The Road To DC: Your Midrange Primer

Leading up to Grand Prix Washington DC this weekend, Drew Levin will be providing in-depth Legacy content every day! Today’s article highlights three midrange decks.

Midrange gets a bad rap.

Part of it stems from the unending bucketloads of adulation that competitive Magic players have showered blue with as a color.

The blue color identity becomes synonymous with the control player’s identity, which becomes synonymous with “having more decisions per game,” which becomes synonymous with “actually being smarter than your faceroll aggro opponent or doofus green midrange opponent.”

Another part of it is that people don’t understand what midrange decks do. The casual non-Legacy-playing decklist observer is likely to look at a deck like Shardless BUG and think, “That is a pile of cards, and I have no idea what it does. It probably isn’t very good.”

The answer, of course, is that it does a great many things, only some of which are particularly good in a given matchup. Midrange decks are defined by their versatility—they can act like a control deck against creature decks while acting like a disruptive creature deck against control and combo. They play mana-efficient cards like Deathrite Shaman, Liliana of the Veil, Knight of the Reliquary, and Abrupt Decay—cards that are flexible by design and powerful at almost any stage of the game and in any board position.

Midrange decks get derided by Legacy aficionados because they are typically not favored to win matches against the format’s top combo decks. They tend not to have the heavy blue cantrip component of Delver tempo decks and medium-fast combo decks like Storm and Reanimator. Because midrange decks don’t play Gitaxian Probe, Ponder, or Preordain, they lack the degree of consistency enjoyed by Delver and combo.

If the lack of blue cantrips is what hurts midrange decks so much, why don’t they just play them?

Here is where we start to understand midrange decks in Legacy more thoroughly.

Cantrips are powerful in Legacy decks because the disparity in power level within a deck is often enormous. In Sneak and Show, there’s a gaping chasmic difference between drawing the card Island and drawing the card Show and Tell. You are willing to spend entire turns performing cantrip’s alchemy of turning your leaden basic lands into glistening golden combo pieces. You cannot extract value from your third Emrakul, the Aeons Torn. You desperately need your first Sneak Attack. Brainstorm’s value in performing that transaction is that same value delta—essentially game-winning.

Now look at a midrange deck.

What’s your most powerful card in the above list?

Is it Jace, the Mind Sculptor? What if they’re playing Goblins?

Is it Tarmogoyf? What if they’re playing Show and Tell?

Is it Dark Confidant? What if they’re playing Burn?

Midrange decks are capable of using powerful cards in a broad set of situations. They don’t want to spend mana to find their best card or to play fewer lands. They want to maximize the cards and mana that they have. To those ends, midrange decks play plenty of mana sinks. A short list follows:

Deathrite Shaman, Knight of the Reliquary, any Equipment ever, Punishing Fire, discarding excess lands to Liliana of the Veil, Wasteland, Horizon Canopy, a small number of planeswalkers, Creeping Tar Pit, and Green Sun’s Zenith are all ways that midrange decks can and do make use of unspent mana.

Tempo decks use cantrips to find their second land and shuffle away their third and fourth, whereas midrange decks are built in such a way that they will find value in drawing a fifth land.

Midrange decks also gain tempo from playing cards that directly interact with the board or opponent. If one side casts a Dark Confidant and the other side casts Brainstorm and Ponder, the side with Dark Confidant is provably ahead in the game. They may not be ahead in the game a turn later when the first player casts Show and Tell, but Show and Tell hitting the stack is a failure of the midrange deck’s responsibility to disrupt its opponent’s hand or mana base.

After all, the value of a Thoughtseize goes up proportionally to the value of the card it takes—if someone spends two Ponders and a Brainstorm to find a specific combo piece and you Thoughtseize it before they can cast it, your Thoughtseize also traded with the mana that they spent getting that card in their hand.

If we are to fully understand the role of midrange decks in Legacy, we have to see them as fluid high-decision decks that demand constant evaluation of the game state. This paradigm begins with Deathrite Shaman.

Deathrite Shaman’s arrival in Legacy heralded a new era of midrange decks. It provided green and black decks with a way to play two spells per turn earlier than an opponent and in doing so create advantages by both advancing their own game plan and nullifying the opposition’s game plan.

An example would be a sequence of Deathrite Shaman into Thoughtseize plus Dark Confidant. It’s only turn 2, but the midrange deck has two creatures in play, the potential to access four mana the following turn, and a Dark Confidant in play that will surely provide greater access to disruption and more threats. Without Deathrite Shaman, this sequence relies heavily on the absence of an opposing removal spell. With Deathrite Shaman, you can cast anything in the deck on the following turn.

