Prior to Grand Prix: Birmingham, I was excited about a Nova Chaser deck I had been kicking around. Have a look.
4 Fire-Lit Thicket
4 Vivid Crag
1 Primal Beyond
2 Reflecting Pool
4 Vivid Grove
4 Incandescent Soulstoke
4 Fulminator Mage
3 Nova Chaser
4 Lash Out
4 Flame Javelin
The central interaction of the deck was Flamekin Harbinger fetching Nova Chaser. The goal was to play the Chaser, Champion the Harbinger, and swing for ten. Obviously the opponent would not want to take ten again on the following turn, so he would kill the Nova Chaser – either by killing it or, as was more often the case in the pre-Birmingham days, by chumping it. The ideal scenario was when they chumped; then the Harbinger would return to play, you’d fetch up another Chaser, and do it over again next turn. If you had Incandescent Soulstoke to go with your Harbinger, you could launch hasty 11/3 tramplers at the opponent on two or three consecutive turns and then finish them with burn from there.
You’d be surprised how few opponents could handle two or three hits from a 10-power trampler. At one point I also had Spinerock Knolls (and no Shriekmaws or Reveillark), but I soon discovered that it was better to play Vivid lands and maindeck Forge-Tender answers than to just hope for the best in game 1 and bring in Moonglove Extract in game 2.
The deck was doing well against Kithkin (it took me a while to learn how to play against Mirrorweave; basically I couldn’t play Nova Chaser without Soulstoke unless I’d knocked the opponent’s creature count down to one and still had a clear path to victory if they Mirrorweaved that one creature into a 10/2), as at the time, the only thing that could really stand in the path of a game 1 Nova Chaser was Knight of Meadowgrain. Obviously I had ample ways to remove that guy.
Now, though, Kithkin maindecks as much as four apiece of Meadowgrain, Goldmeadow Harrier, Forge[/author]-Tender”]Burrenton [author name="Forge"]Forge[/author]-Tender, and Oblivion Ring. Combined with the threat of Mirrorweave, the odds of successfully executing a lethal Nova Strike against Kithkin have dropped very low indeed.
As Faeries had Nameless Inversion, Pestermite, and Cryptic Command to stall, plus Bitterblossom into Spellstutter Sprite to stop the second or third Chaser, that matchup was not as favorable as Kithkin in the first place.
I got the matchup against the Elemental Control deck that Gerry posted up to 50-50 by realizing that my best pact to victory was to consistently cast Harbinger for Fulminator Mage (or Reveillark if I already had two Mages in the yard) and just attack their mana as hard as I possibly could. Post-board I experimented with a more complete Land Destruction focus involving Poison the Well and two Faultgrinders, which resulted in a much more favorable matchup.
Then Birmingham happened, and the pure control deck of choice shifted to Manuel Bucher list, featuring not only actual countermagic to stop the land destruction, but Mind Spring (in addition to Gerry’s Mulldrifters and Mannequins) to refuel on lands, were I to start succeeding with my mana screw plans.
Sadly, the Nova Chaser deck went the way of the Allosaurus. Saddened that my combo-esque beatdown deck had failed, I turned to my old standby for approaching a format with a couple of known good decks: midrange.
As other writers have mentioned, the two defining decks of this format are clearly Kithkin and Faeries. Kithkin is a straightforward beatdown deck, while Faeries is arguably either aggro-control or full-blown control, depending on who you ask. The “pure” control deck of the format is five-color Vivid Lands/Reflecting Pool (Vivid Pool? Kinda has a nice ring to it) with Firespouts, Mannequins, and the usual monolithic fatty or two for a finishing suite. Raphael Levy rarely-discussed Elementals deck is more of a midrange control deck, with the possibility for aggressive starts via Smokebraider and Incandescent Soulstoke, but besides those two cards, the rest of his deck is the usual controllish suite of removal, card draw, tutors, and a couple of fatty finishers.
So we’ve got straightforward beatdown in Kithkin, straightforward control in Bucher’s Vivid Pool list, midrange control from Levy’s Elementals, and aggro-control or pure control (again, depending on who you ask) for Faeries. I’m not surprised that there is no combo deck in this format (you’ve got to find a combo that works first), but where’s the straightforward midrange deck? Where’s The Rock? What is this year’s Ghazi-Glare equivalent? For that matter, what happened to the midrange beatdown decks like Doran?
The problem facing midrange in this format stems from, I think, from the fact that both the beatdown decks and the control decks are very difficult to attack, combined with the fact that there is no playable combo deck.
Midrange decks tend to play slower utility creatures that have some ability that makes them really shine against either beatdown or control, which helps compensate for their slowness. Loxodon Hierarch was perhaps the quintessential example of this; as a four-mana 4/4, he was fairly slow to hit the board, but was a sizeable threat against control and a real show-stopper against beatdown once in play.
