Understanding Control Mirrors - Neon
This article was originally published January 2017.
Hey friends! So apparently my deck from last week’s article was pretty decent, as it has caught on both on the ladder and in tournament play. Felnscar control is now a force in the meta game! Now, I’m not here to brag about how great my deck is (although I still think it is pretty great), I’m here to talk about how to navigate control mirrors, since that is now a more regular occurrence on the ladder. I don’t have nearly enough experience yet to describe the nitty-gritty of the Felnscar mirror match, but I wanted to provide some discussion about how to approach control mirrors from a big picture, using some examples from this specific deck. As always, please feel free to share thoughts and suggestions in the comments or on Reddit!
Before getting into this, I’m going to make a brief note about the definition of control. In Patrick Chapin’s book “Next Level Deckbuilding” the line between “Tap Out Control” and “Non-blue Control” seems to be defined by the presence of counterspells. According to his nomenclature, “Non-blue Control” is not really a control deck, but is rather very controlling midrange deck. I’m not crazy about this delineation, as the presence of counterspells seems somewhat restrictive. Is it really that different that we counter something rather than just kill it? I could very well be missing something here, but I will use what I call the “functional” definition of control to define control decks. That is: a deck is a control deck if it is acting as the control in most match ups. I make this point now to circumvent any disagreements about whether decks like Armory are technically a control deck or not. Although it lacks some of the hallmarks of most traditional control decks, it acts as the control in most match ups that it faces, and is therefore a control deck by my definition. If you disagree with this definition I welcome your feedback!
Control Mirrors are Weird
To begin with, we should talk about what makes control mirrors weird overall. To be very clear, I am not just writing about true mirror matches, but rather any match up in which both sides are playing controlling decks. What is so different about control mirrors versus other match ups? I have listed the main general reasons below. We are going to get into each of these later, but I want to sketch out the problem to begin with as they are tied to each other:
Role assignment: control decks are looking to control their opponents that are trying to kill them, but what happens when their opponent is trying to be the control deck? Are you supposed to be the one that controls harder? Or do something else?
Your cards don’t work: what happens when you are playing a deck full of removal and your opponent has no units? What happens when your units built to block are suddenly being forced to be on the aggressive? The value of every card in your deck changes in every match up, but you really notice this change in control mirrors.
Strange things start to matter: we have all discarded to hand size when we are stuck on 2 power, but how often have you needed to discard to hand size on 6 power? How often have you decided to not cast a Seek Power because you want 1 more card in your deck? Things get weird deep into a control mirror, and you need to figure out what matters and why.
The through-line of all of this is two-fold: formulating a plan, and the importance of knowing deck lists. It is too easy to wander through a match up by just playing cards that are in your hand. If you are in a control mirror and just trying to make whatever play is available to you, you will often get crushed and not even know why. Instead of blindly dropping whatever is the most power-efficient play you should think seriously about how the contents of your deck line up with your opponent’s, and come up with a plan that can actually win. This leads to our first lesson:
Good players know how to execute a plan. Great players know when their usual plan isn’t good enough, and they need to come up with a new plan. Being on the wrong plan in a control mirror is a huge disadvantage.
LightsOutAce wrote a great primer on role assessment a while back, but the topic is surprisingly deep, and will probably be revisited again and again. Although I highly recommend going back and reading the whole thing, the TLDR is roughly as follows:
“In every match up there is a player that is the beatdown, and a player that is the control deck. One person is trying to kill the other, while the second is trying to overpower the first. If you incorrectly assign your role, you will be at a huge disadvantage.”
The most common form of role misassignment is one player thinking they are the beatdown when they are the control. You often see inexperienced players chipping in for irrelevant damage when they should instead allocate all their resources to blocking, or racing in a position where their opponent is better suited to win. In these cases, the person who picks the beatdown role when they should be trying to control is generally doomed. Although less obvious, control mirrors often have the same crisis, though it manifests as one player being passive, when they need to be the aggressor.
But how do you determine who is supposed to be the aggressor? If both decks are “control” decks shouldn’t both be battling for “control”? In actuality, one player usually needs to take on the aggressor role, although there is often disagreement between the players as to who that should be. There is actually a very powerful rule or thumb that can guide you in this regard:
Who has the better late game? They are the control.
