Ideas Unbound – Close Up of the Four-Color Control Mirror

Thursday, December 23rd – What’s the best way to approach the Extended 4CC mirror match? Two classic control decks, fighting for card supremacy and counterspell advantage… is the answer Anathemancer?

I’d just finished a cube draft (U/G Aggro Control; the deck was actually quite good, Zac) at a local PTQ when Zaiem Beg wandered by and roped me into playing a bunch of Four-Color mirrors, trying to find the best configuration for post-board games. We tried a few plans: the stock plan that uses Vendilion Clique and Thoughtseize to set up one big spell going long, a Scepter of Fugue plan, and Anathemancer. All of these plans are reasonable and viable, but I believe that if you want a dedicated plan for the matchup, you should be leaning on Anathemancer.

The reason that people say that the Four-Color mirror is boring is because, usually, the first person to tap a bunch of mana during their main phase loses. Once you commit to a spell in your main phase, you’re down a bunch of mana for a counter fight during your opponent’s next main phase. If you get baited into fighting over, say, a Jace, on your own turn, you stand to get hit by Cruel Ultimatum on your next turn.

It’s pretty obvious that tapping out is bad in a matchup where the most relevant cards are Cryptic Command, Mana Leak, Cruel Ultimatum, and Identity Crisis, but even doing something like tapping down to eight or ten lands to try and stick a Jace can be pretty dangerous. You can pretty safely assume that they’re going to counter it with Cryptic Command, and now you’re in a position where if they play a spell, and you double Cryptic, their Mana Leaks are probably live. The best-case scenario is that they just untap and pass the turn without doing anything, but if they show you Vendilion Clique during your end step and Thoughtseize you a bunch of times before you suddenly have an Identity Crisis, well, don’t say I didn’t warn you.

In theory, you could maybe try to force your opponent to burn their Cryptic Commands by baiting them with something like a Jace that you refuse to fight over. The problem is there aren’t really enough must-Cryptic threats to try and overload a hand with a few counterspells, and, again, being down a bunch of mana on your opponent’s main phase is very, very dangerous.

So, because tapping mana is loose, Four-Color mirrors typically devolve into long standoffs of draw-go until you get to about fifteen or more lands, at which point you can Esper Charm your opponent on his end step and force him to discard cards until you have more counterspells and threats in your hand than he has cards in his hand, at which point you can just play all of the Cruel Ultimatums in your hand until something finally resolves.


Honestly, game one of the mirror really is pretty boring. Everyone has more or less the same list; there are very few surprises, and usually whoever draws more land is going to win. The only interesting tactical moments are basically when to cast your Esper Charms to minimize your discarding and what cards to discard when you get above seven. I’ll get to those in a minute, but now I want to take a look at the post-board games.

First, let’s look at a stock Four-Color list and look for the cards you’d want to cut in the mirror:

Volcanic Fallout, Day of Judgment, and Path to Exile are all pretty obvious cuts. That gives you four cards. However, a brief look at the sideboard shows that we want to bring in Identity Crisis, Jace Beleren, Negate, the Thoughtseizes, and the Vendilion Cliques. That’s eight cards. You’ll have to find room for the other four cards from your Wurmcoil Engines, Wall of Omens, and Lightning Bolts. Wurmcoil Engine is a pretty easy cut because of how expensive it is, but the decision between cutting Wall of Omens and Lightning Bolt is actually a little tricky. If your opponent has Kitchen Finks, you should definitely leave in some Walls, but otherwise you probably need the Bolts to answer Jace, Clique, and Creeping Tar Pit.

With this configuration, you’re pretty committed to a plan where you’re going to draw-go into the midgame until you can set up an end step where you use Esper Charm to make them discard two while using Vendilion Clique to hit a counter before untapping, casting Thoughtseize, and then pushing Crisis or Cruel through with a couple of backup counterspells.

Now, this plan is pretty solid, and once you have the Esper Charm and the Clique and the Seizes and the Cruel and a Cryptic and enough mana to cast everything, it’s going to be pretty hard for your opponent to do anything about it. On the other hand, it’s slow. When you make this your plan after boarding, the game is going to last fifteen or more turns. Your opponent is going to be able to execute whatever strategy he has chosen, and you’re not going to be able to take an aggressive stance to move him off of it.

