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A mana curve is a deck construction concept that aids the deckbuilder by taking a holistic "bird's eye view" of the deck's overall collection of converted mana costs. In essence, it is the idea that you should have a smooth transition between your low-, medium-, and high-cost cards in a given deck, raising the probability that you will be able to play low-cost spells early and still have larger spells available for later in the game. This ideally allows for a play experience where a player can “curve out” by casting a one-mana spell on their first turn, a two-mana spell on their second turn, and so on.
What is the “Ideal” Mana Curve?
There is no "ideal" mana curve that fits across all decks. The "best" mana curve will depend upon an individual deck's strategy. Aggressive decks, for instance, will have a very different mana curve than control decks. Generally speaking, a deck's mana curve tends to be tied to the speed at which it intends to win the game.
Differing Mana Curves
Faster decks, whether they be combo or aggro, tend to feature mana curves that are heavily weighted toward the early game, but which taper off quickly, with few expensive spells. These decks features a high density of low-cost cards, so they may consistently play spells early in the game, and a low number of high-cost cards, as they intend to end the game before such a point that those spells can be cast.
By contrast, a slower control deck is more likely to have an even spread of mana costs in their deck, so that they may play important spells at all stages of the game, especially during later turns.
Aggressive mana curves tend to have a distinct look to them, rocketing upward immediately in the one- to two-mana range and crashing back down when they approach spells that cost more than three mana.
Less aggressive or 'midrange' decks see a slightly more balanced and parabolic mana curve, one that slowly works its way up to the three- and four-mana range and slowly drifts back down as cards get more expensive, rather than a high density of low-cost spells. These types of mana curves are much more common in Commander.
Nonstandard Mana Curves
Some deck archetypes employ mana curves that are quite distinct from the typical parabolic mana cost distribution. Reanimator decks, for example, are able to play high-cost creatures without having to pay for their mana costs, which allows them to play a high density of expensive cards without sacrificing their ability to cast spells "on curve."
While parabolic mana curves are more common, there is no 'ideal' mana curve among archetypes with nonstandard curves. Rather, deckbuilders who take note of their deck's mana curve should evaluate whether their deck's curve is intentionally nonstandard, or if this is unintentional, to help determine which cards should be included in the deck that will still allow them a smooth gameplay experience.
Deceptive Mana Costs
While mana curves (and even the average CMC of the deck) can give a deckbuilder an easy snapshot of their deck's spread of mana costs, some cards have mana costs that, when placed on a curve, may prove to be misleading.
For instance, the popular removal spell Cyclonic Rift is a two-mana spell, but is more frequently played as a seven-mana spell. In the opposite direction, Ghalta, Primal Hunger is a twelve-mana spell with a cost-reduction ability, so it is rarely ever cast for twelve total mana. When evaluating their deck's mana curve, players should take special note of cards with deceptive mana costs, and consciously move those cards to the spot on the mana curve that they most frequently expect to cast those cards, rather than evaluating them based solely on the card's printed mana cost.