One of my favorite pastimes is watching great players play control, especially mirror matches. For me, watching the true masters do battle invokes the image of two samurai in a duel to the death. Their ability to stay calm, focused, and patient is almost surreal when you consider that even the tiniest misstep can mean disaster.
“The difference between living and dying was going to be measured by fractions of a second in timing or distancing… The defining strategy of the Itto Ryu, of course, was to wait for an opponent to make a move and then counter—or force him, through “posture” or attitude, to make the first move… Often, all the Itto Ryu swordsman needed or wanted was a slight shift in balance on the part of his opponent, a mere flickering of his sword’s tip.”¹
The same pattern fits for both the swordsmen and the control players. As far as I can tell, in Magic, this pattern has held true through many formats and many configurations of control decks. Whenever two heavy-permission decks face off against one another, the game tends to play out in two stages: I’ll call them the Passive Stage and the Active Stage.
Each player hopes for the opponent to make the first move, as alluded to above. The player to make the first move will start the first counter battle with mana tapped (for whatever spell she is trying to resolve). Therefore, she’s at a disadvantage in the first counter battle, and whoever wins the first counter battle can likely leverage an advantage.
So what happens when neither player wants to make the first move?
You guessed it… Nothing! The passive stage is about being patient, sculpting a hand, and, most importantly, making land drops.
Eventually, someone will do something. This can be triggered by a number of conditions. Some of them include: missing land drops, discarding to hand size, someone seeing a good opportunity, or just simple impatience. If the passive stage was to go on indefinitely, the player with fewer cards in their library would be forced to act first. Or, someone might eventually force the action out of fear of an unintentional draw due to time running out.
In any case, the passive stage is spent preparing for the active stage. You make as many land drops as you can, you build up as strong a hand as you can, and you hope that either your opponent acts first, or that you identify a good opening to make a move.
The active stage begins when one player casts a spell that the other player decides is worth reacting to. In Standard, it could be an end-of-turn Dig Through Time, a mainphase Thoughtseize, or just about anything else. Either some sort of counter battle will ensue, or else the opponent will begin casting their own spells to keep pace. In other words, mana begins to be tapped and swords begin to be swung.
After action occurs, one player gets to take their turn. They untap and find themselves with more mana than their opponent and possibly an uneven game state. They have an opening—either an advantage to press, or they have some catching up to do. They cast a spell.
Then the opponent untaps and faces the same situation.
I call this the active stage because both players cast a flurry of power spells that they’d been saving up in the passive stage. Permission spells still matter, but if you fall behind in the active stage, they might not be enough to save you. Instead, you want your hand to feature a lot of raw power. You want the ability to answer your opponent’s threats, and you want threats that your opponent cannot easily answer.
Deckbuilding, sideboarding, and game play in a control mirror is complicated by the fact that cards which are good in the action stage are often quite bad in the passive stage, and vice versa. If one player has 28 lands to her opponent’s 26, she’ll have an advantage in the passive stage. However, if the two players wind up reaching the active stage on equal footing, now her lower threat density will become a liability.
Similarly, Ugin, the Spirit Dragon is the last card you want cluttering your hand during the passive stage. But it can be a very important trump card in the active stage.
One of my favorite cards for control mirrors in current standard is Anticipate. Card drawing and library manipulation are invaluable because they help you in both stages. You can Anticipate to make your land drops early in the game, and you can Anticipate into your powerful haymakers late in the game.
This raises another important point, which is that the passive stage can be as short or as long as both players choose to make it. Therefore, there’s value in saving your library manipulation for as long as possible, so that you know exactly what you need. If nothing has happened before turn seven, then you still want to hit your 7th land drop. However, if your opponent has successfully resolved Dragonlord Ojutai, you’d prefer to start drawing relevant spells instead of lands.
If my opening hand in a control mirror is something like four lands, Dissolve, Dissolve, Anticipate, I’ll strongly consider not casting Anticipate on turn two. The reason is that, because I don’t know how long the passive stage will last, I have no idea how badly I want lands. Instead, I’ll Anticipate only when I’m close to missing land drops, or when I smell trouble brewing in the next couple of turns and want to be prepared.
I often play my basic lands before my scry lands in control mirrors. This is because when you play out your last land, if you’re still in the passive stage, you want to increase your chances of drawing another land for next turn. If it’s turn three, you really have no idea what you want. (Again, I advise thinking ahead and trying not to stick yourself with too many tapped lands in your hand when the active stage starts).
I hope this has given you some food for thought. If you’re an Esper Dragons player in current Standard, maybe you can make use of these tips and tricks. If not, then simply take the lessons of patience and preparedness to heart. I’m sure they’ll be useful down the road.