If you've read my past two columns (here and here) you know that I've been taking a look at how Miracles beats the fastest (Delver and Combo) and the slowest (the mirror) decks in Legacy. One thing I haven't talked about, however, is beating the decks that linger in between. So because many people have asked how to beat Shardless BUG and Stoneblade variants! That's what I will be discussing today.
But before we delve into the immediate action, it might be a good idea to define a few terms here and there, shall we? When talking about decks that center around Deathrite Shaman you will often hear the term "midrange." But what does that mean? What decks are included? Does this term even have a right to exist? Well, first and foremost, I'm very well aware of the fact that there probably are just as many definitions to what midrange is as there are players using the term. But this shouldn't stop me from trying to establish a definition, right?
Let's approach this topic from a linguistic point of view. Midrange would translate to a deck whose gameplan lurks in the middle of a game. I think we can all agree on this very first step, but what is the middle of a game? Where does the early game end? When have we reached the late part of said game? A tough question indeed, but I have a suggestion on how to solve this: the first step that has to be taken is defining when the early game ends, as this line will also mark the transition to the so-called midgame.
So what marks the early game? If you ask me, it's the section of game that ranges from the start of the game to the fundamental turn of the very format and every deck in it. Each format has its own fundamental turn, and each deck in this very format has its own adaption of said fundamental turn. The fundamental turn is an artificial line that indicates the turn where things happen. It's that moment of the game where combo decks are able to move in. It's that moment where your Delver opponent is attacking while keeping up mana to disrupt your gameplan. It's that moment where the control deck has overcome its initial start-up-phase and is ready to take over. Even though some fundamental turns vary from deck to deck, I think it's a safe bet to establish a fundamental turn for the Legacy format as we know it today.
People alien to Legacy think of this format as Vintage's little cousin, where you get blown away turn 1 most of the time (which isn't even true for Vintage, let alone Legacy). Even though there are decks that are easily capable of this very phenomenon, it is incredibly rare in Legacy. Storm decks like The Epic Storm and Ad Nauseam Tendrils are easily capable of killing on the first turn but often prefer to win on the second turn more often than not. In some cases, they even delay the Tendrils of Agony to the third turn to make sure everything goes appropriately. Show and Tell decks are also able to bring their combo to the table as soon as turn 1, but they are comfortable waiting and delaying their combo to the second or third turn, with the upside of having more counterspells by the time they're ready to go off. Elves aren't able to combo on their first turn on their own, but they represent a deck that plans on going off on their third turn with frightening consistency, with the ability to do so earlier with some hands or assistance of some kind from the opponent.
Delver decks typically deploy their threat on the first turn if they have one. If they don't, expect it on turn 2 after they've spent the first turn cantripping. And just like that, they're ready to operate as soon as turn 2 or 3 while beating down with said threat. The same can be said of control decks which might have set up Sensei's Divining Top and Counterbalance already or stripped their opponent of their best card with Thoughtseize while also removing their first turn with Swords to Plowshares.
The fundamental turn of the modern Legacy format seems to lie somewhere between turn 2 and turn 3. One could make an argument for it being earlier or later than those two turns, but for the sake of example, I'm going to go with those two turns for today. So what would midrange mean if the early game ends somewhere between the second and third turn? I would conclude that these decks are not fully functional as quickly as the other decks. Even though midrange decks can easily interact before they enter the phase after the early game, they're not entirely comfortable doing so and would rather interact at a later stage of the game, which also explains their traditionally poor matchup against fast combo decks. With the shifted use of mana, these decks have a better chance at beating decks built to function before the fundamental turn, which is visible in the way the cards in those decks are priced manawise.