In a control mirror the game is basically guaranteed to go fairly long. You can expect both players to have access to much of their deck and will be able to execute any plan they have access to. Lets say you are playing some extravagant 3+ Faction control deck with some clunky 4 or 5 card combo. Against aggressive decks you can struggle to just survive to the mid-game, let alone assemble whatever contraption you are trying to construct. Against another control deck you will usually have access to whatever outrageous combinations you like, since they will not be able to kill you before you put the pieces together. If this contraption you are assembling actually represents some late-game engine or win condition, your opponent will be in trouble unless they can do something even more impressive. So, they have no choice but to try and kill you before you “go off”.
This is where knowledge of decks goes a long way. Lets say you were playing my Felnscar deck, but didn’t have a very involved knowledge of the meta game. You encounter some Time/Primal/Justice deck playing a few copies of cards like Siraf, Sandstorm Titan and such, that seems to be playing a slow clunky midrange deck. You may feel pretty hot, until they start chaining together copies of Channel the Tempest pointed at your face, or breaking your skull open with Sword of the Sky King. Their late game is better than yours, an you will die every time they get it established. You need to identify quickly what is going on in the match up, because if you aren’t the one with the better late-game, guess what: you are now the beatdown whether you like it or not.
This is part of the reason that Armory has often been considered the anti-control control deck. Although it has many systematic problems as a deck, including a rocky power base and a shortage of cheap interaction, the late-game power of the deck is unbelievable. Icaria, huge relic weapons with massive bonuses, giant draw spells and maybe even a Minotaur factory means the deck is almost unbeatable in the late game. In addition to an extremely powerful end game, it does a much better job of assuming the beatdown role when needed. This is a deck I have my eye on at present for possibly making something of a comeback.
It is also important to not conflate “late game” with just “expensive cards”. Once again we can use the example of the Felnscar deck. Imagine you took out the Staff of Stories and replaced them with Snowcrush Animists and faced it against the original list. One deck has a more expensive late game card, while the other has a draw engine. Who is favored? I would guess the Staff of Stories version. Snowcrush Animist is often going to net a 2-for-1, but Staff is often going to be a 10-for-1. Just remember that “late game” and “expensive cards” are not exactly the same thing.
Now that you have established that you are supposed to be the beatdown, you need to start putting some pressure on your opponent. How do you do that? From here we should transfer over to our next topic, which is understanding the changing value of cards in a control mirror.
Your Cards Don’t Work
The value of every card in your deck changes in every match that you play. Once again, lets assume you are playing the Felnscar control deck I discussed from last week. When you are against Jito decks Lightning Storm is at a premium, while Deathstrike is a bit too slow. Deathstrike is exceptional against Combrei and Lightning Storm is only situational. You could go down the list of every match up in the meta and decide which removal spells are best in a given match up, but at the end of the day most removal spells are at least decent in most match ups. This effect gets taken to a whole new level once you are facing a control deck.
Take a look the deck list from my previous article. Imagine you were facing a true 75 card mirror. Which cards in the deck go up or down in value? Why?
The first thing you should notice is Annihilate. There are 4 copies of Annihilate in the deck, and only 2 targets (Steward of the Past). It is not just that Annihilate is “poorly positioned” or “not at its best”. It often does literal nothing. By extension, Steward of the Past also gets a lot worse. Any copy that gets played is very likely to eat an Annihilate as soon as possible, given that they have nothing else to do. Although this effect is less pronounced on some other cards (Lightning Storm for example) it is especially bad for Annihilate.
Reid Duke is an accomplished Magic the Gathering player that wrote a series of articles for beginners on the Magic home site. Although these articles were aimed at beginners, the strategic depth built into some was profound. I would encourage you to go and look at some of these if you get a chance, but one that is particularly relevant to this discussion is his article on “Line Up Theory”. The TLDR of this article is roughly as follows: you have a certain combination of removal in your deck. Not every piece of removal lines up with every threat. We should try to allocate resources such that every removal spell hits an optimal target, otherwise we will be left without the proper answer for a given threat. This effect is noticeable against any deck, but becomes very important when playing control mirrors. Although Deathstrike is a prized possession against Rakano as it is the only answer to an oversized Champion of Glory, you won’t have time to wait around to find Annihilate if your opponent is beating you up with a 7/7 Rakano Outlaw. In our example of the Felnscar mirror, wasting a Deathstrike on a Steward of the Past is probably worse than taking 9 or 12 damage while looking for an Annihilate. You have the time to get the maximum efficiency out of all your cards. To highlight this point, lets summarize the lesson:
The player that more efficiently allocates resources will be at a huge advantage in a game that goes long.
