PV’s Playhouse – Midrange


A while ago, I wrote articles on Aggro, Control, Combo and Aggro-Control. Today I’m going to expand on that and write about an archetype that has become increasingly popular and increasingly better—midrange.

There are many ways to define a “midrange” deck, and if your definition is different than mine, it’s not a big deal—the principle is what counts here. In my mind, a midrange deck is a deck with creatures, except that those creatures don’t necessarily try to kill your opponent very quickly—they try to outclass what your opponent is doing. It’s an aggro deck but bigger; instead of running a bunch of 2/2s for 1, it runs 5/5s for 4. It’s a control deck, except it has creatures instead of spells; instead of playing [card]Wrath of God[/card] and killing their creatures, it aims to play a 4/4, and then a 5/5, which effectively kills their creatures because they can’t really do anything with them anymore.

Historically speaking, midrange decks have been much-maligned, including by me. This reputation is not exactly fair—it comes from some sort of selective memory where I only remember the bad midrange decks and then pass the good ones off as “aggro decks of some sort.” There is no denying, however, that midrange decks have gotten better through the years—a function of permanents getting better and the printing of planeswalkers.

Throughout history, we’ve had many successful midrange decks. I can’t tell you what the first one was, but the most iconic midrange deck nowadays is probably Jund. Lately we’ve had Jund decks in Standard, Modern, and even Legacy:

Reid Duke’s Old-Standard Jund from GP Miami, 1st place:

[deck]Main Deck
4 Blood Crypt
1 Cavern of Souls
3 Dragonskull Summit
2 Kessig Wolf Run
4 Overgrown Tomb
3 Rootbound Crag
4 Stomping Ground
4 Woodland Cemetery
4 Huntmaster of the Fells
3 Olivia Voldaren
4 Thragtusk
2 Vampire Nighthawk
1 Abrupt Decay
4 Bonfire of the Damned
4 Farseek
2 Ground Seal
2 Pillar of Flame
2 Putrefy
1 Rakdos Keyrune
2 Rakdos’s Return
2 Tragic Slip
2 Garruk, Primal Hunter
1 Curse of Death’s Hold
2 Duress
2 Ground Seal
3 Liliana of the Veil
1 Pillar of Flame
1 Rakdos’s Return
2 Ruric Thar, the Unbowed
2 Tragic Slip
1 Underworld Connections[/deck]

Justin Cheung’s Modern Jund from GP Brisbane – Top 4

[deck]Main Deck
4 Blackcleave Cliffs
1 Blood Crypt
1 Forest
3 Marsh Flats
1 Misty Rainforest
2 Overgrown Tomb
3 Raging Ravine
1 Stomping Ground
2 Swamp
2 Treetop Village
4 Verdant Catacombs
4 Dark Confidant
4 Deathrite Shaman
2 Huntmaster of the Fells
2 Scavenging Ooze
4 Tarmogoyf
1 Thundermaw Hellkite
1 Abrupt Decay
3 Inquisition of Kozilek
4 Lightning Bolt
2 Maelstrom Pulse
2 Terminate
3 Thoughtseize
4 Liliana of the Veil[/deck]

Pat Cox’s Legacy Jund deck from GP Denver – 2nd

[deck]Main Deck
3 Badlands
2 Bayou
4 Bloodstained Mire
1 Forest
1 Mountain
1 Swamp
1 Taiga
4 Verdant Catacombs
4 Wasteland
3 Wooded Foothills
3 Bloodbraid Elf
4 Dark Confidant
4 Deathrite Shaman
2 Grim Lavamancer
4 Tarmogoyf
3 Abrupt Decay
3 Hymn to Tourach
4 Lightning Bolt
1 Sylvan Library
4 Thoughtseize
4 Liliana of the Veil
2 Ancient Grudge
2 Duress
3 Engineered Plague
1 Hymn to Tourach
1 Life from the Loam
1 Nihil Spellbomb
3 Pyroblast
2 Umezawa’s Jitte[/deck]

“Jund” originally comes from the color combination black/red/green, but the name now means a midrange deck in those color combinations, usually with some discard, some removal, and good creatures. Those decks try to beat aggro by killing their important guys and brickwalling the others with the likes of [card]Thragtusk[/card] and [card]Tarmogoyf[/card], and they try to beat control with disruption like [card]Thoughtseize[/card], [card]Hymn to Tourach[/card], [card]Liliana of the Veil[/card], and [card]Rakdos’s Return[/card].

