PV’s Playhouse – How To Win The Mirror Match

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Friday, October 2nd – The mirror match is vital in all forms of Constructed Magic. Today’s PV’s Playhouse sees Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa share his secrets on how to get the upper hand in Aggro, Combo, and Control Mirrors. This article is invaluable to anyone looking to reach the next level of playskill…

Today, I’m going to talk about the awesome time I had at the prerelease, what I learned about Limited, and what Priceless Treasures were opened by the local guys.

Heh, who am I kidding… I live in Brazil, and we haven’t had a prerelease for some years now, with no indication if we will ever have a prerelease again. Depressing, isn’t it? So, today I’m going to try another general strategy article.

It is very common for me (and other writers too) to write things such as “you have to know when you are the aggressor,” “you must identify your game plan,” etc. Most of the time, you can at least start doing this by knowing the matchup you are playing. One deck is naturally going to be more controlling, the other more aggressive. Of course, this might change in-game, depending on the nature of the decks, but most of the time it’s easy to see if it’s worth making plays that result in you taking two damage so that they take two damage, or killing a creature for a creature, as soon as you know what your opponent is playing. However, what do you do when you are playing the mirror match? How do you know which approach you have to take when you are playing exactly the same set of cards?

For those who do not know, the “mirror match” is basically the when you’re up against the same deck you are playing. It doesn’t have to be the exact same 75, but just a deck with the same general idea and many of the same cards. Generally, the more you lean towards Control in the spectrum, the more different the mirror becomes; in a deck such as Mono-Red, there are very few differences between one build and the other, since everyone wants to play the most efficient drops at each point in the curve and then the most efficient burn spells. Other highly synergistic decks, such as Faeries, also change very little because there is simply no room for anything else. Once you start going to more controlling builds, though, like Five-Color Control, you start having differences because your options are greater — and not only because you play all the five colors. You can build those decks to beat Control or to beat Aggro, and you only have to look at the Top 8 from U.S. Nationals to see the differences. Of course, they are still the same deck… though they might play differently in the mirror, which makes it easier to identify the spot you want to be in.

Like I did when I talked about Sideboarding, I will split this article into Aggro Mirrors, Control Mirrors, and Combo Mirrors.

Aggro Mirrors

In Aggro Mirrors, I believe the most important aspect is knowing which role you want to assume — aggro or control. Generally, there are two things that will give you information on how to play a mirror match before you have to do anything: the die roll and your opening hand. All other things equal, the player who starts the game will naturally be driven towards the aggressor seat, and the player who is drawing will be the control. This is something you can manipulate a little bit — after all, no one is forced to play first when they win the die roll. Telling your opponent to play first in Constructed is dangerous business, so if you are not sure of what you are doing, just play first.

It’s actually very rare that a deck wants to draw first in the mirror. I will bet that most of you reading this article have never said “I will draw” in a Constructed match. However, it’s not unheard of, and the aggro mirrors account for basically 100% of those cases. To take this decision, you need to know what the match is about: if it’s a race, or an attrition war. If the mirror is Mono-Red, when the decks have a lot of removal and it’s likely that it will come down to the last man standing, then drawing first is the correct choice; generally, the control is the spot you want to be, and it’s easier to assume this role if you are drawing. If the mirror is Mono-Green Aggro, then there is very little to be gained by drawing, since playing first gives you the opportunity to attack first, and with open mana to cast any tricks you might have. This is what the match is about — in those matches, you want to be the aggressor.

Last Extended season you had the Zoo mirror, which might seem like it fits the “last man standing” description, but with Zoo it was not very interesting to draw first because of Wild Nacatl — if you start, your Nacatl cannot be blocked by theirs. Umezawa’s Jitte is another card that gets much better if you are playing first. Even if they have their own, you get to use yours at least once, and such things made playing first more valuable.

What is true for Jitte is also true for Planeswalkers. I remember we were discussing mirror strategies for BG Elves for Worlds in New York (2007), and we basically concluded that whatever player got to play Garruk Wildspeaker and make a token first was at a huge advantage, because the other player would have to play his own Garruk and you would be left with a token, attacking. That meant playing first was very important, and also of course maximizing on the number of Garruks and ways to play it on turn 3. Therefore, there was not even a small consideration of letting them play first, even though the match was an attrition war of sorts.

The other thing you can use to decide your role is your opening hand. If your hand is two Path to Exile, two Lightning Helix, and three lands, you are obviously going to be the control player in this match, whether you play first or not. I remember one of my matches in 2006 Worlds, in Paris, where I played Boros and was paired against Osyp, playing Zoo. We were not playing an exact mirror — after all, he had one more color than I had, and his guys were slightly bigger — but it was an Aggro Mirror. The defining card in the matchup was my Soltari Priest. Since he had no way to remove or block them, they let me go aggressive on him. A hand with two Soltari Priests would probably be able to race any of his draws, since we would just trade all our other cards and he would be taking damage in the meantime. However, I also had two Worships in my deck post board, which meant I could take the control role depending on my opening hand, and stall the game until I could win on them.

