Strategy & Sideboard Guide: The Mirror

It’s the epitome of attrition. A civil war that goes deep into the round, where graveyards can end up larger than libraries, hands are typically empty, and the battlefield is a complicated stalemate.

This match reminds me of cartoons from when I was growing up. Anytime someone got into a fight, a large ball of dust would appear. You couldn’t see anyone actually hurting the other person, but you could see fists and feet appear from the cloud, accompanied by the sounds of slapping and punching. Then, when the dust would suddenly settle, one character would come out on top.

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The match can often play out like that. The beginning turns can be a slug fest of attrition, trading resources back and forth. By the end of it though, when every resource has been exhausted, the person with any resemblance of a threat left over is the one who usually pulls ahead in the match. This is why this match is one of my absolute favorites to play. No one is dying on turn two and no one is hating the other player out of the game. Each player will get to play plenty of Magic and will have numerous choices and paths to take, making for really fun and rewarding game-play.

The G/B decks of Modern are the most popular mid-range options and take on many different variations and flavors. The decks are built to be able to answer any threat. They can pivot into a control deck against aggro and an aggro deck against control. The powerful combination of discard, removal, and efficient threats gives it resilience in any meta. Their flexibility makes them difficult to target and allows them to be adaptable to meta shifts.  If you’re interested in the history of these decks, you can read this article to learn more.

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“Huntmaster of the Fells” by Chris Rahn

The most powerful spells in this match are the spells that gain you card advantage and the spells that two-for-one. Cards like Dark Confidant, Tireless Tracker, Bloodbraid Elf, and Lingering Souls are extremely potent here. These cards make it difficult to trade one-for-one because they either replace the cards being traded for, or split themselves into two separate portions that each require their own answer. Lightning Bolt is laughably bad  against Lingering Souls when it’s used to kill one spirit token. This exchange has Bolt trading itself for 1/4th of another card. That kind of rate is down right embarrassing for a deck that wants to trade one-for-one.

The worst cards here are simply the cards that don’t do enough late into the game. This typically comes down to discard. It isn’t long before both players are out of resources in hand, and when that time comes, discard can be a worse draw than land. Cards that effect the battlefield are very important and discard spells just don’t fit the bill. Sometimes if you have more cards to bring in than take out, you’ll even see players shave a land to ensure their deck has the maximum amount of relevant late game draws in it.

Out of the sideboard, this is the match where you throw everything but the kitchen sink into your deck. Sweepers, additional threats, more removal, and anything else that’s relevant. You’ll see players bring in cards like Huntmaster of the Fells, Kitchen Finks, Obstinate Baloth, Damnation, Liliana, the Last Hope, and sometimes even Fulminator Mage. Each of these decks run four to seven discard spells, most of which players are more than happy to trade out for something else more exciting.

Let’s look at some examples, starting with Jund sideboarding against Abzan.

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Out:

 discard mirror

In:

 sb jund mirror

As noted before, discard can be very weak in a match that will eventually come down to top-decking. We’re replacing them with more threats and more removal. Liliana, the Last Hope and the sweepers are particularity important against Abzan because Lingering Souls can be such a difficult card to deal with. While Lingering Souls is single-handedly the best card against Jund in the match, I don’t think that it quite deserves dedicated graveyard hate like Grafdigger’s Cage. Those cards may just be a tad too narrow. Nihil Spellbomb is the only piece of graveyard-hate I would consider since at it’s worst, it cycles into a new card. Spellbomb can be especially good if they are playing more graveyard reliant cards like Grim Flayer or Traverse the Ulvenwald.

Against Jund, I would keep the sideboarding strategy mostly the same, though I could see an argument for keeping in the Thoughtseizes to try and snag Bloodbraid Elves. Bloodbraid Elf is good enough, especially in the mirror, that it could merit keeping Thoughtseize in you felt it was necessary. Anger of the Gods is one of those cards you could leave in the sideboard for Thoughtseize since there is a chance that it won’t actually wipe the board the way it would against Abzan.

Now let’s look at how Abzan adapts to the G/B mirror.

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Out:

 abzan dis mirror

In:

 abzan sb mirror

The Baloths are excellent in Liliana of the Veil mirrors and Thrun is next to impossible to get rid of. Alongside the stronger threats are the sweepers in case we fall too far behind.