Jund decks are good for two reasons: first, despite not being blue, they have good sources of card advantage. Standard Jund had [card]Thragtusk[/card], [card]Huntmaster of the Fells[/card], [card]Bonfire of the Damned[/card], [card]Rakdos’s Return[/card], and often planeswalkers (Liliana and Garruk). Modern Jund has [card]Dark Confidant[/card] and [card]Liliana of the Veil[/card], and nowadays some people play [card]Chandra, Pyromaster[/card] too. And Legacy Jund has [card]Hymn to Tourach[/card], [card]Bloodbraid Elf[/card], [card]Dark Confidant[/card], [card]Sylvan Library[/card], and Liliana. Those cards mean Jund can afford to play a lot of cheap, effective 1-for-1 answers and still come out ahead, and it means it can actually fight control’s card advantage. All the forms of the deck also have lands that do things—[card]Kessig Wolf Run[/card], [card]Treetop Village[/card], [card]Wasteland[/card], [card]Raging Ravine[/card]. Midrange decks usually have higher mana demands when compared to normal aggressive decks, so they need this kind of land to make sure they don’t flood out in the late game.

The second reason is that the creatures (and planeswalkers) in Jund are effective against both aggro and control. [card]Thragtusk[/card] and [card]Huntmaster of the Fells[/card] gained you life and provided more blockers, but they were also hard to kill and presented a decent clock. [card]Dark Confidant[/card] can trade early and draw into cheap answers against aggro decks, but it’s a big nightmare for control. [card]Bloodbraid Elf[/card] can impact the board heavily by answering two threats at the same time, but it also presents two different threats that control decks have to deal with. Liliana kills creatures, but is also a major threat against control, and so on. This trait being present in so many cards ensures that the deck can compete with control in the late game—that it is not going to draw a bunch of useless cards and die if it gets to that point. The best midrange decks will always have many cards that are effective against aggro while also being hard to answer (or at least retain some utility) against control.

Midrange Versus Aggro

One defining characteristic of aggro decks is that, in the mirror match, you usually want to be “less aggro.” You want to have slightly bigger guys, you want the game to go longer and then you will outclass them with your more powerful cards. Boarding into slower, powerful cards has always been a winning strategy in aggro mirrors—[card]Ranger of Eos[/card], [card]Umezawa’s Jitte[/card], and [card]Arc Slogger[/card] are good examples.

Midrange decks are essentially aggro decks that have already boarded. They might play cheap creatures, but they also play beefy creatures—cards like [card]Knight of the Reliquary[/card], [card]Loxodon Hierarch[/card], and [card]Baneslayer Angel[/card]. When the dust from the early game is settled, then those creatures will outclass any creatures your opponents have. This gives midrange decks a fundamental advantage over aggro decks, and it is traditionally their good matchup.

There are two ways that midrange decks lose to aggro decks. The first one is when the aggro decks are too fast and have ways to stop midrange’s big creatures. Midrange decks are naturally slower, and having a big creature on turn three is sometimes not enough when they have five creatures out, or when they can dispatch your creature with only 1 or 2 mana. The second way is when burn spells are too good—you might stabilize and still lose to burn because you are at a low life total.

One example that encompasses both situations is Naya versus mono-red in the current Standard. Here are the deck lists, for reference:


[deck]4 Firedrinker Satyr
4 Ash Zealot
4 Rakdos Cackler
4 Firefist Striker
4 Chandra’s Phoenix
4 Fanatic of Mogis
4 Burning-Tree Emissary
4 Lightning Strike
2 Magma Jet
4 Boros Reckoner
2 Mutavault
20 Mountains[/deck]


[deck]1 Angel Of Serenity
4 Boros Reckoner
4 Fleecemane Lion
4 Ghor-clan Rampager
3 Loxodon Smiter
1 Polis Crusher
2 Ruric Thar, The Unbowed
1 Scavenging Ooze
4 Stormbreath Dragon
4 Voice Of Resurgence
2 Forest
2 Mountain
1 Plains
4 Sacred Foundry
4 Stomping Ground
4 Temple Garden
4 Temple Of Abandon
4 Temple Of Triumph
2 Chandra, Pyromaster
3 Domri Rade
2 Mizzium Mortars[/deck]

We were testing the Naya deck and we thought it wouldn’t have many problems against red, since its creatures were all bigger and it had [card]Voice of Resurgence[/card], which is supposed to be very good in the early game, but that was not what ended up happening. First, the mana in the Naya deck was really bad—too many of the lands came into play tapped or dealt you damage, so you took damage every time you wanted to react. Then, the red deck had an excellent way to go around Naya’s big creatures: [card]Firefist Striker[/card]. When you keep a hand with a turn three [card]Boros Reckoner[/card] and by turn three you’re facing a [card]Firefist Striker[/card] and two other creatures, you’re just not going to win.

