How to Shatter the Mirror

Drew Levin is gearing up for Legacy this weekend at SCG Open Series: Baltimore featuring the Invitational. Read an extensive guide on how to best prepare your Esper Stoneblade decklist to win the inevitable mirror match.

It’s round five at the Invitational. You just turned in your Legacy decklist, and you’re still a bit jittery. You don’t play this format too much, so you brought a stock list of a deck that has seen a fair bit of success recently and will let you play to your strengths. You sit down for your first match of Legacy for the weekend, introduce yourself, and shuffle quietly. Your opponent seems like the sort of person that knows what they’re doing. As the game begins, you realize that you’re playing something very close to the mirror.

You aren’t really prepared for this, are you?

A few years ago, I had a good friend that had mastered the art of deck selection. His process was very simple: play the best deck in the format, play it enough to understand its roles in various matchups, and then find a way to always win the mirror. This approach resonated with me over the years as I consistently picked the wrong deck for a tournament and got what I deserved.

The SCG Open Series featuring the Invitational is a very straightforward tournament. It has two formats on each day, so you can’t write either one off and still hope to do well. Given that most Invitational Qualifiers are run as Standard-format events, most of your competitors will be more familiar with Standard than with Legacy. Unless someone has access to a community of players who already play Legacy (or who are all qualified for the Invitational), people don’t play that much Legacy.

People who don’t play that much Legacy tend to follow one of the two following lines of logic:

  • I know very little about the format, so I’m going to play something very powerful and try to crush my opponents with a very linear deck.
  • Today’s top Legacy decks aren’t that different from top decks in other formats, so I’ll play a top tier deck in Legacy that best fits my play style.

The former line of logic tells us to play Hive Mind

Sneak Attack




High Tide


or Dredge:

AJ Sacher would call them “the others.”

The best reason to play these sorts of decks is that you want to cut down on the number of cards in opposing decks that can possibly interact with your gameplan. If you’re playing Storm or High Tide or Hive Mind, for instance, none of your opponent’s removal is relevant at all. If they draw a Swords to Plowshares for their turn, they skipped their draw step. Once you start to kill them, there are only a few cards in their deck that matter so you can play far closer to optimal Magic than an aggro-control player who is similarly unfamiliar with Legacy.

Another big upside to playing a straightforward “get ’em dead” deck is that technology has, by and large, already been discovered. Combo decks know what they need to do to beat Force of Will and there are builds out there that have the technology to do so. People have already figured out how to beat Batterskull with Burn decks. You’re not going to have to reinvent the wheel if you play one of these decks—at worst, you’ll have to do some research. Still, you have clearly defined problems — Tormod’s Crypt, Gaddock Teeg, Batterskull — and clearly defined solutions — Ancient Grudge, Virtue’s Ruin, Sulfuric Vortex.

What I want to talk about today, however, is what happens if you subscribe to the other line of logic. Maybe you aren’t interested in putting yourself at the mercy of the contents of your opponent’s deck. Maybe you really enjoy playing Brainstorm and Force of Will (who doesn’t?). Maybe you miss Stoneforge Mystic. Whatever the reason may be, you want to play a deck that makes decisions every game.

One of your biggest decisions is happening right now. Between now and the time the tournament starts on Friday, you’re going to have to decide on just how much you want to change your deck from whatever stock list you found to whatever list you’re going to turn in. Maybe your changes will win you games you couldn’t have won otherwise. Maybe they’ll be complete disasters. How can you tell the difference?

Figure out what the matchup is about. Let’s return to last week’s article for a bit and go in depth on how the Esper Stoneblade mirror is likely to play out. If you don’t want to learn anything and just want the sideboard I would recommend for the Invitational, ctrl + F for “toro.” First, the list that everyone playing the deck will start from:

The threat evaluations in the mirror go like this:

Stoneforge Mystic is the best threat because it gets Umezawa’s Jitte. This is already a pretty big departure from the days of the U/W Blade mirror where the default is to get Batterskull, but I’ll explain why.

Umezawa’s Jitte is a better card in the mirror than Batterskull because each trigger lets you kill either an opposing Mystic or two opposing creatures (Snapcaster or Spirit token). The Stoneblade mirror is a huge attrition war, so the four life from Batterskull isn’t the most relevant thing in the world. In a pinch, Umezawa’s Jitte can also lifelink for four a turn as well. Yes, people used to get Batterskull over Jitte in straight U/W mirrors, but that was a very different matchup because neither player had Lingering Souls to turn a game around.

