Transmuting: Big Mana
This is the first article in the Transmuting series, which will compare common deck archetypes in PDH to similar archetypes in EDH by examining their play patterns and deck structure. This article focuses on big mana decks, which aim to create and use large amounts of mana to either quickly overwhelm defenses with large creatures in the midgame, out-value opponents in the late game, or kill opponents directly with a commander's repeatable activated ability.
The cards in most big mana decks can be divided into mana generators (often called ramp), ways to use that mana (usually referred to as outlets or sinks), and general use or staple cards like removal, protection, and tutors. Usually, EDH and PDH commanders in big mana decks fill one of those first two roles, allowing you to focus your 99 other cards more on the other role. So, if your commander can generate large amounts of mana, your deck won’t need as many other mana generators, allowing you to pack the 99 with tons of different ways to use that mana. Using this kind of basic structure will help the deck be more consistent than a deck that tries to use a general utility commander and pack both mana generators and sinks into the 99.
Mana generators come in many shapes, but are pretty straight forward to identify. Sometimes, they’re permanents that add mana with activated or triggered abilities, sometimes they’re spells or abilities that put additional lands into play, and sometimes they are static or triggered abilities that cause your existing lands to generate more mana.
Mana outlets are a little more varied. Most of the time, they take the form of repeatable activated abilities on creatures. Sometimes, though, you can find them on noncreature permanents or even in the form of spells that return themselves to your hand to be replayed. A more abstract form of mana outlet is simply having more cards with high mana costs in the deck. After all, if you have the mana to pay for it, why not play a few more powerful creatures and spells to make your deck have a higher average impact per card?
EDH Examples & Comparisons
Regular Commander already has quite a few popular big mana decks with powerful generators. Selvala, Explorer Returned, Ramos, Dragon Engine, and Neheb, the Eternal are great examples of decks that rely on their commanders creating tons of mana, while Cabal Coffers, Traverse the Outlands, and Smothering Tithe are some of the most powerful generators outside the command zone.
Regular commander also has a plethora of outlets in and out of the command zone as well
For the most part, PDH and EDH big mana decks tend to be built in a similar way. As mentioned above, decks with outlets in the command zone have more ramp in the main deck, and decks with ramp in the command zone tend to have more outlets in the main deck. The big difference is that EDH decks have more effective finishers, better card advantage, and an abundance of tutors. The better card advantage and selection means EDH big mana decks have a more room for staples and removal, since they can draw or filter past the unwanted cards more easily than PDH decks can.
If you’ve played against any of the EDH examples listed above, then you know how quickly they can kill everyone at the table. This highlights the fact that most big mana decks in EDH tend to end the game in an explosive manner. Sometimes sudden finishes are because cards like Thrasios are used as outlets for infinite combos. However, there are also plenty of non-combo EDH decks that make absurd amounts of mana to kill the table with an extremely large X spell. In Pauper Commander, though, mana generators usually can’t produce as much mana at once, and infinite combos are a bit less common. This means that big mana PDH decks can’t end the game as abruptly as their EDH counterparts.
Big Mana in Pauper Commander
As was mentioned in the introduction, there are three main ways big mana decks tend to function. The first way is to be aggressive, putting large threats onto the board quickly in the early- and midgame; the second is to focus on late game value; and the last is to create an inevitable clock with a repeatable activated ability that damages players or drains life. For the rest of the article, I will refer to these as Tempo, Value, and Clock style decks, respectively. PDH decks rarely fit into more than one of these categories, simply because the categories are so strongly tied to what kind of commander is at the helm.
Tempo decks are usually defined by either a mana generating commander that helps you play large threats sooner, or by a large commander that will end the game quickly if you ramp it out early and keep it on the board. Joraga Treespeaker and Gyre Engineer are good examples of mana generators, while Deadeye Plunderers and Plated Crusher are good examples of large, threatening commanders. Because of green's abundance of ramp abilities and large creatures, it is present in a majority of tempo decks.
Another good example of tempo big mana deck is Savage Ventmaw. Ventmaw is interesting because he demonstrates both sides of tempo decks by being both a large threat that can be ramped out and producing large amounts of mana to power out other threats. For example, it's possible to play two mana dorks in the first three turns, Ventmaw on turn 4, then a huge 8- or 9-CMC creature on turn 5, while still holding up mana for protection or combat tricks. The massive amount of mana produced by Ventmaw also makes him uniquely suited to using expensive mana sinks like Valakut Invoker, Lavafume Invoker, and Wildheart Invoker.