Let's start with Deathblade. It's an offspring of one of Legacy's aggro-control decks, Esper Stoneblade. Deathblade does abandon the aggro-control route for the most part and enters the realm of midrange by adding Deathrite Shaman. I personally think that this deck is better off not playing Deathrite Shaman and staying as it was, but it is still an undeniably popular deck, especially in the US where it has dominated the Open Series for long stretches. Its strengths lie in its adaptability and customizability, enabling the pilot to use a spectrum that is so wide that its versatility can make it U/W Stoneblade or Junk splashing blue. Deathblade can position itself at any point in this very spectrum, choosing to interact meaningfully before the fundamental turn, or not if it doesn't need to. This and the fact that one cannot often identify whether the opponent is on Esper Stoneblade, Deathblade, Dark Deathblade or a different variant altogether makes sideboarding incredibly difficult against it. For simplicity reasons I will keep it to two directions, one being Esper Stoneblade, the deck that uses Stoneforge Mystic, Snapcaster Mage, True-Name Nemesis, and Vendilion Clique as its only creatures; and Deathblade, where we have to combat Deathrite Shaman and Dark Confidant as well.
Esper Stoneblade packs way more disruption than any other deck that we will be talking about. It also isn't really a midrange deck, but I don't think I can omit it from this article just for that technicality. It packs a reasonable amount of blue countermagic and a playset of discard spells, enabling the deck to interact easily before the fundamental turn. Their gameplan versus Miracles is pure beatdown with disruption because they are not able to interact in a meaningful way in the late game. Their Jaces are used differently than ours and are often times abused aggressively, as waiting is often not very profitable. Due to their versatility in angles of attack (discard, countermagic, creatures, and planeswalkers), it is often hard to deal with every single threat. This leads to this matchup being an exercise in threat evaluation. As the Miracles player, it's very hard to deal with everything in time. You have to set priorities.
Thoughtseize and Snapcaster Mage are powerful ways to interact in the early game for Esper Deathblade but are pretty much never worth fighting over because chances are you will draw out of their early game discard with Sensei's Divining Top. Letting them reduce the resources on both sides while also committing additional creatures to the board is key. Even though Snapcaster Mage does pose a threat, he is not worth removing on his own. Try to remove him with Terminus in addition to something else in order to somewhat negate the advantage he was giving the opponent in the first place.
Stoneforge Mystic into Batterskull is once again nothing to panic about. Use your life points as a resource, and deal with the threat at a later time. Even if you have the Swords to Plowshares, don't just throw it at the first Stoneforge Mystic that you see. Let them get their stuff, let them take the initiative, sweep the board later, and keep the Swords as an insurance for stuff like them casting a Vendilion Clique at the end of turn. What if they to be equip it with a Sword of Fire and Ice? Don't be caught surprised!
Focus a lot of your attention on Jace, the Mind Sculptor, and be sure you never let one resolve, as it will make it incredibly difficult to win due to how much disruption and gas they will draw while also re-cycling the cards that they didn't want to draw in the first place.
Sideboarding is a bit tricky as you have more cards to actually bring in than you can afford to take out. The easy cuts for this matchup are four Force of Will and four Swords to Plowshares. Force of Will leaves for the obvious reasons (two-for-one-ing yourself against a Thoughtseize deck isn't ideal), while Swords to Plowshares just isn't a good card when each of their creatures either searches for a card or flashes one back. I would want to board in these eleven cards:
It all comes down to how you want to approach this matchup once again. If you prefer to take the traditional route of Miracles that includes a lot of removal followed by an Entreat the Angels, you should be bringing in:
Vendilion Clique does not line up well against Lingering Souls at all and also cannot deal with the real threats of the lategame: a creature + Sword of Fire and Ice or True-Name Nemesis. You could insist on keeping Vendilion Cliques instead of maybe one Entreat the Angels and a Counterspell and try to take over the game earlier than normal, but I would advise sticking to the eight cards that I mentioned before simply because Clique's strength lies in the ability to deal with their Jace, the Mind Sculptor, but those are already somewhat negated by the Red Elemental Blasts that are coming in.
