Whenever you approach a new format, it’s important to note what’s most popular and where the bar is set. You need to understand where to position yourself in the format, and when you can or can’t play your opponent’s game.
If you’re playing Modern and facing U/W Control with Jund, you need to understand how to approach the matchup. Will you get a better edge by cutting early interaction for more grindy cards? The answer in this exact situation varies, but most of the time, especially if your opponent runs Ancestral Vision, you can’t beat them at their own game. You have to choose whether you can go over them by presenting a threat or game plan they can’t deal with, or win the game before they can set up. Against U/W Control, their answers are so versatile that it’s hard to present something they can’t deal with, so the best plan usually is to try going under them. You can even make the argument that each deck sets their own bar of how to approach the matchup, especially in a varied format like Modern, but to get a better idea how to construct your own deck, it’s usually best to look at the most popular decks and go from there.
In Standard, the deck that’s perceived as the most popular and most powerful is Golgari Midrange. If you grab the latest 5-0 from competitive Leagues, you’ll see this list, which is pretty much as stock as it gets.
Golgari’s strength primarily comes from its ability to grind card advantage with the combination of Find // Finality, Golgari Findbroker, Ravenous Chupacabra, and Memorial to Folly. This lets Golgari focus on using a high number of permanents to gain board presence and as tools to answer what their opponent is doing. A number of Assassin’s Trophies or other instants glue it all together. Golgari Midrange has a toolbox of powerful cards that can basically deal with any situation, which is an incredible strength, but playing too many will not only be a weakness in the mirror by making the deck too reactive, but also impairs the balance of having enough permanents to keep its engine running. That means Golgari Midrange has to choose where to position itself relative to the metagame with the right answers, which is possible to exploit.
The second way to exploit Golgari Midrange is to not play their game, much like the example of U/W Control in Modern. In this case, it means not trading resources at all. Golgari Findbroker is great, but it’s not as good if you either don’t have anything to pick up from the graveyard because your opponent doesn’t kill your creatures, or if the thing you pick up hasn’t traded with a card but simply chump-blocked something. If you have an overwhelming board state, it’s hard for Golgari’s planeswalkers to take over.
Izzet Control can be a great way to deal with aggressive decks with its cheap red removal backed up by card advantage, but you wouldn’t think of it as a way to combat Golgari Midrange. The way they do that is by sticking a Niv-Mizzet, Parun to completely run away with the game once it sticks. But then you ask yourself, how do you stick a Niv-Mizzet, Parun? Vraska, Relic Seeker, Vivien Reid, and Ravenous Chupacabra deal with it without even triggering its ability, which is the least you can hope for if your opponent tries to deal with it. The key to this otherwise complex problem in overcoming B/G Midrange with a control deck lies in a simple common blue instant: Dive Down. Since all of B/G Midrange’s efficient ways of dealing with Niv-Mizzet cost so much mana and are all sorcery speed, Dive Down can protect it for a turn and against all other possible sorcery speed removal that turn, while drawing a card and pinging for 1 damage while you’re at it! Once you untap with Niv-Mizzet, it often takes over the game completely, as you now have the chance to shoot down opposing threats by drawing cards while casting spells, protected by having your mana unlocked to protect Niv-Mizzet. Niv-Mizzet works like Dragonlord Ojutai did in Esper Dragons. Untap with it and then spend every turn protecting it while it takes over the game by itself in short order.
Izzet Control got so popular after its discovery, especially after Gabriel Nassif had success with it on stream. You can already see some of the cards that deal with the strategy popping up, such as Plaguecrafter, which deals with Niv-Mizzet, Parun, that can’t be stopped by Dive Down and doesn’t let the Niv-Mizzet player draw a card from the ability. Izzet Control also takes some splash damage from Carnage Tyrant being a pretty good card for the mirror. It’s possible to overcome these reduced numbers, but if they rise more and cards like The Eldest Reborn are added, you’ve missed your timing with the Niv-Mizzet approach. In case that happens, you can turn to a more proactive plan with Arclight Phoenix, which tries to go under G/B Midrange without trading with their creatures since all of its proactive creatures have flying.
With G/B Midrange decks gearing more and more for the mirror, with game plans ramping into Carnage Tyrant, I wanted a way to go under the the G/B Midrange deck. After looking at decks with tons of 1-drops and aggressive creatures in Boros or Mono-Red Aggro, I felt it was too hard to get there without trading too many resources or completely conceding to cards like Golden Demise or Ritual of Soot. I needed a way to be proactive without trading with their creatures. I needed to make their removal awkward, and in the end, came up with this.
Tajic, Legion’s Edge and Knight of Grace have first strike, which gets through most of their creatures in combat. Adanto Vanguard can gain indestructible at a moment’s notice, so nobody tussles with it. 4 mana makes it so that even Boros Challenger is annoying to block, and even more so if it has been mentored by Aurelia, Exemplar of Justice or Tajic, Legion’s Edge. History of Benalia, besides being one of the major reasons to play a proactive white deck, is on another power level than most cards in the format. It creates two bodies, which makes it harder to trade with, and Siege-Gang Commander makes four.
The only card that’s easily traded is Aurelia as she doesn’t line up too well against Ravenous Chupacabra or Vivien Reid, but she’s such an integral part against other matchups and so strong that she’s worth it. To be even more proactive against G/B Midrange, while not losing out on too much interaction versus other decks, I cut some removal to play Dire Fleet Daredevil. Dire Fleet Daredevil can bring that late-game grind you need—a Shock to kill their creature against Mono-Red Aggro or Izzet Phoenix, but also works as a fine 2-drop, as first strike lets it pass through most of G/B’s creatures and works wonders with mentor. Also, rebuilding by targeting the “Find” part of Find // Finality, and picking it up with Ajani, Adversary of Tyrants or drawing two with Chart a Course is the kind of feeling that help me get up in the morning.
Aurelia is a important component in the deck because it’s what makes your deck so good against Selesnya and other red decks. It’s incredibly hard to race since it beats hard with mentor and has “haste damage” included in the card, and gives hard-to-trade with creatures vigilance. Most importantly, it’s incredibly hard to kill for red deckso. If you’re not running Fight with Fire, it usually takes two burn spells to get rid of it, which is huge, given that those spells usually had to be spent to interact with your earlier spells. Beacon Bolt is the best way to deal with it from the Izzet side, but it usually doesn’t deal enough damage once Aurelia comes down on turn 4, which makes it awkward when it brickwalls all the Arclight Phoenixes.
Four Aurelias also let you transition into the Angel game plan with the addition of Shalai, Voice of Plenty and Lyra Dawnbringer, inspired by the Boros Angels deck earlier in the format. Shalai and Aurelia take a bullet as they both need to be dealt with for Lyra to take over. If they aren’t, Lyra gives them +1/+1 and lifelink, for an attack that’s almost impossible to race, and the creatures are normally too big to efficiently deal with all of them, which doesn’t run enough removal. The last unassuming member of the Angels package isn’t actually an Angel: Tajic. Why, you wonder? If you have both Tajic and Shalai in play at the same time, red decks that only run burn spells for removal can’t actually kill anything anymore. Tajic gets hexproof from Shalai and Tajic’s ability protects Shalai from non-combat damage. Game over, folks.
What more ways can you think of to pierce the sturdy Golgari Midrange game plan? If you want to go over the top, maybe my old friend Gabe can help you with that.