Innovations – One Game: The Next Level Blue Mirror

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Monday, February 18th – Extended PTQs continue apace across the world. With a metagame so vibrant, the format is proving to be fun, intricate, and popular. The most popular control strategy, Next Level Blue, is a deck that requires great skill and patience to pilot correctly. And the mirror match… to the uninitiated, it’s the stuff of nightmares. Thankfully, Patrick is here to help…

I sat down to battle up and coming pro Kyle Boggemes in the Next Level Blue mirror match. For reference, here is my list:

Kyle’s deck was almost identical: his build had only 1 Academy Ruins. My list was 61, but I merely wanted to show off the difference adding 1 Ruins can make. I recommend 60, as it tends to be better than 61 (or 66 or whatever), but it can be quite useful in playtesting.

This build features a couple of new pieces of technology. I am experimenting with the second Academy Ruins, so as to improve the mirror. The mirror match basically can be divided into four types of games, which are:

1. Games in which you have Top and the other player doesn’t. In this case you want to dig to Counterbalance as quickly as possible, unless opponent has Counterbalance. In that case we have to get to Engineered Explosives or Cryptic Command.

2. Games in which your opponent has Top and you don’t. In this case you have to find Top as soon as possible. Often you should look to mulligan in the mirror if you don’t have a Top or a way to look for it, such as Thirst or Trinket Mage. If your hand doesn’t have any way to look for a Top, it better be pretty great to justify keeping.

3. Games in which neither of you have Top. In this case the race is to get Top. If your opponent has a blind Counterbalance, it is important to test the waters with spells like Goyf and Shackles to try to force through the Trinket Mage or eventual Top.

4. Games in which both of you have Top. These are the most common and the most interesting. Usually, the board will get tied up by Shackles, and creatures will not be effective. You will both try to set up Counterbalance locks.

Often if one player sticks a Counterbalance, the other won’t be able to do so. If your opponent has Counterbalance-Top and you have only Top, the best times to try to resolve spells are after opponent Thirsts or shuffles his library. You have to dig to Engineered Explosives and try to stick it.

Academy Ruins plus Explosives will trump Counterbalance-Top. Having a second Academy Ruins not only ensures that your opponent won’t be able to trump you this way, but it also improves your odds of being able to find the Ruins to break a Counterbalance yourself. As a side note, it is a lot of fun playing against Dredge with two Ruins.

Another move I am experimenting with is the maindeck Sower, moving Threads to the sideboard. I still like Threads, but Sower is just better against more opponents. I wish I had room for two main, but cuts must be made and I am still on board with four Shackles.

This list also features Tormod’s Crypt because it has small uses against enough people to warrant its inclusion, as it dramatically affects a couple of important match-ups. Yes, this is hardly new, but I was experimenting with it sideboard only and am currently leaning towards maindecking it.

I also feature two Cryptic Commands and think it is crazy not to play them. They solve so many problems… I can’t even begin to list them all.

I won the die roll and elected to play. Going first is not the biggest deal in this match-up, but it is still better than going second. The entire match revolves around Sensei’s Divining Top, and going first helps ensure that you get yours into play. If you have to Trinket Mage to find it, it ensures you have a better chance to get him down before things get hectic.

My opening seven were Chrome Mox, Island, Flooded Strand, Tarmogoyf, Cryptic Command, and double Vedalken Shackles.

This hand may appear fine to many pilots, but we were testing knowing what each other was playing. I see so many people to try to “pretend” they don’t know and then make intentional wrong decisions instead of practicing under real circumstances. In real life, you will often know what you are up against. A mix of both ways is appropriate.

This hand is not going anywhere and has no way to look for Sensei’s Divining Top. It is not a good hand by normal standards, and there is no way you should keep this in the mirror.

My six-card hand was Snow-Covered Island, Steam Vents, Flooded Strand, Counterspell, Spell Snare, and Sensei’s Divining Top.

Any two-land and a Top is an auto-keep in the mirror.

Kyle’s opening hand was Breeding Pool, Polluted Delta, Chrome Mox, Tarmogoyf, Thirst for Knowledge, Trinket Mage, and Counterbalance.

With a Counterbalance, a way to find Top, and plenty of mana, this is a fine hand. Keep.

My turn 1, I play Steam Vents and Sensei’s Divining Top. It is important to save the fetchland for a free shuffle with our Top later. If we play the Steam Vents first, it won’t look as suspicious when we drop an Island turn 2, especially if we act like we drew it. We want to be able to use our Counterspell turn 2 if needed, and playing the Steam Vents second, but untapped would be very telling. Playing the Island first and fetch land second wastes a shuffle. I pass the turn.


Kyle’s turn 1, he draws Vedalken Shackles. Kyle plays Breeding Pool untapped, as he wants to save his fetch land to help regulate his draws with the help of Counterbalance. Then Kyle plays Chrome Mox and removes Thirst for Knowledge. It is important to remove the Thirst because you need the Trinket Mage to find Top, and you need the Mox to make Blue since you want to play Counterbalance on turn 1, Trinket Mage on turn 2.
Finally, Kyle plays Counterbalance and says go.