Lingering Souls is the second-best threat because it provides four creatures to carry equipment and/or attack Jace, the Mind Sculptor. Think of how important Squadron Hawk was in Standard Caw-Blade mirrors, but then realize that each quartet of Hawks in this format is only one card and five mana as opposed to four deck slots and eight mana. Since each Lingering Souls you draw puts you ahead on board by four creatures, you can also think of each Umezawa’s Jitte damage trigger as negating half of an opposing Lingering Souls.

Jace, the Mind Sculptor is a much swingier card in this matchup. It’s great if you’re ahead and miserable when you’re behind. The presence of Lingering Souls in this matchup encourages both sides to tap out liberally to cast their Souls in game 1, since it’s close to impossible to tap out for Jace when you’re facing down a bunch of Spirits. When you do, there are a lot of ways you can lose your Jace while recouping little to no value. Conversely, it’s pretty hard to lose when you tap out for a Jace that’s protected by a pair (or quartet) of Spirits.

Snapcaster Mage is much worse in this deck than he is in traditional U/W decks. That said, he’s still pretty awesome. There is much less countermagic in the deck, so there will be fewer times where Snapcaster can be an extra layer of security. Most of the time, Snapcaster will play the part of Mesmeric Fiend or Silvergill Adept. If you hold onto your Snapcasters for too long, you run the distinct risk of getting them Inquisitioned. Playing the mirror aggressively is the correct approach nearly every time, since many of your cards are better at putting you in a commanding position than they are at bringing you back from a losing one.

Batterskull is your endgame and not your early game. If you spend a bunch of mana bouncing Batterskull around in the midgame, you’ll likely fall behind on board. Spending your mana on casting your spells has the effect of both weakening opposing discard and putting you ahead on board, both of which are desirable things.

So if this is the dynamic that the Esper Stoneblade mirror has before sideboarding, what is the first level of “stuff we don’t want?”

Force of Will seems fairly bad, since there isn’t a spell in the matchup worth discarding two cards to counter.

Vendilion Clique seems pretty horrible as a fighter. The only conceivable reason to keep Vendilion Clique in would be if you wanted to Clique away an opposing Batterskull when they try to put it in play. The problem with that is you now have spent a card on something that will trade with either a quarter of a Lingering Souls, half of a Jitte trigger, or will win you the game where almost anything else would also win you the game.

Swords to Plowshares is always a card I like to cut in Stoneblade mirrors. In this matchup, you want to cut either the Plows or the discard but not both. I believe pretty strongly that the discard is better than the Plows. Here’s why:

The mirror is about equipment attrition. Let’s say you open a hand with four lands, a one-mana wild card spell, a Stoneforge Mystic, and a Lingering Souls. Your options are to have that one-mana spell be either Swords to Plowshares or Inquisition of Kozilek. In this situation, Swords to Plowshares is way better if your opponent has Stoneforge Mystic and goes for Batterskull, since you strand him with an uncastable that you can’t Inquisition. If your opponent Mystics for a Jitte, though, you would vastly prefer Inquisition since a Plow doesn’t stop his Jitte from hitting the table.

Let’s say it’s later in the game. Your opponent passes the turn with four mana open. You Inquisition him and see a Lingering Souls, taking it (and possibly Surgical Extractioning it). Alternatively, your opponent Brainstormed in response to your Inquisition, then shows you a hand without a Lingering Souls in it. You could take a solid card (Disenchant, maybe, or a Sword if you’re lucky) and then Extract the Brainstorm, shuffling away their Lingering Souls. Again, the discard gives you a way to beat an opponent who knows better than to run their Lingering Souls into a Surgical Extraction.

You may envision a game where your opponent has Mystic for Batterskull and beats you up and you have no chance because you boarded out your Plows, but such things simply don’t happen. Here’s why: you, possessing a keen understanding of the dynamics of the mirror, are going to have more than one way to kill a Batterskull. To wit, it’s likely that you (and your opponents) will cut something close to this:

1 Intuition
1 Vendilion Clique
3 Force of Will
3-4 Swords to Plowshares

…which leaves you with 7-8 cards to bring in. I brought in the following when I played the mirror in the GP:

3 Surgical Extraction
1 Zealous Persecution
1 Disenchant
1 Sword of Feast and Famine

Since I was only playing two Forces main, I only cut six cards. Now that the deck is a real metagame player, though, there are bunch of different ways to attack it. The following is a shortlist of sideboard options that I would consider to try to beat the Esper mirror (and other decks):

Sword of Light and Shadow — Sword lets you grind out Maverick and random B/W decks as well, lets you rebuy Snapcaster against discard strategies, and gains you life against Burn (because, you know, you need more equipment that’s good against Burn).

