One of the really interesting aspects of Constructed Magic to me is how players approach similar deck matchups. Many of the biggest and most impressive Constructed tournaments in history – from Dave Price in LA to the stack of PT (and PC) Champs with R/G[/x] decks in the Top 8 of Kai’s Rebel Chicago – are defined by how great designers solve the riddle of the mirror.
You will sometimes see especially weak and overblown deck designers – most often the allegedly”rogue” ones – tell you that you want to avoid the mirror, and that you should choose their weird deck to do that. But the fact of the matter is that many formats are defined by one or two really great decks, and that the only way to go even 50% against some of them is to come back with your own look at the same idea. It is my belief that the current Block Constructed format is one of these, making the riddle of the mirror all the more immediate.
This article is going to be about trying to solve the riddle of the mirror in the current environment by examining how we have done so successfully in the past. And yes, yet again, Age of Mirrors comes with a Free Deck List Woo Hoo at the end.
The Stone Age
Though not really that old for ancient timers like myself, I can only assume that the whippersnappers that make up my reading audience would consider High Tide PTQ season a long time ago, Magic-wise. Kai Budde ruled the European Grand Prix circuit, but had not yet won his 1999 World Championship (and hence no one knew who he was, believe it or not). As you may have assumed by”High Tide PTQ season”, High Tide was the Deck to Beat among the Decks to Beat. During my first term as a StarCityGames.com Feature Writer (sadly lost in a bygone server move), I argued that the reason that High Tide was so good was because it was the best control deck… and faster than all the beatdown decks.
Why was High Tide such a good control deck? It had a full complement of permission spells. It had fantastic card drawing. It had mana acceleration. It was so chock full of the good stuff that High Tide did not have room for sundry defense like Nevinyrral’s Disk or kill cards like Morphling. That it was the best deck was not just obvious, but a given. After winning a PTQ for SteveO’s LA, I (apparently with little expectation for my finish at the PT itself) asked the Mad Genius Erik Lauer what to play in the Extended PTQ season.
“Do you just want me to say High Tide or do you not actually care about qualifying for the PT?”
Why was High Tide such a great control deck? It beat all the other control decks. Typically, a control deck and a combo deck would stare across the table. The problem was that with Thawing Glaciers – including Intuition to search them up – High Tide would never miss a land drop. It would never hiccup, never give the control deck a chance to play its own win condition. Because High Tide played eight or more counters, including four copies of Force of Will, it could compete successfully in any mana war where control tapped first.
All that, and it could win on the third turn, undeterred, by most beatdown decks.
It just so happens that the best players in Magic strove specifically to answer just that question.
Kai Budde, GP Vienna Champion
2 Arcane Denial
4 Force of Will
3 Frantic Search
4 High Tide
3 Merchant Scroll
1 Mystical Tutor
3 Stroke of Genius
4 Time Spiral
At a time where most other players were barely figuring out to play Thawing Glaciers in their High Tide decks, where many still had three or even four copies of Mind Over Matter, players like Finkel and Budde were a step and more ahead of the curve. Notice that both Kai and Jon played Volcanic Island and had access to a sideboard Mountain so they could play Pyroblast. In a matchup that revolved around patience into card and mana advantage into eventually cramming a sequence of powerful spells – specifically Turnabout and Time Spiral – down the opponent’s throat, a one mana, off-color, counter was extremely effective.
Jon went one further with Wasteland. Many opponents would go for Intuition into Thawing Glaciers. With two Thaws in the opponent’s bin, even one of Jon’s Wastelands would imply an insurmountable Thawing Glaciers advantage. Against another deck with Volcanic Island, one Wasteland could strand a hand full of Pyroblasts.
The lesson: Isolate the cards that matter the most in the mirror and strike at them strategically.
The Tool Age
One of the most confusing moments in my career as a Magic reporter was talking to my friend Bob Maher as he scrapped and pulled hair through PT Chicago 1999. Though his victory over Brian Davis in the finals is largely considered the best PT finish ever, the most dramatic, the most joyous… Bob’s route to the win was anything but pretty.
