Archived with permission from Nate Heiss
Web-published on the Sideboard: http://www.wizards.com/sideboard/article.asp?x=sb20010320a
You are playing a popular deck. You do not really want to, but you feel the need to do well at a tournament and your homemade deck just does not cut it. You broke down, due to the lack of time to make a new deck and went straight for the net decks. Being that the tournament in question is Regionals, you picked from the strongest of the current Standard decks; Fires and Rebels. You have made a few of your own modifications to each deck, retrofitting them to your personal tastes, but only changing about three or four cards overall. You are confident that the deck you picked, Fires, will be great against the field, especially with the anti-Rebel changes you have just made. Your friends keep asking you about what you will do when you see all the hate cards, but since you read up on the deck you know exactly what your plan should be. With your friends convinced, they give a shrug and continue testing their homemade decks. Yeah, you have a plan against everyone.
Everyone, that is, except yourself. Sound familiar?
The mirror matchup is the most overlooked matchup in every meta-game. People are always talking about how Paper beats Rock, which in turn smashes the Paper-mauling Scissors, but nobody really thinks about what happens when two rocks collide, two papers stack up, or two Scissors cross blades.
Myth: Mirror match-ups are a 50/50 shot, a coin flip.
Many people consciously ignore the mirror matchup, because they assume there is nothing that can be done to tip the table in their favor. These are also the same people that run through a tourney saying, "I was undefeated in all non-mirror matches. I ran into my deck twice and missed the cut to Top 8." Is it really so hard to believe that the most popular deck in the environment will not be paired against you more than once in eight rounds? Why does one side of the mirror matches win, opposed to the other?
It could all be about experience with the deck. The person who has played the deck the most or has more experience overall will win the match. This conclusion can be found using the logic that the inexperienced player will be lost and without a plan. The experienced player will know which cards are crucial in the mirror and utilize that knowledge to his benefit. Sometimes there is a particular deck type that is determined by who plays or draws first, but this is very unusual and only shows up in environments packed with power cards, which is not the current Standard environment (think Classic).
Myth: The Mana Gods determine Mirror match-ups.
Ok, so you just got Mana screwed and lost game one. Wait a second, now your opponent is getting Mana flooded in game two! I guess game three will be determined by whoever does not get hosed. This type of thinking is what kills people in Mirror matches. You have the same chance of getting Mana screwed against everyone in the room and that goes for your opponent as well. You would have lost if you were playing against Rebels, Control, or Ankh-Tide. The fact that you are playing against another Fires deck makes no difference. Mana screw does turn the tide of matches, but it is not the critical victory factor. If that was true, then there would be no such thing as a good player; we would all just draw our opening hands and check for land.
Sometimes a deck with a stronger Mana base wins a Mirror match, but this is not a random factor. Mana bases are determined in the deck building stage, far before you ever pick up your opening hand. Deck building, unlike luck, is a critical victory factor in mirror match-ups. All mirror match-ups are composed of two decks that have most of the same cards. The only difference, if any, will be with a few cards that each player customized their deck and sideboard. In a sense, these few cards make all of the difference.
So is experience the ultimate key to mirror match-ups or do the minor variations in your deck do the trick? While experience is vital, and knowing how to beat your opponent is important, two people with the same deck will probably draw similar cards. The person that is most likely to win is the one who either draws A) the better cards in the deck, or B) the customized cards that were placed in the deck. The five or six cards that you swapped for other cards will make the entire difference. Of course, this is truer for certain decks than others, depending on the different cards and speeds of the decks. I suppose the only real answer to the question of the experience/card variation is this: a combination of both experience and card variation are what wins a mirror match.
I cannot give you experience via an article. Instead, I will unveil the other half of the mirror match, the minor card variations in your deck.
Example 1: Maher Oath. Bob is an extraordinary Oath player. He knew the deck inside out. He also decided to take this archetype (yes, he did not invent it...it was popular before he won Chicago with it) and add certain cards that the deck did not have before. The most important of these cards was Trade Routes. What was the reason? Trade Routes was not only excellent against the field, but it was a mighty win condition in the mirror match-up and other control decks when combined with Treetop Village.