Deathrite Shaman goes beyond existing as a mere Birds of Paradise though. Its printing was a major reason why Dredge and Reanimator decks fell so far in the Legacy metagame. While both are still powerful strategies, they had to find ways to beat a card that casts Coffin Purge every turn.

Snapcaster Mage, a card I once heralded as “better than Dark Confidant,” is now almost entirely gone from the Legacy scene, a victim of Deathrite Shaman’s ability to eat bygone instants and sorceries.

The list of Deathrite Shaman’s victims goes on, but you get the idea. The card is powerful; it’s a very good card in several matchups; and it can switch between accelerating, gaining life, and disrupting an opponent’s game plan from turn to turn. Its controller must understand what factors are most important at that point in the game, but Deathrite Shaman is an excellent midrange card. It should come as no surprise that all three decks that I’ll discuss today feature a full playset of the card.

Let’s discuss the various shells that Deathrite Shaman can fit into.

First up is Shardless BUG, the premier attrition deck of Legacy. This is my favorite blue midrange deck of the format, and I enthusiastically recommend the deck to anyone who wants to have objectively powerful plays available on every turn.

The maindeck has changed very little from the Gerry Thompson days of Invitational domination. Gerry played three Jaces and one Liliana, while I would rather play two of each. The sideboard has changed a lot, which a reasonable person would expect to be the case after months of metagame development and the recent rise of both Show and Tell and fair decks that focus on beating Show and Tell.

If you want a primer on how the deck came to exist, it can be found here.

Shardless BUG is an incredibly mana-efficient deck that plays eight creatures that draw a card—either literally or figuratively—when you cast them. This allows it to clog the board early, making it difficult for an aggressive opponent to come across for a lot of damage.

Its creature density also allows it to constantly pressure opposing planeswalkers. By playing Baleful Strix and Shardless Agent–two cards that generate additional value every time you cast them–the deck is very strong against Jace’s -1 ability.

The deck is tailored heavily toward generating one-for-one exchanges. It capitalizes on all of its interaction by casting Ancestral Vision, either off of suspend or by cascading into it with Shardless Agent. When your 2/2 for three draws you three cards, it’s not as hard to fight off hordes of Flickerwisps or Stoneforge Mystics or Insectile Aberrations.

In many ways this deck plays out as a defensive Jund-style deck with four copies of a free Ancestral Recall. You have to wait a few turns to actually get your free Ancestral, but Shardless BUG is very good at interacting with opposing board positions.

If an opponent doesn’t care that much about the 1/2s and 2/2s and 1/1s that this deck plays, they almost certainly care about Liliana and Jace. The two best planeswalkers in Legacy put a lot of pressure on combo and control decks, whittling away at their hand and weakening the top of their deck. Against other midrange decks, casting a Jace with a few creatures in play to defend him can change the focus of the entire game. With a planeswalker in play, you can focus your resources on trading off creatures and activating your ally every turn, pushing the game further and further out of reach.

If your opponent is a faster combo deck, you still have discard spells and a set of Force of Wills to fight them early on. Although past versions of the deck played only three Force of Wills, more combo decks running around means you have to play all four Forces maindeck. After sideboarding, you get to max out on Thoughtseize and Hymn to Tourach.

One of the bigger problems that midrange decks tend to have is building good sideboards against combo decks. Some midrange decks try to overload on one angle of attack­—here you can see that we want to rip their hand apart and kill them with whatever creature we happen to draw. Other decks have a philosophy of one-ofs—if you can’t control what you’re going to draw and you know that your opponent is boarding in cards to answer your board cards, attack from every single angle possible.

The other philosophy tells you to not just board in discard spells—board in cards that attack their cantrips, cards that attack their graveyard, cards that attack their mana base, and cards that attack their deck. But only play one copy of each so if your opponent opens with Leyline of Sanctity they still can’t beat your Phyrexian Revoker. Or Ethersworn Canonist. Or Liliana of the Veil.

Shardless BUG has a unique deckbuilding constraint—it is discouraged from playing reactive cards that cost less than three. I have watched people sideboard against combo decks, cast Shardless Agent on turn 3, and cascade into Flusterstorm. Regardless of whether they happened to die on the following turn, I always found that decision very confusing. If your deck relies heavily on the power of Shardless Agent as a value-add, why would you dilute that power by playing a reactive card that Shardless Agent can cascade into?

