Why Midrange Rules Today’s Modern

Why did midrange decks do so well at the Grand Prix Detroit last weekend? Adrian Sullivan attempts to answer that question by looking at the top decks of the event.

I just got back from Detroit.

I did pretty terribly in the tournament, which I think I owe to a large number of factors. One, I didn’t practice with my deck enough. Two, I chose the wrong deck.* Three, I can point to a number of moments in the tournament where I made small errors, and every time I noticed one, it definitely ended up mattering (that isn’t usually the case in my experience).

All told, though, I had a great event.

There were a lot of great things to be said about the event. I ran into a ton of old friends. Some of the more notable people include Ron Foster, newly back in the US from Japan, and Oliver Schneider, 2001 English National Champion, neither of whom I’d seen in over ten years. Of course, there were a ton of incredible people at the event, as there always is at a Grand Prix, and it was a pleasure meeting people, running into friends, and just enjoying the way the event played out at large.

So, what did the Top 8 look like?

The Top 8

The breakdown of the Top 8 looks like this:

Melira Pod: 1st
Jund: 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th
Affinity: 6th
B/G: 7th, 8th

Before I had a chance to see the Top 8 lists, I had heard that the Top 8 was "six Jund," and if you are of the opinion that Rock and Jund are the same deck, maybe this would be something you’d find accurate. Truth be told, what we are calling "Rock" and "Jund" in Modern right now basically is coming out of an old naming convention that can be quite useful but in some ways has been obliterated by modern (not Modern) naming conventions.

I think it probably started in Ravnica, though it may have started in Shards of Alara, where the behavior of a deck was largely ignored in favor of its color combo. The Rock, as it was originally conceived by Sol Malka, was very much a midrange control deck; it certainly could end up on The Beatdown, but in general it was a deck that had more answers than questions. In contrast, when I made PT Junk (later shortened to Junk), it was conceived of as the midrange aggro deck, which planned on being The Beatdown, but also had a fair share of answers as well. These days "Junk" has become shorthand for B/G/W and "Rock" for B/G, but really these decks weren’t about colors as much as they were about concepts.

If you think of the B/G decks from Grand Prix Detroit as Jund decks without red, that’s fairly understandable in the way we talk about archetypes these days (although I’d claim that Modern Jund decks are actually Rock decks with red rather than the other way around, much like Boros Aggro decks are White Weenie decks with red). Either way, you’re still talking about six decks in the Top 8 that share a lot in common.

How much? Well, let’s look:


If we want to think of it another way, we can do it like this:

4 Deathrite Shaman
4 Tarmogoyf
4 Dark Confidant
3-4 Liliana of the Veil
3-5 1CC Removal
4-5 2CC+ Removal
5-7 1CC Discard
5-8 "Flavor"
24ish lands with 4+ creature lands

In essence, these decks, whether they are Rock, Jund, Ajundi, or Junk,** are playing with the same core that makes the deck incredibly powerful and at the same time underwhelming. By "underwhelming" what I mean is that the deck doesn’t really make any radically exciting plays generally speaking. Mostly what it does is just what Rock does; it plays midrange control. If you have anything worth giving a damn about, it tries to answer it directly, either with discard or by blowing it up, and at either an early point in the game or at a later point, it tries to kill you with something relevant. It doesn’t demand that the opposing deck answer it per se; instead, it just keeps on trading with your play, generally spending less mana to do so, and fueling itself with Dark Confidant and planeswalkers (or whatever other "flavor") to always have a relevant play to make.

Perhaps this is why Ari Lax called these decks "bad" in his examination of the Modern format after Grand Prix Detroit despite these decks showing up and appearing in such a hugely dominating fashion. If, after all, we combined all of these midrange lists into one count, we’d have 46 decks, making up about 25% of day 2. This makes their penetration of the top portions of the field all the more remarkable since they made up 75% of the Top 8!

So what makes them so good when these decks are "intrinsically" bad?

The Anatomy of Midrange

When we talk about "midrange," people usually mean that it has some combination of more aggressive and more controlling cards. They might say, "Well, it’s kind of a beatdown deck and kind of a control deck." Sometimes they might say something like this:

"Midrange is aggressive against more controlling decks and controlling against more aggressive decks."

That is true. But it also isn’t useful. All decks (that win) are aggressive against more controlling decks and controlling against more aggressive decks. The exception to this are decks that are roughly at the same level of aggressive/controlling, in which case the deck that tends to have more raw power wins. This is one of the important lessons of Who’s The Beatdown.

