Dataminers sifting through decklists from Magic Online Daily Events might have seen Luis Scott-Vargas’ updated list of his Blue-White control deck featuring the Thopter Foundry/Sword of the Meek combo. The deck is excellent, and LSV has written about most of the matchups and sideboarding elsewhere. (Here and here to be precise). However, there hasn’t been much written about the Thopter Foundry mirror match.
Strategies for control mirrors often hinge around a single card or plan. Resolve Identity Crisis. Get ahead on lands. Ignore their card draw; counter all of their Upheavals and Psychatogs. There is usually a card that is insurmountable when it resolves, or a strategy that trumps any other approach your opponent can take.
Game one of the Thopter Foundry mirror is different. There isn’t a trump card or strategy. Obviously, you are always working towards establishing Thopter Foundry and Sword of the Meek while denying your opponent the same, but your tactics vary wildly from game to game. Sometimes you cast Gifts Ungiven for the combo. Other times, you Gifts for lands, or even just stick Gifts onto Chrome Mox.
It depends on how your hand evolves over the course of the game and what your opponent is doing. If your hand is long on counterspells, you are naturally going to gravitate towards the control role. If you’re stocked up on card draw and combo pieces, you are probably going to be pretty aggressive and look to overload your opponent’s mana or permission.
Even so, the line between being aggressive and controlling is blurred. No matter which position you are in, you’re still going to be digging with Thirst for Knowledge and trying to establish some sort of advantage, be it in terms of counters, mana, or creatures. You still won’t want to tap mana during your main phase unless you are absolutely certain you can handle a resolved Thopter Foundry or Tezzeret the Seeker. Ultimately, you are trying to assemble Thopter Foundry, Sword of the Meek, and Pithing Needle (naming Engineered Explosives) while having a bunch of Spell Snares in reserve for your opponent’s Foundry.
Games tend to play out in one of three ways. Occasionally, someone can just hee-haw a Thopter Foundry into play before the other player can find Mana Leak or Spell Snare, and then finds Sword of the Meek before their opponent can remove the Foundry with Explosives or Pithing Needle. If you can use the combo to get even a few Thopters before your opponent manages to Explode your Foundry, you can usually hold your counters for your opponent’s sweepers and Foundries and win with relative ease.
Those games are pretty uncommon. Most games devolve into long, drawn-out affairs where nothing happens for long periods of time. In the mirror, both decks are relatively threat-light; only Trinket Mage, Thopter Foundry, and Tezzeret are capable of dealing damage, with Vedalken Shackles deserving honorary mention. When both players have four Paths main, Trinket Mage rarely gets the job done, and Mana Leak becomes blank so quickly that Spell Snare essentially reads “Counter target Thopter Foundry.” Tezzeret is a reasonable plan, but it’s very difficult to win a counterwar over him unless your opponent tapped mana on their turn.
Academy Ruins should be prioritized highly because having additional threats is so important. Playing Ruins without immediately activating it on your turn before your opponent has the opportunity to legend rule you is detrimental to your long game. You always want to get value out of Ruins, because your opponent will seek to remove it as soon as possible. Tolaria West and Ghost Quarter are valuable for the same reason.
As games drag on, someone inevitably blinks. If someone gets access to a truckload of mana and counters, they might be able to push Thopter Foundry through while still having Snares ready for their opponent. That’s sweet, but hard to do, and isn’t something you can really control; you just have to draw more lands and counterspells faster than your opponent.
The onus to fire the first shot is on whoever will deck first. If that’s you, hopefully you’re up enough cards that you have the mana and permission necessary to lock out your opponent, but often you’ll have to make your move when the other guy has all his mana up. You might have to start trading Spell Snares for Mana Leaks, which makes it even harder to contain Foundry, and if you fail to resolve your Foundry, it’s usually pretty easy for your opponent to combo off on their turn.