In either Jund or Abzan, there could also be consideration for Fulminator Mages. On the play, the card can aggressively attack the opponent’s mana by putting them behind a turn. Going into your fourth turn while your opponent is replaying their second turn is a huge tempo advantage. The card can also take out creature lands which can be difficult to remove when you have conditional/sorcery removal like Liliana of the Veil, Abrupt Decay, and Maelstrom Pulse. At its absolute worse, it’s a “Grey Ogre” that can attack and block as a 2/2. The ceiling is very high for the card, but the floor is also very low. Personally, I like them on the play where there is a chance I can gain that early tempo advantage by attacking their mana, but I like them less on the draw when they feel more slow. I don’t like them at all if my opponent is playing Wrenn and Six when they’ll just be able to buy it back.

Maelstrom Pulse is a bit of a weird card in this match. It’s great removal but there’s a chance it can put you in an awkward position where it also removes your own stuff. It doesn’t come up a lot since Pulse is usually a one-of but it’s important to keep in mind that it doesn’t read “under opponents control.” I can understand taking them out for this reason, but really only if you having something better to replace it with. At the end of the day, it’s still a really good removal spell, regardless of the possible awkwardness. If Lingering Souls is involved in the mirror, then I would certainly keep them in.

So long as you are replacing most of your discard with upgraded threats and removal, your odds of winning should increase. Whether you believe the Fulminators should replace the discard package, or that the Damnation effects should, most will agree that either are better than Inquisition of Kozilek.

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“Tarmogoyf” by Ryan Barger

The best advice I could give for this match is to have patience. There will be multiple possible lines to take every turn and it’s important to consider the outcomes of each one. Very rarely will anyone get ran over in this match. The match will go on for a while so there’s no need to feel rushed into any plays that would otherwise make you vulnerable.

There’s a good chance the first couple of threats you play will be removed prettily easily. For this reason, I like sandbagging my better threats for when my opponent has already expended a good amount of resources. I would much rather my opponent kill my Tarmogoyf on turn two than my Dark Confidant. If I save my Dark Confidant for last, there’s a much higher chance I will get to draw two to three extra cards before my opponent finds a way to kill it than if I had just ran it out there on turn two. Those two to three extra cards could mean the difference between falling behind and pulling ahead.

This patience can help you sequence your removal as well. If your hand is removal light, be very selective about what you kill. How absolutely necessary is it to kill the threat presenting itself at that moment? It’s important to ask because there’s a good chance your opponent is also sandbagging their best threat for last. Use your life total as a resource and don’t be afraid to take a hit or two if you feel you need to.

A good example to illustrate this was a match I played against Abzan while playing Jund. I was beating them down with a Bloodbraid Elf while they got in with two spirit tokens. They had one to two cards in hand and I had a Lightning Bolt and Fatal Push in hand.  I also had an Engineered Explosives on zero and refused to crack it.

For three turns I took two damage without cracking my Explosives, taking a total of six damage down to seven. My opponent took nine damage down to six over the course of these three turns from my Bloodbraid Elf. Why didn’t I crack the EE (Engineered Explosives) and save myself the six damage? The answer is simply because I could. The worst thing that could possibly happen would be for me to trade EE for two spirit tokens only to have my opponent follow up with another Lingering Souls. My opponent had held onto one to two cards over the course of these turns so I drew a likely conclusion that they may have another Lingering Souls in hand and didn’t want to commit it into the EE. I was winning the race and using my life total as a resource to negate my opponent’s possible spells in hand.

The game continued a couple more turns until drew another Bloodbraid and cascaded into another Bolt and used the one in hand to finish them off. I never cracked the EE but my opponent also never got to play their best card against me. In the end, I was rewarded for my patience, and careful pacing helped tip the match in my favor.

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“Scavenging Ooze” by Austin Hsu

The fair matches of Modern can be incredibly rewarding to play. Often times the games can come down to exhilarating Dark Confidant flips, Bloodbraid Elf cascades, Siege Rhino top-decks, and fantastically orchestrated sequences. These are the matches in which I enjoy Magic the most, where I find it to be the most interesting, and what I wish the game was like every time I played it. The mid-range mirrors reward game-play over deck choice, so don’t expect any free wins; instead expect a hard fought battle of wit and attrition.

Wielding Discard Effectively

It’s about as iconic as “Bolt the Bird.”

Turn 1, Thoughtseize

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It’s the perfect turn 1 play for G/B decks. Control decks have their Serum Visions, Chord decks have their Birds of Paradise, and G/B decks have Thoughtseize. At the cheap cost of one mana and two life, you get to look at your opponent’s hand and take any non-land spell. The ability to trade one-for-one is exactly the kind of interaction many decks are looking for. What’s even better about discard spells compared to most one-for-ones is that it trades as early as turn 1 and can take spells that would otherwise be difficult for you to deal with, breaking the color pie philosophy. For example: while B/R decks struggle severely against enchantment card types, discard spells provide the perfect solution.

