Pushing extremes is often a good way to learn, but finding balance is often the best way to play. Aggro decks want to attack; control decks want to defend. There's a third category of decks that features similarities with both, yet doesn't quite fit the mold of either one. We call these midrange decks, which are built with both offense and defense in mind, and have the ability to adapt to whatever situation they face.
Art by Richard Wright
Adaptability and Versatility
Ari Lax won Pro Tour Khans of Tarkir with Abzan Midrange. He navigated through thirteen rounds of play against control decks, fast creature decks, burn decks, opposing midrange decks, and plenty more. At the heart of his success was adaptability. The keys were the ability to play offense when he could, a willingness to play defense when he needed to, and an excellent sideboard that allowed him to attack each of his opponents in the perfect way once he knew what he was up against.
Mr. Lax's deck looks much different from the other decks featured over the past few weeks. It has a healthy number of creatures, but it also emphasizes answer cards, mana development, and resilient noncreature threats. Its strategy is based neither on speed nor longevity, but on grinding small advantages and setting up a winning board state. In short, it's a well-balanced deck.
The perfect card for a midrange deck is one that's good on either offense or defense. Note that there's nothing in Ari's deck along the lines of a Firedrinker Satyr—a card that's only suited to attacking. Nor is there anything like a Jace's Ingenuity—a card where you sacrifice a substantial amount of tempo as an investment for a long game. Midrange decks are adaptable in part because their individual cards are versatile—they have a range of uses for a range of possible scenarios.
Look at Siege Rhino. This is a creature that's capable of unloading a lot of damage fast, and it can win the game all on its own if the opponent fails to answer it. However, with its high toughness and lifegain ability, it's also excellent at catching you up from behind against an opposing creature deck. It can come down, stabilize the board and your life total, buy you time to cast the rest of your spells, and—when you're ready—it can start attacking.
Siege Rhino and Wingmate Roc are hand-picked to be effective game enders that are also good on defense. Beyond that, every creature in the deck has a noncombat ability that's useful in a long game. Elvish Mystic and Sylvan Caryatid can block in a pinch, but their main purpose is to serve as extra mana sources, and to give the deck a speed boost so it can keep pace with aggro decks. Courser of Kruphix can sit in play holding off weenie creatures while also giving you long-run card advantage and a healthy bit of lifegain.
Another perfect example of versatility is Abzan Charm—a card with three distinct modes is the definition of versatile! Moreover, one of Abzan Charm's modes is defensive (exiling the opponent's creature), one is offensive (pumping up your creature for extra damage or to win a fight in combat), and one is an investment for the late game (drawing extra cards). You will never be disappointed to draw Abzan Charm because it's useful in nearly every imaginable situation.
Along those lines, note how Ari Lax was able to fill his deck to the brim with answer cards without choosing any cards that would likely be dead in a particular matchup.
Abzan Charm: Three modes, so you can find the right one for the given situation.
Since their greatest strength comes from their flexibility, it's impossible to discuss midrange decks without the context of sideboard. They lack the speed of aggro decks and the late-game power of control decks. However, they excel at exploiting weaknesses of other decks and finding the best way to approach any set of circumstances. Midrange decks tend to shine after sideboarding, when they can hone themselves to perfection for a particular matchup.
In the main deck, avoiding cards that can be dead in certain matchups is tremendously helpful. However, in your sideboard there's no need to sacrifice power for versatility.
Because midrange decks are well balanced, and their strategy does not lean too heavily on any one thing, they can sideboard virtually anything. Notably, Ari Lax chose to make use of a number of symmetric effects, such as End Hostilities. Although most creature decks shy away from cards like this, Ari knew that in the matchups where he'd sideboard in End Hostilities, his opponents would be so decimated by it that he might gladly sacrifice one or two of his own creatures as collateral.
However, midrange decks have access to more than just defensive sideboard cards. The fact that they play creatures and have the ability to pressure the opponent's life total mean that they can also look for specific threats that might give certain opponents trouble.