Then, the red deck also had a lot of good burn—even if the Naya deck stabilized, it could still easily lose to a [card]Chandra’s Phoenix[/card] flying in for the last points of damage, a huge [card]Fanatic of Mogis[/card], [card]Lightning Strike[/card]s, or [card]Boros Reckoner[/card]s that would always end up damaging the opponent. This combination of factors made the matchup actually very good for the red deck if you understood that your goal in the game was to simply take their life total low enough that you’d end up drawing enough burn to beat them.

If the red deck tried to burn the creatures, then the Naya deck would just play more creatures and eventually win. The Naya deck would certainly win the “board” fight—its creatures were better—but when the red deck made the game about life, and not about board, it struggled. When you are the midrange deck, this is how you will lose to aggro—when they change the focus of the game to life total.

So, if I’m midrange, how do I solve that? You have to either be able to beat them in the “life” game, with something like [card]Baneslayer Angel[/card], [card]Lightning Helix[/card], or [card]Unflinching Courage[/card], or you need enough cheap spells so that you get to the late game at a healthy enough life total and don’t die to burn. Playing some amount of [card]Chained to the Rocks[/card], for example, would go a long way toward making the Naya deck beat Red, because it gives you a turn two play that doesn’t cost any life and that also happens to deal with the most problematic cards (Striker, Reckoner, Phoenix).

During the game, there are two tricky parts. The first is when you should use your cheap removal, and the answer is “often.” It’s tempting to save it for a good target, but cheap removal is there because it’s cheap—use it so you don’t die. Of course, if you have a 3/3 don’t go throwing [card]Chained to the Rocks[/card] on their 2/2 on turn 1, but in general your life total is more important than the board, and their cards are usually somewhat interchangeable—they all only matter for how much damage they deal to you, so don’t be stingy with those removal spells. Also, never worry about trading—if they attack with a 2/2 into your 3/3, you usually want to block. If they want to spend a [card]Magma Jet[/card] killing that, that’s great for you.

The other tricky part is knowing when you should start going aggressive. As a general rule, you don’t want to take risks—if you’re at 2 life, then it might be worth staying home with your 3/3 so that you don’t die to a haste guy, for example. You do need to be relatively aggressive if they have ways to break through, though, such as burn or [card]Brave the Elements[/card]. You win the mid-game, but they have the inevitability in the super long game. Try to analyze how good your position is, what topdecks you lose to, and then decide if attacking is worth it.

Midrange Versus Control

Control is very different from aggro. Whereas in the aggro mirror you want to go in the opposite direction of your natural inclination—you want to be less aggressive—in control mirrors, the more controlling you are, the better. The best cards, in general, are disruption, counterspells, card drawing, and lands. This creates a fundamental problem for midrange, since there is no way you’re going to out-control control decks—you’ll trade 1-for-1 and then they will play a big card draw spell and you will lose. Control decks have historically had good midrange matchups.

The way to beat control if you’re building a midrange deck is to try and bring both early and late game. You need cards that pressure them, but you also need cards that will do something if the game goes long. Let’s take a look at Kibler’s Zoo deck from PT Austin:

[deck]Main Deck
4 Arid Mesa
1 Forest
1 Ghost Quarter
4 Grove of the Burnwillows
2 Marsh Flats
4 Misty Rainforest
1 Mountain
1 Plains
1 Sacred Foundry
2 Stomping Ground
1 Temple Garden
2 Treetop Village
3 Baneslayer Angel
4 Knight of the Reliquary
3 Noble Hierarch
3 Qasali Pridemage
4 Tarmogoyf
4 Wild Nacatl
1 Elspeth, Knight-Errant
4 Lightning Bolt
2 Lightning Helix
4 Path to Exile
4 Punishing Fire
3 Ancient Grudge
3 Blood Moon
3 Ghost Quarter
1 Hallowed Fountain
1 Kataki, War’s Wage
4 Meddling Mage[/deck]

This deck is basically Zoo, but bigger. It is capable of having quick [card]Wild Nacatl[/card]/[card]Tarmogoyf[/card]/[card]Lightning Bolt[/card] draws, but it can also win the long game with [card]Knight of the Reliquary[/card], [card]Punishing Fire[/card], and [card]Baneslayer Angel[/card]. Normally, against aggro decks, you want to play the long game—you play cards like [card]Yoked Ox[/card] because you assume that if you reach the late game you will naturally win. With this deck, that is not true—this deck can beat control with its powerful cards and engines if the game goes late.