Thoughtseize and Inquisition of Kozilek are the most popular discard spells because they hit the largest portion of the cards played in Modern. When sequencing these two spells, it’s important to start with IoK (Inquisition of Kozilek) since it has more narrow applications. Leading with Thoughtseize could put you in the awkward position of taking the only spell IoK could have taken. A perfect example of this would be if you Thoughtseize against Tron and see Expedition Map, two Tron Lands, two Forests, Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger, and a Karn Liberated. You want to take the Map to keep them off Tron but that now means IoK is dead in hand. By leading on IoK, you’ll increase the spell’s impact in the game.

Alongside the one-for-one trade, you also have the ability to poke holes in your opponent’s hand. If you take their only threat, you may have bought enough time to win the game yourself. Against Elves for example, you can take them off their one payoff, like an Archdruid or Ezuri, and leave them with a bunch of 1/1 Elves that aren’t winning the game on their own. If you take your opponent’s one removal spell, you’re eliminating the only way they can deal with your creatures. If your opponent has two Tarmogoyfs and a Terminate in hand, take the Terminate. The key to poking holes in your opponents hand is ignoring  redundancy when possible and taking the card that sticks out the most.

Poking a hole in their hand could also mean taking them off curve. Perhaps a Birds of Paradise, while light on lands, was meant to curve into a number of different three drops like Knight of the Reliquary. By taking the Birds of Paradise and leaving them with no play on either turn one or turn two, you’ve gained a significant amount of tempo advantage.

While taking a card from your opponent is great, the power behind discard spells are actually two-fold: on one hand you get to take a card from your opponent and on the other hand you get the information of everything else you didn’t take. The information is actually where most of the power lies in these spells. Yes, you get to take the best card in your opponent’s hand, but “best card” is completely subjective depending on what’s in yours.

Like a chess master you can begin to line up the next three to four turns and predict exactly how they are going to unfold. You can sequence your threats against your opponent’s interaction and line up interactive pieces against your opponent’s threats. The information can be lethal. With discard spells it’s very important to think turns ahead of where you are now. Having this kind of foresight can help you navigate the game in a way that benefits you the most.

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Remember that there’s no need to take what looks the scariest at face value or what your opponent thinks is the best card. If it’s something you already have an answer to, you can easily ignore it and utilize your discard elsewhere. In an earlier example I used Birds of Paradise and Knight of the Reliquary as a way to illustrate poking holes in your opponent’s curve. In general, your opponent may value Knight of the Reliquary much higher than Birds of Paradise. If you can afford to take advantage of the tempo gained by leaving your opponent without a turn one or two play, then there’s no reason to take the Knight. There’s a chance you’ll be able to get down multiple threats before the Knight can even be cast. If you had taken the Knight, simply because it’s the “scariest” card, then you will have allowed your opponent to be mana efficient in their early turns. Sequences like this can win you many games, all based on the information given to you through discard.

To demonstrate the power of turn one discard, here’s a scenario from a game I played against a Ponza (land destruction) deck.

onza

My options here are between two pieces of ramp and two pieces of land destruction. I can’t take the Chandra because her CMC is greater than three. My opponent has a pretty redundant hand that lines up nicely against discard.

Before I make my decision I need to consult my hand. I have two interactive spells and a pretty good clock in Tarmogoyf. Because G/B decks don’t interact with instants and sorceries as well as they do permanents, I decide I’m going to take the Stone Rain. Even though Molten Rain represents two damage, it’s also harder to cast. Stone Rain can be cast with one more land regardless of what it is while Molten Rain requires a specific draw. Before my opponent takes their first turn, I’m already picturing how turns one through three are going to happen. In my head, the game continues like this:

(Opp.) Turn 1: Forest, Utopia Sprawl on Forest

(Me) Turn 2: Forest, Abrupt Decay the Sprawl

(Opp.) Turn 2: Foothills, Birds of Paradise

(Me) Turn 3: Catacombs into Overgrown Tomb, Liliana minus to edict Bird

My opponent will likely play Sprawl turn one because it’s the more reliable piece of ramp against a deck with Fatal Push and Lightning Bolt in it. The reason for playing Liliana on turn three instead of Goyf is to not only continue attacking my opponent’s mana sources but to also ensure I can play all the cards in my hand. If they do find the mana for Molten Rain, I will still be capable of casting Tarmogoyf on turn four, whereas I may not be able to cast the Liliana. Chandra is also a very scary threat and I want to pressure my opponent’s hand before they are able to cast her.