Take Nissa, Worldwaker for example, a card that's very effective against control decks. It would be clumsy and ineffective for one control deck to sideboard Nissa against another. After all, attacking the opponent's life total isn't part of the plan, so unless Nissa can somehow manage to take the opponent from 20 to 0 all on her own, she hasn't accomplished much. However, in the context of an Abzan Midrange deck (with Siege Rhinos, Wingmate Rocs, and other Planeswalkers to compliment her), Nissa represents a threat that could easily be too much for an opposing control deck.
Traditionally, midrange decks excel after sideboarding. In fact, their advantage is two-fold. For one thing, the flexibility of their strategy means that they have access to all the best sideboard cards in their colors. For another, the balance of their deck means that they are very difficult to sideboard against. The more extreme the strategy, the easier it is to sideboard against; the more balanced the strategy, the more difficult it is to sideboard against.
Mana and Tempo
As with any deck, mana curve is of the utmost importance for a midrange deck. Along those lines, there's a unique problem spawned from the claims I've made above.
Every deck must have early plays, but it's extremely difficult to find cheap creatures that are good on both offense and defense. If they have low power and toughness, then they're too likely to be outclassed later in the game. One option is to eschew cheap creatures in favor of removal spells, but then you're likely to have a lot of dead cards when you face control decks. The challenge is to find early plays that are good across all matchups and maintain their value throughout the game.
The solution, in the case of Abzan, is to play with creatures that ramp your mana. In addition to meeting the criteria above, they offer you the side benefits that you can play a slightly higher concentration of expensive cards and a slightly lower land count.
To preserve the power level of your deck, you can instead plan to spend your early turns making investments in tempo in order to develop your mana. It's all worth it if you're able to function smoothly, reliably, and effectively in the midgame.
Card advantage is important to midrange decks. However, where control decks can play cards like Divination and Jace's Ingenuity, midrange decks are forced to be more creative. If your goal is to shine in the midgame, it's a bad idea to spend a crucial turn drawing cards instead of developing or managing the battlefield.
Instead, midrange decks need to look for incidental card advantage—card advantage that comes indirectly, or is attached to another effect. Courser of Kruphix is a perfect example. On turn three, you really want to be adding a creature to the battlefield, but Courser continues to pull its weight for as long as it remains in play. Playing lands off the top of your library means getting more cards into play without spending anything out of your hand. It also means an increased chance of drawing nonland cards to mitigate the risks of mana flood.
We've already touched on Abzan Charm. While it wouldn't be a good idea to play with Divination, Abzan Charm's primary function is as a removal spell. There's a tremendous amount of value to having a card advantage option when the situation calls for it.
Last but not least, in terms of incidental card advantage, we have the Planeswalkers. Midrange decks are best suited to use Planeswalkers for a number of reasons. First, they have enough creatures alongside their Planeswalkers that they can control the battlefield. Second, they have enough removal to protect their Planeswalkers even when they aren't ahead on the board. Third, and perhaps most important, they're aiming to play a slightly longer game and therefore get tremendous long-term value out of activating their Planeswalkers every turn.
Virtual card advantage is also important to midrange decks. Very often, this comes in the form of simply having bigger creatures than your opponents.
Imagine the case of Abzan Midrange facing off against a red weenie deck. On any given turn, as the game goes long, the Abzan deck might draw Siege Rhino while the red deck might draw Foundry Street Denizen. Abzan gains virtual card advantage simply by having a higher average card quality.
Imagine a Siege Rhino in play against a swarm of smaller red creatures. The red player might decide not to attack, in which case the Abzan player has blanked his or her creatures (at least temporarily). The red player might decide to attack and lose one of his or her creatures, just to get in damage, in which case the Abzan player has killed one creature for free. Alternatively, the red player might have to trade a creature along with a Titan's Strength or a Lightning Strike in order to kill the Siege Rhino, in which case the Abzan player has gotten a two-for-one.
The more card advantage that you can build into the structure of your deck, the better off you'll be.
Ending the Game
The most important difference between a midrange deck and a control deck is that the midrange deck does not (necessarily) have inevitability—it is not guaranteed to win the game just by virtue of surviving long enough. Some midrange decks have a sizable risk of mana flood. Others might have trouble answering particular cards or combinations of cards.
