Spotlight on Mirror Universe

Mirror Universe.jpg
Broken mirror ?

When I did my first “spotlight on” (Sylvan Libary), I went over the interaction with Mirror Universe real fast.  That interaction, and the deck that abuses it the most (Mirrorball) deserve articles of their own. When I posted an Instagram of my colour-correct Mirror Universe I asked people if they knew how to play around the Mirror Universe kill that you could do back then or today with the BoM rules : people didn’t seem to know or remember.

The Original Mirror Universe kill

Back in the days Mirror Universe was a very unique card, and a very powerful one too. It could not only save your life and suddenly put your opponent way down, but if the conditions allowed for it, it could just end the game in your favor. Once you were at X life and had X or more City of Brass in play, you could put yourself at 0 life points during your upkeep, not loose because back then you didn’t loose immediately for having 0 life, exchange your life points and then let your opponent die at the end of the phase the way he was destined to die, in all fairness. The fun part was that to speed the process up, or enable it, you’d often have to lower your own life points, and -just like with the City of Brass trick- you didn’t even need a spell to do that, you could use the mana burn rule to your advantage : end of your turn I take some mana, do not use them, loose life to mana burn, I’m now down to 1, upkeep tap city, exchange life : I win.

Through the Looking Glass

If you had played in the early days of magic you might have found yourself the spectator of a quite confounding scene : an aggro player regularly and deliberately hurting himself via mana burn. See, if you expect to get mirrored, a way to make the exchange not interesting is to always be ready to match your opponent’s life points. If you’re the beatdown, this doesn’t prevent you from winning : you attack first, and then lower yourself close enough to your opponent’s total, which means you’ll kill them when the time comes if you’re still in that position. A crucial part of such battles are typically the City of Brasses. For the Mirror Universe player, the best he could get then would be a draw which depending on the circumstances could be acceptable or a disaster.

Where people fight for a chance to hurt themselves.

The game would sometimes devolve into a strange game of who has the CoBs : the MU’s controller want to be the only one to be able to put himself to 0 during his upkeep, so, unless the opponent has too much life their CoBs must be destroyed to prevent a draw and get a victory. You could then see the players do their utmost best to destroy their opponents’ cities, even whith Chaos Orb when they get beaten down by creatures ! You could see them regrowth or recall their suicide lands while leaving gold proper in their graveyards !  If there were enough Mirror Universes in the metagame, and people both knew how to exploit it and how to play around it, then the newbie stepping into that environment would truly walk through the mirror and find herself in an alternate universe where people hurt themselves on a regular basis and do their best never to accrue much life advantage over their opponent !

Welcome ! Unpet yourself.

Now what ?

That’s all nice and quaint you might say, but what are we to do with that now that (Bazaar of Moxen rules excepted) none of those tricks work anymore ? I’d say possibly not nothing. The principle of lowering your life to win is already at the core of the Mirrorball archetype.

Martin Jordö’s MirrorBall.

But the principle of lowering your own life as a preemptive way to fight the MU ? Well you’d have to expect the MU, but in all the Old School metagames I know of I have to admit I don’t see much life exchange. Mirror Universe was a key card at the time, unlike today. I imagine it is often deemed too slow, clunky, and not really resolving your troubles, since if you’re getting pummeled by creatures, exchanging life points will only let you take so many extra turns. It can sometimes feel like just delaying the inevitable. Unlike an active Ivory Tower, which may cancel a Serendib Efreet or with the help of a Jayemdae Tome, a Serra Angel, the life gain offered by MU is temporary. It may be spectacular, but it’s a very different beast than life gain “engines”. Yet, I envision a brighter future for the card.

And then they were one

Exploring fixed 93/94 formats (the ones where Mishra’s Factories are manageable, like those with unrestricted Strip Mines, or those with the tapped blockers rule), trying to maintain The Deck’s competitiveness (The Deck struggles against the best aggro decks without its “mini-moats“), I found myself time and again relying on the mirror. The reason is quite simple : when aggro actually pressures control, Jayemdae Tome is revealed as the weak card that it’s always been (which makes the idea of restricting the tome strange in my eyes in more way than one, as you can imagine).

