It's no secret that Mono-Blue Devotion is one of the best decks if not the best deck in the format. If you're looking to win a PTQ this season, it's imperative that your deck has a game plan against Mono-Blue Devotion. For some, it's a little easier and more direct. Mistcutter Hydra is a well-known threat, as is an opposing Nightveil Specter, especially backed by disruption and a metric ton of removal. Red can establish a board state that can win out of nowhere via Fanatic of Mogis or Purphoros, God of the Forge, and aggressive white decks can constantly break up devotion while maintaining offense. Despite all of this, the Mono-Blue Devotion deck has continued to perform week in and week out.
So what does Mono-Blue Devotion itself have for its mirror matchup?
I started playing Mono-Blue a couple of weeks before SCG Open Series: Providence, and one of the many constants I've noticed among other Mono-Blue players is their frustrations with the mirror. The claims of randomness, lack of control over what happens, and the relative swings among other things have been among the loudest. While I certainly don't think any of those things are "set in stone" true, watching a mirror take place can make said claims appear very factual.
For all the information out there regarding this archetype, there isn't much explaining the different aspects of post-sideboard games, what goes into it, and how certain sequences can make or break a game. In today's article, I'll share my experiences with the different stages of a sideboarded mirror and how to identify, attack, and defend against each stage.
What Do You Mean "Stages?"
For those that were around during the U/W Delver days in Standard, this analogy was similarly used when talking about mirrors back then. The first stage or "mini-game" of a Delver mirror involved Delver of Secrets. The second had Geist of Saint Traft, and the third revolved around Sword of War and Peace, with Restoration Angel and Snapcaster Mage encompassing and/or reinforcing one of those stages as the game progressed.*
The Mono-Blue Devotion mirror post-sideboard sort of works that way as well. For the purpose of this exercise, we will not be using any sort of major variants like color splashes.
There are three major stages of a Mono-Blue Devotion mirror, each of them effective against another: the threat stage, the answer stage, and the trump stage. Do keep in mind that all of these stages are very dynamic and should not be assumed as rules as much as general guidelines that are subject to change at any point in a game.
*This statement is meant to help define stage identification and usage and does not directly reflect how Delver mirrors were played at that time.
The Threat Stage
Put simply, this is doing something that has the potential of killing your opponent in a reasonable amount of time and/or puts immediate pressure on your opponent's other stages. It can be something like a turn 1 Cloudfin Raptor into a simple curve out or a resolved Master of Waves.
Identifying & Combatting
Identification can take place as early as turn 1, but it generally doesn't take longer than two more turns to know what threats your opponent has. If your opponent plays a Nightveil Specter as their first creature during a game, it's safe to assume they have at least one Master of Waves as well. Combating threats can greatly depend on the pace of threats being deployed on both ends. Using a counterspell before turn 3 generally isn't a great investment unless you're either really behind from the get-go (mulligan, hand configuration, etc.) or are looking to set up a less impactful trump (but usually not).
That said, there are plenty of ways to slow down or stop their faster draws. Make your threats temporary but effective answers by matching their Cloudfin Raptor curve with your own Raptor curve, answering their Nightveil Specter with yours, or otherwise having a trump can force another stage while also putting pressure on their answers.
Noted Cards & Scenarios
- Mostly the same creatures that you normally play in game 1 (with Frostburn Weird being the only question mark) but abilities matter.
- As mentioned previously, Cloudfin Raptors will most of the time match other Cloudfin Raptors if you both are curving out, but Nightveil Specters will always match other Specters. Thassa ignores most rules, and the first one to connect with a Thassa from parity gains a huge advantage. The first unanswered Master of Waves will generally have the advantage over everything else, including Thassa. This is because of the medium-to-high chance of follow-up answers and trumps. If there are no answers or trumps to an opposing matching Master of Waves, then it reverts back. The one threat that can get through all of this is the tiebreaker until a trump or answer is found. Most trumps will win the game on the spot in this situation.
Get it? Got it? Good. Let's continue.
The Answer Stage
Including but not limited to counterspells, the answer stage is the part of the game that involves reacting to threats or trumps and preventing snowball effects or game breakers. This stage is a little soft to the early stage since the cards in that stage either come down too quickly or aren't worth dealing with for a period of time. You can afford to take two from a Cloudfin Raptor for a few turns if it means keeping your shields up for an incoming Master of Waves. You can let a Tidebinder Mage stick if you need to ground that Nightveil Specter with a Rapid Hybridization.
Identifying & Combatting
One of the more obvious ways to identify this stage is seeing if your opponent begins to play the waiting game starting from your turn 3 up until they begin casting spells with one or two mana open. One way to combat this is to play along with them. This is effective for a number of reasons. If you have your own counter to fight back, you're trading up because you have the threat on the board. The tradeoff with this is that you're now open to their trump, which can completely destroy any sort of game plan you had.
