Well, that went…well.
For those of you that missed the live Battle Royale event that took place on Sunday, I emerged victorious at 3-0 in a best-of-five game set. I’ll save the play-by-play for the end of the article, as I think it’s important to take into perspective what made the match go the way it did.
Intuitively, a lot of players expect control mirrors to be all about two things: card advantage, and threats vs. answers. One of the things forum-posters kept mentioning going into this matchup is the fact that Chris had no way to answer my Genju, and a discussion in the channel came up about the fact that I have no way of answering Chris’s maindeck Debtors’ Knell.
However, I was surprised to find very little discussion the most important aspect of this matchup: the mana.
Chris’s mana production capabilities are as follows:
24 lands that each tap for one mana
18 lands that each tap for one mana, 4 lands that each tap for two mana, 4 Tribe Elders, 4 Kodama’s Reach.
So I have 30 cards that produce mana, 8 of which each produce double the regular amount… to Chris’s count of 24 total.
Is it any surprise, then, that in all three games, Chris ended the game dead, but with more cards in hand than I had?
In an aggro-on-aggro mirror match, Mike Flores teaches us to identify “Who’s the Beatdown?” That is, which deck should be seeking to attack the opponent’s life total rather than going for the resource edge that will make him win the long game.
Look at this hypothetical series of turns between a Boros deck that plays cheap weenies and burn, against a Rakdos opponent that plays more expensive, but higher-quality creatures.
Already, by the end of turn 2, the Boros deck is cleaning up on tempo. It’s got a 2/1 and a 2/2 on the table, an opponent down on life, and staring down a completely empty board. A turn 3 Lyzolda could well be met by a Lightning Helix, putting the life totals at 14-20 in Boros’s favor, and Rakdos still would not have a board.
This example illustrates one of the values of playing efficient creatures and burn in an aggro deck: if you are the first one to have creatures on the board, one of the things you can do is burn your opponent’s creatures away and start attacking his life total, and (hopefully) killing him before his superior creatures can stay on the table long enough to give him an advantage.
In a control mirror match, you can actually see a similar phenomenon in action. Consider two identical Kamigawa-style G/B decks (Top, Elder, Reach, Kokusho, etc.) facing off against one another. Player A plays out four lands and hiccups in his mana development. Player B jets out smoothly to six mana and lays Kokusho. He knocks player A down to 15, while player A rips a Tribe Elder to find his fifth land. His Divining Top tells him that he’s got another land coming up on his next turn, so he can play a Kokusho of his own and get back in the game… except Player B attacks him to 10, plays a second Kokusho, killing him outright.
Things like Card Advantage and threats-versus-answers are often trumped in slow mirror matches by one player’s ability to develop his mana quicker than the other, allowing him to play out more threats, larger threats, or both threats and answers (for the opponent’s threats) in the same turn. Any of these can be enough to hand him the victory without having earned any kind of card advantage at all.
Players often forget that all sorts of slow games of Magic are still decided by tempo; just because neither player is curving out with beaters from turns 1-2, doesn’t mean developing your board quickly will not be able to win you the game by itself.
As I first scanned Chris’s list for problem cards, I noted that I have no ways to remove his three maindeck copies of Debtors’ Knell. Chris also has tons of ways to kill a Firemane Angel, so it seems likely that he’ll be able to start reanimating them ad infinitum in game 1 if he gets the Knell down. Sounds like a problem, right?
Looking closer at this interaction, though, a careful observer may note that Chris’s ability to capitalize on his indestructible Debtors’ Knells is entirely dependent on how quickly we each develop our mana. Consider these three scenarios.
I play an Angel on turn 6, with 6 mana out. On Chris’s turn 6, he kills it. On his turn 7 he plays Debtors’ Knell, and then on turn 8 he reanimates the Angel. This is very bad news for me, since even if I send the Angel back to the graveyard, he’ll just reanimate it for free on his next turn.
I hit 10 mana before Chris hits 7 for Debtors’ Knell, and play an Angel. Chris kills it. I shrug, and activate its ability to return it to play on my turn. Now Chris has to try and kill it again before he can hope to take it with Debtors’ Knell, which he still doesn’t even have in play yet. This game will not go well for him, as I can recur the Angel every upkeep with no problem, and his only hope to sneak it into the graveyard on my end step (so he can Knell it back on his turn) requires double-Hideous Laughter to accomplish.
