When you hear the word “midrange” what do you think of? Personally, I have visions of green-black-something decks that make a lot of one-for-one trades with a little card advantage while playing the best threats they can find in the format. Decks like this are often referred to as “Rock” decks. Other color combinations can build a very similar deck (see red-white Boat Brew from Lorwyn-Shadowmoor-Shards of Alara Standard), but the basic principle is the same.
Rather than trying to kill the opponent before they can react or lock down the board and/or control the stack, the deck looks to make positive trades and grind out a win through playing with superior quality cards. Midrange decks usually win in the Red Zone, but they do it on their own terms and are usually doing it with a giant monster or two that already gave them some value before attacking.
You’ll see more midrange decks than any other type in a typical Commander group. Midrange is the “goodstuff.dec” archetype. Goodstuff.dec jams the best acceleration, removal, and threats you can find into a pile and plays with it. There might be small inherent synergies that play well together and there might not be.
Having a theme does not necessarily exclude a deck from being a midrange deck. I have a Ghave, Guru of Spores token-themed deck that I consider much closer to a midrange deck than an aggro deck at this point because it grinds much more than the original Rith, the Awakener ever could hope to with all the Grave Pact effects and recursion. There are lots of other routes to pursue as well, and I’ll touch on some of them below.
Colors to Choose
In tournament and kitchen table Magic, the best colors for midrange involve some combination of green, black, and white or blue. This holds true for Commander as well.
Green gives you the best creatures and land-based acceleration, which are key to getting your powerful cards out in time to slow down another player’s aggressive start or start pressuring the combo and control players. Black gives you the most powerful tutoring effects and reanimation. The tutors let you play silver-bullet answers without diluting the strength of the deck and consistently get your best cards into the game. The reanimation effects in black, when coupled with the return-to-hand effects available in green, make it easy to reuse your best cards again and again. White and blue both provide strong value creatures while providing other means of dealing with threats (white sweepers, blue countermagic), and generally shore up the weaknesses of green and black.
The other point to consider when selecting your colors for midrange is which multicolor cards you might want to use. Vindicate is good in any format, as is Angel of Despair. Coiling Oracle and similar enters the battlefield creatures are often the cornerstone of a good midrange strategy.
With a midrange good stuff deck, you can end up choosing your deck before your commander quite easily. Even thought you might be tempted to put all your favorite cards in a deck and then pick a general, I strongly recommend you pick a general that has inherent synergy with all those cards and cut the ones that don't have the same synergy as the rest of the deck. Playing goodstuff.dec will get there sometimes, but you'll find the deck much more consistent if you build around your commander to some degree and take advantage of the abilities they provide to you.
On Monocolor Midrange
Midrange can be done with mono-color decks, despite no single color really having all the tools that a multicolor deck will have. To do midrange in mono-color effectively, you lean more on the card advantage engines available to you in that color.
White midrange tends to play with sweepers and breaking the symmetry somehow or locking down the board with various rules-setting cards. Blue draws a ton of cards to keep the threats coming while maintaining positive tempo. Black plays with undercosted cards with drawbacks and mitigates them with the 40 life in the format. Green just powers out fatties and rides them to victory.
Unfortunately for those Red mage out there, midrange is not the best strategy for red in Commander. All of the ramping effects available to red are one shot, which means you’re giving up cards to play threats faster. You can’t afford to do that while playing a midrange deck: a large percentage of your answers will be one-for-one or two-for-one at best (especially in red). If you want to play red, you’ll find yourself being pushed into the aggro role or the control roll by keeping the board clear while you attack with one or two big threats.
Regardless of the color you choose, monoc-olor midrange is doable, but I'd strongly recommend starting with green and at least one other color to truly get the archetype running on all cylinders. You can rely on artifact mana to make up for the loss of green acceleration, but that opens you up to getting your tempo shut down by any kind of artifact destruction. It's not a good place to be in.
How to Build Your Curve
Building the curve for a midrange deck is all about exploiting the power of mana ramping and finding the most efficient effects at a particular mana cost. Fortunately for those of you looking to play midrange, starting at 40 life rather than 20 life makes it much easier to spend the first few turns setting up your mana to do ridiculous things starting on turn 4 and beyond.
Starting with converted mana costs one through three, you want to focus on spells that will set up your midgame. The most common thing to do is play mana ramping spells, especially ones that give you a two-for-one like Cultivate and Kodama's Reach. Sticking to land-based acceleration lets you avoid the potentially ugly issues of having your acceleration removed by a random sweeper at a crucial point later. Very few mass land destruction spells see play in Commander, so as long your group doesn’t go for the mass LD route, you’ll be all set.
Four- and five-cost are where you start to hit a bit more diversity in your spells. If you’re going for sweepers to generate card advantage, you’ll likely have a few in this range to deal with creatures. If you opted for card draw, this is where you want to have a few of those effects. This is where you start to generate a little card advantage alongside the mana acceleration. Fortunately, this is where the card advantage cards start to get good. You can Skyshroud Claim for two untapped Forests, or Wrath of God or Choice of Damnations, or stick a Jace, the Mind Sculptor and start drawing cards like crazy. Once you hit five you’ll have the occasional threat as well, but the good stuff mostly starts at six.