What creature, then, is similarly good against Faeries? What creature is a show-stopper for them while being somewhat slow against the rest of the field? Sadly, the best example that comes to mind is Cloudthresher. Big Thresh is obviously strong against the flyer deck, but against the rest of the field, well…he is very slow. As soon as you start off a midrange list with 3-4 Cloudthresher, you pretty much pigeonhole yourself into needing some acceleration, since it will be quite a task for a midrange deck to hold Kithkin off long enough to hardcast the guy without it. (In fairness, you can Evoke it to trade with Spectral Procession, but if the Spirits get a hit in first, Evoking Cloudthresher means you’ve paid four mana to the opponent’s three in order to take five damage against a beatdown deck. Rough.)
So now what do you play for acceleration? Smokebraider is rather solid at powering out Cloudthreshers, but that pretty much commits you to an Elemental-centric deck. There are three Elves that accelerate, but only Farhaven Elf leaves his mana around after he is wiped by a Firespout or chump-blocks. Man, where’s a Signet when you need one?
Furthermore, what other midrange creatures work against Faeries? Brion Stoutarm would be a reasonable Loxodon Hierarch replacement if it weren’t for the fact that Pestermite, Cryptic Command, and even a mid-combat Mistbind Clique (championing the token that was blocking Brion) can hold off his lifegain for a turn or two, which can be all the Fae need to finish you off. Sacrificing creatures for lifegain will help keep your life total afloat, but it sure won’t finish the race in your favor unless the deciding factor was the opponent’s blocking squad.
Granted, the Stoutarm does have more applications against Kithkin, but Oblivion Ring, Goldmeadow Harrier, and Forge[/author]-Tender”]Burrenton [author name="Forge"]Forge[/author]-Tender stop him in his tracks (again, lifegain included, unless you’re willing to start chucking your men for the safe of your life total). He’s probably strong in that matchup overall, but no one would mistake him for something able to fill the role that Loxodon Hierarch did in days of old.
This is the first problem facing midrange players. To wield an effective midrange deck, you need to be able to run cards that really cripple the top deck or two in the format – and no card in Lorwyn Block really cripples either Faeries or Kithkin. Both Cloudthresher and Brion Stoutarm are strong against those decks, but neither provides the kind of advantage needed to swing a strong matchup without dedicating a lot more anti-creature measures to the rest of your deck. Naturally, if you go that route, you’re going to be in trouble when you face a control deck like Levy’s or Bucher’s.
Speaking of which, what kind of midrange anti-control measures are available in Lorwyn Block? Again, we’re looking for the kind of card that is perhaps a bit slow against beatdown, but which is really a swift kick to control. Is there such a card right now? There used to be things like Magus of the Moon that could singlehandedly manascrew an opponent, but Fulminator Mage is not nearly enough to put down a control deck on its own.
In fact, given Mulldrifter recursion, Mind Spring, and countermagic, it’s borderline impossible for a midrange deck to get by on land destruction as a disruption mechanism right now. While more beatdown-oriented decks might be able to throw down a clock and back it up with Fulminator Mage and perhaps Poison the Well (and something to deal with Firespout, I suppose), a midrange deck will not put nearly enough strain on a control deck’s life total. They’ll just draw cards to keep pace with your land destruction – and, let’s face it, they’re running 26 lands already – and will remove your threats one at a time if they have to, until they eventually take control of the game despite your best efforts at resource denial.
Perhaps the final nail in midrange’s coffin – if it is, in fact, dead in this format – is the lack of a combo deck to prey on. If there’s one thing midrange loves to do, it’s hosing a combo deck. The slow-ish utility creature that throws a wrench into a combo but blocks just fine against beatdown and attacks just fine against control is one of midrange’s real aces, and there is no combo deck to be found in this format thus far.
What’s a midrange deck to do? Can’t find a successful angle of attack against the control decks. No combo deck to hose. Lacking in aces against the two top decks.
The prospects look pretty bleak for midrange from where I’m standing, but in my experience, that’s never stopped midrange players (deck designers?) before. Every season some deck emerges that seems to have an edge on part of the metagame but has some gaping flaw in its matchup breakdown.
I predict in the next couple of weeks there will emerge at least one midrange deck that duffs up one of the following: Kithkin, Faeries, or Vivid Pool Control, and struggles horribly against one or both of the others. We’ve seen this happen over and over in the past, and while I don’t predict it will be a good choice for the PTQs, I do predict it will get a Top 8 or two, and maybe even a Qualification.
For my money, though, I expect it will take a real breakthrough for midrange to succeed this season. With no combo on the horizon, does that mean this will be a season of solid beatdown versus control? Time will tell, I suppose – but in either case, it’s an observation of this developing metagame that may prove critical to your ability to find a chink in the armor.
Until next week, good luck at those PTQs!