I play an Angel with 8 mana out, when Chris has a Debtors’ Knell out. Chris plays Swallowing Plague to kill it. I play my 9th land, play some spells, and pass the turn. Chris steals the Angel on his upkeep. Now I’ve got to find my 10th land and kill the Angel on Chris’s end step (which I can only do with Lightning Helix) so that I can reanimate it on my own upkeep.
Really, the quality of Chris’s game 1 Debtors’ Knell is entirely dependent on how quickly we each hit our land drops. If I play an Angel at six mana and Chris drops a Knell immediately afterward, he can kill my Angel and reanimate it while I am still several land drops away from hitting 10. In this case, I don’t have a prayer of stealing her back to the home team before she’s knocked several gaping holes in my life total. On the other hand, if I’ve already got 10 mana out when she hits the ‘yard, Chris doesn’t have a chance in hell of getting her on his side in the first place.
Naturally, there’s more to the interaction than that. I can hold onto my Angel until I hit 10 mana (however long that takes), so Chris’s best Knell targets on my side of the table are Elders, but Chris can trump that strategy by using Nightmare Void or Coercion… still, the important point is that none of these side-interactions matter if I hit ten mana before Chris hits seven. And I’ll almost always do just that in this matchup, because my mana production capabilities are so much greater than his.
Again in game 3, my faster mana production does Chris in. I have a seriously underpowered hand for a control mirror: a lone Red Genju, a lone Mountain, and triple Lightning Helix. Chris had the ultimate trump for my 6/1 in the form of Genju of the Fens. He can trade that guy for mine all day long, since he has 22 Swamps to my lonely four Mountains… except that Chris never had the mana to block with his guy; he was stuck on three lands. Every time he wanted to do anything other than block – say, cast Nezumi Graverobber and Blackmail, I would punish him with six to the dome. (In this case, I burned a Helix to take down his 2/1 first.) Meanwhile, I was somewhere in the neighborhood of six mana, and could afford to make any number of plays on my own turn.
In fact, you need look no further than this Genju face-off to see the importance of mana in the matchup. At face value, which Genju can swing for more: Genju of the Fens, or Genju of the Spires? Not even close! If Chris (somehow) had all his lands on the table, his Swamp Spirit could punch me for a blistering 23 damage in one swing. My Mountain Spirit’s damage is capped at a measly 6, no matter how much extra land I have out.
But what happens when we don’t have all our mana out? Chris’s threat of attacking with his ostensibly more damaging Genju is obviated by the simple fact that he doesn’t have the mana yet. With only three lands out, Chris could attack me for no more than 2 with his Nantuko Shade lookalike, while the same three lands threatened a full 1/3 of his life total from my Mountain. So while I could spend my turns tapping all the way out if I liked, Chris had only two options: leave mana open to block, or tap out and take six big points of damage. In order for Chris to try and race my Genju with his own, he’d have to have at least 7 lands out so he could pump his guy to 6/6, but even then I’d have the upper hand because he’d have to tap all the way out to get his points in. Meanwhile I could tap three to hit him back for 6, and then another two to Lightning Helix him right out of the race.
To sum up, deploying your mana in a control mirror is very much like deploying your creatures in an aggro mirror. Falling behind in the mana race gives your opponent the opportunity to play (A) bigger, more relevant threats than you – see the Kokusho example, (B) expensive trumps to your more cost-effective win conditions – see the Debtors’ Knell vs. Firemane Angel example, (C) threats in conjunction with answers to beat you on damage – see the Helix-your-2/1-activate-Red-Genju-swing example.
The first thing I said to my opponent after the match was, “Chris – play more lands!” Chris seemed surprised by this suggestion, replying, “More than 24?”
More than 24 indeed.
Even playing extra basic lands, which are neither threats or answers on their own (and thus kinda card disadvantage-y, right?) can give you an edge by helping you make those critical land drops earlier than your opponent. And especially in control mirrors, that is often all that matters.
Keep all this in mind when you’re reading the play-by-play replay of our match. Notice how often it is Chris’s mana, rather than any other factor, that trips him up.
(By the way, it turns out MTGO has a cap on how many players can watch a match; luckily, color commentators Andrew Dodds and StarCityGames’s own Joshua X. Claytor stepped up to the plate to provide a play-by-play for the spectators in the channel. Dodds emailed me the transcript of the entire match, which has been reproduced below, for those who couldn’t watch the match.)
JXC followed my series of plays, while Dodds (Kalakagathosa) covered Romeo’s side. Enjoy!
6:48 JXClaytor: feldman leads off with forest, has no action, plains comes next with STE on t2.
