Welcome back to Archetype Analysis. Today, I’m tackling ramp decks – the biggest-mana decks in our big-mana format.
Big Mana Format
Commander is the big mana format. Most often, our games are ‘Battlecruiser Magic’, where one or two big cards are made bigger and then sent to wreak havoc.
But ramp decks aren’t focused on making one battlecruiser. They’re like the Imperial shipyards in the Star Wars universe. How many Star Destroyers were in the original trilogy? How did they make so many? This is the ramp approach – an industrious machine that creates threat after threat after threat.
When ramp does play gigantic battlecruiser-style spells, it is in the form of the game-breaking spells that our format is famous for. Storm Herd, Time Stretch, Rise of the Dark Realms, Insurrection, and Genesis Wave are all show-stoppers in EDH, but outside the format they see about zero play. I’m sure other casual formats and players love them, but in tournament Magic, these cards do nothing.
Time is one of the biggest factors behind that. In other formats, even a control deck looking to finish the game around turn fifteen or later will still want a more reasonably-costed finisher than Storm Herd. Having a Sun Titan or Aetherling just makes more sense than saving up to cast Kozilek, Butcher of Truth; you can protect the cheaper win conditions and use them earlier as a defensive tool. But Commander games provide the time to get access to much more mana than other formats.
Extra opponents, extra life totals, and the focus on big splashy plays all help make ramp king of the hill.
Green is the obvious king of ramp. The simple Rampant Growth into a Boundless Realms or Animist’s Awakening drops lands onto the battlefield for future use. The ramp spells progress wonderfully across the bloated curve to ensure that green decks can reliably tap for a trillion mana to do their thing far before anyone else.
Black is the second best ramp color, mostly due to Cabal Coffers, Crypt of Agadeem, and the mana doublers like Crypt Ghast or Nirkana Revenant. There are also Rituals and Black Market-style effects that produce more mana for you as well. And of course, black also has the best tutors to find these pieces.
After that, the colors start to come together in capability. Everyone has mana rocks and access to colorless mana doublers, so it just becomes an efficiency race.
Don’t fall into the trap with white cards like Weathered Wayfarer and Land Tax. These are useful in the very first turn, but a solid ramp deck is getting ahead on lands too fast to use these to much effect.
The biggest draw to ramp is getting the behemoths onto the battlefield the fastest. When someone has a few knights and you have a dragon, that battle is easily won. When the fatties you’re casting also strip opponents’ resources, it pushes your advantage further. Even against a little removal, dropping evasive beaters (trample counts!) and threatening to bring out more is something that overwhelms the table in short order.
Ramp decks also play more Magic. Casting a dragon is cool. Casting a dragon and a card drawing spell in the same turn puts you way ahead. Even a dragon or another utility spell will continue to advance the deck when you’re that far ahead on mana. Ramp decks can more easily cast a commander with tax, and often still cast another spell on the same turn well before any other decks can recover. We do our best to take apart engines that opponents use, but ramp decks have an engine, too: playing more lands than anyone else.
Stopping a ramp deck is a greater challenge than it first appears. Most colors realistically have options to confront every strategy, but there are very few dedicated answers to ramp that work. Zo-Zu the Punisher and Tunnel Ignus can fight ramp decks, but every land drop for any player triggers Zo-Zu, and even a Rampant Growth to allow another player to catch up will trigger Tunnel Ignus. Counterspells are options, but you need to be able to snag the ramp spells early. How many players pack Force Spike to hit a Burgeoning on the first turn?
The last dedicated hate is Ward of Bones-style effects. However, this is expensive to cast and if your opponent already has eight lands…why do they care? They can still stomp on you. Worse, the dedicated hate options kind of vanish after this. The social contract contributes heavily to this; lands are sacred in EDH. Many casual players abhor Armageddon while gleefully casting Wrath of God against a player with two lands and mana dorks.
Simply put, running a dedicated ramp deck offers a lot of raw power.
