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Niv-Mizzet, Parun Art by Svetlin Velinov

Wednesday Brawl – Setting Up Your Mana Base

Vilis, Broker of Blood is a very exciting card. He’s huge, he flies, and the flavor of the card is fantastic. It’s all about signing your very life away through a blood contract. “You can sign, or you can spend your life imagining what might have been yours,” he says in a voice that I imagine to be half Nicol Bolas and half Darth Vader.

That’s all very exciting, but the dude costs 8 mana! How many times have you spend the entire game with a fun 8-cost card like Vilis or Parhelion sitting in your hand like a benchwarmer, and what can be done about it?

This article is about planning your mana base. The pros use what’s called a hypergeometric calculator to work out probabilities related to mana costs. I couldn’t tell you why it’s called that, maybe some math majors can help me out in the comments.

Hyper-geo-what now?

Maybe you’re not interested in the higher-level mathematics involved here, and that’s okay. (If you are, check out my colleague Drifter’s article on it!) An important note is that the mana requirements of Brawl are different from the mana requirements for Standard. Let’s look at an example in one of the most popular effects in Magic: The Gathering: creature removal spells.

For this bit, it’s important to explore how Standard capitalizes on efficiency and predictability. For creature removal, the current season of Standard sees Legion’s End and maybe a few Disfigures. Disfigure will kill an enemy creature outright if its toughness is 2 or less, and Legion’s End will exile an enemy creature if its casting cost is 2 or less.

This makes sense because often there is an established metagame and you know what to expect. Both Disfigure and Legion’s End can take out the enemy’s Knight of the Ebon Legion, Priest of Forgotten Gods, Pelt Collector, or Edgewall Innkeeper. Each of these four creatures is prominent in different popular Standard decks, and it would be no surprise at all to see them quite often. They are powerful because they provide lots of value for a very cheap mana price.

In Brawl, on the other hand, the decks are more diverse. The Singleton restriction means you can only run 1 of each kind of card except for basic lands. This interferes with players’ ability to run strong threats at each point in the curve (each converted mana cost), because you need to use 4 times the variety of cards. This relative lack of strong early threats means that aggro decks are less effective and less popular. You simply don’t need as strong an early game strategy. In short, fewer early threats leads to less early removal.

For an example, my current favorite Rakdos (black-red) sacrifice deck in Standard features no less than eleven 1-cost creatures: 4 Cauldron Familiars, 4 Gutterbones, and 3 Footlight Fiends. In Brawl, if you want eleven 1-cost creatures in a Rakdos deck then you can’t afford to be picky. Including artifacts, there are only 26 different 1-cost creatures in the card pool, so you’d have to pick almost half of them! Most of these creatures aren’t going to give you the kind of value that the cats, bones, and fiends get you.

So instead of two Legion’s Ends, a Disfigure and four Murderous Riders, for Brawl you might instead pick a Murderous Rider, a Murder, Spark Harvest, Price of Fame, Bake Into a Pie, Epic Downfall, and Ob Nixilis’s Cruelty. Looking at these two separate lists, almost half of the Standard list is meant for only small creatures whereas the Brawl list will hit the bigger threats.

Bigger mana for bigger threats

To sum up the above, your average Brawl deck isn’t going to squeeze every last tiny bit of value out of every land and every turn. Because of this, it should have more mana sources than your average Standard deck. The slower nature of Brawl also means that you can typically afford to use up an entire turn or two casting mana rocks (Mana Geode, Midnight Clock, etc). In Standard, using turn 3 to deploy a mana rock rather than add to the board could be a fatal mistake.

To get to the numbers: In Standard, an ultra-efficient mono-color aggressive deck in Standard typically can have as few as 20 lands, or 19 for the daring. Control decks often run 27 or 28 lands to fuel higher-cost cards. Midrange decks tend to fall somewhere in-between.

The land counts for Standard can be somewhat easy to calculate because Standard is all about consistency; ideally you want to start every game the same way. Back in the Oko days, players would cast Once Upon a Time for free on turn 1 followed by a Gilded Goose, ideally have Oko out on Turn 2, and then by Turn 3 they’d have the Goose, a 3/3 Food-Elk, and a Wicked Wolf. Soon after you’d see a Hydroid Krasis or a Nissa, Shaker of Worlds.

