Breaking Mirrors

Posted in Latest Developments on April 19, 2013

By Sam Stoddard

Sam Stoddard came to Wizards of the Coast as an intern in May 2012. He is currently a game designer working on final design and development for Magic: The Gathering.

Remember last week when I said Dragon's Maze was a dense set? From the reactions I've been reading from preview season, it looks like most of you agree with me. We have never done a Large-Large-Small block structure before, but it really opened itself up for a lot of interesting possibilities. Many cards in Dragon's Maze, like Render Silent and Putrefy, were cards originally in the Return to Ravnica and Gatecrash files, but just didn't fit. Some were cards that came out of things we felt were missing from the early sets after more playtesting. Today's preview card came out of that second batch.

Mirror matches are an important part of a healthy metagame. Often, one deck in the field will emerge as the forerunner for some period of time. This triggers two things—one was the topic I talked about last week, with other decks altering their design to better position themselves against that matchup, and the second is that the forefront begins to figure out how to best beat itself. This motion in and of itself can knock that deck out from being the top dog, or at least give other decks in the format better chances of winning.

While Standard is incredibly diverse right now, we've had plenty of periods in the game's past when one deck would take up a good third, if not more, of the metagame. While this isn't an ideal situation, it is a reality that we in development have to plan for. We try to make sure that formats include mirror-breakers to give players who want to get a leg up on the competition have some options in deck building. The constant shifting within the lists of the best deck will, ideally, keep the metagame more open than if that deck had nowhere to really move. The better the deck gets in the mirror, the worse it gets against the field, until a better level of balance is reached.

Art by Tyler Jacobson

We play fewer true mirror matches in the Future Future League than generally occur in the real world because... well... we just don't learn as much about the cards through them than we do in different matchups. We need to test a lot of different cards during a set's development cycle, and that means that at least one person is usually playing something new and untested. We've found that this is the best way to see how all the cards in a set play out.

What we do play a lot of is psuedo-mirrors. Not exact lists, or even that close, but different decks that have the same goal. What does the WUB control deck have against the RWU control deck? Is there a Farseek-based control deck that we like? Where does it fit into the metagame? We find that it is generally best if a few different flavors of control exist within the metagame. For instance, RWU or Four- or Five-Color Bant tapout control tends to be the best positioned of the control decks against aggressive creature decks, with cards like Warleader's Helix to act as both removal and lifegain. Those decks often don't bother running a strong countermagic suite in the first game, so they will often lose to the ramp and combo decks that are trying to force out a big spell and to the control decks that do run countermagic. But, since those counterspells are the first to come out against an aggressive deck, this variety is just positioned worse against aggressive decks. The decks will often look similar on the surface but play differently in the metagame.


Most of our Constructed testing is in Standard, since it is the most popular format for Constructed tournaments. Some is Block, since it gives us the best data on how strong the raw card power is without being influenced by last year's cards. This testing is by far the most useful when the third set of a block enters the Future Future League, because it gives us the best idea of what Standard will look like in the post-rotation era and best highlights what cards we should be looking to add to the third set to make sure we aren't relying too heavily on just a few items in the core set, or in the next year's fall set.

When we get a set to a point where we feel most of the rough edges are polished off, we run a tournament where everyone plays what they believe is the best deck. It's not a tournament in the real sense; we just keep track of records and play best-two-out-of-three matches. These tend to yield enlightening results. Sometimes it becomes obvious that there are giant holes missing in sideboarding options for specific archetypes, and sometimes a huge percentage of the players bring the same deck, and that tells us we probably need to find a card or two to weaken.

One particular issue that came to light during our testing involved the control mirror in Return to Ravnica Block. Due to the four-mana Wrath in Return to Ravnica Block being uncounterable, Detention Sphere's inability to hit other copies, Obzedat, Ghost Council being legend-rulable, and Angel of Serenity recurring other copies, we found there were many games of control mirrors that just refused to end. One player could Sphinx's Revelation for a large number, Rakdos's Return his or her opponent, but still not be able to end the game if the opponent topdecked a powerful spell.

Sphinx's Revelation
Rakdos's Return

It's okay when mirror matches aren't the prettiest thing, but if there are no real options for how to alter your deck to win the mirror and that deck ends up being the best deck, the metagame can stagnate. Dragon's Maze was in development, and there was a perfect slot for this creature. It had to be a creature the control decks could play against each other but wouldn't dominate against the aggro decks. We needed something that could survive Supreme Verdict and wouldn't die to the legend rule or Azorius Charm. Drawing inspiration from a mirror-breaker of years past, we decided to kick Morphling up a notch, and ended up with this.

>> Click to Show

Ætherling is, as the kids say it, no jokes.

It would be an understatement to say that a resolved Ætherling is hard to deal with. Other than countering it, there are only a handful of cards in Magic's history that are able to deal with it once it hits the table. Pithing Needle will turn off its activated abilities. Take Possession can steal it. Stifle can prevent it from returning. A Sudden Death after combat damage, or after a power pump, can get there. Pull from Eternity can take it from exile and put it into the graveyard. Gather Specimens can take control of it as it returns from exile.

What I'm trying to get at is that the list isn't huge.

The goal of this creature was to give blue decks an attractive option for a super-resilient creature that could end games by itself. While it may be designed to be used in the control-on-control matchups, it can also fit into decks like the Bant Midrange decks featuring Prime Speaker Zegana. Opponent Wrathed your board? What better follow-up than Ætherling? That should put you back on the right track to winning. What about the more tempo-oriented RWU decks? Warleader's Helix gives them more reach after Dragon's Maze than they had previously, but they quickly cancel each other out in the mirror. Ætherling is a respectable card in that matchup, too.

Prime Speaker Zegana


Ætherling does a lot, but it isn't the be-all, end-all. It's only as tough as its owner. If you die, your Ætherling dies with you. While it does a great job of blocking and attacking, if you really want to put some speed on its clock, it is mana intensive. And since its blinking ability removes it from combat rather than giving it shroud like the original, it is less reliable against decks that only mean to attack. A Murder won't kill it forever, but it will leave Ætherling unable to block for a turn. And while Ætherling's block-and-blink ability will keep even the largest creatures from killing it, it won't prevent natural trample or instant-trample from Ghor-Clan Rampager.


Ghor-Clan Rampager

Ætherling may not be the best creature for every situation, but if the real world plays out anything like our internal testing has, it will be a force in the metagame. Whether or not you play with Ætherling in the upcoming months, if your deck is weak to it, you had better have a good plan of how to deal with facing it down on the opponent's side of the table.

That's it for this week, and for the preview season. This Monday, the entire set will be available on I hope you enjoy the remaining nuggets of goodness in there and get ready for the Dragon's Maze Prerelease next weekend. We're almost there!

Next week, I'll be talking about Dragon's Maze Limited, what went into making it the experience it is, and hopefully give you some insights to the Prerelease and the Limited format going forward.


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