The Critical Mass
Most EDH decks contain some form of ramp spells. However, not all EDH decks are ramp decks. We have essentially reached a ‘square rectangle’ problem. See, a square is a rectangle by definition…but rectangles do not meet the definition of a square. Ramp decks are squares in this case. (I’m taking this small tangent because you find advice all over the place to run ten ramp spells (The Command Zone, for example) in the traditional deck. We need to distinguish ramp decks for the discussion.)
Ramp decks run a critical mass of ramp spells. This is typically at least fifteen, and more likely closer to twenty. The number may not seem huge, but it is a 5-10% increase. Ramp decks often run a heavier land count too; putting extra lands out means that you need an increased land density. This critical mass is required for redundancy and speed. A ramp deck that is spending turn six to cast a ramp spell is likely behind in the game. When you see a deck with about a quarter of the cards dedicated to getting more mana, you’re looking at a ramp deck.
The second and often undervalued part of the ramp strategy is the payoff. Having fifteen mana and passing the turn is worthless. That turn did nothing and you have no reason for needing that much mana. This is why I push for mana efficiency so frequently. I would much rather play a medium-powered threat to contribute to the board than pass with all my mana open, unable to bluff something. (For that reason, I also find the X-costed burn spells can fill in when mana is plentiful.)
The payoff cards are often gigantic creatures. Eldrazi, angels, demons…whatever. The challenge is in reliably drawing a win condition. Reliably. Not spending a few turns doing nothing and then finding an Eldrazi. I highly recommend following Kaka’s plan and using fifteen copies minimum for your big scary threat – you need a win con in your opening hand. This math is also why so many ramp spells are needed.
The final payoff is a mana sink. These are not the most fun cards in a ramp deck, but they are useful. Think of mana sinks like pressure release valves. When you have too much mana and a lack of productivity, you can dump mana into the sink and have some small effect. Ant Queen and Masticore are good examples of small effects that can contribute throughout the game. Also, making an absurd number of tokens can just quickly win the game.
The Dangers of Ramp
Beware the dangers of ramp! The ‘do-nothing’ turns are real. Run the critical mass of ramp and payoff cards so that you minimize the chances of stalling out. A proper critical mass also helps to minimize death by variance. Sometimes you don’t draw enough ramp, while other times you cannot find enough win conditions. Adding draw spells is also encouraged – this way you can ramp and reload.
Another challenge with ramp decks is a lack of utility and interaction. With forty lands, twenty ramp spells and twenty win conditions, there are only twenty cards remaining. Adding even five draw spells means the deck only has fifteen slots. Two mana sinks reduces this to thirteen slots. Recursion spells trim this down to about six slots left for use. The general is another slot taken. Suddenly, just getting the bare minimum of removal starts eating up slots. This is why amp decks struggle to interact outside their win conditions. Terastodon can handle some scary problems, but cheap answers are often necessary. Ramp decks lack slots for metagame hate, sub themes, or “packages” to use in the deck.
The final danger of ramp decks is the boredom factor. EDH offers tremendous variance as a format. That singleton nature is designed to allow decks to provide more than one experience. As deck-builders, we fight against that to stabilize decks into working efficiently. However, too much of that and the redundancy becomes boring. When almost basically every non-land card is a Cultivate or Ulamog’s Crusher, how many different cards are you really playing?
Fortunately, you can combat this challenge with relative ease. Keep the ramp stable, and make the payoff varied. Trust me, it helps.
Taking down a ramp deck is not easy. There are many answers to ramp tactics, but as we said above, few dedicated hate cards. The other challenge with taking down ramp is they are always ahead of everyone. I have heard many players claim that Wildfire can beat ramp decks, but if the ramp player just cast Boundless Realms, do they really care about sacrificing four lands? Meanwhile, the rest of the table is now stalled.