The above “typical” Standard opening felt like a foregone conclusion to many players, some to the point of feeling like losing the coin-flip to go first had already lost them the game. Standard as a format became stale quickly, leading many towards other formats like Brawl to see fresher gameplay. Part of the fun of Brawl is that aside from your opponent’s Commander and choice of colors, you really don’t know what to expect.

But let’s get back to that Hypergeometric Calculator. I won’t make you use it unless you really want to, but let’s play with some probabilities and see what we get. Now, chances are good that you don’t have a whole lot of cards with really restrictive mana costs. Our prime concern here is making sure you have enough mana quantity-wise.

If you like, you can follow along with the Hypergeometric Calculator from Stat Trek. The Population size for every Brawl deck, bar none, is 59 to match the cards in your deck (your Commander is always available and you don’t have to draw it).

Before getting started, the critical first step is to set a goal. What is it that you want to do, and when? Take a look at your deck and decide where your sweet spot is. Do you need to be really sure that you can get your Yorvo, Lord of Garenbrig out on Turn 3 to put early pressure on your opponent, or is it more critical to have a 5-drop like Biogenic Ooze out on Turn 5? While you’re not exactly sure what you’ll have in your hand during play, maybe your favorite or best spells cluster around a certain mana cost.

Let’s say for example that we want to reliably cast a 5-mana spell by Turn 5. Now, how reliable is “reliable”? Let’s shoot for 2/3 of the time. I’ve done the math ahead of time for this, but for those of you following along at home the answer is 27 mana sources.

Here’s how I did it: First, if we assume that you’re “on the draw” half the time and “on the play” the other half of the time, then by turn 5 you’ve drawn 11 or 12 cards. So, you’re going to run “Sample size” at 11 and again at 12 then average the results. “Number of successes in sample (x)” here would be 5 for 5 mana sources. With all that information in place, the next step is to adjust the “Number of successes in population” until you get a P(X>=5) of about 66%.

Did we really need to know the answer to 9 significant digits?

At this stage I’ll point you again to Drifter’s article that explains all of this in much better detail if you’re interested.

With 27 mana sources, you’re going to be able to cast a 5-cost spell on turn five 74% of the time on the draw, or 64% of the time on the play. That’s about 2/3 of the time. Also note that with the same number of mana sources you can cast a 4-cost spell on turn four roughly 4/5 of the time.

Of course, if you have 4 lands in play, none in your hand, and you draw a mana rock on Turn 5, then you won’t be casting that 5-cost spell that turn. But mana rocks are still useful because they can get you a 5-cost spell on Turn 4, or a Niv Mizzet on Turn 5. Which brings us to the Brawl Deck of the Week!

Brawl Deck of the Week

Niv-Mizzet, Parun (Decklist)


What better planeswalker to cover this week than Niv Mizzet, Parun, the only Commander in Standard with 6 mana symbols in his casting cost? First, let’s talk about the deck as a whole, and then we’ll cover how to satisfy Niv’s strict mana cost.

Red-blue “Izzet” decks are all about instants and sorceries, which makes sense because you’re playing the two colors most known for playing non-permanent spells. Level the opposition with Lava Coil or an early Bone-crush to knock out their Knight of the Ebon Legion. When the board is clear, keep it that way by countering your opponent’s spells with Quench, Sinister Sabotage, and the red-blue Ionize. Firemind’s Research will strengthen your long game by getting you additional value when you cast your instants and sorceries, drawing you cards to replenish your hand along with Chemister’s Insight.

For some real bona fide hilarity, cast Spark Double on your Niv Mizzet. Your opponent may concede on the spot!

That all sounds good, but how do you get Niv Mizzet on the board in the first place? By turn 6, you will want a reliable chance of having that three red and three blue mana available to slam down this behemoth Dragon. This is especially true because this Niv is immune to counter-magic, so no worries trying to get tricky and play around your opponent’s Tale’s End. Unless you expect Niv to be removed right away, your best play is going to be dropping him on Turn 6, as soon as possible.

Now you might be wondering, Why wait until turn 6? If you’re able to drop a mana rock on T3 or T4 then you’ll be able to get Niv out even earlier, hopefully before your opponent finds that Price of Fame. Firemind’s Vessel is especially useful for Niv-Mizzet decks (Parun or Reborn) because it pops out two mana of different colors, helping you cover some gaps in your mana base.