Now onto Stoneblade's cousin, Deathblade. This deck can vary vastly in its incarnation, but today I'm talking about a shell of Stoneforge Mystic, True-Name Nemesis, and Deathrite Shaman, paired up with some number of planeswalkers and additional creatures that could be Snapcaster Mage, Vendilion Clique, Dark Confidant, or others. It's way easier to play against this deck than the traditional Stoneblade due to their higher number of creatures and lower number of Jace, the Mind Sculptor. You can approach this matchup as if they're a creature deck with Jace, the Mind Sculptor at the end of their curve. This is in contrast to Esper Stoneblade which runs advantageous creatures and spells like Lingering Souls and Snapcaster Mage. You keep Swords to Plowshares in for this matchup because you cannot really afford to let Dark Confidant live. Force of Will is still bad but so is Counterbalance, which does a fine job of suppressing Stoneblade's potential in the lategame but is somewhat lackluster against Deathblade due to their widespread mana costs. This includes a lot of threes (True-Name Nemesis and Liliana of the Veil), plus the inclusion of Abrupt Decay. I would advocate a pretty straightforward switch of four Force of Will and four Counterbalance for the following eight cards:
Once again, if you are under the impression that Vendilion Clique is essential to your gameplan, you can once again cut a removal spell or two in order to fit them in. You can also cut the second Entreat the Angels, but I don't think that a card that solves none of the real problems reliably is where you want to be. I, however, do acknowledge the fact that Vendilion Clique can pressure planeswalkers effectively and close out games, but it doesn't really fit into the plan of dealing with what they bring to the table since they can only work proactively, forcing us to tap out more often than not while having no insurance that their next card drawn is bad. Most of the time it's just a chump blocker with a peek equipped to it. I would love to bring in Vendilion Clique in addition to my other cards but not instead of them, not in this configuration. If you are on the play, however, Vendilion Clique loses some of its downside of being clunky and could therefore be brought in over the fourth Swords to Plowshares and/or an additional piece of removal from the sideboard. Entreat the Angels is also an option as it is very good at dealing with opposing Stoneforge Mystics when you're on the play.
Generally speaking, it is very hard to identify any variation of Blade decks on the fly. They may or may not have cards that totally change the dynamics of the game, such as Lingering Souls, Notion Thief or Sorin, Lord of Innistrad. This matchup can be very easy but also incredibly challenging, and if your opponent has built their Stoneblade deck in a way that is tailored to prey on Miracles, it's going to be incredibly hard to win.
Let's now move on to the best positioned midrange deck in the current metagame: Shardless BUG. Often falsely described as BUG Control, Shardless BUG is a midrange deck at heart. Its ways to interact early vary from list to list, but due to its inclusion of blue, there will be a playset of Force of Will most of the time. Their choice of discard ranges from Thoughtseize over Inquisition of Kozilek to Hymn to Tourach, giving them another way to actually represent anything before the fundamental turn. Even though Force of Will and discard might sound like a lot to overcome, it kind of isn't as many lists don't even run full playsets of said cards, and one cannot simply expect to beat any of Legacy's combo decks with a single piece of disruption. Shardless BUG hopes to avoid the matchups where interaction before the fundamental turn is mandatory with the upside of being very hard to bring down in their comfort zone: the midgame.
Shardless Agent and Ancestral Vision make sure they don't run out of cards while making many one-for-one trades, leveraging them into a positive position due to drawing more cards than their opponent. Their main creature is Tarmogoyf, while their lategame spells are planeswalkers, namely Liliana of the Veil and Jace, the Mind Sculptor. So which of those factors are of relevance to us?
First and foremost, Ancestral Vision and planeswalkers. What if I told you that Ancestral Recall for free was not good for us? Well you'd probably assume that, right?! The same goes for Ancestral Vision. It doesn't even matter if they hit it via Shardless Agent or cast it via suspend, as we cannot present that much of a clock to make these few turns matter. As a general rule of thumb, counter Ancestral Visions, but do not Force of Will it. Use your Counterspells or Red Elemental Blasts postboard on it, but do not Force of Will it; I'd rather have the chance that they miss at drawing three than throwing two cards at their potential to draw three good cards.
Planeswalkers are, once again, another incredibly infuriating annoyance that you have to deal with. While Liliana of the Veil is beatable under various scenarios, it's once again very important to not let Jace, the Mind Sculptor resolve since he will, similar to the Blade matchups, give them access to way too many cards while also shuffling away their countless dead ones. Liliana of the Veil is beatable with flash creatures but can also be ignored until we are ready to pull the trigger on our one big trump in this, and many other, matchups: Entreat the Angels.