If that Flusterstorm were a Hymn to Tourach, those games would have gone very differently. Sideboard accordingly.

Besides the discard spells, Shardless BUG has access to one of the best sweepers in the format: Golgari Charm. Since Reid Duke won a SCG Legacy Open with Elves and reminded everybody that Wirewood Symbiote is still a card, people have been very willing to show up with Glimpse of Nature. People will always show up with various enchantment-reliant decks, and Golgari Charm lines up perfectly against Young Pyromancer and company. If there’s one thing I would change about the above sideboard, it would be to cut the Submerge for the fourth Golgari Charm.

The power of Shardless BUG’s sideboard is greater than that of other midrange decks’ sideboards because of Shardless Agent. Since Shardless Agent can cascade into zero-, one-, and two-mana spells, anything that costs less than three will show up more in games 2 and 3, amplifying the wisdom (or folly) of whatever you put in your sideboard. Choose wisely!

So what does Shardless BUG offer that other midrange and control decks don’t?

It is the most proactive midrange deck in the format. Ancestral Vision and discard spells go great together; mana acceleration and planeswalkers go great together; Shardless Agent and Baleful Strix play mediocre defense and passable offense against combo decks; and Abrupt Decay and Tarmogoyf cover a lot of needs due to their versatility. No matter what an opponent is doing, Shardless BUG will be able to interact with it and gain some small bit of value out of the interaction.

Liliana of the Veil is an excellent card right now. It lines up perfectly against Commander hype-machine True-Name Nemesis, it pressures combo and control decks, and its Cruel Edict effect is surprisingly powerful against tempo decks (although obviously good against Show and Tell). Shardless BUG sees a lot of cards every game, and Liliana of the Veil lets you keep your good ones and trade off your worst cards with theirs. After just one or two activations, a single extra card—Baleful Strix’s trigger, the added value of Creeping Tar Pit, a Shardless Agent cascade—can tilt the game in your favor.

If I had to pick a deck that best abuses Liliana’s symmetry, it would be Shardless BUG.

If I expected a lot of slower decks in Washington, I would play Shardless BUG.

If I expected a lot of tempo decks, I would play Jund.

What does Legacy Jund look like?

Vidianto Wijaya, for those of you who know his name but can’t quite figure out why, won the last American Legacy Grand Prix in Denver with Esper Stoneblade. He showed up to Los Angeles’ Legacy Open with Jund and battled all the way to the Top 4. Why the switch?

He expected to play against a lot of U/W/R and RUG Delver decks. And while Esper Stoneblade is roughly even with those decks, Jund is not.

Jund crushes them.

It’s not even a little close.

Remember how I told you that tempo decks tend to be threat light so a good way to beat them is to just kill all of their creatures?

Vidi played nine removal spells—three of which he could rebuy over and over—and the full playset of Liliana of the Veil on top of that. He literally played more ways to kill a creature than the number of creatures in a Delver deck.

It doesn’t stop there. He also played the full set of Hymn to Tourach and three pinpoint discard spells, so a tempo deck’s ability to fight over midgame removal spells with Spell Pierce or Daze will be incredibly strained by all of the hand disruption.

On a side note, I would cut the Inquisition of Kozilek for the third Thoughtseize. Inquisition of Kozilek misses on a lot of important cards—Sneak Attack and big creatures being the most important, but it also can’t take Natural Order; Jace, the Mind Sculptor; Ad Nauseam; or Force of Will. For such a flexible deck, Inquisition of Kozilek is too narrow of a card.

Let’s get back to how badly Jund beats tempo decks. Jund plays 24 lands, two of which are basic lands that cast four Deathrite Shamans. The deck plays 28 cards that make mana, so tempo decks won’t get very many free wins off of Stifle and Wasteland.

How does Jund compare to Shardless BUG against creature and tempo decks? Contrast Vidi’s nine spells plus four Lilianas with Shardless BUG’s five spells plus two Lilianas and you can see what each deck cares about the most.

The biggest draw to Jund is the combination of Liliana of the Veil and Punishing Fire. These two great tastes taste great together even though they stretch your mana base pretty far. I know that sixteen black lands is pretty low for a deck with Thoughtseize, Hymn to Tourach, and Liliana of the Veil, but Punishing Fire is extraordinarily well positioned against much of the format right now.

Aside from Geist of Saint Traft, Punishing Fire kills every “threat” in U/W/R Delver. Liliana of the Veil, a card with the same casting cost as Geist from the same set at the same rarity, coincidentally happens to kill Geist of Saint Traft with added value.

