Watch Out for the Lands
It's round six of Grand Prix-Boston... not the one we just had, the Rath Cycle Constructed Grand Prix from years ago. It was my first Premiere Event and I was feeling great. I'd brought my own deck, a B-r aggro-control deck designed to abuse Grave Pact while proving that Necro was broken even if it was Necrologia. In all my practice, I had only lost a single duel to Tradeawake, primarily because my eight Shadow creatures combined with four Wasteland and four Rain of Tears meant they could seldom get control before being overrun. Living Death was a tough matchup, but Sligh (which was everywhere on day one) was a dream-game one was about even due to Corpse Dancing Bottle Gnomes and I hadn't lost a single practice duel post-sideboarding. After losing to White Weenie in round one, I'd won my next four matches and looked to be in good shape to make Day 2.
My opponent for the round... Randy Buehler, playing Counter-Phoenix. Like many semi-serious players in that situation, I had mixed feelings. I really wanted to make Day 2, and knew I was in for a very hard match but I was playing Randy Buehler, one of Magic's stars, and I'd earned the right to play against him by doing well with my own deck at a premier event.
Even without any practice in the matchup (Counter-Phoenix hadn't been widely recognized as a good deck until CMU brought it to GP Boston) I knew the match would be difficult. Unlike Tradeawake, which used cards like Wall of Blossoms to handle early threats (not so good vs. Shadow), Randy had cheap burn. If he got to five mana, he also had flying Pyroclasms that he could get back from his graveyard, which meant he could shut me down pretty thoroughly and not care about silly cards like Grave Pact. Still, I figured his deck had a weakness in its mana base, since he needed for permission and to get his Phoenix engine going. I would try to slam his nonbasics, disrupt his game, and use Necrologia aggressively to take advantage of his deck's slow, controlling nature.
It was not to be... Randy was playing with 28 lands and basically never missed a land drop. What struck me even more was that when I saw Randy at a later tournament his land count had gone up to 30! The more the CMU practiced with the deck, the more they realized how much use it got out of its mana, so they dropped at least some of their Whispers of the Muse in favor of more land.
Forget reading...when it comes to Magic, mana is what's fundamental. Without doubt, the most consistent mistake beginning and intermediate players make in constructing decks is not using enough mana sources. Lots of articles have been written about how many lands a deck needs, when to use Diamonds (and how many), how many cheap cantrips equal a land or how to determine your land mix in a sealed deck or draft event. Such articles, however, miss a huge element of mana management in deck design and construction, specifically how to use spells and utility lands to increase the chances that you get the mix of land and threats you want in each game.
Fighting the Odds
Whether you get mana screwed or mana flooded, the end result is the same.
Every Magic player has lost games due to drawing a poor ratio of lands and spells. Whether you get screwed or flooded, the end result is the same. Your opponent is able to cast more spells than you can and wins as a result. No technique of deck construction can eliminate this problem altogether, but there are definitely ways to improve the odds of getting enough land to power your spells but not much more.
You can't always get what you want...unless you're a Blue mage.
Search is the most straightforward way to improve your deck's mana draws. Because each search spell has a good chance of becoming either a land or a spell, as needed, their presence reduces the likelihood that you'll get stuck with too much of either. Suppose you are starting with an Invasion Block draft deck and have laid out 22 spells and 18 lands. Assuming Blue is one of your main colors, replacing one of the spells and one of the lands with a Worldly Counsel and an Opt will often improve your deck, in large part by increasing the likelihood that you'll get a 'normal' mana draw. If you get stuck at two lands, you can use them to put spells on the bottom of your library while digging for land, while if you have enough lands they will dig for spells. Impulse has long been used by Blue mages to dig for a land or a spell on turn two. Of course, Blue mages aren't the only ones who can search. Before it was banned, players often cast Demonic Consultation in Extended and named Underground Sea, Wasteland or simply Swamp.
Include a Mana Sink
If your deck has good ways to use mana in the mid to late game, mana flood won't translate into lower power. Jayemdae Tome is one of the classic mana sinks, enabling you to turn four mana into a card each turn. The ideal situation is to find mana sinks that can also serve a useful purpose in the early game, so you don't risk drawing them at the wrong time. Whispers of the Muse, for example, can be burned as a one mana cantrip early on if you need to. More recently, Ghitu Fire served in Fires as reasonably costed early removal for Birds, Elves, and Rebel searchers as well as a late game sink for all the mana that deck can produce. In Invasion Block Limited I've had quite good results with Sisay's Ingenuity, an early cantrip that is sometimes amazing but most commonly exerts a modest but noticeable influence on the game turn after turn, often letting me slip in a few extra points of damage here or there, or else just minimize powerful cards of my opponent, either by affecting their ability (Acolytes) or letting me block with Galina's Knight or Vodalian Zombie.
Let Your Land Do More Than Tap
Another way to improve your mana draws is to have spells that let you get use out of your lands besides just tapping them for mana. Probe is a great example of this, and was one of the only ways to make good use of extra lands in Invasion-only Limited. Suddenly two lands that would be of modest value in play could be replaced by fresh draws. Planeshift brings a number of powerful Limited cards with kicker costs of sacrificing land. When two of your lands can join together and transform into a three-point burn spell or knock that last card out of your opponent's hand, the cost of flooding is reduced. The net result is that you can play with slightly more land (reducing the risk of screw) without sacrificing too much overall deck power.
When Rishadan Port first came out there was a debate on MTG-Strategy, an email group run by Wizards of the Coast that discusses Magic strategy. Many players felt that Ports were overrated and perhaps not even good. After all, paying two mana to deny your opponent one isn't a great deal except for when you're using your Port to tap a Blue mage out of Counterspell mana. Why not replace Ports with a better threat?