So…what works to stop ramp? Counterspells always work. Counters will stop everything, but that is a cheaty answer. (Pro Tip: countering the early ramp will often stall opponents for more time than countering the big scary cards, so there is some solid theory here.) You can also apply symmetrical effects that can disproportionately affect the ramp player – Manabarbs hits everyone, but will certainly hurt the ramp player. Stranglehold effects also hold back the ramp decks – if they can’t search lands, they can’t ramp. There are also a few effects that can stop searching libraries like Leonin Arbiter, Aven Mindcensor, and Shadow of Doubt are great examples.
If you can’t head off the ramp deck at the pass, spot removal is your next step. Taking out all the payoff cards can leave a ramp deck with mana and nothing to do with it. Make sure you are ready to take out a mana sink too. Spot removal can keep the board intact so that you can still pressure the ramp deck. Parity is something to avoid – you should strive to advantage.
I started with broad answers because they’re more useful. Stranglehold effects shut down ramp, tutors, Tooth and Nail, fetchlands, and more…plus it will halt extra turns. The other cards like that will stop the ramp player while still being useful against other archetypes.
But when your group is trending into ramp territory, it can become necessary to start using specific hate spells. The foremost in ramp hatred is Zo-Zu the Punisher, as we discussed above. This little goblin will harm everyone, but it is devastating against ramp decks; plus, with a handful of rituals and cheap rocks, Zo-Zu can easily be out on turn two and ready for the ramp deck.
Outside of red there is Ankh of Mishra. Same effect, different card. And again, there is Tunnel Ignus, which targets the ramp deck more. Others can play around this effect with ease. Zo-Zu takes down everyone, Tunnel Ignus takes down the ramp players and the greedy.
If you really want to stop the ramp deck from getting ahead, then use Land Equilibrium and Ward of Bones. These cards will hit everyone and may draw the ire of the table, but when used properly, they keep the ramp deck from getting ahead. Ward of Bones in particular will stop most problems that your opponents could produce. If those fail to hold back the opposition, it is time to punish the ramp decks for their success.
If the ramp decks are going to run ahead on lands, then punishing players for high land counts is the best way to hurt them. Acidic Soil, Price of Progress, and Treacherous Terrain will hurt the ramp deck more than you believe. Acidic Soil seems innocuous until a three mana spell deals fifteen damage to a player and about seven to everyone else.
The final punishment card is Natural Balance. This will make you a priority threat to the ramp player, but a hero to everyone else. Everyone goes to five lands. Up or down, sacrifice or ramp. You will always punish the ramp player and bring a poor mana-screwed opponent up to speed with the rest of the game.
Many answers to ramp are in white and red – and of course, blue has counterspells for everything; good job blue! Now, what if you are not in white or red? Black, for example, can’t tackle ramp – can they? Yes – and with surprisingly powerful ways, known as discard spells. Traditionally, EDH players find spells like Duress or even Thoughtseize ineffective in games. They are in general use, but they are highly useful against specific problems. When someone wants to cast a single important spell in their hand, taking it on turn one or two is crippling.
The specter creatures (Hypnotic Specter and friends) apply pressure to a ramp deck’s life total and its cards in hand. Combine them with some rituals, and specters can be attacking easily well before the opposition is ready. Remove the problem before it becomes a problem. Easy peasy. You can also use effects like Mind Swords to ruin everyone’s day or Persecute to really hurt the ramp player.
Finally, you can get there first. Aggressive decks get ahead in the first few turns. Zada, Hedron Grinder can kill a ramp player turn four or five with ease. Other aggressive decks can keep the ramp deck behind. After all, the ramp deck routinely spends three turns doing nothing with the board, so take advantage of that. If your group is comfortable with fast combos then you can just win the game while the ramp deck is casting Boundless Realms or Animist’s Awakening. If you are ramping, having some cheaper threats allows you to get moving earlier and get ahead of the competition. More than any archetype the ramp decks spends several turns revving its engine. Capitalize on that and punish the ramp player.
Ramp decks get ahead and work to stay ahead. The Social Contract and the tendency to not touch lands maintains ramp decks as a dominating strategy – but they can be beaten. How do you ramp hard to get ahead? How do your decks fair against the behemoths ramp decks cast? Let me know here, and in the Twitterverse.