6:49 Kalakagathosa: Chris starts with Swamp, Quicksand
6:49 JXClaytor: Sacs for Mountain, Resolves Meditation,
6:49 Kalakagathosa: Coercion nabs a Meditation
6:49 JXClaytor: second mediation comes down with gruul turf
6:49 Kalakagathosa: Coercion gets a blaze, no 4th land
6:50 JXClaytor: Vitu Ghazi and no play,
6:50 Kalakagathosa: Blackmail
6:50 Kalakagathosa: chooses Mountain over a Firemane and a Fetters
6:51 JXClaytor: Sap token eot, attack, and RF casts Kodama’s Reach, fetching plains and mountain,
6:51 Kalakagathosa: 3rd swamp, Void grabs the Fetters
6:52 Kalakagathosa: Nightmare Void, I should say
6:52 JXClaytor: Firemane Angel comes into play, with top and the damage engine from Meditation will slowly come online.
6:52 Kalakagathosa: no play for Chris
6:52 Kalakagathosa: yikes
6:53 Kalakagathosa: 3 swamps and a quicksand, 6 cards in hand
6:53 Kalakagathosa: 14 life
6:53 Kalakagathosa: whoops, 9
6:53 JXClaytor: double meditation trigger, both resolve, taking chris to 14, and after attacks, down to 9
6:53 Kalakagathosa: Coercion gets another mountain
6:54 JXClaytor: two more meditation triggers knocks chris to 5,
6:54 Kalakagathosa: and that’s game
6:54 Kalakagathosa: Chris dies to 2 Meditation triggers, a Firemane, and a Sapling
6:55 JXClaytor: Into the red zone for Feldman, and he is up a game in the best of what 5 series?
6:55 Scouseboy: aye, best of 5
6:57 Kalakagathosa: game 2!
6:57 Kalakagathosa: Chris chooses to play, no mulligan
6:57 Kalakagathosa: Swamp, blackmail
6:57 Kalakagathosa: Richard offers STE, Mountain, Forest
6:57 JXClaytor: no mulligans for either player, Feldman reveals three gassy ones in forest, mountain and STE
6:58 Kalakagathosa: Chris takes the mountain
6:58 JXClaytor: forest top fairly standard unexciting play from Feldman
6:58 JXClaytor: 🙂
6:58 Kalakagathosa: T2 quicksand
6:59 JXClaytor: activate top, might be looking for land, hit sanctuary, and passes
6:59 Kalakagathosa: another Swamp, no play
6:59 JXClaytor: forest, STE, pass
7:00 Kalakagathosa: swamp
7:00 Kalakagathosa: dramatic pause
7:00 Kalakagathosa: Nekrataal with no targets
7:01 Kalakagathosa: or, rather, an STE
7:01 Kalakagathosa: so, yeah, no targets
7:01 JXClaytor: STE gets sacked in response to nekrataal, brings a mountain and Top activation EOT, untaps and tosses meditation and another STE on Feldman’s turn
7:02 JXClaytor: Ste Steps in front of taal, and Fireman Angel comes out for Feldman, turning on the Searing Meditation.
7:02 Kalakagathosa: Swamp, Swallowing plague for 3, killing Angel
7:02 JXClaytor: Meditation targeting chris, no activation, and another angel is brought in.
7:03 Kalakagathosa: Taal goes on offense, no block
7:03 Kalakagathosa: blackmail takes Reach over Helix
7:04 Kalakagathosa: Taal gets Shocked by a Meditation, dies
7:04 Kalakagathosa: Chris takes an Angel to the chin, goes to 19
7:04 JXClaytor: Richard gains two life, triggers Meditation killing taal, kite comes out, and fetches a mountain
7:04 JXClaytor: (after attack to 19)
7:05 Kalakagathosa: Another plague for 3 kills another angel
7:05 Kalakagathosa: Chris, back at 22
7:05 Kalakagathosa: 18 after a pair of Meditations
7:05 JXClaytor: angels gain two more life, meditations deal four, and kite gets another land.
7:05 Kalakagathosa: Swamp, graverobber ho!
7:06 Kalakagathosa: eats a pair of Angels!
7:06 JXClaytor: Welcome to Frowntown Population Richard, after Graverobber takes away his offense of Angels in the Yard,
7:06 Kalakagathosa: Richard has 4 cards left in Grave, including 0 angels
7:07 JXClaytor: lightning helix hits for 3, and kills robber, kite gets a plains, and GENJU comes into play.
