Breaking The CawBlade Mirror

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Blue-White Control is an archetype older than dirt.  The first deck in Magic history that didn't suck as bad as the rest was Brian Weissman's The Deck, a UW Deck that splashed red for Red Elemental Blast.  In the days when Juzam Djinn was bad because it dealt you damage, and you were lucky to trade five [card Tundra]dual[/card] [card Tropical Island]lands[/card] to some schmuck that thought lands were better than a Shivan Dragon, the idea that you could sit back on Counterspells and win after taking control of a game with one of only two Serra Angels was revolutionary.

UW went through many permutations through the years, from Zvi's creature-based The Solution to the slowest-you've-ever-seen builds in Onslaught block to the UrzaTron centered builds during Ravnica/Timespiral.  After Ravnica and the UrzaTron left Standard the Control decks mostly became UB to fully abuse Mystical Teachings, and UW faded from the spotlight for quite a while, until The "Patrick Chapin" Innovator and Co. brought it back at PT San Diego.  Since then it has moved from a Tap-Out style deck with lots of large, expensive spells to a more counterspell based brew to the Sun Titan centered mixture that Wafo-Tapa played at French Nationals, leading up to Brian Kibler's innovation at Worlds, featuring Squadron Hawks.

The addition of the [card Squadron Hawk]Hawks[/card] was a masterstroke, allowing the deck to play out an early blocker/threat while still holding up mana for counterspells.  Fish (aggro-control) strategies have always had good percentages against Control, and the addition of [card Squadron Hawk]the Squadron[/card] allowed this build of UW to play like a Fish deck against other Control decks and also have a steady stream of cheap blockers against Aggressive decks.

Then came PT Paris, where Ben Stark won with a list put together by the Channel Fireball crew.  The addition of Mirrodin Besieged to the format gave us Sword of Feast and Famine, which could be searched up with Stoneforge Mystic.  The [card Sword of Feast and Famine]Sword[/card] allows the current builds of UW to play even more like a Fish deck, sticking a small creature or two and then countering any of the opponent's attempts to clear the board.  The Sword gives a significant upgrade to the clock while also allowing its controller to simultaneously tap out for threats and hold up counterspell mana, which cracks a mirror wide open.  The fact that it also generates card advantage isn't bad either.

Anyone that picked up the list immediately after its unveiling at PT Paris had a week or so of free wins by being miles ahead of the curve, but by now most people playing UW have caught on to the tech and are packing [card Stoneforge Mystic]Mystics[/card] of their own.  It's safe bet today that everyone is familiar with the list at PT Paris.

[deckbox did="a54" size="small" width="567"]

This is the new standard, stock list.  This is what you'll be playing with or against (or both) for the foreseeable future.

This deck is capable of changing game plans on a dime.  It plays a defensive game until it is able to assemble a Sword and a creature suit up, at which point it can quickly become the attacker.  Jace, the Mind Sculptor can dig for answers when needed, and later can use his under appreciated -1 ability to bounce a blocker and clear the way for an equipped creature to connect.  Gideon Jura is also a double-duty expert, buying time early and hitting hard later in the game.  He can also carry a sword if need be, allowing you to clear the board with a Day of Judgment and then connect with an equipped 6/6.

Another great strength of this incarnation of UW is that it makes the opponent's removal lose value.  All the the creatures in this list have already generated card advantage when they resolve, making one-for-one removal quite unappealing against them.  We all know Lightning Bolt and Doom Blade are good at handling threats like Fauna Shaman and Plated Geopede, but they are less appealing against [card Squadron Hawk]1/1s[/card] and [card Stoneforge Mystic]1/2s[/card] that draw a card when they enter the battlefield.  If they don't have removal, however, they are even worse off as then the equipped dorks are going to deal significant damage.  This is very similar to the Next Level Bant deck that Brian Kibler won GP: Sendai with not terribly long ago.  Making opponents chose between two options after sideboarding (removal in or out) is nice, but its even better when there is no right answer.

The biggest strength of this deck, however, is certainly the ability to hit with Sword of Feast and Famine attached.  Having the opponent discard a card of their choice isn't as good as drawing a card for yourself in my book, but it is still card advantage.  Untapping your lands is almost always relevant, and the two abilities together are almost a Time Walk.  Once you are behind against CawBlade it becomes harder to catch up with every turn that goes by.

This is the new kid on the block, and for the time being I expect it to be the most played deck.  It won the Pro Tour, put four players in the top eight of the first Star City Qualifier at GP: Denver, including the top three spots, and had nine of the top sixteen at SCG: DC, including the winner.  After demonstrating that level of dominance it can expect to have a target painted on its back until it starts losing more than it is now or rotates.