RUG Delver is a bit better against Jund, mostly because green threats line up well against red removal. It’s still nowhere close to favorable for RUG Delver, but they at least have a shot.

What Jund gains against tempo decks, though, it loses against combo decks. Contrast Shardless BUG and Jund’s combo interaction. Jund plays four Hymns, three Thoughtseizes, and four Liliana of the Veils. Shardless BUG plays two Hymns, two Thoughtseizes, two Liliana of the Veils, and four Force of Wills, and it sideboards up to four copies of Hymn and Thoughtseize and three copies of Liliana of the Veil.

Shardless BUG is tangibly better at beating combo decks.

The two decks’ curves look remarkably similar. Bloodbraid Elf fills in for Jace, the Mind Sculptor in the transition from U/B/G to B/R/G, with Elf providing the deck with an aggressive top end. This Jund deck doesn’t want to spend a lot of time playing defense—it knows it doesn’t have complete inevitability against everyone, and it wants to close out games once it has landed sufficient disruption.

There are even more significant differences between the two sideboards. Since Jund lacks Brainstorm and Ancestral Vision, it sees far fewer cards per game than Shardless BUG. This means it either has to not sideboard meaningful cards against large cross-sections of Legacy decks or has to sideboard a lot of variously powerful cards against every deck in the format.

Vidi chose the latter option. His sideboard is filled with cards that all interact very meaningfully with important cards in a given matchup. He can shut Elves and Maverick out of a game with Engineered Plague, he can smash a Batterskull and an Umezawa’s Jitte with Ancient Grudge, he has a million different ways to attack combo, and he has Chainer’s Edict (I would prefer Diabolic) as another way to kill untargetable creatures, be they 3/3s or 15/15s.

The end result is a sideboard that often takes opponents by surprise and just as often leaves an opponent playing around cards like Choke or Chains of Mephistopheles or Null Rod that may not be in the deck at all.

If Shardless BUG preys on slow decks and Jund preys on fast decks, this last deck is the middle ground. If you’re still in search of something that’s just plain sweet to play in Washington, look no further:

Take what you know about that G/W Maverick deck from a while back.

Remember it? Mother of Runes, Noble Hierarch, Knight of the Reliquary, Green Sun’s Zenith. Fell out of favor once a better green one-drop showed up and Knight got a lot worse.

Some people brought it back with Dark Confidant and various discard spells a few months ago. It wasn’t great, but it put up a few finishes when it had Esper Deathblade to prey on.

Then Deathblade disappeared again, pushed out by Shardless BUG. Maverick died down again.

Then this shows up in the Top 8 lists of the Bazaar of Moxen, a tournament utterly dominated by Storm and Death and Taxes.

There is no other way to put it—this deck is sweet.

It has a mana base that Zvi Mowshowitz would love: a whopping 25 lands plus a set of Deathrite Shamans plus a Birds of Paradise plus a Noble Hierarch plus another playset of Green Sun’s Zenith for Dryad Arbor on turn 1. If there was ever a deck in Legacy that wanted to have a green one-drop, this is it.

This deck understands the importance of getting ahead on mana early. So how does it leverage that mana advantage?

Sometimes it just kills your creatures. It has eight removal spells—four Swords to Plowshares and four Punishing Fires—so it can thrash tempo decks with the best of them.

Other times it just suits up and attacks. It plays two Umezawa’s Jittes and an Elspeth, Knight-Errant to complement Noble Hierarch’s implied power stat and Deathrite Shaman’s actual power stat. When nothing else is going on, pile up Jitte counters.

Yet other times it Wastelands you. Just a little bit—it only plays three—but maybe it also has Life from the Loam, so you’re just in The Hard Lock for the rest of the game. Hope you brought some basic lands!

The real plan though is to cast or Zenith for a Knight of the Reliquary. Amidst all of the distractions, this is a one-drop into three-drop deck. The one-drops are many; the three-drops are Knight of the Reliquary.

Knight may not be as formidable an attack as she used to be, but she’s learned some new tricks. Knight of the Reliquary has always been good at finding the way to Karakas, but that’s not all she can do.

In a deck with four Punishing Fires, tutoring up a Grove of the Burnwillows is a big deal. If you want to talk about maximizing your mana in a midrange deck, this is it. The deck plays three non Grove of the Burnwillows red lands as well as Deathrite Shaman and Birds of Paradise, so the Punishing Fire rebuy machine can go on for a while if it needs to.

