“Mirror, mirror, on the wall, what’s the plan to win them all?”
Let me start by saying my enjoyment of Standard is great. Whether I’m playing at my LGS, grinding at a Grand Prix, or streaming #MTGArena on Twitch (join live!), I cannot get enough.
The format continues to be dynamic and people play a wide range of decks, but I believe consolidation into a more defined winners’ metagame is afoot. Natural selection is inevitable, but I’m impressed it has taken this long to creep in.
Here’s how I view the tier 1:
- White Weenie
- Jeskai Control
Don’t be fooled into thinking that White Weenie has been hated out—it hasn’t. It may not have dominated the Top 8, but all of the pros I know who played the deck cashed despite the metagame being as hateful as possible on the heels of a Weenie dominated PT.
Drakes, Mono-Red, Boros Angels, Tokens, and Stompy are all viable options but I do think the tier 1 decks have an advantage. It is also significant that all routes lead to the conclusion that Golgari and Jeskai are great choices: whether you crunched the data, looked at high profile finishes from last weekend, or wanted to play sweet cards, chances are that these decks are on your radar.
As the metagame consolidates and the best decks start to eat the weaker ones, mirror matches will be increasingly important in tournament play. Mirror matches are already tricky, but control mirrors typically take the cake when it comes to complexity.
Don’t be intimidated by the ominous draw-go matchup. Today I’ll walk you through what you need to know when it comes to channeling your inner Kiki-Jiki.
Know What Matters and What Doesn’t
Control mirrors can get complicated in a hurry, so let’s start with what is easy and work outward:
Deafening Clarion doesn’t do anything in the matchup. Not only is it bad, it’s a liability. Draw too many and lose. On the other hand:
These cards tend to be among the only things that actually matter. If they ever go unanswered, you have probably won. Brandon Ayer’s had a nice list at GP Milwaukee:
Brandon Ayers, 9-16 at Grand Prix Milwaukee
My favorite aspect of Standard is that the good decks are highly customizable. What does “stock Jeskai” even mean? The lists are so different from player to player. What answers do you want to play? How many threats? How many counterspells? It’s up to you.
One of the things you’ll need to consider when tuning your Jeskai deck is how many cards you want to be put in with the mirror in mind. I like that Brandon has the maximum four copies of Chemister’s Insight because it not only gives the deck something to do other than tap out, but also because it repurposes dead cards like Clarion into jump-start fuel.
Insight is one of the best mirror match tactics. There are two primary ways the mirror plays out in game 1: “Running out of gas,” and “Niv-Mizzet goes unanswered.” Typically, it is rare that the two are unrelated.
Niv-Mizzet puts an interesting spin on the control mirror since the powerful endgame card cannot be stopped via permission. While counterspells are absurdly important in the matchup, there is a cap to how good they can be since the most powerful card cannot be countered.
With that being said, counterspells heavily shape the way the match out plays out leading up to Niv-Mizzet.
Don’t Tap Out!
When you tap out, it gives your opponent a window to slip a powerful spell through. There is a time and place for taking the shields down and it’s important to understand the difference between when it is profitable to tap out, necessary to tap out, and when it is unnecessarily risky to tap out. It’s often hard to tell, and that is the key skill to hone when playing control.
In the mirror, tapping out puts a player at risk of being buried by Teferi, Hero of Dominaria. It’s also important that Teferi can be applied to a board where you have a threat (Drake, Teferi, or Niv) and simply -3—essentially functioning like a Flametongue Kavu—threatening to draw cards and make mana next turn.
One more quick tip: If you are playing the mirror and your opponent is stuck on land and discarding to hand size, consider not playing anything!
I see a lot of new control players running their Drakes and Teferis into Ionize (and even worse, Sabotage, which helps them draw out of mana screw) against an opponent with a full grip that has missed land drops. If you can keep making land drops without tapping out and turning their counterspells on, I suggest doing it.
The other control mantra: If you can get ahead by doing nothing… do nothing!
The Anatomy of a Mirror Game
I find it useful to break a game down into three parts and to focus on what is important during each phase. As the game progresses, our evaluation of what is important changes and so it’s vital to understand what is important and what to focus on at each point in the game.
- The Opening (turns 1-3): Hitting land drops and sneaking onto the board
- The Mid (turns 4-5): The Teferi dance
- The Late (6+): Niv’s world
If you focus on the wrong things or simply cannot fight over the things that matter, chances are that you’ll be vulnerable and possibly dead.
The Opening (Turns 1-3): Hitting Land Drops and Sneaking Onto the Board
Jeskai is a control deck and so there won’t be a ton of action taking place in the first three turns. Everybody has at least one copy of Search for Azcanta. Adrian Sullivan leveled the entire world by adding six early game threats to his deck. I predict his innovation will translate to a meta shift in the coming weeks:
Adrian Sullivan, 1st place at Grand Prix Milwaukee
Adrian’s list has a lot of cards that can be played in the first three turns:
His list has nice ways to get onto the board before Ionize and posturing over Teferi will inevitably dominate the game play.