During the Swiss, Bob was talking about how U/G Oath was his worst matchup. His Ped Bun Oath deck was all Enlightened Tutors and singleton answers; if you’ve ever seen Bob play Oath, you probably know the guy has never strung three – or even two – consecutive land drops together. How was he going to beat U/G Oath without Invested cards but with Thawing Glaciers (a card whose efficacy in near-mirror control decks we looked at somewhat, above).
Yet just after his successful Top 8 match against Dirk, Bob told me that he thought Dirk’s deck was a good matchup, and that his own deck had many advantages, especially Trade Routes and Sylvan Library on turn 2 (Trade Routes would let Bob win long game”man land” wars where neither player was using either Oath of Druids or”the old fashioned” method of deploying regular creatures). Bob totally manhandled Dirk with a gorgeous sequence featuring the then-young Stack, but even so… How can we reconcile both statements?
Let’s look at Dirks’ deck from PT Chicago 1999 specifically:
That Dirk has a total of one Emerald Charm between deck and sideboard to handle all of Bob’s power cards, from Sylvan Library to Abundance to Trade Routes to Oath itself notwithstanding, Dirk still has a 26 to 23 land advantage… including four Thawing Glaciers to Bob’s bagel. But Dirk is missing something else entirely: Dust Bowl.
Bob later told me that if Dirk had had even one Dust Bowl, the matchup would have been a rout. When he said that he didn’t like the U/G Oath matchup, Bob was talking about decks with Dust Bowl and in some cases Trade Routes of their own. When one Oath deck has Thawing Glaciers and Trade Routes, it doesn’t really matter if the Ped Bun Oath deck resolves Oath of Druids. The Thawing Oath deck can terminate every land with Dust Bowl, repeatedly reshuffle them in with Gaea’s Blessing, constantly pump more fuel out with Thawing Glaciers, and totally cripple the Ped Bun Oath deck’s mana base. U/G Oath can casually hard-cast Morphling, and even when Ped Bun Oath Oaths up a Morphling of its own, U/G Oath will just beat the crap out of the other Morphling due to a huge mana advantage on the board. Eventually, Morphling advantage and man lands will prove lethal.
But Dirk didn’t have this advantage. Instead, he had to worry about the wiliest player on the Pro Tour stacking all kinds of crazy cards. Bob’s negative card advantage could chain into game winning effects at any time, meaning that even though he had the advantage on the numbers, Dirk had to be wary of the comparative mana and permission positions. The deciding point of the match was when Dirk casually played Gaea’s Blessing with nothing really important going on. Bob indicated that he was going to let the Gaea’s Blessing through, but stacked Mana Short so that Dirk couldn’t draw anything useful with the cantrip aspect. Dirk thought that would be fine and let Mana Short through.
… So Bob Disrupted the Gaea’s Blessing.
Bam! All of a sudden, Dirk was tapped out and Bob had hard-cast Morphling. Not long after he stopped Dirk from winning back-to-back PT Chicagos, Bob Maher was himself a PT Champion.
The lesson: Even decks that look very similar often have dramatically different matchups because of small card choice differences.
The Bronze Age
PT New York 2000 was a heartbreaker for me. It was the first PT in over a year I wasn’t qualified for, and the fact that it was in my home city – and that I didn’t have to shell out for an expensive plane ticket or hotel – was an extra little kick in the cack. But I was hanging around with a friend who was in the opposite position. He was qualified but had just started a new New York job and didn’t want to take the time to work on Rebel Block.
We were backstage and Hacker and Buehler were exhausted. I told Hacker that I thought the commentary was terrible, which was odd, because just a few months earlier at Maher’s Chicago, Hacker had been responsible for unquestionably the best commentary in the history of a Pro Tour Day Three.
“How can the commentary be good?” Brian asked.”All the matches end the same way.”
It was true. The matches were almost all Rebel-on-Rebel, with only minor differences in development. Sure, if one player started on Ramosian Sergeant and the other one didn’t, he could bury the opponent in card advantage… But most of the time, both players would have Rebel search going, the board would stall, and the game would end in two consecutive Reverent Mantras on White: Alpha Strike, Alpha Strike, twenty.
Of course there were some differences in the decks but Pikula and I didn’t understand them because we had tested not at all. Therefore what would have without question been the most inspired, clever, and downright hilarious Day Three commentary, with our spelling Hacker and Buehler, was curtailed at the last minute. I consider this probably Jeff Donais’s greatest professional guffaw, especially as he was simultaneously trying to hire me. But in any case, the most remarkable deck of this Top 8 in my opinion was not the Rising Waters deck that won, but Ben Rubin G/W deck.
