A few articles back, I talked about why people play decks that can't win, and one of the key points was that you should strive to avoid midrange decks. Some people asked me for a definition of midrange, since the "I know it when I see it" plan doesn't lend itself to easy communication.
Today I'm going to provide a workable definition for midrange, why midrange decks are not the right choice, and take a look at some midrange decks in current standard. This is a particularly well-timed lesson because of upcoming Regionals; every year people assume that Regionals is going to be populated by aggro, and every year the majority of the field ends up being unexciting midrange decks designed to prey on these aggro decks. This is exactly what I warned against in my last article, so let's see if I can provide some applicable ways to avoid this trap.
Step 1: What is this "midrange" that I keep railing against?
I will always link midrange and Loxodon Hierarch. Hierarch perfectly exemplifies the definition I am going to use for midrange, which is as follows:
A midrange deck has no clear focus; instead, it adapts to the opposite role of whatever the opposing deck is playing.
That might not be completely clear, so let me elaborate. If the midrange deck is playing against a dedicated aggro deck, then it tries to be the control, and if it is playing against a true control deck, it tries to take on the aggro role. Against combo it can go either way, but usually has to resort to beatdowns. Combo decks are almost always going to have inevitability over midrange, so trying to kill them relatively quickly is usually what midrange has to do. Of course, it gets pretty ugly when two midrange decks battle, since neither really does anything, which is of course my point.
This definition very clearly encompasses the unstated goal of midrange, since most people (and I know from experience) don't think about matchups in this context when constructing their latest midrange offering. You try and make a deck that can handle anything, and what you usually end up with is far from that, which brings us to Step Two quite nicely.
Step Two: Why is midrange an intrinsically flawed strategy?
In order to beat the aggro decks, midrange decks play a bunch of removal spells and control-oriented cards (Terror, Wrath of God), and in order to try and beat control they have to try and play disruption (Cabal Therapy was a Rock staple for years) or "aggressive" cards. When you have 10 cards that are bad in any given matchup, it seems pretty clear that there is a fundamental problem. I used to love midrange decks, and even played Gifts Rock exclusively online for almost two years, culminating in a mediocre finish at Worlds 2006. If you ever drew a hand full of Cabal Therapies and Gifts you died to aggro, and the Loxodon Hierarch / Living Wish / Wall of Roots draw really didn't cut it against control. Consequently, we (since somehow I tricked the whole US Team of myself, Cheon, and Ben Lundquist to run the deck) lost to Tron and Scepter-Chant while still not beating all the Boros decks. If you have a bad matchup against control and don't absolutely crush aggro, what are you doing right?
This is the reason Loxodon Hierarch is such a great representation of midrange. It offers a very good anti-aggro body while maintaining the illusion of being able to beat down. This illusion is but a trap, since control decks don't ACTUALLY lose to Hierarch (or Finks or Rhox War Monk etc) beatdown. You might get a few hits in, but soon enough they cast their card draw spells and play a little defense and you are left powerless. When it comes down to it, you can rarely beat a control deck with your deck that isn't fully dedicated to any particular strategy.
While just about every card in the control deck is aimed at getting to the late game and crushing once it gets there, your sweet midrange deck has some aggro cards (not enough to seal the deal) and some control cards (not enough to really fight a real control deck). You might even get them to low single digits with your animals, but instead of having a Flame Javelin to finish it, you have a Wrath of God or a Primal Command. On the flip side, your animals don't really help you fight their card draw spells and Cruel Ultimatums very well.
You do tend to beat aggro pretty well, since that is a much easier proposition. Throw enough Loxodon Hierarchs or Kitchen Finks at the problem and it usually goes away. Slide in the most recent Extended season is a great example, since it is both midrange and pretty brutal against aggro. The last PTQ I watched definitely featured a Slide deck crushing my roommate's Zoo deck in the Swiss, as waves of Hierarchs, Finks, Wraths, and Lightning Helices were just too much. Of course, if aggro attacks from an unexpected angle, even this rock-solid plan can go awry.
For example of this, let's take a stroll down memory lane:
Pro Tour Hollywood, May 2008
Cheon and I decide that our best course of action for this particular Pro Tour is to sleeve up the midrangiest deck I have ever had the pleasure of taking into battle. I'm not sure how we convinced each other that this was a good plan, but we put our fates in the hands of Chameleon Colossus (at least he has a lot of hands) and Oversoul of Dusk.
