In my last article (#shamelessselfpromotion), I suggested that Standard is moving in interesting new directions. Red decks are more powerful and faster. Whip decks have been driven out by Ugin, and U/B and Esper Dragons can handle the late game better than Abzan and Devotion.
This leaves a hole in the middle of the metagame. If your midrange deck is poorly positioned against Red Deck Wins and Control… why are you even playing it anymore? Seriously, why? You play Whip of Erebos, they play Ugin. You play Elspeth, they play Silumgar, the Drifting Death. You play Whisperwood Elemental, they play Perilous Vault or Ugin. And with Red decks getting Dragon Fodder to help them go wide around your Courser of Kruphix and embarrassing the Hero’s Downfall that was meant to be your early interaction… well… why?
This paints a pretty bleak picture. Die to the early rush or get beaten in the long game. It’s a bad time to start playing meaningful spells on Turn 3 before durdling your way to Elspeth. I suggested in the previous article (#moreshamelessselfpromotion) that to operate as a midrange deck, you need to hit the ground running much earlier. You need to be deploying relevant threats on Turn 2, not playing two tapped lands then drawing cards with Abzan Charm. Too slow, chicken Marengo!
I took my own advice, playing Abzan Aggro to the top 4 of a 68 player PPTQ last weekend. This is a truly unremarkable result, but it’s the only data point I have to back up my theory. The event was won by Bant with another aggressive Abzan deck and GW in the top 4 – which does not surprise me given how many people were playing Dragons and Red Deck Wins.
The solution to this midrange puzzle is decks like Brad Nelson & Co.’s Abzan Aggro deck, Bram Snapvenger’s GW Collected Company deck, and Craig Wescoe’s GW Ojutai deck. The GR Dragons deck piloted by Jason Chung to a PTDTK Top 8 (congrats!) also seems to fit, however it is much more reliant on its 4- and 5- drops, and so loses tempo against cheap removal and counterspells. What I want to do today is explore how these decks work, and why they are good against both aggressive and controlling decks. This comes at a price – you match up poorly against people too stubborn to stop playing slow midrange nonsense.
These decks have a few cards in common in Fleecemane Lion, Dromoka’s Command and Surrak, The Hunt Caller. Fleecemane is big enough to trade with anything the Red decks play, comes down early to pressure control and can eat up some spare mana to go monstrous. Surrak allows these decks to race, representing 10 damage in the time most other 4-cost creatures can only offer 4-7. Dromoka’s Command is actually not that well positioned, being all but dead against Control, but is excellent against the other aggressive decks.
These cards frame a similar strategy between all three decks. They start with one drops (Elvish Mystic or Warden of the First Tree) and more two drops than just the lion (Avatar of the Resolute, Sylvan Caryatid and Rakshasa Deathdealer). This allows them to get on the board underneath counterspells, and start blocking Goblin tokens. Next are powerful three drops (Anafenza, Deathmist Raptor, Courser of Kruphix, Reverent Hunter) and the curve-toppers (Collected Company, Siege Rhino or Ojutai). This leads to a tight curve with the remaining slots going to efficient removal.
One way these decks win is by curving out. Elvish Mystic into Boon Satyr into Surrak deals 19 damage by turn 4. Boom, you’re dead! Starting the curve at one is important to beat counterspells from the Control decks, especially if they follow Mike Flores’s 5-Colour Mono Blue Dragons and play Nullify alongside Silumgar’s Scorn. You just can’t keep hands without a relevant play on the first two turns in this format, otherwise you start too far behind.
Furthermore, you can race the Red decks quite well. Each creature you play tends to trade with a card from the red deck or brick wall their offence… for the first few turns. They you start dropping Coursers and Rhinos and their Lightning Strikes look pretty miserable. You can often disregard much of what red decks are doing, trading advantageously if not brick walling their aggression entirely.
Each deck also has plenty of ways to use mana in the long game or when flooding out. Looping Den Protectors, monstrifying Fleecemane Lions, bestowing Boon Satyrs, pumping Deathdealers or activating Mastery of the Unseens allows relevant plays well past Turn 5. This is why they’re so good against the control decks – they don’t need to win early, and can grind control players out of cards. This means that control decks are placed in quite a bind – they need to spend the early game trying to blunt your assault, and are never given a chance to stop interacting to draw cards.
Ideally you want to have some life gain lying around, to avoid getting burned out by Red or raced in the air by Control or Dragons decks. A smattering of card advantage helps here too, be it Den Protector, Collected Company or Abzan Charm.
Which should I play?
Abzan Aggro has Siege Rhino, the most obnoxious creature since Thragtusk. It also can have Hero’s Downfall and Ultimate Price, making the GR decks very beatable. Thoughtseize is also great, though I prefer it in the sideboard unless you’re playing Den Protector too. Abzan Aggro is weak to Foul-Tongue Invocation and the bigger midrange decks.
Bant is able to sideboard counterspells to help the control matchup, and has the best long game in Mastery of the Unseen and Ojutai. It is vulnerable to flooding and has weaker removal than Abzan Aggro, but gains inevitability thanks to the megamorph package. It matches up well against Abzan in various guises, but is pretty weak to Stormbreath Dragon and Wraths.
GW has instant speed creatures which outmanoeuvres control decks. It also only has two colours, allowing it to play fewer tapped lands to speed up its clock and take less pain. It is possibly better against Red and Control than the other decks being considered, but comparatively weaker against the various midrange decks.
All of these decks are defensible choices, which should be unsurprising given how similar their strategies are. They are also interchangeable – want to play Bant Collected Company? Rework the mana base to get Stratus Dancers and Silumgar Sorcerers. Want to play the megamorph package in Abzan Aggro? Shave the numbers of Anafenza and removal and go for it! These decks are important more for how their strategies match up against the opposite ends of the format than for the particular cards you select for them.
Tips and Tricks
- Consider 1-of creatures with passive effects like Courser of Kruphix and Anafenza, Kin-Tree Spirit – you never really want more than one but the advantage that you gain from having them on the battlefield for a few turns is huge.
- Play plenty of the modal removal spells – Valorous Stance, Dromoka’s Command and Abzan Charm. These allow you more decisions than any other deck in the format.
- There are incredibly hateful sideboard cards available – Surge of Righteousness, Self-Inflicted Wound, Gainsay, Glare of Heresy and so on… make use of them!
- Feel free to hold back creatures against Control decks. Control decks can’t usually get UUUU for double counters until turn 5, which makes turn 4 a good time to play two threats.
- Think several turns ahead, especially when casting Thoughtseize. There are times when you will leave your opponent with their best spells if you can finish the game before they become relevant.
- Draw lots of Siege Rhinos. In fact, one of the best reasons for playing Den Protector in Abzan is to recycle dead Rhinos.
I dubbed these decks ‘The New Midrange’ because the format is quite punishing to traditional builds of Whip, Devotion and Abzan decks. Keep your curve low, play some mana sinks and you can still occupy the space between aggro and control, whilst beating both. Continue to jam 6 and 7 mana spells at your own risk!