Aside from whether these players were underestimating how disruptive Ports can be, they were missing a more fundamental point. Rishadan Port is a mana source. That means that its utility shouldn't be compared with other spells but with other lands. Lands that have a special ability in addition to tapping for mana offer deck designers a perfect balance between making sure they have enough mana while avoiding flood. When you need mana, they provide it, typically at a cost of coming into play tapped or providing only colorless mana. Later on, when you have abundant mana and need spells and effects, they go to work. As with spells that let you sacrifice excess lands, the result is that you can run slightly more lands than you might otherwise while maintaining a high level of overall deck power.
Even with Tsabo's Web making cards like Rishadan Port and Dust Bowl risky to use, they continue to appear in many Standard decks. Consider Zvi's evaluation of Dust Bowl (4 Rishadan Ports was automatic) in his My Fires series:
Fires decks want to play twenty five lands because of their casting costs, but they can't. That would mean there are thirty three cards in the deck whose primary purpose is to produce mana. With Dust Bowl, that becomes possible. Almost no decks run on no basic lands, and this allows the deck to use surplus mana for a good cause. In addition, Dust Bowl just absolutely wrecks control decks, and randomly wrecks other decks as well. It also lets the deck play more land, and land is key to beating control decks as well.
Despite recognizing that colored mana is "great premium" (as Zvi put it), he still made room for two Dust Bowls. Doing so let him run as much land as he wanted for the deck's big spells and for beating control decks while making surplus lands worth something in the middle and late game.
When Lands Attack
Every now and then, Wizards prints lands that can turn into creatures, either permanently (Stalking Stones) or until end of turn (Mishra's Factory, the five Legacy creature lands). Uncounterable, immune from sorcery speed removal (for the until-end of turn man lands) and able to produce mana, these lands are almost always playable and should be considered seriously for decks that can fit them in. Treetop Village (a.k.a. Bobtown, with BoB standing for "beats on blue"), for example, could terrorize Blue decks, gave Stompy a way to recover quickly from Wrath of God and offered a seven-turn clock for Extended decks like Oath of Druids and 5cG, all for the price, relative to a basic Forest, of coming into play tapped and being vulnerable to cards that penalized non-basic lands. As with other utility lands, man lands enable you to run more lands while actually reducing the chances that you'll have too much mana and not enough action.
When is OK Good Enough?
Not all utility lands are created equal. Dust Bowl and Rishadan Port can be devastating in a way that Terrain Generator simply can't match. Kor Haven, Rath's Edge and Keldon Necropolis all have powerful abilities but are seldom played. Even when Masticores were running rampant, the only decks that seemed interested in running Tower of the Magistrate were MBC Cowardice decks. An yet, each of these lesser lands has served well, in the right decks and in the right metagame. How do you decide when such a time has arrived?
One of the first questions to ask is whether the metagame you expect to play in is too unfriendly to such lands. The presence of maindeck Price of Progress in virtually all Extended Sligh decks, for example, sets a high bar for any nonbasic lands. Players still use them, of course, but only if the benefits outweigh the costs. Tsabo's Web didn't eliminate Dust Bowl or Rishadan Port from common use, as each was able to prove its worth even with one in play, but Haven, Edge and Necropolis are all fairly horrible against someone running Webs.
Next, look at what the land in question will do for you. Port and Dust Bowl continue to be played because they serve a critical function against control decks, disrupting their mana base. The ability to Port a Blue source on your opponent's turn and again on your own makes it very hard for a Blue mage to keep counterspell mana available. Dust Bowls, similarly, can go after U-W dual lands, potentially crippling the U-W control player's ability to Wrath-Rout or to cast permission. These tasks are important enough to merit slots, despite Webs and the need for consistent R and G mana.
Finally, look at your mana base. One of the reasons I decided to play mono-U Cowardice (instead of the U-W version that everyone else in the Boston area was running) was that I wanted to have lots of Islands but also to be able to run some utility lands. Most U-W Cowardice decks were already having color issues despite running no colorless mana sources, in part due to Masques Block's lack of dual lands.
For most decks the effects provided by Terrain Generator wouldn't be worth adding a colorless mana producer, but they were solid gold in my Cowardice deck. Suddenly I could keep Counterspell mana open on turn three but cast the 5cc Cowardice on turn four if my opponent didn't come up with a must-counter threat. Gush and Thwart could both be used more aggressively without putting me too far behind on land drops.
Side Note: Drafting Utility Lands
While most of the above considerations apply when deciding whether to play a utility land that is part of your Limited card pool, there is an additional factor to consider during draft: how high to take them? In my opinion, most intermediate players draft the good Invasion Block nonbasics (the dual lands, Terminal Moraine, Lairs and the amazing Keldon Necropolis) less aggressively than they should. A similar phenomenon took place during drafts with Legacy, with the man lands being taken later than they should have been. I believe the reason is that players weren't taking into account the fact that in most drafts they were getting more than the twenty two or twenty three spells they needed for a good deck, and had playable spells sitting in their sideboard.
Taking a good Gray Ogre over a dual land helps ensure you won't end up short on warm bodies, but if you end up with a few bodies in your sideboard you're going to wish you had the land. A spell is more powerful than a dual land, but the land will pretty much always make the cut and therefore improve your deck, while a surplus body in your sideboard does nothing for you. With so many Invasion Block draft decks running three colors, there are almost always more playable spells in your pile than you can run. If your draft has gone poorly or you need to make sure you've got enough two or three drops, by all means take the creature, but it's worth asking yourself what the chances are that a mediocre spell will sit in your sideboard. If it will, grab the land.