Sullivan Library – Jamie Wakefield, Brian Kowal, and the Midrange Deck

The StarCityGames.com $5,000 Standard open Comes to Philadelphia!
Thursday, November 20th – With the StarCityGames.com $5000 Standard Open fast approaching, Adrian Sullivan investigates the role of the Midrange deck in the current Standard metagame. He deconstructs Brian Kowal’s successful Red/White Midrange Aggro deck, and looks into ways in which we can combat the all-conquering Faerie menace.

Classically, Jamie Wakefield, the King of the Fatties, School of Magic might be distilled thusly: “The last fatty that they don’t deal with kills them.”

Jamie Wakefield wasn’t merely the King of the Fatties. He is also the patron saint of Midrange, particularly Midrange Beatdown (if he’s not its progenitor). Midrange, as I discussed in “Distinctions in Strategic Archetypes,” is the actual archetype that people are talking about when they say “kind of a Control deck, kind of a Beatdown deck.” We would call a particular deck Midrange Control or Midrange Beatdown, depending on how controlling or aggressive the deck was.

For an example of a Midrange Beatdown deck, let’s look to Trevor Johnson’s second place finish with this Green/White Aggro deck:

Here, Johnson’s deck is so close to the edge between Midrange Beatdown and simply Aggro (or Beatdown), that it can be somewhat a judgment call. As I mention in my article “The Strategic Moment,” the Strategic Archetype that a particular deck belongs to lies somewhere on a continuous ring of archetypes that bleed into each other. Control bleeds into Midrange Control, which bleeds into Midrange Beatdown, then Aggro, then Aggro-Control, then Hybrid Control, and finally, back to Control — the behavior of any deck will fit somewhere on that ring, though we might debate which the closer it is to the edge of an archetype. In this case, compare Johnson’s active curve to a more traditional White Weenie list:

Johnson’s GW
1CC: 0 (4 with the purely reactive Condemn)
2CC: 7
3CC: 13 (15 if you count Loxodon Warhammer here)
4CC: 8 (12 with Wrath of God)
5CC: 2
6CC: 2 (Loxodon Warhammer)

Meyer’s WW
1CC: 11
2CC: 8
3CC: 8
4CC: 4
5CC: 4

What is Trevor Johnson’s incentive to upping his curve so dramatically? The first big one is raw power. If you are dealing with a game that an opposing control deck has begun to pull ahead in, having a larger portion of threats can matter a lot. An opposing control deck can’t Firespout away many of your men, where the poor White Weenie deck can run out. Conversely, a White Weenie player is able to put a control player on the defensive much more easily.

What it really boils down to is the cost for raw power. Gerry Thompson has a semi-famous hatred for Aggro decks (“if you like the idea of attacking with dorks, and losing to Wrath of God, fine by me” is one of his less aggressively antagonistic comments on Aggro), and it is largely based on an Aggro deck’s difficulty in pulling out of tight spots. Often, when things begin to go south for it, it’s only hope is a sensational bit of luck or a stumble by its opponent. On the other hand, with a tighter curve than a Midrange deck of any stripe, often the Aggro deck can exploit that stumble or mistake, and just win games for which a Midrange Beatdown deck would have left the door open.

The big critique of Midrange in general has always been, “pick a side!” Randy Buehler, I believe, was one of the more famous critics of the style, essentially suggesting that Midrange decks needed to either become more controlling, and just get on board being a Control deck, or they should quit fooling around and be an Aggro deck. From a purely historical perspective, this would be a successful strategy, but it is worth noting that in terms of matchup positioning, sometimes it pays to be the Midrange deck in the room; just ask those first Ghazi-Glare players at Worlds a few years back…

For Jamie Wakefield, maybe it was just in his blood to make Midrange deck after Midrange deck. Whatever the case may be, he remains one of my favorite deckbuilders, and thus maybe it is no surprise that Brian Kowal is another one of my favorites. Both of them manage to step off of that beaten path, and find strong decks in the road less traveled.