You may remember the aplomb regarding”minimal” deck design that I heaped on [author name="Gabriel Nassif"]Gabriel Nassif[/author] a few weeks ago. Many of the same things can be said for Ben’s deck in the PTNY 2000 Top 8. He stripped down the Rebel chain and simplified it. His use of Fresh Volunteers in the face of the clearly superior Steadfast Guard speaks volumes as to his respect for such simple principles as mana consistency. He made his Rebel chain less inevitable, less long, less”broken”… but made room for simple threats like Blastoderm and Saproling Burst. He played Voice of Truth that could start swinging long before Reverent Mantra came online in the Rebel”mirror”.
But what Ben’s deck did best was to erase the opponent’s Reverent Mantra. What color was the opponent supposed to name? Because Ben had both Green and White creatures, he could prevent consecutively lethal Alpha Strikes by blocking with a couple of his guys. Go figure.
You will also note that Ben played only one Lin Sivvi main. He gladly sided her out against other Rebel decks. Most Rebel players fought over Lin Sivvi advantage. Ben let the opponent have Lin Sivvi, instead choosing to use his mana to play fading threats or Voice of Truth. What he gave up in card advantage he made up for in power. Remember: Ben had big Green creatures instead of (just) whimpy White creatures And His Reverent Mantras Still Worked.
The lesson: When you know exactly what your opponent is going to try to do, it makes certain decision processes easier to make. For example, you can remove some of the cards that make your deck best in the abstract in order to maximize the cards that help you win the most relevant matchup the majority of the time.
The Iron Age
I’d like to talk a minute about the U/G mirror.
Funny how in the current format that there are at least three different, distinct, U/G decks (Crystal Witness, straight Rude Awakening, and templated Tooth and Nail), that in this very article we talked about two different looks at U/G Thawing Oath, and that there is a long tradition of U/G control decks from The Baron on… Yet when I talk about U/G, we all automatically think”Wild Mongrel”.
Anyway, yes, it is to Wild Mongrel in the Iron Age that I am referring.
Personally, I hate U/G Madness decks. I played one that I got from Kibler before they were popular, and lost to bad mana. And somehow, in formats without Yavimaya Coast (both Odyssey Block and the following year’s Standard), U/G Madness just got more popular.
Yet I love U/G Threshold decks.
One of the reasons that I love U/G Threshold is that I believe that over many games, U/G Threshold is favored over U/G Madness in the pseudo-mirror. Even though U/G Madness has more tricks, particularly a faster”nuts” draw with Arrogant Wurm, and Circular Logic as the nail in the coffin, U/G Threshold will win almost every boring non-nuts game. When one deck isn’t demolishing the other one, U/G Threshold will kick in with its inevitable card advantage. The biggest creature in the U/G Madness deck is Arrogant Wurm, and U/G Threshold can match that with Werebear and Genesis (or Werebear after Werebear leveraging Genesis). The presence of Werebear makes non-nuts Wild Mongrels and Aquamoebas look pretty silly, and at the end of the day, U/G Threshold plays more copies of Roar of the Wurm.
U/G Threshold can get some pretty disgusting draws itself, though, with fast cantrips enabling the Lucky Seven, and with the right cards, it will never run out of gas.
So what makes this matchup tick? Wonder. That’s it.
It doesn’t matter how you bias your U/G deck, which strategy you choose. A lot of the time, if the other guy has Wonder and you don’t, you lose. It’s Who’s the Beatdown? all over again. Guess what? He’s the beatdown. He’s beating you down and you can’t block. Guess what? He’s the control. He’s controlling the pace of the game and all you can do is beat him back with your non-fliers. Sure, sometimes the guy without Wonder succeeds in winning with better beatdown, but it’s not common. When one player has Wonder and the other one doesn’t, he simply controls the most relevant element of the game.