The decklist, for your viewing pleasure (link to the appropriate Deck Tech segment can be found here)
Not even counting the egregious error of only maindecking one Kitchen Finks, this deck is just so awkward. Our plan, at a Pro Tour, was to cast a giant guy and Warhammer him up. Our removal was pretty slow, and our card draw cost a ton of mana. We both did Day Two, and I even Top 50ed, since we really did smash aggro. Midrange decks tend to do that, and our in particular had a ton of lifegain and hard to remove guys.
Still, when I was 9-3 I lost to one of our "unloseable" matchups, Doran. Brandon Scheel sided in Mind Shatter, and I just got crushed. Instead of Wrathing and Primal Commanding him out, he played some mana guys and just Shattered my hand away. By attacking me in an unexpected way, I went from being the unassailable control deck to dead in just one turn. Sure would have been nice to play counterspells, eh?
As for my other losses, I got absolutely crushed by two Reveillark decks. The actual control deck we should have played, Lark made my deck look like some sort of sick joke. I played Jun'ya Iyanaga in Round 14, and our games weren't even close. He sat there drawing cards with Mulldrifters, countering my card draw with Cryptic Commands. I even had the nut draw Game Two, with a turn Three Oversoul of Dusk, which got promptly Condemned. My best threat got dealt with with one mana, and the life I gained was completely irrelevant. It was just classic control v midrange, and I didn't come close to beating either Lark deck.
Pro Tour Hollywood was the last time I played a midrange deck, and my results have certainly improved since then. I was an avid fan of the Rock for so long, but now I wouldn't touch a midrange deck if I had any other option.
Step 3: Applying this theory for Regionals or an upcoming PTQ.
The tricky part about Magic theory is making it timeless enough to improve the reader's game on a fundamental level while still being useful in actual practical application. Striking that balance is difficult, and one of the reasons I often shy away from theory articles. I have been left dissatisfied after many theory articles that never addressed exactly how their interesting theories would be applicable at all.
For this article, we will focus on Regionals, although I would assume that any given Standard PTQ should also work. Every year, I hear people talk about how there will be so much aggro at Regionals, and how they want to make sure they don't lose to it. Every year, what ends up actually happening is a ton of people bring midrange decks, crush the few aggro they face, and end up losing to the real control decks or combo decks. I'm going to separate some of the more popular Standard decks into these categories, so my loyal readers can hopefully avoid this trap and even start to recognize good and bad qualities in any prospective deck.
(If you are reading this and trust me, don't play these decks)
This is a classic example of the midrange non-blue control deck. It can't compete with the Cryptic Commands and Cruel Ultimatums of 5-Color Control, and has to settle for running much worse stuff like Primal Command and Garruk Wildspeaker. You may consider this as a 5-CC deck that doesn't lose to aggro Red, but in return for a better (and not necessarily even good) Red matchup you are so much worse against Faeries or Reveillark. I'm not even convinced that Jund Ramp (or any non-blue Ramp) even beats Token decks.
Masquerading as an aggro deck, this GW deck has a bunch of two to four mana guys that try and beat down. With no reach and not a whole lot in the way of interactive spells, I would avoid this deck like the plague. If you want to play a real GW beatdown deck, play GW Tokens. It actually has a really good plan, and Overrun is just about the fastest way to kill someone in Standard.
Elves has been gaining in popularity lately, but I am still not impressed. Granted, this deck is way better than the other decks on this list, but it still feels kind of unfocused to me. The farther you go towards the Rock end of the spectrum, with Primal Command, Liliana Vess, Shriekmaw, the better you get against Tokens but the worse you get against control. It is hard to balance the control and aggro elements, since once you get too controllish your odds of beating Fae just get so slim. If you can strike the right balance or get the right pairings, this deck might work, but that is the classic problem with midrange.
(if you want to play control, play one of these)
Faeries certainly got weaker, but I wouldn't be too averse to playing with it at a tournament like Regionals. Faeries always does a great job of beating clunky decks, and Regionals is full of these.
The lone combo deck in Standard, Grinding is actually not bad against the more controlling part of the field. I would hesitate to run it just because of its pretty bad aggro matchups, but you could do worse than play this deck.
Tokens of all flavors!
BW or GW Tokens are great, and I would happily play either.
MonoR or RG or BR
I can't claim a ton of expertise in this area, but from what I have seen, both of these decks are viable and worthy of consideration. Anathemancer and Bloodbraid Elf are fantastic, and worth exploring.
I hope this helped define midrange, and wish you luck in avoiding it!