Ever since the advent of Jund in Shards of Alara, the presence of midrange decks in all formats has been on the rise. Instead of using cards in conjunction to create an advantage based on a powerful interaction (combo), critical mass (aggro), or insurmountable late-game (control), individually powerful threats and answers like Siege Rhino and Hero’s Downfall have pushed Magic towards the middle of the range. This is especially true in Standard. In this new world, learning how to build and combat midrange strategies is a crucial skill for Standard literacy.
Last weekend, I played Abzan Midrange in SCG Open Portland. In game three against Mardu Midrange, I played Courser on turn three. He played nothing and passed with Crackling Doom mana up. I drew Temple of Malady and revealed another Courser on top of my library. My hand was two Siege Rhinos, two Hero’s Downfalls, an Utter End, and the Temple of Malady. I moved to attackers and successfully got in for 2. My opponent did not pause to consider removing my Courser with Crackling Doom. I played my Temple and considered whether to keep the other Courser on top or scry it to the bottom.
In general, Coursers are not useful in multiples. If my Courser remained on the battlefield, the second copy would be redundant. That said, my opponent would likely have to remove my Courser in order to win. I had removal to make the game go long, so the value I would accrue by playing lands from the top of my library would likely allow me to pull ahead. However, my opponent did not remove my Courser before taking 2 damage, which suggested he did not have a removal spell. Another possibility was that my opponent did have Crackling Doom, and hadn’t cast it in the hopes of either picking off a bigger creature or of convincing me to scry my second Courser to the bottom with Temple of Malady.
Usually, when I scry and I have a lot of one resource, I look for another resource. When I have a lot of lands or not enough lands, I scry spells to the top or bottom respectively. In this case, my hand was all spells that cost a medium amount of mana and trade 1-for-1—“midrange cards.” This made me want to scry for another type of resource. Perhaps I could find a cheaper spell like Thoughtseize that would allow me to cast two spells in one turn, or I could find a planeswalker to gain incremental advantage in the face of many 1-for-1 trades.
With these things in mind, I chose to bottom the Courser.
This was wrong, and I lost the match because of it.
In this case, another unexciting, redundant threat was just what the doctor ordered. In a midrange matchup like Mardu versus Abzan, the victor will be whoever sticks the last threat. Both decks have plenty of removal to answer the other’s threats, and assuming answers and threats all trade 1-for-1, the person with the higher quantity of spells will come out on top. This person “midranged harder.”
As opposed to a tempo-based matchup, the question is—who will win if both players get to cast all their spells? This harkens back to the beginnings of Magic. In the early days, mana curve was unheard of and decks were constructed by jamming together all the biggest creatures in one’s possession. Today, while we must consider mana curve so that we don’t lose before even getting to play, once we escape the first few turns of a midrange matchup, the deck that can midrange harder is likely to win.
Conversely, when playing an aggro, control, or combo strategy it is important to have a diversity of cards that fill different roles. For example, consider a Sphinx’s Revelation control deck from previous Standard. In order to be successful, it was necessary to not only have a good balance of lands and spells, but also a balance of cheap answers and game-ending spells like Sphinx’s Revelation. When scrying, if you saw a resource that you were already flush with, it made sense to bottom it, because a mix of resources would get you where you wanted to go—your insurmountable late-game. But in a midrange strategy, there is less diversity in spell power-level and mana cost. Instead of cheap answers backed up by expensive game-ending threats like a control deck, most spells in a midrange deck cost a “medium” amount, so the deck’s power comes to bear in the middle of the game.
My mistake was that I valued spell diversity over spell quantity in the midrange mirror. In midrange mirrors, prioritizing cheap spells in order to cast multiple spells per turn is less important because both decks are slow. Even though the second Courser was a redundant spell, I should have kept it because it was a spell nonetheless, and would have eventually demanded an answer. As it happened, my opponent did cast Crackling Doom on my end step, and I got out-midranged because I lacked a Courser.
Since the Open, I found myself mulling over how the strategies governing card selection in midrange decks differ from strategies in more focused archetypes. For me, it is always helpful to consider whether tempo or attrition is more important in a given situation, and use that distinction as a frame for in-game decisions. Don’t make my mistake—attrition is more important than tempo in midrange mirrors.
I simplified a bit for the sake of argument. Of course, not all threats and answers are created equal. Resilient threats are another way to win the midrange mirror. Some have called Hordeling Outburst the best card in Standard because it is so hard to answer 1-for-1. When testing Yuuya’s Jeskai Tokens deck from the World Championships, I won games against Abzan midrange by merely casting a couple Hordeling Outbursts, and a couple removal spells. When your Goblins eat Hero’s Downfalls, you feel like a million bucks. If left with no threats and no profitable answers, the opponent will lose to the remaining Goblins.
Until next time, midrange harder!
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Photo credit Brian Swatkins