That’s not to say its late game is impossible to deal with—it’s not. Well, OK, in this particular example, it has [card]Punishing Fire[/card]/[card]Grove of the Burnwillows[/card], which is actually very hard to deal with, but assuming the only reason it wins is that combo, you could theoretically bring something like [card]Cranial Extraction[/card] in to deal with it. For [card]Baneslayer Angel[/card], you can have [card]Counterspell[/card]s. For Elspeth, you can have Needles—and so on. The problem is that this deck presents all of this while, at the same time, keeping the possibility of a fast draw. If your hand is [card]Cranial Extraction[/card]s and [card]Counterspell[/card]s, you will simply lose to [card]Wild Nacatl[/card]s. This deck presents a double-threat—it’s a midrange deck, with powerful midrange cards, but it’s also a fast deck that will punish you if you stumble. It’s an aggro deck that at the same time will beat you if you go to the late game, because it has powerful cards. This double-threat is why the deck is good.

To present the double-threat, you need your cards to have early game impact, but you also need them to be able to do something in the late game against control decks (and it’s also good if they can help your early game against aggro). In Kibler’s deck, you have [card]Wild Nacatl[/card], which gets somewhat outclassed, but it’s still a 3/3—it is actually a decent blocker that will trade with other aggro decks’ early drops and it’s not a total embarrassment as a late-game card. [card]Qasali Pridemage[/card] has other uses, and [card]Knight of the Reliquary[/card] and [card]Tarmogoyf[/card] get super big and can actually kill people very quickly or go past their blockers. Your “aggro” cards are not blanks, no matter the scenario.

Lately, permanents have gotten increasingly more powerful, and planeswalkers present a threat that is very hard to answer. If you have enough of those, you can actually grind the control decks out. At some point, they won’t be able to answer something, and whatever that is will kill them. The Naya deck that I posted earlier is an example of that—it runs cards like [card]Domri Rade[/card], [card]Voice of Resurgence[/card], [card]Fleecemane Lion[/card], and [card]Stormbreath Dragon[/card]. Each of those is hard to deal with, and most of them can kill you on their own. The deck does not have to be fast because it can fight control in the late game, but those cards are also capable of fast draws that punish the unprepared.

Another example is our red devotion deck from the PT:

[deck]Main Deck
2 Gruul Guildgate
11 Mountain
4 Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx
4 Stomping Ground
4 Temple of Abandon
4 Ash Zealot
4 Boros Reckoner
4 Burning-Tree Emissary
4 Fanatic of Mogis
4 Frostburn Weird
3 Purphoros, God of the Forge
4 Stormbreath Dragon
4 Domri Rade
2 Hammer of Purphoros
2 Xenagos, the Reveler
2 Anger of the Gods
2 Chandra, Pyromaster
2 Destructive Revelry
2 Ember Swallower
4 Mizzium Mortars
1 Ratchet Bomb
2 Shock[/deck]

The reason this deck was good versus control was that it presented both a fast clock and must-deal-with threats. You aren’t the fastest deck in the world, I’ll give you that, but you don’t need to be. You simply need to be fast enough that they can’t warp their decks around answering those threats.

There are many important cards in this deck—[card]Domri Rade[/card], [card]Purphoros, God of the Forge[/card], [card]Stormbreath Dragon[/card], [card]Xenagos, the Reveler[/card], and [card]Hammer of Purphoros[/card] are all hard for control decks to beat. If that is all you have, though, then they can easily beat you—they will use all their resources on those cards, they will have a lot of time to cast big Revelations, and so on. Not only that, but they’ll sideboard in a bunch of [card]Negate[/card]s and just deal with your powerful spells. But they can’t do that, because if they sideboard in, say, four [card]Negate[/card]s, they might just die to [card]Ash Zealot[/card]s, [card]Frostburn Weird[/card]s, and [card]Fanatic of Mogis[/card]. The goal of those cards in this matchup is not to kill them, but to force them into an uncomfortable position, to make sure their deck can’t just be all answers to your important cards, to make sure they have to tap out on turn four or five to deal with your guys and then let you resolve the stuff that matters.

When you play against control, the trickiest part is knowing how much pressure you should commit to the board. Nowadays, control decks have Jace and Verdict, so guessing the right card is very important—if you sit back you lose to Jace, if you overcommit you lose to Verdict. There is no easy solution for this, since there’s no way to know which one they have (or they might have both), but I’m generally a fan of playing into Verdict and not into Jace. I’ll usually overcommit more than I sit back. The reason for this is that, when you unload your hand, you often put them in a “Verdict or die” spot, whereas if you play conservatively then you might even lose to a hand that has nothing because they’ll draw into something.