For example, imagine you’re playing in Modern with a U/W/R Control deck, like the one played by Shahar Shenhar at the World Championship. You have a fair number of counters and card draw, but your opponent is playing a U/W/R Control deck that looks like it came straight out of Guillaume Wafo-Tapa hands and is playing four Think Twices, four Sphinx’s Revelations, and what seems to be a lot of countermagic. In this matchup, even if your deck is a control deck, trying to fight a control war and play the role of the control deck in the matchup is likely to be an exercise in suicide as long as you both are making your land drops and no one is terribly unlucky. And so despite being a controlling deck, you are more aggressive against more controlling decks.

The same thing is true in every pairing of decks.

Surely, there has to be a more useful definition.

In my article Why Midrange Rules Today’s Standard, I put forth an early attempt at a more useful definition for midrange, which I think nearly got it right but could be improved. Here is my more recent definition:

"Midrange decks generally attempt to dominate on the board and have plays that are relevant at every stage in the game."

By way of contrast, a pure aggro deck works to attack the life total of the opponent and generally tries to present questions that an opposing deck has to answer. On the other extreme, a pure control deck generally tries to answer (nullify) the various cards of an opponent and has a win tucked somewhere in there, but it will usually think about killing the opponent as something to do after supplying the answers.

One of the reasons that a lot of people say that midrange has cards that can be both answers and questions is not because that’s what a midrange deck is defined by but rather because in formats where there is enough access to very powerful cards if there exists a flexible card like that, a midrange deck will want it. Tarmogoyf and Scavenging Ooze are great examples of this, as they are both cards that can absolutely be effective at creating an early defense or can be used to go aggressive.

The core of the Modern midrange suite of decks (Jund, Rock, Junk, Ajundi, etc.) is so completely homogenous because this set of cards are all at once very powerful as well as fairly flexible. In addition, since the vast majority of them are incredibly cheap, they can be brought into the game immediately. Should the game drag on, though, the power of the cards it can play in the midgame or late game remains high, whether it be because of a Tarmogoyf, a Liliana of the Veil, or a Dark Confidant to name a few.

One of Brian Kibler complaints about Theros is the reprint of Thoughtseize, which he called in essence a catchall. It was a complaint from Brian because the existence of Thoughtseize is simply a universal way to disrupt practically any deck (albeit with some struggles against Burn). In Modern, it is paired with Inquisition of Kozilek, and the two of them can make potentially any deck stumble, whether they are aggressive or controlling. For the midrange deck, there is a ton of flexibility in this discard because it can give a deck needing answers fewer answers and a deck needing questions fewer questions. One of the only real weaknesses of discard is as a late-game topdeck, but even then it can be saved to disrupt the opponent should they have a hand to disrupt.

The board itself is also the domain of the midrange deck, with a wide suite of cheap removal that makes it very likely that it will be able to remove any singular card of the opponent with a singular card of its own. Again, the efficiency of these cards is pretty important, particularly when you keep in mind that the deck could very well be dispatching the hand and the board in the same turn, with discard ripping relevant cards from the opponent while removal tears up the board. Somewhere in there, cards that are more difficult to remove will hit the table for the midrange player, a Tarmogoyf or a planeswalker or another powerful spell, likely sitting as the king of the hill

All of this one-for-one trading would usually end up being an exercise in seeing who gets mana flooded or mana screwed if it weren’t for the final piece of the puzzle: card advantage. In the one-for-one, these little dribbles of card advantage keep coming, whether it is a Dark Confidant that survives, a Chandra, Pyromaster that sits on the table, or a Liliana of the Veil with an empty hand against an opponent with cards. In the end, the Modern midrange family of decks ends up grinding down an opponent and then refilling up.

It’s no wonder that these decks performed so well in Detroit.

In the mirror, when both decks are trying to do the same thing more often than not, both players just end up tearing apart everything that the other person is trying to do, and the board just renders down to whatever manages to stay on the table for as long as it can. Things often become a topdeck war or about the minor advantage of a Dark Confidant that has the way paved for it by discard and manages to stay alive for two turns. The nature of this fight is precisely why Chandra, Pyromaster was so impressive for Reid Duke and the many others in his crew who ran it near the top tables

But this card was the one card of the tournament that blew me away:

Holy crap, Ben Stark, this is some brilliance. Stark had three of these in his sideboard, and when he took down Adam Jansen in the Swiss portions of the rounds, Adam looked a little bit shell-shocked when he mentioned Stark casting it against him in their match. I know that my own mind was blown when I thought about the ramifications of it in a midrange-on-midrange game.