Pauper Commander has a relatively limited amount of card advantage at common, so most value big mana decks can be easily identified by their commander having a repeatable activated or triggered ability that generates some kind of advantage. This can take many different forms, though. At their simplest, these abilities can look like League Guildmage, Dragon Mage, or Thunderous Snapper and literally draw cards. More complicated examples could include commanders that provide repeatable removal, recursion, or token production. The common thread, though, is that they all encourage and reward using large amounts of mana to consistently activate abilities or play spells.
Another form of value engine that can act as a mana sink in big mana decks is commanders that return creatures to your hand, allowing you to replay them and reuse abilities that trigger when they enter the battlefield. Every color has at least one example of a commander that does this. Replaying the bounced creatures while also playing other spells to control or build the board takes quite a bit of mana, but choosing which creature to bounce gives the deck a lot more flexibility than value decks that focus on a more rigid repeatable ability that can only do one thing.
Mistmeadow Witch is a good option for a powerful value-focused big mana deck. It combines the ability of most value commanders to use their ability multiple times per turn cycle with the flexibility of commanders that bounce your own creatures. White and blue offer a lot of "enters the battlefield" effects that are worth repeating, including drawing cards, creating tokens, recurring spells, and bouncing opponents' creatures.
These decks are less common than tempo or value, and usually revolve around a commander with a repeatable ability that deals damage to all players or opponents. All the PDH commanders I currently know that fit this pattern have black in their color identity. However, these abilities fall well within red’s slice of the color pie, too, and I would not be surprised to see new red commanders in the future that helm PDH clock decks.
These tend to be incredibly powerful because of their straight forward game plan and how quickly they can knock out multiple opponents. All you need to do is pump mana into them (and not die), and you win the game. However, this transparent strategy also means that your opponents know what you're up to and can figure out about how much time they have left to kill you. This means that clock decks almost always become the archenemy at some point. Every clock deck will have to have its own strategy to combat these inevitable political turns. For example, Crypt Rats clears the board of creatures, Rotwidow Pack has lots of good defending creatures with reach, and Syr Konrad can be given lifelink.
There are a few other ways to use the big mana deck structure that don’t fall under the above categories. Sometimes, a big ramp package is used to play a high cost commander, even when that commander won’t close out the game. Because the deck has all that ramp, it might as well have a higher average CMC to take advantage of the ramp. Another case is commanders or cards in the 99 that let you store up resources for a burst of mana production, instead of producing a steady amount every turn. These burst mana producers are great for casting huge X spells. While both of these corner cases can be built using some of the same structures as other big mana decks, they often feel very different to play, focusing on less repeatability and more single, large, explosive effects or spells.
Filling Out the Deck
We have discussed PDH commanders at length, so how do we fill out the rest of a big mana deck? The answer is usually just more mana generators, sinks, and a sprinkling of high-cost spells. This way you can constantly make use of your mana supply and extra sinks, even if your commander is removed. You can see a few handfuls of options below, but this is just scratching the surface.
High CMC Spells
Now that we have spent so long fleshing out the concept of big mana decks and showing all the different forms they take in Pauper Commander, let’s reach back to our EDH comparisons. Every one of the deck types we discussed in PDH is available in regular EDH. Grand Warlord Radha can be a tempo big mana deck that piles on aggro while ramping into larger threats that will quickly close out the game. Mayael the Anima can be a value big mana deck, replaying her, paying for her ability, untapping her, and paying for her ability again, until all opponents are out of removal and get trampled down by big beaters. Meanwhile, Ashling the Pilgrim is a good representative of a clock deck.
Even with these style similarities, there is still a big power difference between the formats. As was said earlier, big mana decks in regular Commander tend to win suddenly. 10 mana can end the game in EDH, but often will only be enough to kill a single opponent in PDH. This power difference also leads to "good stuff" decks in EDH, where larger numbers of draw engines and large threats in the 99 blur the lines between different types of decks. In other words, I would say that PDH big mana decks are more enjoyable because they tend to have more interactive games with a higher number of well differentiated deck styles.
If you weren't aware already, hopefully this article has shown you that there is a big mana deck for everyone, and given you some new deck ideas to build.
Do you already have any big mana EDH or PDH decks? Is it a style I talked about, something in between, or something completely different?
Big mana decks have been some of my favorites for quite a while. Here’s some of my lists that helped inspire this article:
- Paul (Scarecrow1779)
@PDH Home Base