For example, Ari Lax's Abzan deck would have trouble against the card Hornet Queen in Game 1, having to spend multiple cards to answer it. This might pose a minor problem, but it's certainly not a fatal flaw in the deck.
The solution is simple: kill your opponent!
Up to this point, I've emphasized the importance of creatures playing defense in a midrange deck. "Siege Rhino can stabilize the board..." "Wingmate Roc can protect your Planeswalkers..." Well, they have another purpose as well.
Once you're ready, you turn your creature and your Planeswalkers on your opponent. You can use your removal spells to kill their blockers, and your opponent can be dead before he or she knows what's happened!
Flexibility is key for a midrange deck, and part of that is being able to attack when the situation calls for it. Ideally, the game will go in two stages: the first is where you're defending yourself, developing your mana, and dismantling your opponent's game plan, and the second is where you're attacking and going for the throat. We call this turning the corner—the turn where your goal shifts toward killing your opponent.
The ability to turn the corner and end the game fast is crucial for midrange decks precisely because they do not have inevitability. Your answer to certain troublesome cards is to win the game either before they show up, or very soon after. If you're playing Abzan and you smell a Hornet Queen coming, try to get your opponent to a low enough life total that something along the lines of a Siege Rhino backed up by Ajani, Mentor of Heroes can finish the job.
When you play a midrange deck, you're never totally out of the game. You'll have a diverse suite of answer cards to handle many of the most common problems. More importantly, in the cases where don't have the right answer, you have the plan B of simply killing your opponent!
Note that midrange decks can come in all shapes, sizes, and colors. Finishing in the Top 8 alongside Ari Lax was Yuuya Watanabe, with Jeskai Midrange.
Despite sharing virtually no cards in common and the games playing out in a vastly different way, the principles behind Abzan and Jeskai are largely the same. Like Abzan, this Jeskai deck will take a defensive posture against faster decks and an aggressive posture against slower decks. Like Abzan, it features a small handful of potent creatures. Like Abzan, after sideboarding it will adapt itself to whatever role it needs to play for the given matchup. Even more so than Abzan, it has a remarkable ability to turn the corner, ending the game with a flurry of burn spells once it's time to do so.
In a Magic tournament, a collection of various strategies bash into one another until one comes out on top. Instead of guessing which strategy will be best, you can play something more flexible and adapt to whatever your opponents will be up to. Choose a midrange deck, emphasize balance and a good sideboard, and you'll have a fighting chance no matter what situation arises.
Bonus Section: Preview from Commander (2014 Edition)
One of the keys to a successful midrange deck is incidental card advantage—card advantage built into the very structure of the deck. I've also brought up a common problem for midrange decks—a lack of early plays—and one possible solution—investing your early turns into lands that enter the battlefield tapped.
Along those lines, today's preview card is one that might be too slow for aggressive decks, but that has the potential to be a game changer for a midrange or control deck. Any deck that can afford to give up some tempo in the early turns in exchange for extra mana and card advantage down the road could be a great candidate.
In the short term, Myriad Landscape is worse than a basic land, as it enters the battlefield tapped and only produces colorless mana. However, for a deck with lax mana requirements in the early turns, this might not be a particularly steep price to pay. In the long term, Myriad Landscape will turn itself into two basic lands, which means mana ramping and card advantage all without ever playing a spell from your hand. This is exactly the type of incidental card advantage that'll allow your deck to run smoothly and offer a consistent advantage over many opponents.
Myriad Landscape is functionally quite similar to an old card: Krosan Verge. Krosan Verge was a defining card when it was legal in the Standard format. Despite not appearing in any top Legacy decks in recent times, both Krosan Verge and Myriad Landscape are Legacy-power-level cards under the right circumstances, and probably deserve more attention than they get.
Landscape, compared to Krosan Verge, features the important ability to search for any type of basic land. This ought to make it a strong consideration for any deck that benefits from having many lands of the same type, such as those built around cards like Cabal Coffers or High Tide. As a side note, it could also be good if you had a reason to play with Snow-Covered basic lands (a reason like Skred, for example).
Look for high-value lands like Myriad Landscape to give your midrange decks that little boost they might need to become tournament winners.