The other side of making sure your removal is used optimally, is understanding how to meter out threats. This is especially important to understand if you are the deck that needs to assume the role of mediocre beatdown deck. One thing that is fairly obvious is not running into sweepers. Most control decks have some type of sweeper, whether it is Harsh Rule or Withering Witch. Getting 2 or 3-for-1’d off a sweeper hurts in any match up, but it especially hurts when you are playing a deck with limited threats. You should meter out threats such that your best threats come out last. For example, in the Felnscar mirror, you should throw out Steward of the Past like it is chopped liver. If your opponent has the Annihilate you can move on to the next threat, but maybe they don’t or they misunderstand the match up and waste a Permafrost or Deathstrike instead! Knowing the removal suite of any given opponent is therefore important, as the value of your threats will be directly proportional to the number of answers your opponent has for them.
One thing to consider in timing your threats might be understanding key turns for the opponent. For example, decks like Icaria Blue or Armory often like to slam down an Icaria on 7 power. If you play out a threat right before they would reach some critical turn like this you can force them to play slightly off-curve, which might be annoying for them. This is not usually a major consideration, but it is something to bear in mind.
Strange Things Start to Matter
All this discussion has not fully articulated the bizarreness of control mirrors. Things just get very strange in some games, you need to get comfortable with that. In control mirrors of long ago it was understood that you should sometimes spend multiple turns not doing anything as the player who acted first often got horribly punished.
Take for example an Amory mirror match. You reach 6 power and have an unbuffed Starsteel Daisho in hand, and the board is clear. Should you play it? The answer is usually no, because your opponent can easily spent their next turn using a Runehammer, their own Daisho, or even a buffed Sword of Icaria to destroy your relic weapon. If you pay attention to the card economy, you have lost your weapon for only dealing 8 to the opponent in a match up where life totals are not very important for most of the game. Instead, you should try and be patient and load up your hand with more powerful weapons to respond to whatever the opponent does.
I have played the Felnscar mirror multiple times since my article was published last week, and many games involve going to discard. Although this feels weird, especially if I have playable units in my hand, I am convinced it is often right. Think about it – are Lightning Storm and Annihilate really worth a card in this match up? Am I losing much by discarding them? Don’t I give up less value by literally throwing away a useless card than playing out a Withering Witch with no targets?
Although the match up has these insanely low value cards that often end up doing very little, you still need to try and get maximum card advantage whenever possible. Take for example Feln Bloodcaster. I usually hold him in hand until I reach 10 power rather than play him out before then. Drawing a few more cards than the opponent means you will have more threats and answers than the opponent, which is obviously great. This also leads into another bizarre element of control mirrors. You often need a ton or power. It is strange because nothing will happen for 4 or 5 turns in a row, and then all of a sudden each player drops 3 or 4 cards a piece. There have been times that I have waited for 14 power so that I can cast Bloodcaster + activate while holding up Deathstrike. Hitting these power totals in normal games seems crazy, but you will notice if you are the one with only 8 power in play, while your opponent has a comfortable 12 or 14.
One final aspect of control match ups that is a very important angle is decking. If you run out of cards in your deck you lose at the end of the turn. Those who have played a lot of Magic the Gathering will be familiar with a similar rule, while those from Hearthstone are very likely to have played many games that end in fatigue battles. Depending on the configuration of each deck, it is possible that you can literally kill every threat your opponent has access to, and they will be left with nothing but removal spells and a rapidly shrinking deck. This tactic has very interesting implications for role assessment. If you have 15 cards in deck and your opponent has 25, you need to be the beatdown since they win the game in 15 turns unless you do something about it. On the flip side, if you are the one with 25 cards you often don’t need to try and kill your opponent until something changes, as they are the ones under the gun. I recently played a game that ended with my opponent decking out. I think they realized that is what was happening somewhere between 15-10 cards left in deck. I had decided this was my path to victory when they had about 30 cards left in their deck. By appreciating this aspect of the match up I could play things out at a slow pace, forcing them to put pressure on me, playing into the strengths of my deck. By identifying this aspect of the match being important before my opponent I was at a massive advantage. It should be noted that trying to deck out a Time based control deck is usually a mistake, since they can Excavate for another Excavate and never lose. As a final point to close out this article lets get one more summary point to encapsulate this.
The rules of control mirrors are different, and you must be comfortable with that to be successful. You need to identify what actually matters and stick to the appropriate plan.
I hope this discussion gives you an added appreciation of the strange things that happen in control mirrors. The specific nuances of every match up are impossible to encapsulate, but this will hopefully give you the tools to attack them with great efficiency. Do you think I missed something? Are there any tips and tricks that help you one-up your opponents? Be sure to share your thoughts in the Reddit thread or in the comments section! Until next time!