Ponza, an update to Wakefield Red, is often thought of Brian Kowal’s first major contribution to tournament Magic, but he’s amassed a whole ton in the ten years since then — heck, he even managed to make a deck that Mike Flores could win a tournament with! Brian Kowal claims to have given up the game, lately, but that didn’t seem to stop him from winning a Cruise Qualifier tournament in Madison with this list:

Brian Kowal — Red/White Midrange Beatdown — 1st Place

4 Figure of Destiny
4 Mogg Fanatic
4 Knight of the White Orchid
4 Kitchen Finks
4 Murderous Redcap
4 Ranger of Eos
3 Siege-Gang Commander
1 Forge[/author]-Tender”]Burrenton [author name="Forge"]Forge[/author]-Tender
3 Reveillark
4 Ajani Vengeant
4 Mind Stone
4 Windbrisk Heights
4 Plains
4 Forge[/author]“]Battlefield [author name="Forge"]Forge[/author]
4 Rugged Prairie
3 Mountain
3 Reflecting Pool

4 Guttural Response
4 Vithian Stinger
3 Runed Halo
4 Wrath of God

Unlike Wakefield’s School of the “last fattie,” BK’s foray into Midrange this time around is based on maximizing relevance with largely small things. The only creatures that are really “big” are Reveillark and Figure of Destiny when he is all-grown-up (or partly). The real strength in the deck comes from its ability to put down a clock while building up card advantage.

Take some possible draws. Like a pure Red or White deck, this deck can ride an early Figure (maybe with an assist from Knight of the White Orchard), and in its “second” offensive, refill with Ranger of Eos or Reveillark. In fact, only Mogg Fanatic and Knight of the White Orchid are not particularly resilient threats. Even so, they both have their uses, Mogg Fanatic adding some more double-utility (critter/elim) and the Knight, allowing cheating on mana-counts (thus, increasing the threat density of the deck).

What is this deck doing?

If we think about the pure resilience of the rest of the deck, it is powered by potent active card advantage engines, as well as the potential card advantage granted by Persist-powered men. It doesn’t do this passively. It does it entirely on the table. Every spell in the main deck is put on the table to do its work, and can force a control deck to have to constantly be dealing with something that is being put at it.

So what do they do? Wrath of God or point-and-click removal are not completely sufficient, here. Like a more traditional Aggro deck, this deck can put the smallest of resources on the table and have it clearly be enough of a threat to demand a response. Afterwards, the deck can easily produce more threats that can require answers. While all of this is happening, the threat of Ajani Vengeant is lurking in the background.

Imagine the conundrum of a 5cU deck in this matchup. Wrathing the table on turn 4 or shortly thereafter is easy to imagine as necessary decision. If they are unlucky enough to be facing down a creature with persist, or if it is slightly later in the game, and Ajani can be joined by another spell, suddenly 5cU is facing down a now 4 Loyalty Ajani, and a critter to defend it. Excepting Cryptic Command, what on earth do they do, realistically? They have to get rid of that Ajani before it goes nuclear. If BK’s deck has to, it can shift briefly to the defensive, and with cards like Siege-Commander, Reveillark, and Ranger of Eos to fight off anything typically played in 5cU short of a Mulldrifter. Ajani forces 5cU to have to, Strategic Role-wise, become the Beatdown when it is not the role it wants at all! For 5cU, though, it doesn’t have much in the way of options… Chris Woltereck $5,000 deck is the most common example of a well-copied deck that is going to struggle, here.

Conversely, take the typical Aggro deck, and the problems that it might have with BK’s li’l masterpiece. The two decks might absolutely be going toe-to-toe when its controlling elements can begin to tear things out of the hands of the opponent. Kitchen Finks, Murderous Redcaps, Knight of Eos, Reveillark, and (to a lesser extent) Siege-Gang Commander are all particularly problematic. Demigod of Revenge is one of the few creatures you can imagine breaking through. Massive swarming (via Spectral Procession or the Cloudgoat Ranger) is also dangerous, but only largely because of the threat of Mirrorweave, and is fairly vulnerable to an active Siege-Gang Commander in a way that the Red deck is not!

Again, Ajani Vengeant becomes another thing that can swing any close stage, if the Aggro deck is able to even get there. While expensive, even then, it’s still largely akin to a Faith’s Fetters, at worst; typically, in that matchup, you can kick the crap out of some permanent, gain your three life, and “gain” another one (or more) when the remainder of their beasties send someone in to finish it off. Even after dealing with Ajani, though, you’re still having to slug it out with a deck that can pull off all manner of crazy plays (like Brian Kowal’s spectacular casting of Wrath of God after combat off a triggered Windbrisk Heights in the finals of the tourney).

This sounds like a pretty great place to be in, right? Situated well against opposing aggressive decks and 5cU? Wow! That’s great.

The trouble comes into paradise with everyone’s favorite boogeyman: Faeries. In talking to Brian Kowal, his clearest worry for the deck was the Bitterblossom wielding, Cryptic Command slinging monster. He ran four Vithian Stinger in his sideboard as a blind attempt to swat it down — a choice he felt was wrong. The Faerie deck gets to escape the problem that 5cU has with Ajani: it has lots of evasion. A Planeswalker is not typically that big of a deal for Faeries. In addition, with few actual “spells” in Kowal’s deck, a Faerie deck that begins to move through that late-game Hybrid Control deck’s shift into an Aggro-Control moment will face little resistance.

