Building for the New Control Mirrors
Mardu Vehicles and BG in a dozen varieties packed the top 8 of the Pro Tour, but like anyone else with a soul and the ability to block warriors, I plan on sleeving up Torrential Gearhulk and filler until rotation.
As other players are converted to the joys of casting Fatcaster and friends, now that the metagame has been more defined and control lists know what they need to beat, control mirrors in Standard are becoming more common.
For the dedicated control mages of the world, this is great news – but for anyone new to That Blue Life or Magic in general, navigating control mirrors may be a whole new thing, so let’s take a look at what it takes to win a control mirror. Today I’ll mostly be focusing on the deckbuilding side of winning control mirrors, not how to play them.
Saheeli Combo: The planeswalker half of the combo is excellent. She is cheap to cast, which makes her easier to push through opposing counterspells than most threats, scrying every turn is great, and the incremental damage from her +1 can keep opposing planeswalkers in check. She also threatens to -2 on a Gearhulk, which can be absolutely backbreaking – even setting aside the extra five damage.
The downside of playing the combo is the far weaker Felidar half, which is unlikely to do anything by itself unless the combo is assembled. Most control decks are going to be flooded with removal in a mirror, especially game one, so the Cat Beast is usually just going to turn on otherwise dead cards.
Torrential Gearhulk: Mr. Fatcaster Mage is often key to winning the mirror, as much for his ability to rebuy Glimmer of Geniuses and pull you ahead on cards as for his ability to attack. Gearhulk is often the card at the front of both players’ minds, and managing to resolve one for value is going to be high on the list of priorities – especially in game one when neither player is likely to have many other win conditions.
Planeswalkers: Vehicles, and the general speed of the format, are keeping Ruinous Path from seeing much play, so even black-based control decks don’t have many ways to deal with resolved planeswalkers. This makes walkers potent threats, if you can manage to untap with one in play. Jace, Ob Nixilis, Sorin, Chandra, and even Nissa have all seen some amount of love in successful decklists, and any one of them can run away with the game if not answered in a hurry.
Dynavolt Tower: The Tower of Power is one of the best threats around. Like Saheeli, it’s cheap to cast, which means it can be resolved more easily than most threats. The damage can be redirected to planeswalkers, making it one of the few maindeckable answers to a resolved walker, and it can stop any attempt to combo off. The Tower can even team up with otherwise useless cards like Radiant Flames to take down a Gearhulk or Ishkanah. Given enough time, it will eventually become a real win condition, which makes the opponent act first – which is never where you want to be. Dynavolt Tower also has the big advantage of being good in multiples, where most other threats don’t stack profitably.
Metallurgic Summonings: As I’ve written before, Summonings and Tower are reasonably similar cards, philosophically. They both provide a big payoff for playing things control players already love, like Glimmer of Genius, are hard to remove, and provide late game inevitability. Compared to the Tower, Summonings is harder to stick and doesn’t threaten the combo as well, but it can end the game significantly faster.
Ishkanah, Grafwidow: Ishkanah has started seeing some play in control decks thanks to the emergence of Sultai control. While no copies cracked the Top8 at the Pro Tour, one copy went 8-2 in the constructed portion, tying the record of greats like PVDDR, Shuhei Nakamura, and Brad Nelson, and the deck has been popular on Magic Online since.
Ishkanah is frequently going to be better in the post-sideboard games compared to game one because cards like Fumigate or Radiant Flames are unlikely to stay in, forcing opponents to use multiple removal spells to clear her and her hatchlings away. The hatchlings are great for pressuring planeswalkers, and her activated ability is a real way to threaten to win the game without expending additional resources.
Creature lands: Like Ishkanah, the creature lands are going to be better after sideboard. In game one there are more cards like Shock or Grasp of Darkness running around, which can make investing significant amounts of mana at sorcery speed a losing proposition. Attacking with a Wandering Fumarole is much more likely to work out in game two or three.
Fumarole is the most commonly played of the bunch, which is nice because it’s usually the best – it’s the best blocker, produces the best colors, and is tied for attacking for the most damage. Lumbering Falls is the best if you’re expecting mirrors by the dozen because hexproof matters more than an extra point of power or toughness. The other three – Needle Spires, Hissing Quagmire, and Shambling Vent – die easily and don’t deal much damage, making them several tiers below their blue cousins. These aren’t often going to deal 20 by themselves, but their ability to sneak in one or two attacks or pressure walkers is real, and many games will end with a fight on the opponent’s end step tapping them out, opening the door to two creature lands firing up and coming across for real chunks of damage.
Small SB creatures: Dragonmaster Outcast, Thing in the Ice, Fathom Feeder*, Tireless Tracker and the like have all seen some play in successful sideboards, where the plan is to bring in additional, cheap threats for sideboarded games after the opponent has brought out their good answers. Cheap threats are easier to cast with mana up to counter interference and allow you to cast multiple spells in the same turn, which can be backbreaking. Their cheap cost also means you aren’t as set back if the opponent has an immediate, clean answer – if your Sorin eats a Ruinous Path you’re pretty sad; if your Dragonmaster Outcast soaks one up you’re reasonably happy.
*Ok, so Fathom Feeder hasn’t actually seen much play, but I love the idea of it way too much because I’m stuck in 1997.
Any of these are going to struggle to find a good target, and will generally want to be boarded out, especially against mirrors without the combo. If you can cash these in for nearly anything, take the opportunity.
Depending on your opponent’s sideboard plan and list, these are the most likely cards to fluctuate in quality. Some of the other, less conditional removal spells will always find a good target, but things like Shock and Fatal Push can be 10s or 1s depending on what else is happening.
I like boarding out as much of this kind of removal as I can for game two, and revisit it before game three if I see things like Dragonmaster Outcast.
All of these can take down a Gearhulk or an Ishkanah, or something smaller like Thing in the Ice. They’re a tier better than the small removal because killing a Gearhulk is real business. That said, you can’t have too much of this kind of thing, or too much of any one piece, because they all have downsides. Glare can’t deal with a Dragonmaster Outcast or let you push through attackers, Snare is risky when Disenchants exist, Harnessed Lightning may not be able to kill off a fatty if you haven’t drawn or resolved any Glimmers, and so on.
On the other hand, Glare can kill almost any attacker at instant speed, Blessed Alliance is one of the best answers to Lumbering Falls, Unlicensed Disintegration can kill off planeswalkers or speed up your clock in the right situations … each piece having its own time to shine means you’re generally happier drawing one copy of two different pieces than two copies of the same card.
The creme de la creme, these spells can do nearly any dirty deed you need done (perhaps even dirt cheap). They can handle resolved walkers and creatures big or small, attacking or not. The most versatile can even handle the most problematic win conditions, like Tower or Summonings.
Having access to these is crucial in a control mirror, because holding one of these spells in hand, or even knowing they’re in your deck, lets you play the game more aggressively.
Without anything to clear away a resolved big threat, you often have to leave mana up for counters to try to stop it from ever landing. If your hand is kold to a resolved Jace, you almost certainly shouldn’t tap out on your own turn. When you’re holding an answer, you know you can survive if you lower your counter shield, so it’s safer to deploy your own threats.
This isn’t to say that anytime you’re holding a threat and a solid answer the right play is to slam it – but having a real answer means that you can capitalize on chances to push through your threats more easily, when the time is right.
Once you’ve settled on your colors and a rough mix of threats and answers, the most important thing is to play some games and develop a feel for the mirrors. You’re far more likely to lose to a silly mistake than because you registered Sultai on a Jeskai weekend, or because one of your threats should have been replaced by an extra counterspell.
Until next time, thanks for reading.