Six and above is where things start to get spicy, and you see the premier midrange creatures for Commander. The Titans from Magic 2011 and Magic 2012 are perfect examples. They have dangerously large bodies, and they do more than just beat. If you're going for goodstuff.dec, you should definitely have all the Titans you can play in your colors. Look for more cards like them, and you'll be on the right track. You want every threat you play to be a must-answer card, along with providing value when it enters the battlefield or dies.
Here's a quick list of possible commanders for both good stuff midrange and themed midrange generals and a couple notes on what you should include:
- Hokori, Dust Drinker – While not on my list of commanders to play any time soon, Hokori is excellent at denying resources to your opponent while you break the symmetry.
- Iona, Shield of Emeria – Locking an opponent out of a color will win you games, but you're better off cheating her into play somehow rather than paying retail.
- Reya Dawnbringer – Bringing back any creatures you've lost without paying for it is a great way to make sure you stay ahead. Even better if those creatures have enters-the-battlefield triggers.
- Heidar, Rimewind Master – While his body isn't super impressive, being able to bounce a permanent every turn is pretty nice, giving you a solid tempo boost while you get in with other threats.
- Meloku the Clouded Mirror – A fantastic way to generate a board advantage when the game goes long.
- Rayne, Academy Chancellor – Last week Doug Linn mentioned Rayne as a possible aggro commander. I think she'd be much better as the leader of a more midrange style build of deck with good blue threats backed up with countermagic for removal.
- Anowon, the Ruin Sage – A very good midrange choice since he can lock down the board for you while you deploy your other Vampires and take control of the game.
- Drana, Kalastria Bloodchief – Repeatable removal that pumps is a fantastic way to keep yourself ahead into the late game after deploying her in the midgame.
- Geth, Lord of the Vault – Evasion and a reusable reanimation ability like Chainer, Dementia Master, without his drawback. He even provides an alternate win condition in the milling ability.
- Ink-Eyes, Servant of Oni – Are you getting the idea that great black midrange generals either kill everyone's creatures or reanimate them yet?
- Sheoldred, Whispering One – A less restrictive, bigger, better Anowan.
- Skithiryx, the Blight Dragon – The one exception to the "kill creatures or reanimate" them rule, because he has such a good clock all by himself that he can be backed up with just ways to control the board and other efficient creatures.
- Xiahou Dun, the One-Eyed – Monetarily expensive, but oh so good at providing exactly what you want in a midrange deck: powerful recursion.
- Ashling the Pilgrim – She's one of the very few commanders you can run as midrange because she provides solid card advantage while being an aggressive beater. The "99 Mountain Ashling" deck definitely qualifies as midrange.
- Kazuul, Tyrant of the Cliffs – Creating creatures whenever an opponent attacks you lets you be aggressive while still having some defense, and you'd be surprised how often people will send a creature somewhere else to avoid paying or giving you a token.
- Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker – Great midrange guy when combined with enters-the-battlefield creatures, but often played as a combo general, so be ready for people to try and hate you out.
- Azusa, Lost but Seeking – Quite popular after Sam Black posted a decklist designed around powering out turn 4 Eldrazi.
- Kamahl, Fist of Krosa – A savage beater that only gets better the more mana you have available.
- Molimo, Maro-Sorcerer – Getting bigger and more dangerous with every land you have out plays naturally into green's strengths.
- The Invasion and Planar Chaos Dragons – All of the Dragons do a great job of giving you something at a big discount whenever you can hit a player, and the decks built around them play very much like a midrange deck most of the time.
- Ghave, Guru of Spores – Having built the deck, I can confidently say that Ghave functions extremely well as in a midrange token based strategy. Almost all the commanders that give you access to black can play the role well when combined with Grave Pact effects and Aura Shards.
- Glissa, the Traitor – Another one mentioned in comments on my aggro article, the Evil Glissa is a great way to grind out card advantage in traditional Rock style.
- Kresh the Bloodbraided – One of the poster boys for midrange, Kresh is all about grinding out advantage by offing both yours and your opponent's threats.
- Breath of Malfegor – The ODD (Original Demon Dragon) does wonders for making sure you stay ahead on the board against slow opponents while destroying anyone who dumped their hand too early.
- Mayael the Anima – A lot of people consider Mayael to be either aggro or control. I personally think of her as a midrange general since she plays best as a combination of the two.
- Merieke Ri Berit – Merieke can be a control general with very few other creatures, or she can be a 3-drop that steals your opponent's best creature while you beat down with your other guys.
- Nath of the Gilt-Leaf – Getting free creatures for forcing opponents to discard is a fantastic advantage – one you can easily exploit in a Rock shell.
- Oona, Queen of the Fae – Similar to other token generators, but be aware many people play her as a combo kill.
- Rosheen Meanderer – Rosheen combines very well with additional ramp to let you pay silly amounts on X spells, quickly making them incredibly broken.
- Sapling of Colfenor – She provides card advantage while being extremely difficult to kill.
- Sygg, River Cutthroat – A card advantage engine that combines with your desire to get in for some damage every turn and profits off your opponents hurting each other.
- Vish Kal, Blood Arbiter – Tailor-made for midrange, letting you take advantage of your dying creatures and make sure your opponents lose them too or just get hit for tons.
- Wort, the Raidmother – Similar to Rosheen, but requires more tokens. She's a fantastically fun general in my experience.
- Wrexial, the Risen Deep – Getting free spells for attacking is exactly what a midrange deck wants.
Ending in the Middle
That's all for midrange discussion. Next week we'll talk about all the different ways to play control in Commander. Until then, remember two-for-ones can win games.