In our third game, I had such a hand. I didn’t have both pieces, but I had a hand with a lot of defensive value. It didn’t have many early drops, but it had a lot of removal and Honorable Passages, which gave me time to draw the cards for the “combo.” I burned attackers and I traded whenever I could, until eventually I did draw the Worship and won because of it.

You can also use your opponent’s plays as information on whether you should take the aggressive or the controlling role. Just like you have an opening hand that dictates your position, so does he, and depending on his plays you can try to deduce it. In Grand Prix: Montreal, for example, I played a 75-card GW Mirror against Willy Edel, the format being Time Spiral Block Constructed. My hand was average, with no particular elements that dictated how I should play, but then his first turn play was Horizon Canopy. Now, I knew from the decklist that, if he had any other land in his hand that was not a Canopy, he would have played it instead. There was no double-costed card to play on turn 2, so no reason to play the Canopy first, since that guarantees one damage turn 2 regardless of his draws. It followed logically that all the lands in his hand were Horizon Canopies — one, two, three, or four, and likely two, but no other lands. That told me he would be taking damage for some time, even if he drew more lands soon, and so it would be interesting for me to take the more aggressive approach, to capitalize on his mana problems. I played in the most aggressive way possible, not caring much for how I was going to be in the end game because I hoped we would not reach the end game. At some point his life total was so low that he could not play enough spells to keep up because of his Canopies, so I won.

Control Mirrors

Control Mirrors are different to Aggro Mirrors, because most of the time neither player really takes an aggressive approach, unless one of them is playing a deck like Mana Ramp or GW Control, and that player will probably lose this match regardless of what happens. The difference is that aggressive cards also work as defensive cards most of the time. Kird Ape can block, and Lightning Bolt can kill an attacker just as well as a blocker. But defensive cards do not work in any other role. Wrath of God, Doom Blade, and Volcanic Fallout cannot attack, which is why it’s much easier for aggro to assume the control role than vice-versa. In Control Mirrors, the most important thing is usually to know when to make a move.

Generally speaking, your goal is not to make a move unless you have to — keep playing lands and leave it at that — but this is, again, not always true. A lot of people seem to think that if you make the first move you are going to lose in the control mirror, but that is just not true. Sometimes you can, and should, act.

The contents of your deck mostly define if you have to make the first move or not. If you have a lot of instant cards they have to counter, you are good at acting first. Just keep playing things at the end of the turn until they are forced to tap out, and then resolve something bomb-tastic. If all your threats are sorceries, then it’s harder, because you are tapping out and leaving yourself at their mercy, so you generally want to wait until you have a lot of lands and cheap counters, like Negate.

The lands are very important in a control mirror, and so is card drawing, mainly because it draws more lands. All things equal, the person with the most lands, counterspells, and card drawing spells will be driven to the waiting seat, trying to get the game going as long as possible. It really does not matter much who is playing first, and the impact of your opening hand is greatly diminished by the fact that the games go much longer. Your opening seven are just a small fraction of what you are going to have during the game, as opposed to something like half of everything in the aggro mirrors. If you are playing a 75-card mirror, you should watch out for the lands.

Take the old Five-Color Control mirror, for example. If your hand on turn 4 consists of Ajani Vengeant, some cards, and some lands, you likely have no incentive to just run that Ajani Vengeant there. If you have Ajani and a lot more spells but no more land, you should probably run him in there, for two reasons — first, if you don’t have lands, so you should have more spells than your opponent, and running them in there until he runs out of answers is a good strategy, as his extra lands won’t help much if he has nothing to play with them. Second, what else are you going to do? You cannot hope to draw a land every turn for the next three or four turns, and eventually you will be out-landed such that your opponent will be playing two spells a turn, and then all will be lost. Basically, you have to interact with him while you are in equal terms — lands in his hand do not add mana, so it doesn’t matter how many he has on turn 4. He will only have four in play, just like you. If you let it go to turn 8 before you act, then he will have seven to your five, and your chance to play on equal terms is gone.

There are, of course, clues to know when your opponent is also land-light. Missing a land drop is obviously the most blatant of them, but sometimes you can infer that they don’t have many by what they play, or the way they play, like I mentioned in my last article… if they don’t play a Vivid land turn 1, it’s likely that they don’t have many lands in hand, since if they had Vivids they would have played them. Some players also just cannot help letting you know when they want to draw lands. For example, if a player draws a card and plays the a card instantly without giving it any thought, there is a higher than average chance that he just drew the land to play it, and had none before.