Weakness incarnate.

So you lower their number (and in this thought experiment you do that maindeck), yet you want some card advantage cause control can’t function without that. That’s where Sylvan Library comes into the fold, it doesn’t cost any mana to activate and therefore can play a role even when under pressure from aggro as a card filtering engine at least; and since you can’t play too many Tomes to remain competitive and yet need some card advantage engine, Transmute Artifact is the perfect tool to both increase your virtual number of Tomes for the matchups where they’re desirable, to get an additional way to destroy a Library of Alexandria or any card in play via Chaos Orb, and another way to shuffle your library to profit via Sylvan Library while searching for the Mirror Universe that will let you draw extra cards thanks to the interaction with SL ! And what have we got here ? A one-Tome control deck, without any restriction ! 1 Tome + 1 Mirror Universe is what Brian Weissman ran in The Deck, first half of 1996, in an environment where Strip Mines were unrestricted and tapped blockers didn’t deal combat damage. I’m not sure about the Disrupting Scepters, but the guy might have been onto something..

Another reason to use and abuse the mirror in such an environment is for the speed-up it gives. If you can’t count on the Mishras, Fireballs too often won’t cut it fast enough. While not a wincon in itself anymore, it is still a very efficient way, mana-wise to lower your opponen’ts life total. Compared to the damage another Fireball would have dealt, it’s a very good deal, considering you typically haven’t hurt your opponent ’till then, and you actually shouldn’t even have bothered to !

The new play around

Sylvan Library
What else ?

It’s all getting quite virtual I know, but well I like to test future metagames so I don’t really mind if things don’t turn out that way. Anyways, just like the mirror works great with Sylvan Library (or Necropotence, or Greed..), Sylvan Library works great versus the mirror, which is how the past experience of seeing through the mirror universe can help. If by happenstance your aggro deck were to play some green (you know, that poor old school colour), it would then make all the more sense to play some of those libraries. Not only is the card possibly the only great old school green card beside the mana dorks and regrowth (I’m not sure Channel is a great in those formats, more on that in a future article), it just is such an excellent way to preemptively neutralize the life exchange for profit. Just like Sylvan Library can turn profit with Millstone or fight it, it can play the same roles regarding Mirror Universe.

So how worth it is it then ? It’s a fluctuating metagame I’m imagining there, where people would increase their SLs in turns, and things at least would be interesting, whatever the end result (which could be : people stop playing Mirror Universe). To make things more complex, in the Eternal Central format as well as in the ChannelFireball one, Mana Burn is a thing. But before we get there if we ever do, I’d rate the card as underrated. Also : while I don’t find (counter-)Burn to be a great deck -in fact, the way I see things, “burn sucks” is almost a theorem, that’s only because there is such a thing as life gain, and that Mirror Universe is one way to do it. Unfortunately Mirror Universe doesn’t play well with Ivory Tower. I don’t have a definitive answer there, I see pros and cons in favoring the one, the second or both. I guess where Hymn to Tourach is legal, it would make sense to give precedence to Mirror Universe maindeck.

Other Synergies

Let’s get that one over with, as I guess you have to put it : I’ve never seen it done, and yet it’s the only famous MU combo..


Well you combo by letting the universe player hurt himself only to see him die when the life exchange fails. Haven’t seen that happen either, but still : Yikes !

Appropriate casting cost.

When a card that good combines that well with, or against Mirror Universe, you should give it your full attention : in my experience, I didn’t have to think about matching my opponent’s life total, the card just did it for me effortlessly, while being the greatness that it already is. Also : upkeep, target myself with the artillery, loose 5, Mirror Universe.

