At the end of my article last week, I talked about the decks that I'd be happy playing in a Standard tournament before Fate Reforged hits the shelves. My top five decks were all hardcore midrange decks, and that shouldn't be any surprise.
Midrange is great!
Why Should I Play Midrange?
You control the pace of the game, either with threats or answers. Nothing is too difficult to deal with because of your excellent removal. If you can't deal with it, the Kibler mantra of "kill them before it matters" holds true. Additionally, you generally have good matchups against the random decks in the field -- you're essentially the fun police.
Midrange decks aren't flimsy, meaning they don't rely on specific things to win them the game. Your opponent can't simply attack one aspect of your deck and expect it to be good enough. Most of the cards in your deck are going to provide value, be multi-faceted, and ultimately bring you closer to winning the game.
There's also lot of space to innovate and metagame against the decks you choose to target because midrange doesn't really care about synergy.
Why Is Midrange Good Now?
A long time ago, you probably looked at a decklist like this and laughed:
At the time, Luis Scott-Vargas liked to play midrange decks. What did he get for his troubles?
47 Scott-Vargas, Luis [USA] $710 5
$710? What a strange amount. It didn't take long for Luis to grow tired of medium finishes and widen his range.
Pro Tour Berlin, playing Elves:
1 Luis Scott-Vargas 25 $40,000
40K? That's a nice, round number. I like it.
Grand Prix Los Angeles, playing Storm:
1 Scott-Vargas, Luis D 10 $3,500
Was midrange actually so bad that it was the only thing that held Luis back? It seemed like as soon as he put down the Loxodon Hierarchs and picked up the combo decks he started winning.
It's funny to be around in that era and see how popular (and good!) midrange is now. What changed? Well, back in the day you might look at some decks like these and note a couple of things:
For the most part, the cards in your current midrange deck are pretty good no matter who you're facing. Siege Rhino is one of the most powerful cards in the format and plays offense and defense really well. The cards we get to play with now aren't as polarized, so we don't have to necessarily worry about drawing the "good half" of our deck in certain matchups.
To top it off, counterspells have gotten much worse. Luis' Hollywood deck had to face off against Faeries with Rune Snag, Cryptic Command, and Mistbind Clique. I can't imagine that was anything but frustrating.
Midrange has now shifted to be more proactive, but most of that has to do with the cards that are available and not because we made some brilliant revelation about how to build our decks. You always had to be the aggro deck against control, and now you're able to actually follow through with a gameplan more fluidly instead of trying to beat them down with Yavimaya Elders.
Against aggro, you have to be the control deck and you lose out a little bit there, but the cards are generally more powerful, so you don't take as big of a hit in that department as you might expect. Their cards are a lot better too, so you can't exactly take the path of inevitability, which is a downer. The upside is that once you turn the corner, you can kill them relatively quickly, so you give them less draw steps to actually find their powerful cards.
Overall, midrange has gotten better on multiple fronts, while every other archetype has mostly stayed the same. Instead of trying to play multiple roles poorly, midrange actually does a fine job at pivoting.
What To Avoid When Building Midrange
You don't want to repeat the mistakes of midrange decks from the past. Step one is avoiding having dead cards in popular matchups. The narrowness of removal against control and discard against beatdown decks was the bane of old midrange decks. With things like Thoughtseize and Hero's Downfall, your cards aren't dead as often, so that's definitely a big help.
Diminishing returns is also something to be aware of. The second Whip of Erebos doesn't do much, and additional copies of Hornet Queen are rather weak as well. Consider how many of each card you'd like to draw in certain matchups and that should help you tune your deck.
For example, Murderous Cut is great with Satyr Wayfinder or Sidisi, Brood Tyrant, but if you're playing Abzan Reanimator, you don't have many cards that mill yourself. The second Murderous Cut is almost always going to be worse than your first copy, plus drawing multiples is pretty bad against control decks. Consider something like Hero's Downfall or Abzan Charm / Sultai Charm instead.
Your roadblocks against aggro and threats against control should overlap as much as possible. Courser of Kruphix and Siege Rhino both do a great job in that regard, but things like Polukranos, World Eater are generally unimpressive. Big monsters might clock them quickly, but you'd be better off playing something a little more resilient to removal and/or something that gets in under counterspells.
Protect The Queen VS True Midrange
If you have the opportunity to play a Protect the Queen strategy instead of a real midrange deck, I would opt for Protect the Queen. We might not have a lot of opportunities to do that in Standard, but it's still something worth mentioning.