If we look back to Brandon Ayer’s deck list, we see that he has three copies of Legion Warboss in the sideboard as a threat that can be played in the midgame.
Warboss adds a threat that can be played in the early game and is capable of winning the game outright (especially since Deafening Clarion tends to get boarded out). It’s also relevant that Teferi cannot -3 on the Warboss and still survive an attack back from the token.
The most important aspect of the early game is making your land drops. I also like to make sure that some of my early cards can interact with the cheap threats (Search for Azcanta, Treasure Map, or Legion Warboss), if possible.
The Mid-Game (Turns 4-5): The Teferi Dance
“You put 5 mana in,
You get pure value out,
You do the Teferi-pokey and the game is a rout.”
The midgame is by far the most difficult phase of the game to navigate and is the spot where players are most likely to make a mistake that costs them the game.
Assuming that both players are making land drops, it becomes a matter of making actual plays that have risk and reward. Should you tap out? Probably not if you can help it!
Being on the play is a big advantage since it means that you can tap out for a Drake on turn 4 with impunity from your opponent casting Teferi.
Insight is a great mirror breaker. It allows you to have all of your mana available during the opponent’s turn, and resolving the spell propels you into the late game by ensuring a mix of lands, spells, and Niv-Mizzet. Syncopate is the best way to interact with Insight since it exiles. Another reason to find room for Syncopate in the main deck.
I’ve found bluffing a counterspell or two is often a much stronger play than tapping out for a Teferi or Crackling Drake that is very likely to be countered or Teferi’d away.
The Late Game (Turn 6+): Niv’s World
Once somebody hits six lands, Niv-Mizzet can show up, and boy does he show up! Niv-Mizzet cannot be countered, only answered:
Niv isn’t easy to kill in the mirror. Teferi is the cleanest answer. It’s a pretty common play to jam Niv-Mizzet on turn 7 with Opt mana up to finish off an opposing Teferi -3 activation.
It’s also worth noting that Teferi puts Niv back third from the top, which means that you’ll need to answer it again soon. Most games go to the late game and are decided by whomever can establish an uncontested Niv-Mizzet. It really only takes one untap with Niv-Mizzet in most cases for the game to become unrecoverable.
In the pre-sideboarded games players are often rewarded greatly for keeping Niv-Mizzet clear of combat.
The metagame has been moving away from these cards, but it’s often correct to simply not allow these cards to beat you by declining the “free attack.” Being the person with the last Niv-Mizzet or Teferi (to find Niv-Mizzet first) is the endgame.
Sideboarding for the Mirror Match
As I pointed out earlier, one of the things that makes the current Standard so great is there is a ton of customization among the tier 1 lists. Aside from the lands, Brandon Ayer and Adrian Sullivan’s Jeskai Control lists only share the following cards: four Opt, three Teferi, two Niv, two Syncopate, and two Expansion // Explosion. They have more different spell choices than alike ones despite the fact that they are playing the same archetype.
Since the lists are so different across the board it’s difficult to say how to sideboard. It depends on which list you are playing and what list they are playing! You need to use fundamentals to produce a sideboard, a plan that is productive, and secure objectives in the early, mid, and late stages of the game when you slam your Niv and win.
The most important thing to keep in mind as you tune a sideboard is to have enough cards to replace the weakest main deck cards:
You are playing a control mirror, so first and foremost make sure that you have sufficient cards to replace the anti-beatdown package. I’ve found that the most impactful sideboard cards tend to impact the early game (the phase of the game where Jeskai is typically most vulnerable and least able to act).
The main deck “early game” is primarily focused on stabilizing against aggro decks, which is not an issue in the mirror. Instead, you want to either interact with or play your own controlling threats, like Search for Azcanta, Treasure Map, and/or Legion Warboss.
The cheap counters continue to have value later in the game as well, since they help win a big counter war over a Teferi or other key spell.
It’s not an early game card, but it does help win those counter wars later in the game. It’s the most popular mid/late card that I see frequently used. I think this card is pretty universally going to be in the mix post sideboard for both sides.
Insight is another card that falls into the mid camp that I’d campaign for in Jeskai decks. If you are not playing 4x in the main deck I’d consider having the extra copies in the sideboard to bring in. It’s a great way of progressing your Niv-Mizzet plan without having to ever tap out.
Go Forth and Conquer
I’ve covered a lot of information, which is fair since the control mirrors are complicated. My goal is to present the information in a manner that is fairly intuitive and easy to process.
I know a lot of players shy away from playing control decks because they are intimidated by playing the mirror. It’s nothing to be afraid of once you know the basics and know what is important.
I find that breaking the game down into parts and figuring out what is important at each point in the game makes it less daunting. Niv-Mizzet is so powerful and can bring you back from situations that look hopeless if your opponent can’t answer it, which is kind of a neat aspect of Jeskai mirrors. It’s about running the opponent out of resources, but Niv can generate and delete so many resources so quickly that it’s actually a fairly straightforward objective.