlefield tapped some amount of the time, but also those control decks usually play some number of the amonkhet Bi-cycle Lands and/or fabled passages as a part of their manabases, which means that these will be able to enter untapped on turn two quite consistently, which is important for those decks, as turn two is when they decks are able to begin holding up mana for counterspells. As for their prevalence in high color decks, ironically in Pioneer the more colors a deck plays the more lands with basic land types it will also be playing, as they are able to play more Shock Lands, and importantly Triomes. Because of this increased density of typed lands, the Check Lands enter the battlefield untapped rather consistently and painlessly. When considering Check Lands for a deck, the important things to consider are how they will enter untapped, along with how consistently and when the deck needs them to enter untapped.

Fast Lands

Fast Lands, as mentioned earlier in this article, are available only to enemy color pairs. They are incredibly strong in low curve or aggressive decks, as they will always enter the battlefield untapped on the turns when the deck really needs them to, with no cost. Aggressive decks in Pioneer often do not have any cards that cost more than three mana, and as such the tapped clause on Fast Lands is very rarely relevant in those strategies. Fast Lands do see play outside of just aggressive decks though, they are playable in a fair portion of midrange decks, tempo decks, and some combo decks. Control decks, however, rarely play Fast Lands, as (aside from the most popular control decks being in allied color pairs) control decks care less about having untapped lands in the early turns of the game and care more about the lands they play in the mid to late game entering untapped. The main thing to weigh when considering whether Fast Lands would fit well into a deck is whether the deck cares more about having access to as much mana as possible in the early stage of the game, or the mid to late stages of the game.

Slow Lands

Slow Lands are, at the time of writing this article, one of the most recent additions to the Pioneer format. Having just been introduced across Midnight Hunt and Crimson Vow they have already proven their worth in certain strategies, seeing play primarily in midrange decks and occasionally control decks, as they are strategies that very much care about making their land drops well past turn three, and in in the case of midrange decks care very much about having those lands enter untapped. Control decks in Pioneer tend to be base blue, which means that they have access to counterspells. As a result of this they value having their second land drop enter the battlefield enter untapped rather highly, and Slow Lands being unable to do this is a large part of why the Slow Lands see less play in control than they do midrange, though they do still see some amount of play. When evaluating Slow Lands for a deck, the primary thing to look at is how often the deck is wanting to play lands four, five and even six. If the deck wants to be making its land drops well into the late game, and their entering untapped during that time is important, then Slow Lands may be a worthy inclusion.

 

Pathways

Another fairly recent addition to the format (or so I keep telling myself, because I do not want to think about the fact that Zendikar was over a year ago) the Pathways are another of the strongest land cycles in Pioneer, with the very strong ability to always enter the battlefield untapped without requiring any life loss to do so. Pathways are at their best in two color decks that care about their lands always entering the battlefield untapped. They also see play in a fair number of three color decks that don’t have particularly strenuous mana requirements that also value untapped lands very highly. Examples of this include Naya Winota and Jund Sacrifice. Pathways are generally strong all around lands in any deck without extreme mana requirements, as they have no real drawback other than not being a literal dual land that can tap for either color of mana, and not having basic land types. When deciding whether or not to include Pathways, the important things to consider are whether a land that can only tap for one color of mana on the battlefield can support the mana requirements of the deck in question, and if the fact that the Pathways do not have the basic land types is too significant a drawback.

Pain Lands

The other cycle of lands unavailable to allied color pairs, Pain Lands offer mana fixing that is always untapped, but at the cost of a significant amount of life. Due to the significant amount of damage that these lands represent they see play almost exclusively in two color aggressive decks that value fixing on the earliest turns of the game very highly, and whose gameplan is almost always going to be proactive. Decks that are trying to end the game quickly and as such minimize the impact of that damage from the Pain Lands. When evaluating Pain Lands in a deck, the question to ask is how desperately the deck needs to eliminate clunk from its manabase, and how much life it can afford to pay in order to do so.