It’s not uncommon that a player will exhaust all of their resources resolving Foundry on their turn, and their opponent will be able to match with one of their own. Now, both players will be gaining eight to ten life a turn while slowly amassing an army of Thopters, but pushing through damage is still nearly impossible. If you have twelve mana to your opponent’s ten, you will net two Thopters per turn, but your opponent will still be gaining eight life per turn. You have to sustain a large mana advantage for a long period of time before you even start to net damage, and one Wrath or Engineered Explosives will just undo all of your efforts. Still, whoever will be decking first needs to find a way to win.
You might try to set up an alpha strike using Cryptic Command. This, too, is exceptionally difficult. Cryptic Command tapping your opponent’s creatures and bouncing their Thopter Foundry can be fizzled if your opponent sacrifices their Foundry. If you go to bounce and tap and the other guy has excess Foundries in hand or all of your Spell Snares are in your yard, your opponent might simply choose to do this. Even if they let Cryptic Command resolve, your alpha strike is almost never lethal, and instead you fight another counterwar on your opponent’s next turn when they replay the Foundry or attempt to Explode your own. If you spend less mana than your opponent in this exchange, you can get ahead by a couple of Thopters, but that is rarely good enough. Tapping your opponents team while also going ultimate with Tezzeret is a win, but untapping with Tezzeret is usually a win in any case. It’s also worth noting that hard counters are also in such short supply that you might expend your Cryptics before the dual Foundry situation occurs.
You might be getting the impression that you want to be as controlling as possible and let your opponent get ahead on cards so that they will be in a position to deck, but that’s not quite accurate either. If you take such an approach to extremes, you will fall behind on mana, and they will have sculpted a hand that can beat anything you can muster. Further, you might not be in a position to take the control role; if your hand is all Foundries and Thirsts, you should definitely be pressing your opponent and forcing them to show you permission for your bombs. Ironically, if you burn through a chunk of your library assembling the combo, your opponent will have to dig even more frantically for their own combo or an answer to yours, and you might be able to get a library advantage then.
Still, even if you are taking a more aggressive stance, you don’t want to lose a counterwar on your turn only to have your opponent land a Foundry. If you are going to tap mana on your turn, be ready with Spell Snare (and be wary of Mana Leak!) or Pithing Needle or Engineered Explosives. Don’t be afraid to play Foundry without having Sword in the yard; you are somewhat exposed to Engineered Explosives, but your opponent will have to mainphase Explosives, and if you have another Foundry in reserve you are in fine shape. Even through Explosives, if you can net just a couple of tokens from an excess Tormod’s Crypt or whatever, you will get some 1/1s that your opponent will eventually have to find an answer to.
There is an awkward tension between Thirst for Knowledge, Gifts Ungiven, and Mana Leak. Mana Leak is excellent in the early game, close to dead in the midgame, and can have value if there is a massive counterwar in the late game. Because it’s so blank in the midgame, you usually want to take any opportunity to trade it, especially if you can force your opponent to Spell Snare your Leak. The window for Leak to counter Thirst and Gifts is pretty small, though, and is usually early enough in the game that you risk your opponent resolving a Foundry if you fight over their Thirst. You will usually want to let their spell resolve if your opponent only has three or four lands, but when they are on five you usually want to counter, particularly if you have your own Foundry.
Resolving Gifts is also tricky. If the game looks like it will be ending quickly, you will want to Gifts for the combo or perhaps just some gas in the form of Thirst, Cryptic, Snare, and perhaps Muddle, Tezzeret, or something else appropriate to the situation. If the game wears on, you don’t want to dilute your threat density, and may need to get lands instead. You might also not want to thin your deck so as to be able to cast a Thirst later; don’t be afraid to just throw Gifts on a Mox.
If you do cast either draw spell, avoid doing it in situations where you will have to discard a non-Sword of the Meek card unless you need to dig for lands. Maximizing all of your resources is important, and that includes not discarding. Similarly, you usually want to hold off on Thirst until you have an artifact or excess lands or removal to discard. It’s also nice to have a bomb ready on your turn if your opponent does decide to fight over your card drawing.