How To Approach The Mirror
This has been tricky recently. How big your opponents are going should determine your gameplan. I tend to err on the side of being very aggressive, like with Jund or Mono-Black Devotion, but I can also see merit in going over the top of everyone, like with Abzan Reanimator.
The games will likely go long, so typically the person with inevitability has the edge. Ensure that you have a way to KO your opponent in the lategame or at least prevent them from doing what they're trying to do. You can load up on answers for Whip of Erebos, but that leaves you weak to their Siege Rhino draws.
Ideally, you'll have some catchalls like Utter End and a little bit of removal for everything, but loading up on answers for a specific permanent is generally not a good idea. The danger of having dead cards is very real, and you're better off formulating a gameplan that blanks a portion of their deck rather than trying to answer each piece individually.
For example, Pharika, God of Affliction is the best card in the mirrors because it can blank Siege Rhino, Whip of Erebos, and stuff like Soul of Innistrad. Together with Doomwake Giant, it provides a midgame Plague Wind (or In Garruk's Wake for the newer players out there) that will set them so far behind they won't be able to catch up.
You're also going to want a lot of "big" cards that alter the game in ways that Siege Rhino cannot. I'm thinking things like Whip of Erebos, Wingmate Roc, and See the Unwritten, since they are things that put you ahead and potentially go over the top of whatever your opponent is doing. If you're not sure if your card is "big" enough, imagine what it would be like drawing it in the mid-game during a board stall. Does it drastically alter the game? If not, maybe you should look for something bigger.
If you have some card advantage like Read the Bones, that will help with threat density, but again, you don't want too much of any one thing. I can't stress the importance of not getting run over by Siege Rhino. Read the Bones is great and everything, but your first order of business is trying not to die to their random animals.
Abzan Aggro is a great example of when to be lower to the ground. Gaining an edge in the Whip of Erebos mirrors is difficult because they're coming at you from so many different angles. What you actually want to do is go under them like Abzan Aggro does, as it's a relatively simple solution to a very complex problem.
Putting It All Into Practice
Last weekend I played in a PTQ in Portland, hoping to put all of this knowledge to good use. I played this:
- 2 Reaper of the Wilds
- 1 Reclamation Sage
- 4 Satyr Wayfinder
- 4 Siege Rhino
- 2 Soul of Theros
- 4 Sylvan Caryatid
- 4 Courser of Kruphix
- 2 Doomwake Giant
- 2 Anafenza, the Foremost
- 1 Pharika, God of Affliction
I wasn't sure if this deck would be the answer to all my problems, which is why I didn't post it initially, but it did what I wanted it to. Hornet Queen is no longer a viable option for stabilizing since everyone has Bile Blights and whatnot, so instead I went with the lifegain alternative from Soul of Theros. In order to get the most advantage out of the Soul as possible, I needed some additional creatures, preferably ones that were difficult to remove.
I originally had Polukranos, World Eater in this spot because it does well against Siege Rhino. However, they're basically free to bluff-attack into it because any deck that has Siege Rhino probably has Abzan Charm as well. Since most of the creatures in the format have a lot of toughness and I'm not playing Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx, Polukranos is little more than a Jade Leech.
Reaper of the Wilds is the true hero of the story. You want a card that's good against midrange mirrors? Well, here it is. It attacks into basically anything, deters Siege Rhino from attacking, can protect itself, and if things start trading off, it will help you find another big card.
Reaper of the Wilds also helped with my other new card.
Against Abzan Aggro, if you play a normal game with Abzan Reanimator, you'll often get run over. You need something that can stabilize the board against multiple creatures, some of which will have hexproof or regeneration. End Hostilities isn't a great answer, so I looked for something that could stop them dead in their tracks.
Hornet Queen used to be that card, but they're ready for it. Instead of a swarm of insects, I'm trying to just put two fatties into play. If I happen to mill over a Soul of Theros, that's pretty nice too. Sometimes your best bet is to actually put Soul of Theros into play, but that plan is pretty bad if you think they have an Abzan Charm to exile it.
Here's a rough sideboarding guide for some of the more popular matchups:
VS Abzan Aggro
VS Abzan/Sultai Reanimator
VS U/B Control
VS W/U Heroic
VS Jeskai Tokens
I made Top 8 of the PTQ and was pleased with the deck. If you're interested in it further, you can check out the videos I did earlier this week. Fate Reforged is dropping this weekend, and I imagine that Standard will change at least a little bit, so who knows if Whip of Erebos will even be what you want to be doing.
If it is, I won't be upset though.