Bicycle Lands

Finally, a land cycle that the allied color pairs have access to that the enemy color pairs don’t, the Bicycle Lands are good in exactly two-color control and basically nothing else. They fill the very specific niche in both UB and UW control of a dual land that can be played tapped on turn one that allows the Check Lands to enter untapped on turn two, and a land that can be cycled away in the late game should the control deck need to dig for more action. Additionally control decks in general are more able to play tapped lands than most other strategies, just by nature of their slow gameplan, so playing a land that never enters untapped is more feasible for them than other decks. Now normally this is the point in the breakdown where I would explain what to think about when deciding whether or not these lands are good in a deck or not, but with the Bicycle Lands it’s pretty simple. They’re pretty good in UW and UB control, and bad in basically everything else. 

Triomes

Technically, the Triomes are not actually dual lands, as they tap for three different colors of mana. That said, they’re very good and I would be remiss to not talk about them. Triomes are a large part of the reason that four and five color decks are viable in Pioneer. While they do enter tapped all the time, this downside is easily outweighed by the fact that they add three different types of mana, and are typed, and also cycle for some reason. The importance of their having basic land types really can not be overstated, even in a format that doesn’t have fetches, because it means that those high color decks gain access to Check Lands to fill in the rest of their manabase, after the Triomes and shocks have been added, that enter untapped fairly consistently and don’t cost any life. Beyond just those high color decks though the Triomes can also be good in slower three color decks, such as Jeskai Control. While it is not seeing much play right now it has certainly been a top tier deck in the past, and likely has the potential to be so again depending on what we see happen in the metagame. That said however, as of the time of writing this article we only have the five wedge Triomes, and when we see the cycle completed in New Capenna I expect that we will see those Triomes in some three color decks as well, along with obviously slotting into the higher color decks in the format. When deciding on whether Triomes are good in a deck, the important things to consider are how harsh its mana requirements are, and how large of a cost a tapland is in it.

Other Lands/General Evaluation

Of course, not all lands in Pioneer are a part of a cycle. There are a number of good pieces of fixing that I have not covered that are perfectly playable, but if I were to go over every one of them individually then this article would be far too long (and it’s frankly already pushing it), so instead I will try to give some criteria off of which fixing lands in general can be judged. The first question is the most obvious, what spells does it let a given deck cast. For most lands this will just come down to what colors of mana it taps for, but taking unclaimed territory for instance, it only gives mana for creatures of the specific type, so despite the bant spirits deck for instance having somewhat dubious mana and being a tribal deck, often the only (or close to the only) green cards that the deck typically plays are Collected Companys, which Unclaimed Territory does not help to cast. For that reason I believe that it is more productive to think in terms of what spells a card helps a deck cast rather than just the colors of mana it adds. The second thing to consider is when, if ever, it enters tapped. This ties in in many ways to what spells a land helps to cast, as if a deck is playing mana dorks and etb tapped green lands, those do not really help to cast the mana dorks as a deck playing them typically wants to be casting them on turn one. Therefore when selecting lands it is important to look at what spells the deck needs to be casting when, and ensure that the lands in the deck support doing so. The third thing to consider is what it costs. The most common cost on a land is life, but other lands (that are typically less playable, if I’m being totally honest) can have other costs, and it is important to think about whether a deck can afford to pay whatever cost comes associated with a land.

Manabases as Utility

A recent trend in magic design has been adding utility to manabases, in the form of MDFC’s, creature lands, and other utility lands. As a result, manabases in Pioneer very often do more for a deck than simply add mana. To more easily examine these lands I have divided them into three different categories, each of which I will go over briefly

Creature Lands

The first type of utility land in Pioneer is creature lands, due to Pioneer having access to a variety of very powerful creature lands, with the best of those being Mutavault and the cycle of creature lands from AFR. Creature lands typically play a pretty similar role throughout the decks that they see play in, which is that of an extra threat that essentially did not cost a card because it also fills the role of a land. 

Value-Generating Lands

The second type of utility lands that are played in Pioneer are value generating lands. These cards are lands that can either tap for mana or use an activated ability that generates some form of incremental advantage. Examples of value-generating lands that see play are the Castle cycle of lands from Eldraine and Gier Reach Sanitarium. These lands also typically fill a similar role throughout the various decks that they see play in, which is that of providing a mana sink that allows the decks to spend excess mana in order to generate incremental value in long games. Gier Reach Sanitarium specifically though will sometimes see play in control decks due to its ability to create a lock with Narset, Parter of Veils, in which the opponent is never able to draw a new card. 