(This, incidentally, is one of the criticisms of Four-Color as a whole. Four-Color smashes midrange aggressive decks because it’s basically all lands, card drawing, and removal with value. However, Four-Color is completely incapable of being the beatdown in any matchup, so any combo deck that takes the control position and forces Four-Color to be proactive is going to win.)

Now, there are a few other strategies you can try in the mirror. You can keep the theme of flash threats going with more Cliques and some Bogardan Hellkites to force your opponent to answer your threats at instant speed; again, if they commit their mana on their main phase to answer your Dragon, you get a window to Cruel them. On the other hand, this strategy isn’t really any better than the Clique/Thoughtseize plan because, now, essentially, you have a few more Cliques, but some of them cost eight mana. The fundamental plan hasn’t changed; although I’ll grant that now you might accidentally kill someone with a Hellkite.

The best plans in the mirror are the ones that give inevitability. As I said above, Four-Color is really bad at being aggressive, so if you can configure your deck such that you’ll win all of the games that go long, you force your opponent to try to end the game quickly. Usually that means they’re forced to take some risks and commit mana when they’re not totally secure, and you can easily capitalize with all of your permission.

For example, if you have Scepter of Fugue in play, your opponent has to deal with the Scepter or kill you very quickly; a few turns activating the Scepter will run your opponent out of lands pretty quickly, and then he’ll have to start discarding his counterspells, at which point you can put him away with basically anything.

So what about a Scepter of Fugue plan? When you’re on the play, you’ll always be able to duck Mana Leak with your Scepter, and investing two mana per turn will usually still let you have two counters up to be able to handle a big threat backed up with a counterspell. You can also pretty safely play Scepter of Fugue in the midgame with a ton of mana up; although, again, you usually won’t be able to fight over it profitably. Using Scepters to run your opponents out of Cryptics is a reasonable strategy, but if that’s your plan, you still need the Thoughtseizes to force your big spell through.

You win pretty much all of your games with Scepter where you have Scepter on the play on turn 2. Even when drawn in the midgame, Scepter is still a pretty powerful threat. The only real problem with a Scepter plan is that by the time you’re in the later rounds of a PTQ, particularly in the elimination rounds, your opponents will be aware of any innovative technology you’ll have. Pretty much everyone has Celestial Purge in their Four-Color sideboard right now, and they can find room for a few Purges in the mirror without having to stretch too far. Now, sure, you’re still ahead if they bring in Purge because of the power of threats vs. answers and because they might draw two Purges while you don’t have a Scepter… but on the other hand, they might just immediately Purge your Scepter, and now your big trump card hasn’t even traded for any value.

Instead, I favor Anathemancer. Four-Color decks have four basics. It takes about fifteen mana for someone to Thoughtseize twice, cast Cruel Ultimatum or Identity Crisis, back it up with a Cryptic Command, and still pay for Mana Leak, so when you’re at a point in the game where you’re thinking about casting Anathemancer, it’s enters-the-battlefield trigger is virtually guaranteed to be dealing eight or more damage. You can obviously support Anathemancer with Esper Charm and Vendilion Clique in the same way you support Cruel Ultimatum and Identity Crisis, but Anathemancer costs less mana than either of the big spells, so you can just go ahead and kill your opponent just before they go for their big turn.

(Anathemancer is also a good way to bail yourself out if somehow the other guy manages to stick Jace.)

There aren’t any lines that address Anathemancer very well. Obviously, if your opponent is on an Identity Crisis plan, they’re not going to get anywhere just by trying to Crisis you off a mere ten mana; you’ll just counter back and Cruel them. So they can’t really just stop playing lands to try and duck Anathemancer. Further, if they Cryptic your Anathemancer, you don’t need to fight over it; if you have two Anathemancers in the yard after two Cryptics, unearthing both of them is probably lethal.

Now, above, I mentioned that one of the problems with a Scepter of Fugue plan is the presence of Celestial Purge in most Four-Color sideboards. Runed Halo is also a very popular card in Four-Color sideboards, and Runed Halo is quite an effective answer to Anathemancer. So why is the Anathemancer plan better than Scepter of Fugue?

Essentially, Runed Halo isn’t as good against Anathemancer as Celestial Purge is against Scepter of Fugue. When you have Purge against a Scepter, the Scepter just dies, no questions asked. When you have Halo down against Anathemancer, though, you haven’t actually removed the threat of Anathemancer; you’ve merely put up a roadblock. In a matchup where everyone has four Esper Charms and four Cryptic Commands, leaning on an enchantment to keep you safe all game is a little loose. When an Esper Charm gets fired at your Runed Halo during your end step, are you going to fight over it? If you went to all the trouble to board in Halo and play it naming Anathemancer, maybe you should… but if you tap out defending against Esper Charm, you’re just as vulnerable to Cruel Ultimatum.