By putting myself in my opponent’s shoes, I can play out the game from their perspective, get inside their head, and use it to my own advantage. The game jumps tremendously in my favor when I get to have all the information, and take a card from my opponent, before my opponent even gets a turn. Much of the power behind these spells is having an understanding of what your opponent is trying to do and what their game-plan is, so you can determine how best to stop it. Even if the line of play is obviously bad, it’s a good exercise to play it out in your head anyways. Doing so will help you evaluate what plays are good and which are non-optimal.

The game draws on exactly the way I wanted to. My opponent eventually found the red source for Molten Rain, but my Liliana and Tarmogoyf were already in play. My opponent then found a Tireless Tracker but my Liliana had recouped enough loyalty to dispatch it. My Tarmogoyf runs away with the win and my opponent never gets the chance to cast their Chandra.

There is a lot of information to digest from this turn one play and how it affected the rest of the game, but there’s no doubt in my mind I won because of it. One of the main reasons I kept my hand was for Abrupt Decay. It’s one of the best ways I can deal with Blood Moon. Upon looking at my opponent’s hand and seeing that they didn’t have one, I knew I could put it to use elsewhere. So not only did I get the information of what was presently in hand, but also of what wasn’t there and I didn’t have to play around.

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“Duress” by Steve Belledin

It’s almost always appropriate to play discard turn one, but there can be situations where this is not always the best time to use it.

Against decks with a lot of cantrips (cards that replace themselves like Serum Visions or Street Wraith), discard doesn’t really give you the information you’ll need to navigate the game beneficially. The cantrips represent cards that you don’t know about, making them hard to evaluate. This typically makes them bad takes and lends more value to discard spells after the cantrips are played.

When playing against Storm, their turn one will almost always be a cantrip. If you see a hand full of Serum Visions and Sleight of Hands, you’re not getting the whole picture. You’d much rather take the Pieces of the Puzzle, Gifts Ungiven, or Goblin Electromancer that they draw off the cantrip. The only time a cantrip can look like a juicy target on turn one, is when the opponent is light on lands and is relying on the cantrip to dig for more. Now don’t misunderstand me, if you have a discard spell into a threat against Storm, this is most likely the best line to take, but lets look at a scenario where we don’t have a turn two threat against Storm. Upon looking at this hand, ask yourself what you would do turn one?

hand

Like an impulsive reflex, many players will answer with Blooming Marsh and IoK turn one. But why? What’s driving a player to take this line?

The answer, is most likely habit. Much like the Chord decks play their Birds, and the Storm player plays their Serum Visions, it’s the best turn one play for the deck. What else are you doing on turn one anyway? The upside of turn one discard is fantastic, but we should also ask ourselves what the benefits of holding onto them are.

With this hand, on the play against Storm, I’m much more inclined to play the tap land on turn one so I can play two discard spells on turn two. I can benefit more from them after my opponent plays their turn one Sleight of Hand or Serum Visions. There’s also the potential for future draws to take into account. What if I draw a Tarmogoyf?

Getting down a threat early against Storm is incredibly important to win the game. If I do draw a Tarmogoyf after playing the tap land turn one, I can then deploy it, and have multiple options available to me on turn three. If they played an Electromancer, I can IoK and then Abrupt Decay it or Liliana edict. If they simply passed, and are possibly representing Remand, I can first cast my IoK to see how I need to sequence the rest of my spells.

If we instead take the line of turn one discard and tap land on a subsequent turn, we’re playing a bit shortsighted. If we then draw a Tarmogoyf, decide to play it, and delay the tap land until turn three, your options become very limited. Remand becomes effective against your discard with only one black source, Liliana isn’t castable, and Abrupt Decay may not have a target that turn. If we hold the Tarmogoyf for turn 3 by playing the tap land and second discard spell turn two, we’ll have taken a turn off our clock. Allowing the Storm deck one more turn could mean the difference between a win and a loss.

While turn one discard may certainly feel like the best/only option with this opening hand, you can see the possible trickle of consequences from doing so. Your opponent isn’t going off turns one or two, so there’s no rush. Typically holding onto discard until the turn before a combo player is looking to go off can be the best time to cast it. They’ve done all the leg work to set up for next turn and now you can set them back efficiently. Again, I’m not saying it’s always beneficial to hold your discard back, most of the time it’s not, but it is important to recognize the situations where it is.