Spell-Like Lands

The third and final type of utility lands are spell-like lands, which are cards that can be used as lands, or as a one time effect. Examples of this include the Zendikar MDFC’s, the new (at time of writing) cycle of Channel Lands from Kamigawa, and Blast Zone. This category contains a multitude of effects, and as such they can fill a variety of roles throughout different decks, but the most common is as answers for things that are too niche to devote spell slots to answer. This application is particularly strong because it allows decks to have answers for those niche problems without the drawback that such narrow answers typically come with, which is that they are dead cards in many other matchups. 

Putting it all Together

Now that I have gone over the individual aspects of a manabase in isolation, it is time to finally look at how these pieces all fit together. In order to do so I will first give some general notes that apply to basically any manabase, and then break down manabase construction for various numbers of colors and such. The first and most obvious step is to determine how many lands, and how many sources of each color are needed for a given deck to consistently cast its spells on curve. There are a number of ways to do this, and personally I am partial to a hypergeometric calculator, but ultimately, the specific method is inconsequential and comes down to personal preference. From there one can determine how many dual lands are needed, and as such how much space there is for utility lands. After decisions on which lands specifically ought to be played are made. Important things to be considered when deciding on choices for specific lands are what types of mana the deck needs on which turns

Mono-color Manabases

Mono-color manabases are ultimately pretty simple. There are still definitely decisions to be made considering the prevalence of utility lands in Pioneer, but the fact that mono colored decks do not need to worry about color fixing removes a significant portion of the complexity present in building most manabases. That said, there are still decisions to be made, so I will go over those here. 

In mono-colored decks, the only real downsides to adding utility lands is that almost all utility lands either do not tap for colored mana, cost life, or enter tapped some percentage of the time. Some decks though do also care about having a lot of basic lands for a number of reasons, including the castle land cycle or things that care about snow lands. When considering which utility lands to add to a mono colored deck, important things to consider are what the cost of a given land is, and if that cost is outweighed by whatever its upside is.

Two-color Manabases

Two-color manabases are, in my opinion, the type of manabase with the most depth in the format (though that is a very subjective metric, and I entirely understand why people might disagree with me on this point). Not all two-colored manabases are, of course. A deck like Izzet Phoenix is pretty simple, but overall, two-colored manabases draw from the widest array of different land cycles, which gives them many more decisions to make and factors to weigh when deciding between various options when it comes to fixing. They also, more than any other type of deck, have to weigh the cost to their mana fixing with the potential benefit from any given utility land. They almost always have space for some number, but unlike mono-colored decks, they have significantly limited space, and unlike three-colored decks the cost to their manabase is not so overwhelming that only the most absurd cards can even hope to make it. They are right in the middle, and truly finding that balance between fixing and utility lands can be difficult. Ultimately there is no way to concisely explain these concepts, but I will try to give as broadly applicable advice as I can, as a starting point for thinking about how to do so.

To begin, the first step is deciding which dual lands (or other fixing) the deck ought to play, which will be based primarily off of when the deck needs its mana untapped and how much life it can afford to pay. However, regardless of the answers to those questions aside from very specific exceptions the deck should include four of its color pairs’ respective Shock Land. The Shock Lands are, for the most part, simply too good to not include for reasons I have outlined already. From there the question of which utility lands to include can be addressed. Two color decks will run on average around five utility lands (some do play significantly more and some play fewer, but most end up at around five). When choosing which utility lands to play the first question to consider is if the deck can afford colorless lands or not. Then, having done that, the question to consider is what problems the deck might want its utility lands to solve. Common issues may be wanting more threats, having something to spend excess mana on, or answering problematic cards an opponent might have

Three-color Manabases

The complexity in constructing a three-color manabase comes predominantly from ensuring that it is able to access the colors of mana it needs, on the turns it needs them. Unlike two color manabases the space available for utility lands is very limited due to the increased demands on the actual colors by nature of playing one more color. That is not to say that three color decks do not play any at all, but they play far fewer, and inclusion of utility lands is not a given as it is in one and two color decks.