Crucible of Worlds — If you’re replacing Tower of the Magistrate with Academy Ruins, Crucible lets you rebuy your Ruins in the face of Wastelands or opposing Ruins. It’s probably not better than just playing a second Academy Ruins, though, since you’d rather have a land than a three-mana Sylvan Scrying that only finds lands you’ve already played. Since you don’t have Wastelands or manlands, your Crucible is pretty bad. Not very exciting.

3-4 WastelandsSince the deck only plays 22 land, you could probably mana screw someone in the mirror with this strategy. Not pretty and not perfect, but it definitely has the potential to steal a few games. These would also be really good against combo decks since you need to keep your Spell Pierces live and, without Wasteland, it’s not always possible to do that.

Sword of Feast and Famine — It’s not great, but don’t cut it. You don’t have to bring it in, but just don’t cut it. This is your big out to Choke and is another (important) angle of attack against combo decks.

Dark Confidant If everyone is cutting spot removal in the mirror, Dark Confidant is a pretty sweet card to get to untap with. It’s also a great way to level the better players since they’ll hold their Inquisitions until you cast Stoneforge Mystic for a Sword or Jitte in order to snag your equipment. If you play Bob instead of Mystic on two, they might just die on the spot.

More Disenchants — Pretty straightforward—they bring in more equipment, you bring in more ways to kill it. Not a huge fan of this as it’s only good in a very narrow subset of circumstances and loses to a lot of other gameplans (more creatures, more discard, non-artifact/enchantment trumps). I would play either one or two Disenchants and just focus on playing them correctly rather than playing three or four Disenchants and flat out losing to a Lingering Souls-into-Jace, the Mind Sculptor start.

Zealous Persecution — This card is real nice. As I mentioned last week, it was Ben Rasmussen’s idea for how to play a second Darkblast that’s better off the top. If you expect a lot of G/W Maverick, it’s very reasonable to play a second copy of the card. It’s not something that G/W can typically play around, and it’ll pretty consistently have a big impact on the game.

Manriki-GusariThe second-most original answer to Umezawa’s Jitte right after “play my Umezawa’s Jitte.” Manriki-Gusari is a big game for two reasons. First, it’s basically Hovermyr-level unbeatable. If they have a bunch of 1/1s and you have a bunch of 1/1s and a 2/3, how are they supposed to beat you? Second, they can never have a Batterskull in play with less than three mana tapped. If they go to return Batterskull and tap below three mana, you just get to Manriki it and eventually kill them with your Batterskull. They can also never get their own Manriki active unless you make a huge mistake and pass the turn with your Manriki’d creature tapped. If you want to win an equipment war, it’s very possible that Manriki-Gusari is where you want to be.

More Jaces (Beleren or TMS) — I’m not a huge fan of adding more Jaces to the deck. The three that you have are already swingy, so adding more cards that win more but do little to bring you back from behind seems bad. I’d rather have Dark Confidant in most circumstances and especially against combo decks.

A second Jitte or Batterskull — For all the maneuvering that it’s possible to do in this mirror, your best option might just be to play more copies of your two best equipment. Maverick has to kill your Jitte on sight or it will lose very quickly, while there are several decks that can’t beat an active Batterskull and must destroy it on sight. Both equipment are strong cards in the mirror, so having extras in an attrition war is a fine decision.

Now for those of you who wish writers treated StarCityGames.com more like a sushi restaurant than a fishing boat, here’s your toro:

4 Dark Confidant
3 Surgical Extraction
2 Perish
1 Sword of Feast and Famine
1 Umezawa’s Jitte
1 Disenchant
1 Zealous Persecution
1 Darkblast
1 Force of Will

As I mentioned earlier, I think it’s reasonable to expect people to trim down on (or completely cut) their spot removal in a matchup that’s centers around a card that produces four flying 1/1 tokens. Since two pieces of your equipment gain you life, your Dark Confidant shouldn’t kill you. Having Bob in the sideboard also gives you another set of powerful turn 2 plays against combo, since drawing more discard is generally correlated with winning against combo decks. Spell Pierce was a pretty big underperformer on the weekend, so cutting those is fine. It’s worth noting that this deck is almost entirely kold to a Fireblast in this configuration, so if you have a message from on high that you’re playing Patrick Sullivan in the Legacy rounds you might not want to follow my advice.

If you’re planning on playing against a bunch of Lingering Souls, though, it’s hard to do too much better than playing The Great One.

If you’re coming to the StarCityGames.com Open Series featuring the Invitational, I’ll see you in Baltimore on Friday morning. If you’re not, enjoy the coverage!

Drew Levin

@drew_levin on Twitter