Perhaps some help can be found in another Madison player’s decklist. John Treviranus’s version of the deck was the inspiration for Kowal’s Cruise Qualifier winning deck. Here it is:

John Treviranus — Red/White Midrange

3 Galepowder Mage
2 Murderous Redcap
1 Loyal Sentry
3 Ranger of Eos
2 Voice of All
4 Figure of Destiny
4 Mogg Fanatic
3 Reveillark
3 Siege-Gang Commander

3 Oblivion Ring
3 Ajani Vengeant
4 Mind Stone

2 Ghitu Encampment
9 Plains
3 Reflecting Pool
3 Mountain
4 Forge[/author]“]Battlefield [author name="Forge"]Forge[/author]
4 Rugged Prairie

2 Forge[/author]-Tender”]Burrenton [author name="Forge"]Forge[/author]-Tender
4 Fulminator Mage
3 Wrath of God
1 Voice of All
1 Loyal Sentry
4 Kitchen Finks

For John, he claims that in his playtesting, Faeries was a slightly good matchup. In fact, unless they stuck a Sower, he claims that he expected to win. What is so different about Treviranus’s deck that might make this so?

One of the first obvious things is the existence of Oblivion Ring in the main deck. The O. Ring gives him an actual factual answer to a Bitterblossom, which, while answerable, Kowal’s update does not include. Further, Galepowder Mage and Voice of All provide an actual semblance of an Air Force for the defense, and both are able to provide a relevant offensive side as well. When Scion is absent, Galepowder Mage is especially potent, taking out Faerie tokens or simply re-triggering the abundant comes into play effects that the deck can produce. Voice of All could potentially fall to a surprise blue Faerie or two, but otherwise, can provide a regular source of damage.

It seems reasonable to expect that John’s deck is better against Faeries, but it does look wholly worse against what I expect might be the rest of the field. Still, though, what can we take from John into Kowal’s build to replace the Stingers as an anti-Faerie card?

One solution might be to simply bring in anti-Bitterblossom hate. The options here are not plentiful. John’s Oblivion Rings are a clear choice, and have the added benefit of being able to be brought in against, well, anything you aren’t sure how to answer. Kowal himself suggested the possibility of an Elvish Hexhunter as a silver bullet for Ranger of Eos to retrieve. Wispmare is also something to think about, with all of the good and bad parts of it to weigh…

Perhaps another solution is to simply sidestep Bitterblossom rather than answer it directly. Much like Voice of All sidesteps Bitterblossom, another Kowal brainstorm is Stillmoon Cavalier. The zombie pump-knight actually manages to deeply fit in with how the deck plays against 5cU and port it over to Faeries: put down something relevant that they simply must deal with, or else! In dealing with it, they can over stretch their resources and be vulnerable to the rest of your otherwise solid deck packed with threats.

What does a Faerie deck do against a Stillmoon Cavalier? Their options are quite limited. With any degree of mana, a veritable army of blue Faeries are required to answer it. Sower of Temptation can provide help by stealing a friend, but ultimately, it only has racing as an option. As it pushes into racing, it falls into the same trap that 5cU has: the rest of the deck can catch up with you.

With that in mind, it strikes me that the best sideboard might be something like this:

4 Guttural Response
4 Stillmoon Cavalier
3 Runed Halo
3 Wrath of God
1 Elvish Hexhunter

Guttural Responses can make counterspells an unreliable proposition, as well as mess with Bant Charms. Runed Halo provides an answer to the problematic Demigod of Revenge, and any random Manabarbs that find their way in against you. Elvish Hexhunter makes a great tutor target for Ranger (and if you don’t think that it is a necessary choice, could easily become a fourth Wrath or another singleton tutor target). The Wrath of God remain, largely for White Weenie, but trimming them to three seems incredibly reasonable when you can plan on bringing in Stillmoon Cavaliers to help shore up anything lost by trimming the Wrath.

Overall, Kowal’s deck looks like an incredibly potent choice for the current Standard. Once again, Kowal seems to just have his finger on how to approach the format, even if he claims he doesn’t really pay attention to Magic anymore and just wants to go play board games.

If I had the cards for this, believe me, I’d be gunning this on MTGO again and again right now. Midrange is an archetype that isn’t usually in the forefront of Magic, largely because it can be difficult to find the right balance between Aggro and Control. This is a fun deck that manages to land right in that sweet spot.

Until next week…

Adrian Sullivan