With both players having access to such a selection of efficient questions and answers and both players also fully able to disrupt practically anything that the other can do, the game devolves into (nearly) a game of trades one after another. In a trading game like this, where Chandra is a solid weapon, to me Harmonize looks like a monster. A big reason that I’m more blown away by Harmonize is that you can cast it at any time in which you aren’t under threat of dying. Chandra, Pyromaster, on the other hand, actually can’t be dropped into play in any meaningful way a great deal of the time. Both of the cards dodge Inquisition of Kozilek, but you can immediately get your card advantage with Harmonize. And since the midrange fight won’t be one about countermagic, you have no fear of your opponent stopping you.

There were a lot of great card choices people made for this tournament, but for me Ben Stark’s Harmonize was the best card choice of the event. I haven’t had a chance to test it yet, but in an event where there a ton of midrange lists floated at the top, my instincts tell me that Harmonize probably outperformed Chandra and probably almost any other card choice in fighting the near mirror. I don’t know if I can give the deck enough kudos.

The Tron Problem

All of these decks have a ton of great game against nearly anything. But nearly everything isn’t "everything." One of the huge weaknesses for the deck is traditionally Tron.

A big reason for this is simple; Karn Liberated and Wurmcoil Engine are hard to interact with profitably. Karn Liberated is the bigger offender, able to completely dominate a game in spectacular fashion and with very few actually answers. Typically, other than attacking it, these Modern midrange decks only have one or two Maelstrom Pulses, if they have any at all, so a Karn hitting the table will usually start signaling the end of the game. While Tectonic Edge certainly exists, without help, as Cedric Phillips has said in forums on this site, it does not sufficiently handle the problem Tron presents.

For me, I know I moved away from my own build of The Rock largely based on Tron fear. Maybe it is just the two-person queues, but I kept running into Tron, which was enough to put me off of the deck. Even the Jund lists with Sowing Salt have problems with the matchup, but there are interesting solutions** available.

Speaking Of . . .

Speaking of that old Rock deck of mine, based on some of the things I learned from Detroit, I updated the list to incorporate the lessons from the successful lists while still maintaining its identity as an Obliterator deck. I know that a lot of people aren’t particularly excited by the card, but I ask you to try it out because it has continued to impress me. Here is the post-Theros list:

After watching a lot of games, I’m still not actually sold on Treetop Village in the deck. The bigger cost of playing Obliterator, as someone said in the forums of the article where I originally shared this list, is losing out on Tectonic Edge. In general, though, my own experience with Edge has also been somewhat lackluster, and I feel like the Jund lists running no Edges are a good point of reference for how the card isn’t actually necessary for success.

If you are truly, truly scared of Tron and you want to run a midrange list, I strongly recommend touching into white for Stony Silence. Lucas Siow’s list is a great example of a deck that did this to success in Detroit.

If I were to sum up why I think that midrange did so incredibly well in Detroit, I think it has to be largely about the nature of the Modern format. In Modern, we have a format that doesn’t have the true depth of Legacy but does have many of the staples of Legacy available in black and green. If we look at the core of the deck (Inquisition, Thoughtseize, Deathrite, Confidant, Tarmogoyf, Ooze, Liliana), these are all cards that are mainstays in Legacy. At the same time, those cards are not competing against as many cards that push other strategic archetypes, so we have a core deck that can embody the principles of midrange and be at the top tier. I guess it’s a good day to be Dwayne Johnson.

Until next time,

Adrian L. Sullivan

@AdrianLSullivan on Twitter

*Honestly, I love the deck that I played in Detroit. That being said, I think I played the wrong deck not because the deck I played was bad but rather because I got scared out of playing Rock because of how I was performing online with it. Frankly, looking at the metagame breakdown, I think two-person queues just made me imagine the meta as different than it was, especially the winning parts of the meta, and I stepped away from a deck that I otherwise liked a lot.

Here, however, is the deck that I played. After some funny jokes from Bob Maher, the deck was named Kowality Control. I still think it is a worthy deck to play in Modern.

**I heard some people call Lucas Siow’s list Junk. Call it what you like; it looks good.