Another good approach for Control Mirrors is trying to stick a thread in there, and then riding that to victory. When you have something in play, even if it’s a Coral Merfolk, the pressure is all on them. You don’t really have to play anything else, you just have to react. This is more common in older formats, because the Standard control decks usually pack a lot of cheap removal, so it’s not likely that the threat will stick and they will just kill it for one or two mana at the end of your turn 6. Take the old Mono Blue Faeries deck in Extended, though — in that mirror match, sticking a threat was a good approach, because there weren’t many answers. Playing a turn 2 Chrome Mox plus Vendilion Clique was very good, because it put you in the “I do not have to do anything else” seat for the rest of the game, and you could just be reactive from then on.

Games change a lot after sideboard, because people will take out most of the cheap removal, and in that case it becomes easier to have the “ride a threat to victory” strategy. You will almost never see someone dying to Kitchen Finks in the control mirror game 1, but it’s very possible game 2. You also get harder-to-answer threats, like non-creature permanents, and most people get cheaper answers for instants and sorceries — Duress, Negates, etc — so it’s easier to maneuver even when they have more lands than you, and you don’t have to rush the play if that is the case. Luminarch Ascension will be a card to watch in those control mirrors, as it will put the pressure entirely on them to do something.

Combo Mirrors

Combo Mirrors are generally all about speed, and usually very random. It depends a lot on which combo deck you’re playing. Some combo decks are all-in on the combo, and have little disruption, and with the mirror of those, you just have to mulligan into good hands and hope to win the die roll. Take, for example, the Elves mirror last year — you basically had to mulligan into a good hand and be lucky, unless your build had a lot of mirror-oriented cards, like Saito’s list.

Some combo mirrors offer you the chance to be interactive — usually the ones with Black or Blue — but even then the play is very simple, since the disruption works both ways, i.e., you can use your discards/counterspells to stop their combo or to force through yours. Most of the time, you should go for it as soon as you can. Waiting works just as well for you as for your opponent. It works slightly different when the deck combos at instant speed, since it might be that your opponent is just waiting for you to combo to kill you in response — after all, if he doesn’t have the combo or any disruption, why did he keep his hand? But overall, I would recommend going for it when in doubt. For example, in Columbus, where I played Flash along with everyone else, a lot of the time if you would just go for Flash, the opponent would have to Force of Will it, pitching his own Flash, whereas if you waited one or two turns then he would draw some other Blue card to force his Flash through.

Another thing to consider is the transformational sideboard. Obviously it depends on the deck and the plan, but overall I would recommend against it in the mirror. The reason is that you will end up making your deck exactly the kind of deck the opponent built his to beat — some random creatures. Combo decks usually have a good match versus creature decks, and if you remove your own combo for creatures, you’ll be doing exactly what your opponent wants you to do — you will never even be as good as a dedicated creature deck, anyway.

Also in Columbus, a lot of people had creatures in their Flash sideboards — Quirion Dryads and Phyrexian Negators, usually. Though this is fine in some matches where the opponents went overboard with Leylines and Extirpates, those people were bringing those creatures for the mirror as well, and to me it seemed just wrong, unless you knew the opponent had a lot of graveyard-dedicated hate, which didn’t seem to be the case with most of my Flash opponents. I lost my match against Gadiel, who had this plan, but it was 2-1, and if Quirion Dryad and Negator had been Flash and Hulk, I would have lost all three games. All his creature plan did was give me four turns to draw my own combo in game 2, instead of flat out killing me. Another opponent of mine had Meddling Mage on Flash, and after taking about 14 damage from it I just hardcasted Protean Hulk and killed him with it. I know it sounds appealing to have a different plan — after all, who wants to leave it all to luck, it’s better if you can do something different that gives you an edge — but, most of the time, your difference is just worse, so it’s better to flip a coin you have a 50% chance of winning than to flip a coin you’ll only win 40% of the time.

That’s it. There isn’t much more to say about Combo Mirrors. I really hate mirror matches in general; after all, if I’m playing a certain deck, it’s because I believe it’s stronger than the competition, so, on average, I’m going to play against something that I believe I beat more than 50% or I wouldn’t be playing that particular deck… and the mirror is always 50% (of course it changes with the skill from each player, but the skill should be the same regardless of what they are playing, so if it makes the mirror 60-40 for you it should make matches where you were already advantageous even better) – but unless you are playing a really different deck, there isn’t much escape from them. When I do meet the mirrors, this is how I play with each kind of deck. To recap, in general:

– In Aggro Mirrors, you need to look at your opening hand and who is on the play to decide if you want to take the control or aggressor role.
– In Control Mirrors, you need to look at the builds of each deck, and at the number of lands you and your opponent have access to, to decide if you want to make a move or to just wait for your opponent to do it.
– In Combo Mirrors, you want to combo as fast as possible, mulliganing aggressively, and keep the combo game 2.

Then again, remember this is just a general strategy, and will not work for all the cases, much like everything else.

See you next week!