Some players know from the first time they dome their opponent with a Boros Charm or the first time they survive to cast a Sphinx's Revelation that they're aggro or control players at heart. Playing a one-drop creature or countering a spell is as natural as breathing and as comfortable as your favorite sweatshirt.
But where are you if aggro is to the left of you, and control is to your right?
You're here, stuck in the middle with midrange.
Midrange has its fingerprints on every Pro Tour, on every Friday Night Magic, on every format from Legacy to Standard. Deck names like "Jund” and “The Rock" and the deck-building theories that underlie them outlive individual formats and seasons. They persist, sometimes literally, and are an integral part of our shared Magic vocabulary.
Midrange decks are timeless because there will always be decks that fall in the middle—not quite aggressive, not quite controlling, not combo-oriented. This also makes them hard to pin down. At what point does a deck stop being aggro and start being midrange, or stop being midrange and become entirely controlling?
Perhaps the most defining characteristic of midrange decks is their flexibility. They take the opposite role to whatever the opposing deck is playing, playing control versus aggro decks and getting aggressive versus more controlling decks.
Midrange decks play a suite of discard spells to disrupt opponents' game plans; diverse removal to handle problem permanents; and creatures that provide card advantage, resilience, and/or the ability to close a game out quickly. They're also decks that have consistently performed well at everything from FNMs to Grand Prix and Pro Tours in recent years.
While midrange decks can circle the entire color pie, there are a few colors particularly conducive to the strategy and to which midrange decks have historically been drawn.
"The Rock" was a black-green Extended deck originally popularized by Sol Malka, and one of the most iconic midrange decks in Magic. The hallmark cards in Malka's deck were Deranged Hermit and Phyrexian Plaguelord. The deck ramped up to these threats with cards like Birds of Paradise and Llanowar Elves, found the cards it needed with Vampiric Tutor, and threw a wrench into opposing game plans with Duress and Rapid Decay.
To generalize, the deck disrupted opponents, generated card advantage, and beat down with efficient creatures. The basic concept of The Rock lives on in Modern and Standard decks today, though the cards utilized are, of course, different. The Rock's multi-pronged approach to a match is key to midrange strategies, though midrange color pairs have become more and more flexible in recent seasons. In Modern, the most prominent midrange decks still adhere to the black-green base, but no color combination is off limits to Standard brewers.
This is because, perhaps more so than aggro or control, midrange decks are characterized by the cards available to them in the format. While there are some parallels each season for aggro and control decks, like classic three-mana counterspells or one- and two-drop creatures and burn spells, midrange decks are playing with a group of cards that can vary widely from one set to another. Because midrange decks are trying to, in effect, answer both aggro and control decks, their shape and structure is fluid, even if their methods of attacking match-ups remain the same.
During original Innistrad Standard, cards like Thragtusk and Bonfire of the Damned shaped midrange decks. Thragtusk provided both life gain to foil aggressive decks and a resilient threat with which to pressure control decks. Bonfire of the Damned was a similarly multipurpose tool, wiping away opponents' creatures or going straight to the dome on control players who thought they had stabilized.
I hadn't been playing long during the Innistrad and Return to Ravnica Standard season, and these Jund decks made an indelible impression on my yet-unworldly mind. They were a confusingly elegant sledgehammer, pinpointing what they needed to accomplish versus aggressive and control decks and finding tools that would shatter both.
With the arrival of Theros came Thoughtseize, an important card in picking apart opposing strategies, and Fleecemane Lion, a card great early against aggro and difficult for control decks to deal with later.
Khans of Tarkir introduced Siege Rhino, nemesis of all. Like Thragtusk, Siege Rhino could put victory out of reach for aggressive decks, pressured control decks with its efficient stats, and added a bit of late-game reach as well.
Late 2015 and Pro Tour Battle for Zendikar saw the rise of four-color midrange decks, Dark Jeskai the most notable among them. The delve mechanic helped these decks cast powerful spells like Tasigur, the Golden Fang and Murderous Cut, while Jace, Vryn's Prodigy pushed midrange decks into blue for the early delve fuel and late-game card advantage.
Most recently, a lot of deck builders have turned to green, white, and blue for their midrange needs. Collected Company could both stabilize a board against more aggressive decks while also restocking the battlefield at instant speed versus control. Creatures like Selfless Spirit and Archangel Avacyn protected the rest of your team, while those like Tireless Tracker and Duskwatch Recruiter generated card advantage without help from blue or black.
With this brief history of midrange in the back of our minds, how do we go about building midrange decks in the current Standard format?
With a little something I like to call ESP . . . wait, that's already taken.
We'll call it EvSePer, that's . . . better.
Well, nomenclature aside, these three steps are a general guide to building a midrange deck in any Standard season. Along the way, we'll look at a handful of current Standard cards that suit the midrange plan of attack—or not attack, as the case may be.
Evaluate the Threats
Evaluating the threats means looking at what creatures your opponents are likely to play and assessing the strategies bubbling to the top of whatever metagame you'll be playing in. A midrange deck won't be well served if it doesn't have a plan for everything from Toolcraft Exemplar to Torrential Gearhulk flashing back a Glimmer of Genius.