Sometimes you just need another card, and Horizon Canopy is there for you when you do. It doesn’t hurt that Canopy plays well with the sideboarded Enlightened Tutors—more on those in just a second.

Sometimes, though, you actually have to kill them.

And Knight of the Reliquary may be fierce, but Rest in Peace is a real card nowadays. So is Deathrite Shaman. The clock ticks slower than it used to. And against combo decks, you need to keep your options open. You can’t use Knight in your main phase, and you certainly can’t attack with it. So what are you supposed to do?

As it turns out, make a 20/20 with Dark Depths and Thespian’s Stage.

If that doesn’t work, Life from the Loam them back and try again.

This is an amazingly innovative use of Depths/Stage. Instead of pushing the combo as the deck’s Plan A, Fabian Gorzgen realized that Depths/Stage could come together in an opponent’s end step, leaving Knight available to find Karakas throughout the entire turn. Brilliant. I love it.

Beyond that the deck plays a straightforward array of anti-control and anti-combo green creatures to be found with Green Sun’s Zenith: two Scavenging Oozes for races and graveyard decks, a Qasali Pridemage for everything from Sneak Attack to Batterskull, and Gaddock Teeg for control and combo decks.

Since this deck plays eight maindeck tutors, it stands to reason that the sideboard would comprise of a lot of one-ofs. Amusingly enough, the sideboard does have a lot of one-ofs, but that’s mostly because Gorzgen also plays two Enlightened Tutors to search up seven different sideboarded artifacts and enchantments.           

Stony Silence is excellent against Affinity, Storm, and Miracles—Sensei’s Divining Top and Engineered Explosives are both great cards against this deck. However, I don’t think this deck needs Stony Silence to beat Stoneforge Mystic strategies, as it has no shortage of ways to answer every card involved.

Ethersworn Canonist is useful in multiple combo matchups and further benefits from Mother of Runes’ existence in the decklist—unlike Stony Silence, Ethersworn Canonist can gain protection from Chain of Vapor.

Oblivion Ring is a good catchall and if nothing else a good card to put into play off of Show and Tell. If you have Enlightened Tutor and Knight of the Reliquary, you can respond to a Show and Tell by fetching Horizon Canopy, casting Enlightened Tutor, and then drawing your Oblivion Ring with Canopy’s activation. Farfetched? Absolutely. But an arrow worth keeping in your quiver.

Engineered Plague is a little narrower here, as you don’t want to board it in against mono-white. Naming Human also kills your Mother of Runes—she’s a Human Cleric. Still, this type of deck struggles a lot with Elves, so it’s not surprising to see something as hateful as Engineered Plague in the sideboard.

Phyrexian Revoker usually names Sneak Attack, although it can be marshaled in opposition to Lion’s Eye Diamond or Lotus Petal if it needs to be. This deck wants more than one copy of Phyrexian Revoker, though, so Pithing Needle is a fine second copy even though it never names Lion’s Eye Diamond or Lotus Petal.

The rest of the cards are fairly straightforward. Slaughter Games names Tendrils of Agony against a Storm deck without Burning Wish; Emrakul, the Aeons Torn against Sneak Attack; Entreat the Angels against Miracles; Omniscience against Omni-Tell; and probably shouldn’t come in against anyone else.

Remember to fetch your Forest against Sneak and Show after sideboarding. Blood Moon is a stock three-of, and you play four colors. You may play all the mana fixing in the world, but you have to be able to cast it. If they don’t have a Blood Moon, you’ll be able to Knight away your basic Forest in no time.

There are, of course, other midrange strategies out there. I wrote about Veteran Explorer a few weeks ago. People are trying out all sorts of True-Name Nemesis decks and experiencing varying degrees of success. If you’re going to play a midrange deck on Saturday, though, I recommend that you know exactly with what tools you’re going to beat each deck.

True-Name Nemesis is a powerful card, but at the end of the day, it attacks and blocks. It doesn’t die while doing either, which is neat, but that’s all it does. In decks like these, I worry that that’s too narrow. In Legacy as a whole, I worry that an untouchable Trained Armodon—even a blue one—may be a little too ineffective.

I’d love to be proven wrong.

I’ll be back tomorrow with a lively discussion of what it takes to survive as a heavy creature deck in Legacy, and why the tribal deck that stuck around for so long is no longer a real contender.

Until tomorrow,

Drew Levin

@drewlevin on Twitter