One attempt to break the mirror was the addition of Red, as demonstrated by Gerry Thompson.  He splashed Red in his CawBlade for maindeck Lightning Bolts, as well as a sideboard with a full playset of Cunning Sparkmages, a Basilisk Collar, and an Inferno Titan.  The Lightning Bolts are a nice surprise when thrown at any creature in response to equipping with a Sword, depriving an opponent of an untap they may have been depending on.  The addition of instant speed removal is also particularly helpful against Fauna Shamans from GW Quest and Hero of Oxid Ridges from Boros, two troublemakers that were previously impossible to answer with value.

Other modifications to the main deck in the quest for an edge in the mirror that we've seen so far are the possible additions of Sun Titan and CondemnSun Titan was explosive in Control mirrors some time ago, allowing its controller to return Jace Beleren to kill off an opposing Jace, the Mind Sculptor, Tectonic Edge to strip an opponent of their lands, or [card Scalding Tarn]fetch lands[/card] to put them out of Mana Leak range, and perhaps his time has come again.  Jace Beleren is significantly worse now than he used to be given the more aggressive nature of the UW Control mirrors today, but bringing back fetchlands is still good and returning Tectonic Edges to repeatedly Strip Mine your opponent is still as [card Cheatyface]cheaty[/card] as could be asked for.  The Titan's most important object to return today, however, may be any deceased [card Sword of Feast and Famine]Swords[/card].  At this point most players are sideboarding at least two Divine Offerings to destroy opposing Swords, and seeing a Sun Titan come down the turn after casting Divine Offering is just embarrassing.  He also fights against Gideon Jura fairly well.  The Condemns can deprive an opponent of an untap they were expecting if you clear away a creature that was carrying a [card Sword of Feast and Famine]Sword[/card] which has the potential to be crippling.  More often, however, it will "just" deal with a Gideon Jura or Celestial Colonnade, both of which can otherwise be large problems to clear away.

After sideboarding a much larger number of options are available to mages looking for an edge in the mirror.

Divine Offering: The sideboard at Paris had two, and they weren't expecting much of the mirror - they were there just for random utility.  Today many players have moved to three, as the mirror really is all about Sword control.  The instant-speed status of the Offering gives it the nod over Revoke Existence, as most Swords are put into play via Stoneforge Mystic at the end of turn.  A better answer to something like Wurmcoil Engine or a more permanent answer if the other guy is playing with Sun Titan would be nice, but the instant speed is important enough to be worth it.  There are no enchantments that are seeing wide play at the moment, so that difference is negligible.  The fact that it can also gain a significant amount of life by destroying Argentum Armor or Bonehoard in other matchups makes it the Sword killer of choice.

Kor Sanctifiers: The Sanctifiers are another option for destroying opposing Swords, but they suffer the same problem as Revoke Existence - being Sorcery speed.  Some people have said that they are a proactive answer, but if you are playing the Sanctifiers before there is a Sword on the other side of the field it seems a safe bet you are misplaying.  I could see playing the Sanctifiers if I needed another killer of Swords after playing four Divine Offerings or wanted another creature, but not before then.

Baneslayer Angel: The Baneslayer can fight with any creatures in the mirror, whether equipped or not.  The fact she is flying is also helpful if they have Elspeth Tirel, a commonly played one-of in many sideboards for the mirror.  A First Striking 5/5 with Flying is also well suited to fighting against Tezzeret, Agent of Bolas and the artifacts he animates, and the Lifelink has obvious applications against decks with Mountains.  Having the ability to be useful against several decks is important to me when selecting the cards for my sideboard as there are only so many spots available, so [card Baneslayer Angel]BSA[/card]'s ability to fight the good fight against other decks besides the mirror is quite a bonus in my book.  The only problem with her is that she fails both the [card Gideon Jura]Gideon[/card] and the [card Jace, the Mind Sculptor]Jace[/card] test.  She can be bounced by Jace without much of a cost because she doesn't generate value upon resolution, like a Sun Titan would, and she will lose to Gideon Jura in a head-to-head fight.  If the opponent hasn't figured out yet that Day of Judgment is bad in the mirror and hasn't boarded them out she could also just die a horrible death after being cast, leaving you with less value than if you had played another trump in that spot.  I don't have any Baneslayers in my sideboard for the mirror at the moment, but she is high on my list of options to consider and she could make her way back in at some point in the future.

Elspeth Tirel: Elspeth will win any game that goes long enough, whether by blowing up the other side of the board or making you an army.  That said, in a world where everyone is playing Squadron Hawks she is not what I'm looking for.  She can certainly be a game ender, but she could just as easily be a terrible Spectral Procession that fogs two damage.  I have always preferred a consistent six or seven on a ten point power scale to a card that bounces between a ten and a four, so I'll be leaving [card Elspeth Tirel]Elspeth[/card] on the bench for the foreseeable future.