Anyway, let’s do some calculations. Using the methods discussed above, here are some probabilities:

  • The chance to have 6 mana by turn 6 is 55% per the formula (on the calculator: using 59, 27, 13, 6 averaged with 59, 27, 12, and 6), but keep in mind that you have various scry, surveil, and draw options available to you so the actual chance is higher.
  • Of course, Niv needs no less than 3 blue and 3 red mana, so there’s more to it. The deck has 7 mountains, 7 islands, one Castle Vantress (blue), and 12 sources that can provide blue or red.
    • To satisfy Niv’s blue requirements, we use (59, 20, 12, 3 averaged with 59, 20, 11, 3) to get about 83%.
    • For the red requirements the chances are slightly lower (59, 19, 12, 3 averaged with 59, 19, 11, 3) to get about 80%.
  • So, it will often be more of a problem getting the right quantity of mana to cast Niv-Mizzet, Parun rather than the right type. Now, this is the problem you want to have, because the only way to increase the chance to get 6 mana on turn 6 would be to up your mana sources. If you bump mana sources above 27, you’ll risk “flooding out”, that is, drawing only lands for too long.

For the more advanced students, play around with the odds of getting your Niv-Mizzet Reborn out. That involves tracking 5 different kinds of mana, so it’s not for the faint of heart! The math involved in that is beyond the scope of this blog post, but if you’re adventurous enough to try this then let us know in the comments.

Budget Brawl Deck of the Week

Saheeli, Sublime Artificer (Decklist)


Don’t have the rares for the Niv deck? Don’t fret! Check out this Budget version of the izzet deck above, and rejoice that while it’s empty of rares and mythics, it’s still chock-full of fun tricks! Note that this deck is more about hitting the opponent with small flying things, which Saheeli will provide in droves. You can lead in with a Pteramander or a Spectral Sailor; both are cheap cards that still provide value in the mid-to-late game (if they’re still alive by then). The 2 and 3 mana slots are full of counters, burns, and card draw, with a couple of creatures that grow every time you cast instants and sorceries: Spellgorger Weird and Wee Dragonauts. Turn 4 will give you more card draw as well as some sturdier threats and threat-generators like Kasmina, Enigmatic Mentor and Murmuring Mystic.

If you’re looking to upgrade this deck, a good place to start would be to replace your Saheeli with a Niv Mizzet, Parun of course! One of the weaker points of this deck is that there just aren’t that many great red or blue commons or uncommons to fill those 5+ mana cost slots. You can throw in the fantastic rare counterspells Ionize and Tale’s End. The Royal Scions, Firemind’s Research, and Expansion // Explosion can get you that card-draw you crave. Role Reversal and Risk Factor are lower priorities, but I personally think they’re great fun! Last but not least, Bonecrusher Giant is such a versatile card that you’d be hard-pressed to think of a Red deck where he doesn’t fit right in.

To address the best cards in this deck, the ones I would be hesitant about replacing, let’s start with the counterspells. Counterspells are good on their own, but Saheeli will give you a 1/1 flier every time you cast one! It’s incredibly important to be able to counter your opponent’s largest threats before they hit the table, because your red-blue combination is going to have a very hard time killing a large creature once it’s on the board. Cloudkin Seer, Crackling Drake, and Spectral Sailor offer you great value by providing flying threats that can also draw you cards. What’s not to like there? Definitely look to remove your other fliers before pulling these three.

Let’s Wrap This Up

Thanks for dropping by for this Brawl article! To sum it up: You can use a hypergeometric calculator, or you can spend the rest of your life imagining what might have been yours. I’ll be out there Brawling on Wednesday, will you? Join our Discord server if you have any questions or need any help, or if you’d like to mull over the finer points of getting Niv-Mizzet Reborn out by turn 5!

If it’s not Wednesday and you want to Brawl, check out these options:

  • Brawl Hall: This is a Discord server created by the popular MTG YouTuber and streamer Merchant. There are over 3000 people currently in the server that you can connect with to play Brawl on demand and have friendly chat with each other.
  • This is a new website that allows you to enter your MTG Arena ID and find other players that are currently available for Direct Challenge. You can find players interested in Standard or Friendly/Historic Brawl, and the creators are working on a chat feature as well.
  • Brawlidays: Wizards are offering players to play Brawl in a month-long event in exchange for gold or gems in the new December 12 update.

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