The other somewhat tricky part is when to expose your must-deal-with threats. If your deck has enough ways to force them to react (which it should), then you don’t really want to run something like [card]Domri Rade[/card] into [card]Dissipate[/card]. Nowadays it’s usually obvious when they have a counterspell, since they have to take damage to leave up mana most of the time, so just don’t cast it—wait for when they have to tap out (keeping three mana a turn is not easy). Even when I have two important cards I don’t like running one into a counterspell if I can help it—I’d rather just wait one or two turns to resolve one and then, when they have to deal with that, I resolve the other. At three important cards you can start jamming them into counters, though, otherwise you will probably not have enough pressure to force them to react to begin with. It’s all a balance of how much you can get them to commit with what you already have, and the best way to learn this is to just play the matchup a lot from both sides.

Midrange Versus Combo

Here it’s going to depend a lot on what kind of midrange you have. The faster the better, and if you have discard, even better. Decks like Jund can beat combo with a combination of a fast clock and disruption, but decks like Zoo or Naya have to hope that they can race the combo decks, which is generally a losing proposition since they aren’t that fast. You have to mulligan aggressively here—you can’t keep a slow hand or a hand without any disruption. There isn’t a lot of play here either, so the only things you can do are mulligan for a good opening hand and have a good sideboard.

Sideboarding with Midrange

Sideboarding with Midrange decks is generally not hard. When you are playing against aggro decks, you generally want cheap answers—remember the whole “they beat you because your curve is bad” thing. Ways to gain life are also good—[card]Unflinching Courage[/card], [card]Obstinate Baloth[/card]s, and so on. In general, your deck is so much better in the late game that you can afford to play underpowered cards like [card]Shock[/card] just so you can reliably reach it—that’s what we did at the PT with the red deck.

The only thing you have to be careful about is keeping some balance, and making sure you still win the late game—if you take out all your expensive cards for cheap answers, you run the risk of them doing the opposite and then actually beating you in the late game. You need to be aware of what aggro decks can possibly bring against you, and make sure you can still beat that with whatever configuration you’re left with.

Against control decks, you want to take out the cards that are generally there because they are good in combat, but that don’t do much when the opponent doesn’t have creatures (e.g. [card]Boros Reckoner[/card]), or the cards that are too expensive and don’t give you any value if they get killed by a sorcery (e.g. [card]Baneslayer Angel[/card]). You can generally bring in some more must-answers—in our red deck, we brought in [card]Chandra, Pyromaster[/card]. Again, you have to be careful about keeping a balance. If you take out all your threats, no matter how bad they are, then your deck will be too slow and clunky and they will have time and resources to deal with your powerful cards. At the PT, we didn’t take out [card]Frostburn Weird[/card] and [card]Ash Zealot[/card], because they pressured them, even though those cards aren’t exactly great in the matchup.

Against combo, your best bet is specific answers. You can usually afford the slots and you have a lot of bad cards to take out (removal, any expensive creature), so going for the most powerful cards against the archetypes that beat you is usually better than having a lot of generic answers. If I’m playing against a field that includes an artifact combo deck and a graveyard combo deck, I’ll generally prefer to target one of them. If I decide the graveyard deck is more problematic, I’ll play 2 [card]Thoughtseize[/card], 2 [card]Rest in Peace[/card], as opposed to 4 [card]Thoughtseize[/card] which I would board in against both (unless of course you want [card]Thoughtseize[/card] against other things, or there are a lot more combo decks in the format). The general idea here is that you don’t bring in a card that “helps in the matchup”—you do that against every other archetype, but not against combo.

Against combo, you bring in a card that demolishes them, a card that if you draw you’re very likely to win. Sometimes you luck out and the same card demolishes multiple combos—[card]Stony Silence[/card], [card]Rule of Law[/card], etc.—but even when this is not the case I recommend picking one deck and trying to annihilate it with your sideboard.

That’s about what I have for today! To sum it up:

• Midrange decks are good if they have cards that can be used in the early game but are also good in the late game.

• To beat aggro, try to have a reasonable curve—the mid-late game should favor you regardless. Sideboard more cheap spells.

• To beat control, have a mix of pressure and must-answer threats. Either alone is probably not enough, but the combination of both is very powerful.

• To beat combo, mulligan aggressively for fast hands or hands with disruption, and sideboard specific answers that destroy them.

• When sideboarding, make sure you still keep a reasonable balance in your deck.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this and I hope to see you at GP Santiago this weekend!


1 thought on “PV’s Playhouse – Midrange”

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