Sword of Body and Mind: This is here to stay.  Only a few people are not sideboarding one Sword of Body and Mind, and then only if they found room for it in the maindeck.  A second Sword gives you additional search targets with late game Stoneforge Mystics and provides insurance against artifact destruction.  The Protection from Blue can protect an equipped creature from being fogged by a -1 from Jace, the Mind Sculptor, an additional Protection for Green can be quite helpful against Vengevine decks, and the milling provides an alternate win condition when the opponent has gained a significant amount of life from a Wurmcoil Engine or Baneslayer Angel.  It does everything you could ask for, and then it bakes you cookies.

Sword of Vengeance: This Sword hasn't seen any play yet, but it an interesting option worth exploring.  The First Strike would mean your creature would live if fighting against another Sworded creature instead of trading, the Trample means that they cannot just chump block with a Squadron Hawk, Vigilance makes it unappealing for them to attack back and gives you immunity from Gideon Jura, and who doesn't like Haste?  There are two strikes against this Sword, however.  First, it is more mana to equip than the others, which isn't always relevant but is particularly painful when it does become relevant.  Second, it seems to be a win-more card.  I would not want to search this up with my first [card Stoneforge Mystic]Stoneforge[/card] in place of Sword of Feast and Famine, and it is at its best when you can take advantage of the Trample by equipping to a creature that already has a Sword attached thus preventing any effective blocking.  While it could be effective in the late game it doesn't seem as strong as other options that could help you catch up if behind, rather than help you cement a game in which you already had a lead.

Sun Titan: See above.  Bringing back Swords, Tectonic Edges, Squadron Hawks to fight again... all good things.

Condemn: Having an answer to such powerful effects as Gideon Jura (at least a third of him) and Celestial Colonnade is better than not. Condemn can also kill off a Goblin Guide or other hasty creature more effectively than Oust.  The reason Oust was played instead at Paris is that Oust is much better against Valakut decks, many of which are currently running Lotus Cobra.  With Valakut declining slightly in popularity at the moment, it could be time to gamble by cutting the Ousts for Condemn.

Tumble Magnet: Tumble Magnet is a surprisingly large headache for Sword-centered decks.  Because CawBlade's plan is to turn a small, irrelevant creature into a monster with equipment, if you can neutralize the one monster, all they have left is a couple of small, irrelevant creatures.  Tumble Magnet is also proactive, which is a plus.  If you draw a traditional removal spell, it is effectively a mulligan until an appealing target presents itself, but the proactive Magnet is never a dead card.  Only having three uses is a downside, but the hope is that it would buy you enough time to find a more permanent answer.

Hammer of Ruin: The Hammer hasn't seen any play yet in tournament winners, and I expect it to stay that way.  A couple of people have been suggesting it as a mirror answer, but I think it is a trap.  Swords are almost always going to come into play at the end of the turn via Stoneforge Mystic, which means you have to take a hit from the Sword, then play your Hammer and attack.  I don't want to have to take a hit from a Sword before being able to destroy it, and I don't want to have my kill spell for a Sword blockable.  The biggest argument in favor of the Hammer is that it is a repeatable effect, making it good against Sun Titan and it is tutorable.  That said, it seems a bad Sword of Vengeance to me.  If you have the Sword of Vengeance it trumps any Swords an opponent has in play, which is basically as good as destroying them.  If they aren't actually destroyed, just negated, Sun Titan loses a significant amount of his relevance, and they are both tutorable, so what does the [card Hammer of Ruin]Hammer[/card] do that [card Sword of Vengeance]Akroma's Sword[/card] doesn't?  If the opponent doesn't have a Sword of Feast and Famine or [card Sword of Body and Mind]Body and Mind[/card] I would rather have the Sword of Vengeance any day.

Volition Reins: This hasn't seen play in UW for some time.  It was a popular option long ago when [card Frost Titan]Frost[/card] and Sun Titan were widely played, but as the metagame has moved away from such Battlecruisers it fell out of favor.  I don't think the time is right for it to make a comeback appearance, but don't forget it exists if people start sideboarding more Sun Titans and Baneslayer Angels.

These are the most popular sideboarding options for CawBlade against the mirror.  Exactly which you chose and in what numbers depend on your expected metagame, there is no one perfect sideboard combination that will guarantee a win.  The most important thing is to continually adjust so that you can try to stay one step ahead.  If everyone starts playing with Sun Titans and Baneslayer Angels, it may become correct to leave in your Day of Judgments instead of bringing them out.  If Tumble Magnet takes off, the sorcery speed drawback on Kor Sanctifiers will count for less and they will get better.  Don't think of a sideboard as fixed, it should be fluid and change from week to week.

Thanks for reading.

Brook Gardner-Durbin

@BGardnerDurbin on Twitter

P.S. If you're playing the mirror, there aren't many hands without a White creature I would be happy to keep.

3 thoughts on “Breaking The CawBlade Mirror

  1. Given the most recent SCG open results, where many people are playing with more Titans, Baneslayers, and even Geth (!!), Volition Reins' stock is definitely higher than it has been in months.

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