The first step to constructing a three-color manabase is to determine which colors in the deck are the most important. Is the deck primarily a single color, with a comparatively small number of cards in the other colors? Is it based primarily on two colors, adding a third for only a few cards? Or, is the deck solidly three colors, with cards distributed fairly evenly amongst them all? This information can be used to determine how many dual lands of each color pair a deck will want. Most decks will want at least some number of dual lands of each color pair, but if a deck is very heavily based in one color, or relies heavily on having access to that color (for instance decks that are built around having mana dorks), they may want all or almost all of their lands to tap for that color. Having determined rough numbers of how many dual lands of each color pair to run, the next step is to select which types of dual lands in each color pair. Generally there are three factors that go into this: how pip hungry the deck is, which is to say how strenuous the mana requirements are; how much life the deck can afford to pay for its mana; and when, or if, it is acceptable for lands to enter tapped. By weighing these, choices on which specific dual lands to include can be made, with common ones being Shock Lands, Pathways, Fast Lands, Slow Lands and Triomes (though of course others will sometimes see play). Utility lands in three color decks have a rather high cost of inclusion, as they will tap for at most one color of mana. As a result, most three color decks play fairly few, or sometimes even no utility lands. Unlike two and one color decks, in three color decks deciding on utility lands is not a question of how much space a deck has for utility lands and then filling them, but rather is a question of whether or not any given utility land is strong enough to sacrifice some amount of consistency in the deck’s manabase in exchange for the effect it gives

4+ Color manabases

Intuitively it would seem that 4+-color manabases would be the most complicated to construct, as adding more colors means more things to balance, which adds complexity. However, these manabases are actually relatively simple due to having Triomes. Almost every four or five-color deck plays them (with the exception to this rule being tribal decks, as having access to eight Unclaimed Territory effects helps a lot in the smoothing of their mana) because they provide access to astonishingly consistent mana for these decks without loss of life. They do enter the battlefield tapped, but that has essentially just become the tradeoff to playing a high-color deck in Pioneer.

When building a high-color manabase, the starting point is determining which Triomes the deck needs to play, and how many of each. Of course in a four-color, deck the Triomes that ought to be played are whichever two fit within the decks colors, but in a five-color deck – while most often it will be correct to play at least one of each Triome – it is worth considering if that is true in each deck, in case it is not true of that deck specifically (this will become particularly relevant when we get the shard Triomes from New Capenna, as ten Triomes is a lot and in most decks it will likely be correct to play zero of some of them). With numbers of Triomes selected, then a decision on what split of Shock Lands to Check Lands ought to be made for the rest of the manabase, which essentially comes down to balancing life loss with consistency, as Shock Lands are very consistent, always entering untapped when they need to, but they also cost life. As such, there is a limit on how many can be played. The rest of the manabase is then typically filled with Check Lands, as they enter untapped pretty consistently in a deck where the manabase consists primarily of Triomes and Shock Lands, both of which are typed. Sometimes, though, a high-color deck can run some number of Fast Lands; Fabled Passage and a few basic lands; or some number of Mana Confluence. Each of these come with fairly self-evident upsides and downsides to be considered when determining whether or not to add any. As for utility lands, high-color decks are rarely able to play utility lands as they simply cannot afford to. It is not impossible for one to be worthwhile, but the effect has to be so incredibly strong in the deck that it is worth the land in question not really filling an entire land slot, as a land that only taps for a single color of mana (or worse, a colorless land) will often not actually help in casting the decks spells.

A note on Five-color Humans before moving on, as it breaks a lot of rules I give here. The ability to play eight painless five-color lands means that the deck is able to meet its mana requirements without the inclusion of Triomes or other taplands. Those five-color lands fill in the deck the same role that Triomes fill in other high color decks, however they do not have types, which means that the Humans deck is unable to rely on Check Lands as a part of its manabase. As such it plays a greater number of Shock Lands, and fills in some remaining gaps with Pathways, Fast Lands, and some number Mana Confluences.

Wrap-Up

Well, despite this turning out over twice as long as I had planned when beginning, I feel as though I’ve barely even touched upon many aspects of the topic. For the sake of brevity, however, I will unfortunately have to cut it off here, but, if I were to give one simple piece of advice when it comes to selecting lands: ask “why”. Why run something? Why not? Because ultimately, almost all of the information contained here is to help answer that question. Thank you so much for reading, and enjoy the rest of Welcome Week.

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