Trinket Mage brings another element to the matchup. Mage can be cast in the midgame pretty easily, and your opponent will usually let him resolve rather than waste any permission. Tutoring for artifact lands is reasonable, but you should consider if you need Pithing Needle or Engineered Explosives instead. You may not need either card immediately, but often when situations arise where you need a Needle or a sweeper, you need them immediately and can’t afford to spend time digging. Plus, if your opponent has discarded a few Paths to Thirst, you might accidentally kill them with your Gray Ogre.
There are some mundanities that virtually always apply. You should represent Spell Snare on turn one. Even if you drew all shocklands, taking two on turn one is much better than your opponent getting a free Foundry. Thanks to Chrome Mox, this is true even on the play. Similarly, it’s almost impossible to win games where you stall on lands; any two-land hand on the play should be viewed as highly suspect.
Breaking the symmetry in game one isn’t very difficult if you are willing to make minor alterations to your list. A second Academy Ruins can be game-breaking, but to ensure it stays in play you have to Ghost Quarter either their Ruins or their Ghost Quarter prior to playing your Ruins. Crucible of Worlds is another alternative; it takes up a spell slot, but is extremely difficult to counter and forces your opponent to jump through hoops with Engineered Explosives and Ghost Quarter to remove it. Time Sieve is a bit worse in the mirror as it can be Spell Snared, but has applications against Scapeshift, among other matchups.
You can also address the matchup with your sideboard. The stock sideboarding plan is to cut Tormod’s Crypt, Day of Judgment, Wrath of God, and the Paths for two Negates, two Vendilion Cliques, and three Cranial Extractions. These changes are pretty significant; Vendilion Clique is particularly good because it’s almost impossible to counter if you play around Mana Leak, and Duressing your opponent prior to Extraction or Foundry is very powerful. Using Clique as a pure beater is also a reasonable plan.
Tactics change slightly with Clique and Extraction in the mix. If you are able to Extract the opponent’s Swords or Foundries, you have an overwhelming advantage going long, but if Extraction is countered you are extremely vulnerable. Even after resolving Extraction, you will still have to resolve your Foundries, which is no mean feat, particularly since your opponent can untap and Extraction you in return. Extraction also removes [card]Academy Ruins[/card] as a trump, although Ruins is still very powerful. Postboard games don’t tend to go as long as preboard ones, both because you are exchanging more blows in the main phase and Vendilion Clique represents a faster clock.
If you’re willing to alter your sideboard and accept the changes in your other matchups, there are other options available. Baneslayer Angel is one alternative to the Cranial Extraction plan, and also easily races Vendilion Clique. However, Angel is a huge commitment on your main phase, and where your opponent can’t combo out after you resolve Extraction, even if you resolve Angel they can easily land Foundry. If Angel is countered, you’re in an even worse state. Angel is also positively embarrassing if your opponent answers it with Vedalken Shackles.
Extirpate is obviously much easier to resolve than Cranial Extraction, but is also much more limited in scope. Extirpate can essentially only break up the combo. It has some use against Spell Snare and Academy Ruins, but it’s obviously inefficient. With Extraction, you can preemptively get whatever answer your opponent has for your Thopter Foundry. Four mana for a Cabal Therapy isn’t totally unreasonable, particularly when combined with Vendilion Clique. It’s worth noting that it’s basically impossible to protect the combo from Extirpate by playing two Swords of the Meek; resolving a Sword and a Foundry against an opponent who is relying on Extirpate is extremely difficult.
I actually had quite a bit of success by cutting the removal package for 4 Vendilion Clique, 1 Negate, and 2 Tezzeret the Seeker. After playing several games after sideboarding, Vendilion Clique was playing a crucial role in all of them, as much for the body as the disruption package. Meanwhile, if your opponent hits you with Cranial Extraction, the best you can do is Extract them back. This puts you at parity, except now you are tapped out and they can have their way with you. Instead, if you play Tezzeret, you are threatening your opponent with some potentially very angry artifacts, and can get your Needle to stop their combo in the meantime. Tezzeret is actually very difficult to remove save the legend rule, particularly when you have Cliques on defense and Shackles on call.
I have a secret for people who are playing Thopter Foundry: you’re not the only person who likes control decks with combo finishes. You should test against the mirror.
(and if you’re thinking “that sounds applicable to every deck,” you’re right.)