Going further into Old School 95 territory, Glacial Chasm asks of us to do a bit of math. Here’s the sum of n integers formula (if you don’t remember it, you might want to do that, it’s very useful in mtg) : I will spare you the sigma sign, some people recoil at such symbols as if they were satanic, the sum of the first n integers (1 + 2 + 3 + .. + n) is  n(n+1)/2. For instance it gives you directly the amount of damage an unblocked Whirling Dervish after n attack will have cumulatively inflicted, and tells you the clock it represents (if the opponent has 20 life points, it will take the dervish 6 turns to kill them, that is 4 turns less than an Argotian Pixies or White Knight, and just one more than an Erhnam). After 3 attacks, the dervish has inflicted as much as any 2/x creature, excepted it is now a 4/4. After 5 hits it will have been as damaging as a Serendib Efreet, but it’s then a 6/6. Therefore the formula for accrued life loss by way of Glacial Chasm is n(n+1). Since 4*5=20, after 4 turns you’ll  have lost exactly 20 life, which may actually happen, for instance if you were on 20 when you played the Chasm, since it prevents all damage. All of which leads you to a perfect combo with Mirror Universe (unless using modern rules). Still even when using modern rules you can always tap your City of Brasses and then exchange life while having the non-payable cumulative upkeep cost trigger on the stack, that is, while being protected from direct damage.

Further down the rabbit hole..

Illusions of Grandeur adds a quite farcical component to the MU equation. Gain 20 life, so that you can survive while hoping to take some damage in order to go under 1 during upkeep with the Mirror in play. It increases your life points by a mile, which is generally not what you want with the mirror, but of course you can let that disappear any upkeep. You’d want to play the Mirror first though, unless you have an awful lot of mana to your name. The combo is probably not very competitive, and possibly only worth it with the BoM rules, but I can’t let it go : it’s just too funny to imagine the guy who will inflate his life points by an awful lot, only to hope to descend under 1 life so as to exchange their life points with their opponent. The trajectory of the control player’s life points in that case just puts a big smile on my face.

Let me find my balance.

That card combines so well with Mirror Universe it’s not even fair. Transmuting an artifact maybe is the safer play, but sometimes you just want to lose life points and use the mirror. That card just offers you both. To note : nothing is forcing you to stop when you’ve found Mirror Universe, if doing another go-round of you deck is what will put you at a more appreciable lower life counts, then go for it !

To die or not to die (at end of phase)

With the modern rule we certainly loose much tricks and craziness with Mirror Universe. While the most crucial part of that rule loss for Mirror Universe is the “die at end of phase” part, it also makes the Mana Burn discussion all that more difficult, at least for me. See, if, unlike with Original Type II, you can’t want to have a replica of the format of the days of yore (because you want to have unrestricted Underworld Dreams, non-banned Time Vault, Basalt Monolith that can untap itself, to give but a few reasons), then Mana Burn is on the table. And on that table, I put creatures first, considering how skewered towards control and anti-creature measures the 94 and 95 card pool is. That’s  why also I very much like to have such a powerful and interesting card as the alpha Orcish Artillery costing 1R (as it almost always was legal to do back then). But it’s not an easy case : to miss all those funny mirror games just for the sake of that damn Su-Chi.. I guess then the compromise would be to have no mana burn but the die at end of phase rule. Well, too bad. That combination is exercised nowhere ! Not for long though, once we’re through with the current Old School 95 tournament, I’ll add the rule, that card is too important. (If you’re counting; the old rules that are regularly maintained in the old school formats are the mana burn and the tapped artifacts rule, too bad that by my count the most important ones -and the ones that are almost never used are the tapped blockers and the die at end of phase rules..)

Anyways, even without any of those old rules, the card is still very potent and interesting, ready to “aikido” the hell out of all the aggression you’ve been subjected to, if given a turn. If we can’t rely on Mishra’s Factories in The Deck then it would seem we can’t have much slots to kill in an acceptable time. Mirror Universe is a possible way to solve that puzzle. Even if we don’t have the opportunity to win directly through the exchange, we’re probably planning on winning via fireballs anyways, and MU can be searched by Transmute Artifact, so it usually comes surprisingly fast.

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