So what can you do? You control the elements of the game that you can. Just because it is one of my favorite decks ever – not to mention the subject of my first Feature Article for Star City this time around – here is my Nimble Mongoose deck from last year’s Extended:
Note that I have two Wonders instead of just one. If this were Standard and I didn’t have Intuition, I would have played all four Wonders: You Have To Control As Many Variables In The Matchup That You Can, And To The Greatest Degree That You Can. The other elements should be pretty obvious. Nimble Mongoose is probably the most underrated creature in all of Magic, effectively trumping Psychatog and every creature in the U/G Madness deck with ease; only Arrogant Wurm is consistently bigger, and we are talking about a card that costs five against a card that costs one.
Can you control the Wonder war consistently and all the time? No way. As we said before, sometimes drawing a bunch of Wonders is terrible and your hand is clogged with four mana useless 2/2s. But there are nevertheless many things you can do to fight for the right to determine Who’s the Beatdown?. When he has Wonder and you don’t, it doesn’t matter how much card advantage you’ve got: You don’t get to be the control, you can’t play your game, and if you don’t win the beatdown, you don’t typically win at all.
Note that, much like the Rubin example from the Bronze Age, winning in the Iron Age was in surprisingly large part about the ability to block. As a player who hates blocking nearly as much as scumbag trial lawyers, I, too, find this horrifying. Yet in order to win, sometimes we must actually defend, rather than just swinging with all our monsters. Horrifying.
The lesson: Define Who’s the Beatdown? The winner will typically be the player who successfully stifles the opponent’s ability to play his role, or contrapositively, the loser will typically be the player who cannot successfully play his role.
Winning the Mirror in the Age of Twisted Steel and Sex Appeal
At long last, here is the Affinity deck I would play at a PTQ:
Maybe it’s a mistake to alter the Affinity deck that I’ve been using at all. I’ve won the vast majority of Affinity mirrors I’ve played, after all. But the thing is, at this point, almost everyone has almost the exact same Affinity deck. Nearly every opponent is playing a deck based on Frank Karsten’s Aether Vial deck, or a xerox copy of Osyp’s Orlando deck, or the CMU-TOGIT et al deck from GP:NJ, which are all just a couple of cards different from one another.
The obvious changes are that I cut the defining cards Aether Vial, Atog, and Myr Retriever for Talisman of Indulgence and Electrostatic Bolt main. Aether Vial has been pretty good for me, but when the other guy also has it, the minor speed boost that it gives also makes the deck more draw dependent. That is, when the opponent plays a first turn Aether Vial and you don’t… the last thing you typically want to draw is Aether Vial. In fact, the majority of the games I’ve lost with Affinity involve holding Red sideboard cards without sufficient Red mana to play them in time. The solution? Take out the explosive Aether Vial for the slightly less powerful – but infinitely smoother – accelerator Talisman of Indulgence… but open up the options at the same time.
Let’s look back at our lessons:
Isolate The Cards That Matter The Most In The Mirror And Strike At Them Strategically.
Especially after The Next Level, I have become a big fan of Electrostatic Bolt in Affinity. While many of the best players in Magic – including America’s best deck designer – have gone Green, I prefer Bolt to Oxidize. The majority of the games Affinity loses to Big Red involve getting killed by Slith Firewalker. Slith Firewalker isn’t good at beating Affinity. Most Big Red decks aren’t good at beating Affinity. But sometimes Big Red goes first and bolts Affinity’s first guy and hits with the Firewalker on turn two and bolts the second guy and it’s all a big mess. If Electrostatic Bolt is good enough for Tooth and Nail it should be good enough for a much better deck, right? Wrong.
The real answer is that there are three total threats that matter most of the time: Cranial Plating, Disciple of the Vault, and Arcbound Ravager. Electrostatic Bolt answers all three of those threats, at least in the short term. Because most players do not expect Main Deck Electrostatic Bolt, even one stopped Cranial Plating strike will win the game a surprising amount of the time.
Even Decks That Look Very Similar Often Have Dramatically Different Matchups Because Of Small Card Choice Differences.
I was undefeated at GP: New Jersey and up a game in yet another Affinity mirror match. I had the game the next turn when my opponent went all in. His outs were exceedingly narrow because of his low life and my Disciple of the Vault and couldn’t win at all without Shrapnel Blast. I had two guys, more than two Black sources, a Cranial Plating in play, and my opponent had no guys untapped. Because I was up a game and my opponent was playing great Affinity-on-Affinity Magic I let in all his attackers. Better to win on six than chump with one of my guys and lose to his random post-combat blocker.