My turn 2, I do not Top on upkeep, as I want to keep Counterspell mana open. He led with turn 1 Counterbalance. I have to try to keep Top off the table.
I draw Vedalken Shackles. I play Snow-Covered Island and pass the turn.


Kyle draws Chrome Mox. He plays Polluted Delta, fetches Island, and plays Trinket Mage. Since I have Top and Kyle doesn’t, he can’t afford to sit around and try to build up. He has to press any advantage from his Counterbalance he can, before I have time to dig into action.

I Counterspell the Mage. Kyle blind Counterbalances, revealing Snow-Covered Island.
Kyle did not lead with the Chrome Mox imprint Goyf, despite the fact that it would have been his play if Trinket Mage resolved. There is no point in playing around Force Spike, since if the Mage resolves, we are certainly going to tap out to play the Top anyway. If the Mage is countered, we want to save the Goyf with to beat. Kyle passes the turn.


Turn 3, I once again do not Top on upkeep. I know Kyle has a land on top of his library, so I want to take this opportunity to sneak my Shackles in while I can. I draw Miren and play it, tapping out to play Shackles. Once again, I am saving my fetchland to use as a shuffler later. I pass the turn.


Kyle draws his Snow-Covered Island and plays it. Kyle plays Shackles (tapping Chrome Mox). Remember, it is usually better to tap Moxes and Legendary Lands early in the turn, as they are less reliable mana sources and a fair number of games can be swindled by Strip Mining the other guys Academy or Ancient Grudge to destroy a Mox/Tree of Tales.

Kyle obviously wants to lead with Shackles over Goyf, so as to not get his guy taken from him with no way to take it back. He passes the turn.


Turn 4, I finally Top on upkeep, tapping Miren. I see Strand, Thirst, and another Top. I put the Thirst on top, then Strand, then Top. I draw the Thirst. Next I play my fetchland and search for a Breeding Pool untapped. I tried to play Thirst, but Kyle blind revealed a Thirst of his own. Good beats. I pass the turn.


Kyle draws the Thirst and laughs in my face. He will pay for this mockery.

He starts by playing Thirst for Knowledge, leaving open his Breeding Pool. He drew Cryptic Command, Polluted Delta, and another Thirst. After discarding the Chrome Mox, he plays Delta, searches for a Hallowed Fountain, and drops Tarmogoyf. I am a couple turns away from being able to eat it with Miren and he is hoping to gain some tempo on me, forcing me to pay two a turn if I want to avoid getting hit. He ends his turn.


Turn 5, I Top on upkeep, once again tapping Miren. The choices are Flooded Strand, Chrome Mox, and Tarmogoyf, so I draw the Strand.

An important note on Topping. When you Top, shuffle your cards so that your opponent can’t tell what order you put them in relative to the order they were in. As a corollary, watch your opponents when they Top. You will usually be able to watch and see if they are juggling two cards and moving the new one to the top each time, or if they are just juggling one. This is especially relevant when they have Counterbalance itself.

I then play the Strand and fetch an Island, which I use to Top again. This time I see Trinket Mage, Counterspell, and Spell Snare. I leave them in that order and pass the turn.


Kyle’s fifth turn begins with him drawing Tree of Tales. He plays Thirst for Knowledge and draws Flooded Strand; Miren, the Moaning Well; and Counterbalance. He discards Tree, then plays Miren to Strip Mine me. I am falling way behind and need to find an Explosives soon. It should be noted that Brian DeMars was watching over Kyle’s shoulder and argued that Kyle should have also discarded his second Counterbalance just to increase the beats with Tarmogoyf. Kyle kept it, though, trying to play around Engineered Explosives.


My turn 6 begins with me drawing the Trinket Mage I had left on top. I play the Mage and Kyle blind reveals a Polluted Delta. I retrieve Engineered Explosives and pass the turn.


Kyle draws the Delta and attacks for 4. He plays the Delta and passes. He has a nice advantage, it is definitely worth pressing it and protecting his board with Cryptic Command. I Top on his endstep and see Thirst, Counterspell, and Academy Ruins. Academy is exactly what I have been looking for so I move it to the top and put Counterspell second, in case I need to access it with Top.


Turn 7, I draw Ruins and declare an attack. Kyle takes the two, figuring it is better to wait and save his Shackles and/or mana for whatever I am up to.

I play the Ruins and tap it, an Island, and the Steam Vents to Explode with X=3 and Sunburst of 2. I am too far behind to set it for 5, as I want to protect it with Counterspell or Spell Snare. My opponent is Counterbalancing blind, so I am not too worried about doing it for three. I certainly don’t want to do it for two, as they could Spell Snare it. Also, my Ruins isn’t really helping this turn anyway.