Example 2: Think back to MBC, when Black/Green was running over the field. The Black/Green decks that consistently won did it through the minor variations in their build. I played a version with four Nesting Wurms. Other people used a couple copies of Jolrael. These cards were not only great versus the field, but were especially crucial in the mirror.
Example 3: This one is for all the old-timers out there who remember PT Dallas. Sligh was one of the best decks there, but only the ones that used multiple copies of Death Spark soared to the top of the standings. The Spark was great against the 1-Toughness Meta-game and especially impressive in the mirror, where most people just used Hammer of Bogardan.
Example 4: The 'Low Tide' decks used Thawing Glaciers in the standard High Tide deck to add consistency to all of its match-ups, but it was most evident in the Mirror.
I could go on and on with examples, there are hundreds to chose from, but all of them have one thing in common: The variations in the decks simply make the deck better versus everyone, not just the mirror. Some cards make the deck enormously better in the mirror, but most have an equal effect against all the decks in their respective environments. These cards can be found in the main deck and the sideboard. You may be asking yourself, "Why would I want to put Vampiric Tutors in my sideboard?" but sometimes that is what makes the most sense. If you know that Void is a powerhouse in the Zombie mirror match, but you already pack four, does quicker access to them the sideboard help you more than the 4 Terrors? Absolutely. You wouldn't play the Tutors over the Terrors against any other deck. You need those Terrors to kill Jade Leeches and Sergeants, but in the mirror they are just trash.
Since minor deck differences can make all the difference, what type of cards do you want in your deck and sideboard in order to gain an edge in the mirror? The answer to this may be a disappointing one: It depends. In order to understand what cards will be critical for victory in the mirror, think back to the matches you played and what cards were most difficult for you to deal with, or cards that you know to have beaten you every time. You know which cards I am talking about; the cards that make you groan every time they hit the table... the ones that you secretly pray your opponents never draw. That is the type of power you need to beat your own deck. Make a list of the cards and look them over. Maybe some will fit nicely into your deck. Perhaps some are already in there... all the better. Do you have four copies of the card in your deck or sideboard? You will want to access as many copies of that bad boy when you are sitting across the table from your clone.
Sometimes you cannot access these cards. They might be the wrong color, too expensive for your Mana base, or perhaps too expensive for your wallet. When this happens, it is time to examine a little more deeply into the workings of your deck. Ask yourself why those particular cards destroy you every time. Is it because of their high toughness? Do they fly? Are they all mass removal? Perhaps they are cheap removal? Do they provide card advantage, or some sort of virtual advantage over your deck? Are they untargetable, uncounterable, or both? Find the common thread and read the fragments of the puzzle. Once you determine your deck's weakest point, you can scan through the available card lists and find a substitute.
If big creatures give your deck trouble, find some in your color. If they are a little more expensive to cast, just make sure your mana base can support them. If Tramplers are giving you trouble, it probably means that you have a lot of small regenerators in your deck. If you cant access any Tramplers, find ways to deal with multiple regenerators at once (Engineered Plague, Wrath, or even Landwalkers!). If your deck has trouble with flyers, try finding some flyers of your own or use unblockable creatures (assuming that the flight problem does not stem from the use of Earthquake).
Once your make a list of your options, check and see how they will fare against the rest of the field. If it seems better than a card already in your deck, then switch them up. If you feel that a certain card really gives you the edge in the mirror, but is not good versus everyone else, plop it in your sideboard. You will find that most cards that give you some sort of edge in the mirror matchup fare well on their own in the main deck.
It may happen that when you are finally faced with a mirror match-up, you may never draw the cards that set your deck apart from the rest. That happens to people all the time and they complain that their decks were a better version, but lost anyhow. Keep in mind that while you may have the better version, 85% of your deck is identical from the guy sitting across from you, so don't be shocked if the match doesn't go your way. If your opponent does beat you, take note of the cards and strategy s/he used. Check if s/he used variant cards or the same old stuff. You might learn something for the next time around.
A mirror reflects the image of the person looking into it.
Please send any questions of comments about my articles to firstname.lastname@example.org. I answer all my mail and clear up any questions.