He Blasted me.
To be specific, he said”I know I shouldn’t have this in,” then Blasted me for six with his Disciple.
It was awful. It was doubly awful that I could have made five different plays other than”no blocks” and won… but the fact of the matter is that I just didn’t put him on Shrapnel Blast. I assumed, especially because of his strong play, that he didn’t have it in. But it is small differences between similar decks that many times make the big differences.
Like Brian Kibler in Elizabeth, I have Relic Barrier as my sideboarded anti-Affinity card. With Electrostatic Bolt in the main, it seems like the next best option. Among Relic Barrier’s many virtues – not the least of which is a two-mana advantage as a two-mana artifact – it can contain a Cranial Plating whenever the opponent doesn’t have two black sources in play.
When you know exactly what your opponent is going to try to do, it makes certain decision processes easier to make. For example, you can remove some of the cards that make your deck best in the abstract in order to maximize the cards that help you win the most relevant matchup the majority of the time.
Some very good friends who have had some very good seasons have cautioned my removal of Atog from the main. But you know what? Atog came out almost every round in Elizabeth, and was pretty useless against Red and Green when I was behind. I don’t care that I don’t have Atog. I can count on one hand the number of games he’s won for me ever. He’s actually fairly pathetic when the opponent draws all two-for-ones, like mine consistently do.
In the PTQ I played in at GPNJ, I lost matches only to double Rude Awakening. I lost two matches. Both of them were close. Both of them ended in Rude Awakenings for exactly my life total. Twice. You know what? When you add Talisman of Indulgence and double Glimmervoid (out of the board), you can consistently cast single Black answers like Echoing Decay. Nice job Thawing out all that land. Good game, by the way.
Playing Talismans in Affinity is hardly a new idea. Jelger played one in Kobe, and many players have done it since. Are Talismans better than Aether Vials? Certainly they don’t enable the same quality of best draws. But do they serve a purpose, and a good one? Talismans pump out Disciples, Riggers, Bolts, Atogs, Blasts, and any random other card. They make good old fashioned mana and add to Affinity for Artifacts. Not great, maybe, but definitely serviceable.
Define who’s the beatdown? The winner will typically be the player who successfully stifles the opponent’s ability to play his role, or contrapositively, the loser will typically be the player who cannot successfully play his role.
Most of the time you want to be the control in the mirror. What won High Tide? Thawing Glaciers. What won when Thawing Glaciers became common? Wasteland to contain the opponent’s Thawing Glaciers. What was Bob afraid of out of a U/G Oath deck? Getting his mana swept away (by Thawing Glaciers). What defined the Rebel and U/G matches? The ability to block.
The short answer? Most of the time you want to be the control.
That is why my Affinity deck is made with a little more mana. Sometimes I draw and I feel like I should cut something for one or two Night’s Whispers because I feel like I have a little too much mana and I want something to do with it. But that is also why I have Electrostatic Bolt instead of the comparatively weak mirror cards Myr Retriever and Atog. I can remove the opponent’s best threat – Disciple of the Vault – and contain Arcbound Ravager and Cranial Plating, at least temporarily.
Is it objectively the best Affinity deck? No way. But the problem is that all opponents already have access to the best version, whether or not they choose to screw it up. In this version’s case, I am trying to get a few percentage points without giving up too much of Affinity’s overall strength in every other matchup.
Bonus Section: Papa Becker
If you’ve been reading my columns for any amount of time, you probably know that I like hating out Becker. On the way to Katz’s or on the way home from Plataforma with friends I try to make a point of calling him.
This time, Jon hated me out.
ring Ring RING!
“Guess what I’m doing?”
“I don’t know.”
“No really, guess.”
“I don’t know… mising?”
“Obviously! I’m Driving home in my new Porsche!”
They should fire Hillary Duff because any Cindarella story worth its glass slipper should be starring the Deadguys’ least hated member of Tongo Nation. First he mised at GP: Boston when some savage cheater (now PC superstar) got kicked out of the tournament, and now he is the proud owner of not only a suburban home, lovely wife, and brand new baby girl… but a Porsche.
Like you, I am officially jealous.