Shardless BUG cannot really deal with this card once it resolves with the exception of one or two copies of Toxic Deluge if they're even playing them. Their ways of interaction on the stack is often times only Force of Will, making it a risk that is easy to calculate with. Entreat the Angels is our one card that we will be playing towards in this matchup.
Before I talk about how to approach Shardless BUG generally, let me return to how to beat Liliana of the Veil.
I've often seen people not realizing this possibility, and while it might be obvious to many of you, let me explain it once more: if your opponent is ticking up Liliana of the Veil, try to float Entreat the Angels on top of your library. As soon as your opponent ultimates Liliana of the Veil and targets you, tap all your lands for mana and allow the ability to resolve. Regardless of their choice, you will keep the pile with the Top, activating it as soon as the opponent wants to change the phase, leading to many Angels on the battlefield and most likely a win.
But how will good Shardless BUG players counteract this strategy?
Well, there is a way, sadly. If they can see that you are on the "Entreat after Liliana ultimate" plan, they will do the following: when you pass your turn a turn before they plan to ultimate their Liliana, they will simply cast Abrupt Decay on your Top, making it impossible to do anything on their turn. To counteract this counteracting counterstrike, it's a good idea to play a second Sensei's Divining Top if you can, or sandbag a Brainstorm to draw the Entreat the Angels.
Generally speaking, fight over what comes after Ancestral Visions and planeswalkers while being patient when it comes to dealing with creatures, utilizing Terminus to its full effect if you can. When it comes to sideboarding, I would want the following ten cards:
The eleventh card would be Disenchant to counteract their trumps like Sylvan Library or Null Rod, but with the rise of Council's Judgment, I'm confident in not bringing in the Disenchant. One could also opt to side in Rest in Peace, arguing that it will not only deal with one Tarmogoyf as Swords to Plowshares does but with all four, as well as Deathrite Shaman. I prefer not to do that due to the prevalence of enchantment hate that would give them another way to kind of counter our trump card. And as there are no Counterbalances in my deck postboard, I find it rather bad to bring in Rest in Peace:
Force of Will and Counterbalance should be rather self-explanatory. Swords to Plowshares, on the other hand, isn't a bad card, but once again, their creatures often create card advantage (Shardless Agent, Baleful Strix, etc.) making it a bad trade to remove them with Swords to Plowshares. But you still need it for hard to deal with threats like Creeping Tar Pit or the one last Deathrite Shaman that you cannot use Terminus on due to being at four life on your turn.
Just in case you didn't know, Counterbalance can counter Ancestral Vision if you reveal a land. If you think that Swords to Plowshares is vital to your gameplan, you could keep one of them, instead of boarding the second Engineered Explosives as Null Rod will be somewhat negating the effect Explosives has on the game. Oddly enough, you board Engineered Explosives to deal problematic non-creature permanents like Sylvan Library, but it doesn't work on Null Rod.
Keranos, God of Storms is an incredibly potent card in this very matchup. It will take care of all their planeswalkers and most of their creatures, leaving only Creeping Tar Pit and Tarmogoyf alive. While Keranos doesn't win the game as fast as Entreat the Angels does, he does it as smooth while also having different areas of use.
All in all, this matchup is one of the toughest in Legacy for Miracles, but if you are coming prepared it should be a rather fair fight.
Midrange decks prefer to minimize their ability to interact before the fundamental turn, which is the turn where combo decks kill, tempo decks are starting to take the initiative, and control decks begin being able to interact in a meaningful way. Their different engines in said stage of the game are hard to overcome and can only be suppressed by cards that exploit weakness points of these strategies, such as Blood Moon. The way Miracles approaches these strategies is to overpower them in the late-game with Entreat the Angels, and each and every card has to be used as patiently and to as much value as possible in order to ensure a certain longevity.
You cannot suppress midrange decks in their element, and the only way is to abuse unfair cards and play to their weakness. These so called "fair" decks will always be part of what Legacy has become because their sideboards are tuned to fix their incredible weaknesses, AKA decks that force you to interact at or before the fundamental turn. With the increased amount of cantrips in Miracles, you can find Entreat the Angels way more often than normal, allowing you to win the majority of the games, even though it looked like you were on the backfoot the entire game.
You simply cannot combat them in their element. So don't.