Another way to go about this is to play your worst threat first. If you envision your Thassa, God of the Sea winning the game four turns in the future, then jamming that Nightveil Specter now may not be the worst idea. The goal of this is to force an answer so your future plays can hopefully resolve safely.
Noted Cards & Scenarios
- Cyclonic Rift: Not a traditional answer outside of the mirror, but one that can be used to press an advantage or stymy an opposing one while looking to establish.
- When holding two answers, if one of them is a counterspell and one interacts on board, you're now able to trade counterspells one-for-one to further advance a proactive plan. Furthermore, when looking to set up a trump, you can use a counterspell answer as bait to stick a trump. You can also leave up a false shield by bluffing a counterspell in the right situation, but be careful not to be blown since you'll be left very far behind if caught without an answer to a major threat. Having two counterspells gives you more breathing room for the waiting game, and having two on-board answers gives you more flexibility with your already established threats if applicable.
The Trump Stage
The stage based around breaking the game open. It can also involve counters and pseudo-counters but generally involves more proactive sequences and cards. Trumps are great follow ups after establishing an early game or fighting a counter war but may not have an impact at all if your opponent is on the counter plan.
Identifying & Combatting
Figuring out if your opponent has a trump and what that trump is can be one of the more frustrating parts of the mirror for some since as there isn't really a reliable way of knowing for sure (unless your opponent telegraphs it). Fortunately, you can fight trumps with both counters and trumps of your own. In short, you don't need a specific kind of answer for trumps as long as you have an answer.
Noted Cards & Scenarios
- Domestication: Arguably the best trump available. Domestication is the most direct way of taking over the game out of the sideboard. Taking anything with at least UU in its mana cost immediately gets you the five devotion you need to attack with Thassa. Taking a Master of Waves kills all of your opponent's Elemental tokens (if they don't have another Master). It can effectively neutralize a Thassa-on-Thassa battle if they have devotion. Taking a Nightveil Specter can also be backbreaking. This is your go-to weapon if you're looking for a huge momentum shift for a moderate cost.
- Curse of the Swine: This is your best option when trying to equalize from as far behind as you can think of. This is the only card that's able to deal with the big three (Nightveil Specter, Master of Waves, and Thassa) in one fell swoop while still doubling as a soft counter to opposing on-board trumps.
- Cyclonic Rift (overloaded): Very close to an "I win" button when overloaded, Cyclonic Rift resets all of the work your opponent put into establishing a board presence, which generally equates to getting the last few hits you need for the kill. Seven mana is a lot to work for, though Nykthos helps mitigate that effort.
- Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx: Having the ability to put your game plan into hyperdrive for minimal cost is what makes Nykthos so powerful in the mirror. When you're doing two or more major things with your mana in a single turn and your opponent is doing one, things quickly become lopsided.
Other Notable Cards
While some of these may not be the most played or most elegant, they might be able to fill a niche that a lot of other cards cannot fill. Not every niche card will be covered here, but you can get a general idea of what you're getting compared to the more played cards in mirrors.
Aetherling: While I have little experience boarding this card in against the mirror, I can certainly see the merits in more Nykthos-heavy builds. There's something to be said about a threat that can also ignore everything that was going on in the game beforehand.
Prognostic Sphinx: Immune to most trumps, Prognostic Sphinx is a decent threat when Thassa is out of the equation because it can block pretty much anything and you're always getting something when you attack with it.
Simic Manipulator: Much less played than Domestication, but a trump still worth considering if you aren't afraid of it. This can swing a game in your favor much more quickly than the four-mana Mind Control, but it's much more fragile and needs help to reach its maximum potential. Note that with Master of Waves you can steal a creature and then "reload" the +1/+1 counters using the evolve triggers.
Aetherize: A solid answer to an overwhelming board state. It's not the cleanest card out there, but having a cheaper but less effective overloaded Cyclonic Rift can still be backbreaking, especially since it also answers opposing Domestications.
Overall, you aren't short on options for the Mono-Blue Devotion mirror, but there are still plenty of things to consider. Yes, Gainsay is one of the more important cards for the mirror, but do you personally want to use four slots in the sideboard for it? Some like leaning more on trumps by having two, three, and maybe even four Domestications. Others like to establish an aggro-control style of game by landing one of the major threats and protecting it as best as possible with counters and answers to the opposition's trumps. Regardless of your preferences, finding a balance with the rest of your sideboard is key, and while it isn't as big of a deal for the mirror, always build your sideboard with your opponent's perceived game 2 plan in mind, not their game 1 plan.
While Mono-Blue Devotion is greatly considered to be a near fully developed archetype, there is certainly still room for exploration. What have you been doing to tackle the mirror match? Are there any other tactics that have gone unmentioned? Let me know in the comments! I'm always looking to learn as much as possible, and with a PTQ in Brooklyn, New York this weekend, who knows? Maybe you can teach me something that could help me or someone else obtain that coveted plane ticket! I hope that my experiences in the mirror have helped you better understand it.
Best of luck to everyone battling this weekend!