Superior Numbers - The Resurgence of Three-Mana Rocks

Two Out of Three Ain't Bad

Welcome to Superior Numbers, where I try to do numerical analysis on cards and deckbuilding trends using a little bit of math.

Two-mana ramp. That's where it's at. You know why I know that? Because I've recorded about 400 podcasts talking about EDH, and I've suggested leaning into two-mana ramp in 396 of them. There's a reason for that, too. Dropping rocks on turn two lets you get that four-drop commander out on turn three, and doesn't feel like it sucks up your turn when you play it in the midgame.

By and large, the player base agrees with that sentiment as well. In a list of the top fifty mana artifacts in the last two years on EDHREC, only two three-drops show up in the top 5: Commander's Sphere, #30, and Chromatic Lantern, at #40. There are no others in the list.

Now, that's not to say there haven't been good three-drop mana rocks over the years. There's been more than a few that were easy enough to justify running, starting with these:

Chromatic Lantern gets better the more colors your deck has and the worse your mana base gets as it makes every land into a better Command Tower. That's probably why it's the second-most-popular three-drop artifact rock. Price also hurts here a little as it's one of those cards that seems to shrug off reprints. It's back to almost $10 after showing up in Standard recently, but that's what showing up in over 75,000 decks will do.

Coalition Relic is decent as well because of the ability to get two mana out of it should you choose to not use it for a turn. It also interacts with Proliferate effects quite nicely.

Inspiring Statuary is a mana rock that doesn't really say it's a mana rock. It simply gives your artifacts the ability to tap to reduce the cost of nonartifact spells. This includes itself, so worse case scenario you can tap it for a single mana reduction in cost, and best case you can tap all your Treasures and Equipment as well. It's quite spicy in the right brew.

Commander's Sphere is the most popular of the three-drop rocks, but that's a little misleading, as it's shown up in the most precons by a large margin. It's useful, however, since you can sacrifice it when you don't need the mana to draw a card. The best part is the sacrifice costs nothing to activate, and it can be done after tapping it for mana.

That said, as serviceable as these three-drop rocks are, it's still made it tricky to continuously justify running them as we were given two-drops like Arcane Signet and the enemy Talisman cycle. Yeah, in a four- or five-color deck with a budget mana base, Chromatic Lantern made life easier, and in the right Proliferate deck, you could get really excellent value out of a Coalition Relic, but those effects were rarely game-altering, and it was often hard to say that the upside they offered counteracted the negatives of waiting until turn 3 to cast them.


Gimme Three Steps

Enter Throne of Eldraine in the fall of 2019. While Oko, Thief of Crowns dominated most Magic conversations due to his ability to turn your opponent into a 3/3 Elk, we also quietly got two of the best three-drop mana rocks ever printed. Unlike the mana artifacts above, these cards are oftentimes game-changing, and that's what justifies running them over their leaner two-drop brethren.

Heraldic Banner is a legitimate kill condition in a whole lot of token decks. Alela, Artful Provocateur, Talrand, Sky Summoner, and Thalisse, Reverent Medium-style token-heavy decks all make Heraldic Banner absolutely shine. Basically, if your commander has the word "token" in the rules text, you probably should be running Banner. It's the difference between hitting someone and killing someone, and it makes that difference surprisingly often.

Midnight Clock is a Timetwister just for you should it survive three trips around the board. And if it doesn't survive because someone spends removal on it? Well, that's a pretty good trade too. Removal dying to your mana rock feels pretty good. You can also hasten how soon it goes off by spending 2U to put a counter on it. Last, similarly to Commander's Sphere, you can tap it for mana before sacrificing it.

I have been burned by Midnight Clock on more than one occasion, having it fire off when I've just drawn spells I intend to use the turn after it forces me to shuffle them away. It's not without downsides. But for every time that's happened, though, I've had ten where it refilled me from two or three cards in hand back up to seven for a negligible opportunity cost.

In the time since Strixhaven, we've seen this trend continue.


Three Times a Lady

Cursed Mirror is the newest of the lot showing up in the recent Commander 2021 set, but it's already found a home in over 2,500 decks. How do you make it not feel bad to draw a rock in the later portions of the game? Give it a chance to ETB as the most useful creature in play. There's situations where this could be something that turns the tide late game, or generates a nice bit of value early.

Skyclave Relic is just a better Darksteel Ingot, a card already in excess of 31,000 decks. The stats reflect this, too, as it's already found a slot in 8,527 different lists. Where it really shines is in a deck that cares about the number of artifacts you control. Six mana to put three indestructible rocks into play is really useful in decks that plan on animating their artifacts or using their numbers via a Tezzeret ability to deal damage. Commanders like Verazol, the Split Current and Hallar, the Firefletcher that care about Kicker also get some nice added utility, as does Brudiclad, Telchor Engineer for the additional tokens.

Strixhaven Stadium, like Heraldic Banner before it, is a kill condition on a mana rock, and probably goes into a lot of the same decks. It also interacts quite favorably with things like Vorinclex, Monstrous Raider giving you a kill with half as many bodies.

As with the two cards from Throne, these three aren't just ramp, but instead potential pod-altering drops in the right deck. That's what seems to be the secret sauce with three-drop rocks: they need to do an impactful thing besides just giving you mana.

Those are just my personal favorites, but they're by no means the only recent three-drop rocks with attractive added utility.


Three Little Birds

Altar of the Pantheon is popping up in just shy of 4,000 decks currently, almost all of which are Gods that care about the Devotion mechanic. Callaphe, Beloved of the Sea and Anax, Hardened in the Forge top the list, but the top 20 commanders running Altar are all Gods.

Letter of Acceptance is mostly a worse Commander's Sphere, but despite having been out less than two months, it's already in 500+ decks.

Replicating Ring is in a similar place in that it's generally a harder-to-use Skyclave Relic... unless your deck cares about the snow mechanic, like Jorn, God of Winter, Narfi, the Betrayer, or Svella, Ice Shaper.


3s and 7s

This new batch of much more attractive three-drop rocks isn't an accident, either. We mentioned it to Gavin Verhey when we had him as a guest on the EDHRECast stream at twitch.tv/edhrecast, and he confirmed this was an intentional design choice. Similarly, senior game designer Glenn Jones confirmed this is part of a plan in this tweet here.

In the race for optimization, it's easy to overlook how much added impact you get from paying a single extra mana, and in a lot of these cases the rocks that have been designed justify the extra cost. That's not to say every deck wants to run them, but be cautious about dismissing these just because they don't reside in that hallowed two-drop slot.

How tempting has this new generation of three-drop mana rocks been for you? Sound off in the comments below. Thanks for reading, and, as always, may your numbers be superior.

Dana is one of the hosts of the EDHRECast and the CMDR Central podcast. He lives in Eau Claire, WI with his wife and son. He has been playing Magic so long he once traded away an Underground Sea for a Nightmare, and was so pleased with the deal he declined a trade-back the following week. He also smells like cotton candy and sunsets.