Take a look at the decks currently dominating tournaments and divide them out by strategy: aggro, control, midrange, and combo. Is the metagame favoring one of these more than another?
If aggro is constantly at the top of the standings, you'll want to skew your deck toward stabilization, board control, and life gain.
If control is on the upswing, you'll want to focus your efforts more on efficient, powerful creatures that can swing in for big chunks of damage or that can help your team survive wrath effects. You'll also be more likely to lean on discard spells, if they're available, or on your own smaller suite of pinpoint counterspells, since depriving a control deck of the right answer at the right time is crucial.
Alas, evaluation doesn't end there. Once you're familiar with which decks are seeing success, you'll need to become better acquainted with exactly how they're getting the job done. Analyze the decklists and ask a lot of questions.
For instance, do the aggro decks have a lot of burn spells that they're able to point directly at you? How is the control player planning on stabilizing? How do their wrath effects get rid of creatures? Do they Languish away, or is the wrath damage-based, like Anger of the Gods?
Select Your Answers
Next, you'll need to select your answers. Based on the threats you evaluated in the first step, what will you need to win against aggro? Against control? Against other midrange decks? This is where all that research you just did is going to pay off. You know what your opponents are doing, so how are you going to fight back?
For instance, if you find that those aggro decks do have a fair amount of burn that goes to the dome, you'll be more eager to include life gain, no matter how incremental, to make sure that all the time you spend shoring up your board position isn't undone by a Lightning Strike for your final 3 points of life.
A control opponent's choice of removal will likewise influence your choice of threats. Archangel Avacyn can't save creatures from a Languish, but she can foil an Anger of the Gods, so knowing how control decks plan to attack your creatures will shape the way you build your deck. An unchecked Tireless Tracker can survive both Languish and Anger, and if it doesn't, it still provides some card advantage that will help you pressure your opponent even after they wipe the board.
This step is less about your general plan of attack and more about the elegant sledgehammer I mentioned earlier. You'll want to look at the resources you have on hand and see which cards can fill more than one role. Sylvan Advocate is a good example; it's an early blocker with a relatively high toughness, and in later turns it packs a bigger punch while giving your resilient creature lands a boost as well. In past seasons, Fleecemane Lion was a hallmark midrange card, able to stabilize a board early or stick on the battlefield late.
Moving on to noncreature spells, Battle at the Bridge is a new Aether Revolt removal spell that midrange decks should keep their eye on. It can remove small creatures early against aggressive decks, and gain some life in the meantime. It's also able to take care of some of a control deck's big finishers, like Torrential Gearhulk.
If you'll be seeing a lot of opposing planeswalkers, you'll also want to choose removal that can handle them, have as airtight a plan as you can manage for pressuring them with creatures, or plan to nab them early with discard.
Discard spells, when and where available, are precision deck disruption. They're also more important in a combo- or control-heavy metagame, and less effective against aggro.
Current Standard has some interesting options in terms of discard. There's Harsh Scrutiny at one mana, but it only hits creatures, making it a terrible draw against classic creature-light control decks. Pick the Brain is a little more expensive than we usually want at three mana, but if your midrange deck looks like it can reliably hit delirium, it's a solid way to disrupt a deck that has only a small handful of ways to win the game. Transgress the Mind lands in the sweet spot between the other two, and is perfect for taking away early threats, protecting your own board position, and removing finishers and combo pieces.
Pressure Your Opponent
Midrange decks need to close out the game before aggressive opponents can push through those last few points of damage, and before control decks can stabilize and begin to take over the game. You've evaluated threats and selected the ways you're going to outmaneuver them, but your deck needs to have a shape and plan of its own as well.
Midrange is like the buffet of deck building, with almost nothing entirely out of the question for inclusion in your deck.
We haven't talked much yet about planeswalkers, and I think they fit nicely in this step of building.
Gideon, Ally of Zendikar is a card that has shaped Standard since it hit the format, and a lot of midrange decks of the past year have centered themselves around this card. Gideon can continue making blockers for as long as necessary, and as soon as it's time to start applying pressure, he's one of the most resilient creatures around. He finishes games brutally fast, giving control players little time to stabilize.
While Nissa, Vital Force isn't quite as brutal as Gideon, she is a touch more flexible. Unlike Gideon, the giant creature she creates sticks around through your opponent's turn, able to eat a smaller creature rather than trade with it. She also ultimates quickly, netting all-important card advantage versus control.
These are just a handful of the types of spells you'll want to at least consider including in your midrange deck, along with those resilient creatures I keep mentioning. As you're sculpting your midrange deck, remember the rules of good basic deck building. You don't want too many cards all clumped together in the same part of your curve. Make sure that the available lands can support the number of colors you want to play. Have early plays, but ways to power through the late game. Most importantly, build a deck you're going to enjoy piloting. Don't be afraid to make mistakes, to experiment, to fail, and to try again.
A midrange deck needs to be so much more than a deck that isn't quite committed to one plan of action or another, and in recent years Standard has offered a lot of tools that help these decks succeed at attacking both more aggressive and more controlling decks. So get out there and ESP . . . I mean, EvSePer!