Kyle blind reveals Snow-Covered Island. Then he tries to Cryptic Command the EE (and bounce the Shackles), and is met by me activating Top to draw and then play Counterspell. He shuffles his library with Delta, retrieving an Island, and blind Counterbalances, revealing Spell Snare. I try to end the turn, but since I am tapped out, Kyle takes control of my Mage, planning on getting his licks in while he still can.


Kyle draws Spell Snare and plays Flooded Strand. He kept his Shackles tapped, so he is able to attack me for 6. He passes to me.


Turn 8, I draw my Top. I activate Explosives, tapping Ruins. I then play my Top and pass the turn. Kyle doesn’t crack his fetchland, as it is worth holding onto it for a free shuffle.


Kyle draws Trinket Mage. What do you lead with? Counterbalance or Trinket Mage? Lead with the Counterbalance. It is less important, and if it sticks, it will help protect the Trinket Mage. Kyle attacks first, seeing if I will tap out. I have a sick read on him and do not, dropping to 2.

Kyle plays Counterbalance, which draws the Spell Snare. He then plays Trinket Mage and gets a Top, playing it, but leaving his fetchland to use with Top later. He ends the turn and I Top, seeing Island, Delta, and Cryptic Command. I put the Island on top, followed by Cryptic Command.


Turn 9, I draw Island and play it. I then mainphase Academy Ruins my Engineered Explosives. I can’t wait till his end step, as he will get to look at 7 cards next turn and could find a Ruins of his own. I pass the turn.


Kyle keeps his Shackles tapped, figuring he’ll make me tap out. Kyle tops on upkeep, seeing Steam Vents, Academy Ruins, and another Top. He draws the Academy Ruins, leaving Steam Vents on top. He declares his attack, to which I take control of my own Trinket Mage. He then looks again with his Top, this time, his new card is a Chrome Mox. He Strip Mines me and passes the turn.


Turn 10, I keep my Shackles tapped and draw the Engineered Explosives. I attack and pass the turn. If things get out of hand, I can tap my Top to Cryptic Command. Kyle Tops on my endstep, leaving Top on top. He didn’t actually change the order, but didn’t want me to know that he hadn’t.


Kyle untaps his Shackles and draws Top. He looks at his top 3 and sees another Counterbalance. He plays a second Top and then draws the Counterbalance. He plays it and I decide to Cryptic Command, countering it and drawing the Top that I had to put on top of my library to acquire it.


Turn 11, I draw Polluted Delta and replay my Top. I look at the top 3 cards and see Tarmogoyf, Vedalken Shackles, and Breeding Pool. I declare my attack and Kyle takes control of my guy. I play my Delta and pass the turn. If I get the Goyf and play it here, I lose to a Shackles or Sower or a Cryptic Command to bounce my blocker, etc. Even Engineered Explosives would kill me.


Kyle once again keeps his Shackles tapped, wanting to tap me out. He draws Top and takes a look at his top 3, the new card being Island. He attacks, but I obviously tap out to take control of his guy. He shuffles his library with Flooded Strand, getting an Island and takes another look. This time, he sees Vedalken Shackles, Vedalken Shackles, and a Top. He taps his top and draws a Shackles, which he plays.

Finally, he passes to me.


Turn 12, I draw Tarmogoyf and attack. Next I play Engineered Explosives for three and pass. Kyle Tops on my endstep, seeing Shackles, Top, Top, choosing to leave a Top on top.


Kyle draws Top and looks at his top 3 cards, seeing a Tarmogoyf. He taps his top to draw Goyf and plays it. He replays his other Top and passes the turn. I Top on endstep.


Turn 13, I Top on my upkeep and see Vedalken Shackles, Breeding Pool and my second Academy Ruins. I leave Ruins on top, with Shackles under it. I draw Ruins and say go. Kyle takes control of my Mage. I have to allow this.


Kyle keeps his Shackles tapped and draws Top. He looks at top 3 and has another Shackles, which he puts on top. He tries to attack and I take control of his Tarmogoyf. He takes it back. This forces me to blow my Explosives. He taps his Top to draw Shackles and replays his other Top.


Turn 14, I upkeep Ruins my Engineered Explosives. At this point, it is pretty clear, Kyle cannot win. The second Ruins can be so filthy.

Kyle was unable to play anything else relevant and quickly succumbed to Ruins-Lock, followed by a Counterbalance to actually lock him out.

The moral of the story?

In the age old battle of Top versus Counterbalance, Top usually wins.


Brian DeMars was right. If Kyle had discarded that Counterbalance, he would have dealt an extra two damage with his Goyf. It is unusual tactical maneuvers like this that Next Level Mages must employ when dealing with the difficult position of No-Top versus Top.

I hope this struggle was useful in demonstrating some of the key lines of play that occur in the Next Level Blue mirror match. Some players want to stab their eyes out when forced to watch this particular epic struggle. Personally, there are few match-ups that I enjoy more (as long as I have a Top).

Regardless of whether or not you plan on playing Next Level Blue, understanding how NLB plans to play in the mirror can help you understand some of its strategies going long.

Take care, everyone. See you next week.

Patrick Chapin
“The Innovator”