So I feel that Anathemancer is the best plan in the mirror. Ideally, I’d be sideboarding thusly in the mirror:

-2 Wurmcoil Engine -1 Day of Judgment -1 Path to Exile -2 Volcanic Fallout -2 Wall of Omens
+4 Anathemancer +2 Vendilion Clique +2 Negate

If you know your opponent has Kitchen Finks, you’ll want to leave in Wall of Omens. Similarly, if you know they don’t have Cliques in the board, you don’t really need all your Bolts. And, obviously, if they have Scepter of Fugue, you’ll want Celestial Purge.

Tactically, there isn’t much to say about the mirror. It’s actually fairly important that you draw your cards in the right order; if your hand is choked on Cryptics early, and you don’t have Preordain or Esper Charm to find land, you might fall behind and be forced to discard vital countermagic.

Like I’ve been saying, tapping out is pretty bad. Having access to about nine mana in order to Cryptic someone, pay for a Mana Leak, and then Mana Leak back is pretty important for most of the game. This means that there are some windows when you have about twelve or fourteen lands when you can safely play Kitchen Finks, but, really, you’ll probably be discarding your Finks pretty often. Most of the time, the ideal hand in the midgame is something like all Negates, Cryptic Commands, a land, and some spells to punish your opponent for being so foolish as to try and play a spell, so you’ll want to discard excess cards like Lightning Bolt or extra Ultimatums or Anathemancers. As you transition into the endgame and start sculpting a hand to attack your opponent, you’ll mostly want a Clique, your threat, and a bunch of counters or Thoughtseizes.

Sideboarding extra lands is pretty valid in the mirror. Extra lands won’t give you any extra strategic advantage, but just having access to more mana is very important. Springjack Pasture in particular is very, very good. With Pasture, you basically have a storage land, and you can actually out-mana your opponent quickly enough to be able to win a fight over Ultimatum relatively quickly.

Leyline of Sanctity is a very powerful card in the mirror if you have it in your opening hand, but if it’s not in your opening hand, you’ll basically never have a good window in which to cast it. And, like Runed Halo, if Leyline is important enough to your opponent’s strategy that they need to remove it, they’ll have the ability to do so.

After sideboarding, be careful in your assumption that you can just win if you resolve Cruel Ultimatum. If your opponent just discards a few random cards and comes back with Identity Crisis, you’ll probably lose.

You should probably mulligan most of your two-land hands. Don’t fear mulligans as much when you’re on the draw where you’ll get the card back with Esper Charm pretty quickly.

The mirror takes a very long time. Even if both players are familiar with their strategies and make all in-game decisions quickly, it just takes a lot of time to play that many turns of Magic. Both players will have to try very hard to finish three games, even with practice. If you expect a lot of mirror matches, it may be worth it to configure your maindeck with an Identity Crisis or a similar bomb and expect to win a lot of matches 1-0-1. Be vigilant, and call over judges to enforce slow-play rules.

Four-Color Control mirrors last for eons. You know how in science fiction, people who are traveling through space at nearly the speed of light experience time dilation? A few years near light speed equate to decades on Earth? The Four-Color mirror is sort of like that in reverse. A few games equates to hours. Of course, this means that you’ll want to become well practiced in the mirror if you want to avoid going to time in tournaments.

In conclusion, I want to make a few observations:

At the beginning of the Block and Standard seasons that Faeries dominated, people always said that the deck wasn’t worth playing because of how bad it was in the games that Faeries didn’t have Bitterblossom. Right now, people are saying that Faeries is kinda loose because of how bad it is when you don’t have Bitterblossom. Weird.

Along those same lines, Molten-Tail Masticore is a pretty good answer to Great Sable Stag.

If you think that Red sucks in Extended, allow me to observe that Kyle Boddy built an incredibly underappreciated Red deck during Lorwyn Standard featuring Anathemancer. Similarly, let me observe that Tattermunge Maniac is better than you think it is and that Hellspark Elemental might not be all that great when you need actual creatures instead of burn spells.

Max McCall
max dot mccall at gmail dot com