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“Collective Brutality” by Johann Bodin

These awkward scenarios with tap lands can put you in a position where you have to choose between a discard spell on turn one or a threat on turn two. Is it worth it to play a discard spell on turn one if it means losing your second turn?

While it can be difficult to evaluate the loss of value your discard spells will have the longer you hold onto them, skipping your second turn is a hard sell. There’s very little any deck can do on turn one that you would’ve wanted to take with discard anyways.

Obviously you can feel a bit punished if your opponent then goes turn one Expedition Map off Urza’s Mine, but if my opponent’s deck is unknown, I’m prioritizing a Dark Confidant on turn two over my IoK turn one. IoK could very well have the same value on turn three that it would’ve had on turn one whereas skipping my second turn and delaying the Confidant is a measurable loss of one extra card drawn and two points of damage at my opponent.

A hand with multiple fetches and shock lands can also put you in a tough spot where you have to decide between going to 15 life on turn one or 18 life on turn two with Thougthseize. Two life doesn’t always matter in the long run, but would Thougthseize be playable if it instead read, “Lose 5 life?” Probably not.

This is another scenario where it can be okay to skip the first turn by fetching on the opponent’s end step or playing a shock land tapped to save some life and gain some information from the opponent’s turn one play. Again, the loss of value for not having played Thoughtseize turn one is hard to evaluate, but two to three additional life saved for not playing it can make a big difference in some matches.

Many of these lines are of course dependent on your opening hand and the match-up. Sometimes you have to go to 15 on turn one, or sometimes you have to risk losing your second turn. The point is to learn to be patient; ask yourself if turn one discard is actually the best line to take and not simply the one that’s obviously available to you.

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“Inquisition of Kozilek” by Tomasz Jedruszek

Sometimes discard spells can seem useless when you’re top decking late into the game. Maybe your opponent is empty handed, or you desperately needed something that affected the board state instead. This is part of the downside of running discard spells and is the reason decks aren’t loading up on 12 different discard effects. We want to play enough to see them early in the game, but not so many that we are constantly drawing them when they don’t matter. Typically you’ll see these numbers range from four to seven discard effects.

There are some cases though, where late game discard can still be advantageous, so long as you know how to use it. When you are playing against a control deck, you can use a discard spell to clear the way for a threat.

Let’s say your only card in hand is a fetch-land you’ve been holding onto just in case you draw a Tireless Tracker, and your control opponent has two to three cards in hand. You draw Thoughtseize. Do you play it?

You may think that it’s a simple one-for-one trade and a way to ensure they don’t pull too far ahead on cards. You may also think, “What else am I doing this turn?” so you go ahead and cast it. They Cryptic Command in response. Counter-Draw.

Was this worth it?

Not really.

They cycled a counterspell, essentially tapping themselves out, but you couldn’t do anything to take advantage of that. They keep the same amount of cards in hand, and you are down another card for no value.

Lets say they instead reveal two lands and an Opt.

Now was it worth it?

Again, not really.

You see that your opponent is out of gas and the coast is clear, but you have no follow-up to take advantage of it. As soon as your opponent goes to draw for their turn, your perfect information is wasted.

The impulse to cast it can be strong, but by doing so you’ve wasted its potential for future use. Remember this isn’t a Serum Visions or Birds of Paradise, the card gains value if you can choose the right moment to cast it.

Now let’s say you instead wait another turn and voilà, you draw Tireless Tracker. Now you can lead on Thoughtseize to clear the way for your threat and the potential 2 clues with your fetch-land. Without the Thoughtseize, you’d be casting Tracker blindly and praying it resolves instead of knowing it will resolve.

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“Mind Rot” by Steve Luke

Discard is one the most powerful tools our decks can utilize. Trading one-for-one early in the game and gathering information to help guide our future plays is how many matches can be won. Practice playing out your hand before the game begins to determine what the best line is, taking into account all possible draws and sequences. Remember that while turn one discard is incredibly powerful, it may not always be the best line to take.

Study your opponent’s decks. Your discard isn’t powerful if you don’t know what your opponent is trying to do, and don’t know what to take. Learn to put yourself in their shoes and become the Affinity player, the Storm player, or the Tron player, to know how they plan to defeat you and how you can best stop it.

Finally, learn to have patience. Whether this means waiting until turn two or three when appropriate or holding onto discard to force threats through countermagic. Don’t be impulsive or habitual. If you can properly determine the correct moment for execution, at the cost of one black mana, you can tip the scales in you favor.