7:07 Kalakagathosa: Robber dies to a Medi
7:07 Kalakagathosa: Gargantua comes down, brings Chris to 13
7:07 Kalakagathosa: and is promptly Fettered
7:08 JXClaytor: second meditation for Feldman, plus fetters on PG, meditations do not activate, and genju swings for 2
7:08 Kalakagathosa: Chris takes a Genju on the nose, goes to 11
7:08 Kalakagathosa: another Gargantua takes him to 9 with 4 cards in hand
7:08 JXClaytor: Feldman is empty handed, but has a superior board position with double meditation and genju
7:09 Kalakagathosa: Gargan blocked the Genju, who dies thanks to Quicksand
7:09 JXClaytor: Genju gets blocked, and quicksand is activated, helping to kill the genju, Meditation deals 4 to chris, and genju comes back
7:09 Kalakagathosa: Genju returns, Quicksand does not
7:10 Kalakagathosa: Chris gets swamp #8
7:10 Kalakagathosa: blackmail hits a Helix
7:10 Kalakagathosa: Chris’ own Genju stays home, though
7:11 Kalakagathosa: despite blocks, Meditations come through for the last 5 damage
7:11 JXClaytor: genju of the fields comes in, and is blocked, Feldman activated the genju again and after damage is stacked (important part)
7:12 Kalakagathosa: stack trickery!
7:12 JXClaytor: Richard gains four and zaps! chris for and DI
7:12 Kalakagathosa: Richard is now 2-0
7:12 JXClaytor: Feldman has taken a commanding lead in this best of five, as the players go back to sideboarding.
7:13 Kalakagathosa: so, what’s your opinion now, Chuck?
7:13 Kalakagathosa: ooh, can I be John Madden?
7:13 Kalakagathosa: aaanyway
7:13 SmeeTheGreat: you gotta say BOOM
7:13 SmeeTheGreat: if you want to be madden
7:13 Kalakagathosa: Chris mulls down to 6
7:13 JXClaytor: Feldman in Three, although the unfortunate game one crashing that was really close will haunt Chris for a trillion years BOOM
7:14 ailat: If you’re John Madden, I think you’re required to talk about Brett Favre in every single byplay.
7:14 phinneas8052: and learn how to use the telestrator like him
7:14 SmeeTheGreat: yeah
7:14 Kalakagathosa: Chris leads with a swamp
7:14 SmeeTheGreat: man do i wish there was a telestrator for this
7:14 JXClaytor: no mulligans for Feldman, and Top is back in play turn one, Brett Farve is a great quarterback.
7:14 Kalakagathosa: Chrs gets a 2nd swamp and not much else
7:15 JXClaytor: Top gets activated, my fiance snores somewhere, and sanctuary comes into play.
7:15 ailat: That Feldman is making some great plays with his Searing Meditation! And you know who else is great at Meditation? Brett Favre…
7:15 Kalakagathosa: I’m feeling a turn 3 coercion….
7:15 phinneas8052: and he’ll choose the Brett Farve in his hand…
7:16 JXClaytor: The oldest snake comes into to play, and I am lagging for some reason now.
7:16 Kalakagathosa: and BOOM! it takes a Meditation
7:16 JXClaytor: Feldman replies with a frown.
7:16 JXClaytor: Genju of the spires comes into play and is joined by STE and Sanctuary.
7:17 Kalakagathosa: Blackmail takes a plains over a helix and a forest
7:17 JXClaytor: Genju smacks for 6, like a hit Brett Favre takes, and Richard activates top twice.
7:17 Kalakagathosa: Yikes, Genju’d to 14
7:18 Kalakagathosa: Chris gets a Genju and Robber Rat to play defense
7:18 JXClaytor: Helix the rat blocker, and Genju comes in like a hungry linebacker,
7:18 JXClaytor: taking chris to 8
7:18 Kalakagathosa: like Bret Favre, or something
7:19 JXClaytor: Oh snap
7:19 Kalakagathosa: blackmail takes another helix
7:19 JXClaytor: was that double helix ?
7:19 Kalakagathosa: and that’s game!
7:19 JXClaytor: genju comes in for 6 and helix finishes out for the match
All in all, this was a very fun challenge. I came out on top of this one, but I bet Chris wouldn’t make the same mana-related mistake twice if we were to clash again in the future.
In any case, as the winner of this challenge, I’ll be back again with another Battle Royale against another one of StarCityGames.com writing staff… but that’ll be a story for another day. For now, I hope following the development process behind our decks, watching the matchup, and hearing our analyses’ of the aftermath was as entertaining as it was informative.
Until next time!