Standard has been a bit of a wild ride over the past two months. Back in late February I had just finished watching the PV win worlds and was excitedly preparing to make a return to paper magic in March at GP Detroit. Little did I know that everyone was soon taking a hiatus from paper magic.
I wrote this article about the state Standard at the time and ended the article musing that “the state of Standard was still in flux” – what an understatement that happened to be! At the time Aaron Gertler had just finished sweeping through the field at DreamHack Anaheim with his rogue Temur Adventures deck which completely turned the format on its head – creating a nigh unwinnable matchup for what had been the top dog in Azorius Control. I’d guessed that while adventures would find a place in the meta, it wouldn’t shake things up too much as I’d predicted a bad Red matchup for adventures. Once that turned out to be wrong – Red actually being a slightly positive matchup for Adventures – it took over the meta game for a few weeks having multiple top finishes.
The metagame had clearly shifted and Rakdos Sacrifice decks rose as an answer to Adventures. The once mighty Mono Red also fell off the map with bad matchups against both Jeskai Fires and Rakdos. Meanwhile Azorious disappeared and Bant came into the picture with a much more acceptable matchup against Adventures without giving up many points elsewhere. Through the release of Ikoria, many claimed Bant to be the best deck in Standard, and who am I to disagree?
My personal favourite formats are when every deck is able to be hard targeted if people want to hate it out and one of the top decks is a fairly balanced midrange deck able to play multiple roles against different opponents. I believe the format just before Ikoria fit that description fairly well, and Standard continues to be dominated by flavours of midrange. In addition I’m currently trying hard to prepare for the upcoming May Arena Mythic Qualifier, so now to get to work!
The first step when building your midrange deck is identifying your core and then how many of each other type of card you believe you need to make your optimal deck. The other categories I like to split cards up into are things like threat, interaction, card advantage and mana. Getting this mix right is crucial to successful midrange and will vary from deck to deck and format to format. Most of the categories are pretty self explanatory, but let me explain what I mean by ‘core’. The core are the cards that define a deck and you’d never consider cutting them, for example Brainstorm in Legacy blue midrange or Thought Scour, Mishra’s Bauble and Street Wraith in Modern Death Shadow. These are cards that are the glue in your deck and you’re never cutting them. Most midrange decks won’t have many of these and by this definition it’s hard to even call Death Shadow a true midrange deck, though its games still generally play out that way. A better example is Modern Jund, every card is potentially cuttable, at least in post-board matches. I may have people yelling ‘Thoughtseize’ or ‘Tarmogoyf’, but I’d argue that these fit into a specific category such as “interaction” or “threat” and you could theoretically cut either depending on the matchup – no legacy deck is ever cutting its brainstorms.
A simple formula I like to follow is that a little over a 3rd of my deck is mana, a little under a 3rd are threats and interaction with a few slots saved for “whammies” or pure card advantage. When building out my ingredients list I like to include every card I’m possibly considering or going to consider and slot into an appropriate category. This saves time down the road as the metagame starts to shift.
Let’s start the discussion with Bant just before the release of Ikoria. This is the list I used to get myself into Arena Mythic during the first two weeks of April.
I’d classify the cards as follows:
12 Core – Uro, Growth Spiral, Elspeth Conquers Death
I believe Elspeth Conquers Death is debatable as ‘core’ inclusion, but I personally wouldn’t possibly consider playing less than 4 and it checks multiple boxes as threats, interaction and even card advantage. This card is my reason to play Bant, so I’ve chosen to put it here.
8-12 Interaction – Teferi, Aether Gust, Mystical Dispute, Shatter the Sky, Knight of Autumn, Glass Casket
Midrange generally needs interaction against decks going under or over. If a deck is fighting on the same axis you’re generally better off playing minimal interaction and just trying to out card + threat them. We’re a bit lighter on pure interaction here both because Elspeth Conquers Death is interaction and because it’s such a monster of a card just going over the top of other strategies.
6-10 (+8) Threats – Hydroid Krasis, Nissa, Who Shakes the World, Dream Trawler, Agent of Treachery (Elspeth Conquers Death + Uro)
We don’t need to kill anyone all that quickly. Our threats are built to take over a board and win through anything our opponent is doing. Krasis also doubles as card advantage with Nissa + Dream Trawlers being our only true win conditions.
1-4 Card Advantage – Tamiyo, Narset (Krasis)
Card advantage is best in matchups that you can trade card for card. You definitely don’t want it vs aggressive decks, but you, maybe counter-intuitively, also don’t want it as much against decks going over you. In general it’s at its best in mirror matches. I’d added a 3rd krasis over most lists vs a second planeswalker.
28-29 lands – I played 28 for awhile, but most of your cards just replace themselves and I found I lost more often to missing my 4th or 5th than I did from flooding.
Identify Critical Matchups
Once we’ve done this we need to identify the matchups we care the most about and then begin to craft our deck with the parameters above in mind which will then allow us to really understand what trade offs we’re making when we make card selections. For example if I want to be better against Mono Red, I know I can trim a card advantage spell for more interaction. However, if I really don’t want to trim more card advantage I could consider changing my threat suite to play more dream trawlers. It’s quite simple looking at one match up, but it can really help when you start shifting cards for many matchups to find an optimal list.
For post-Ikoria Standard I’m most worried about the following:
1. Jeskai Fires
2. Rakdos Sacrifice (Both Lurrus + Obosh)
3. Temur Reclamation
4. Bant Mirror
I also want to be somewhat ready for:
1. 4c Nonsense – I’m classifying these as the decks with various Ultimatums or Casualties of War, occasionally with Fires.
3. Mono Red
Plan for Sideboard Games
Next we would also do the same to build out our sideboard. I like to create a list of all sideboard cards I’m considering, then determine how many cards we “must cut” for each matchup along with which cards I’d “like to cut” in others. In addition in some matchups there are haymaker cards that I’d classify as “must haves” if I want to win against certain decks, these are very common in Modern when you think of cards like Stony Silence or Leyline of the Void.
Sometimes we may want a bit of a transitional sideboard plan so this is when we both ensure the plan will fit in our sideboard and we have enough cards to cut. If we don’t we may either consider adding some of our more flexible sideboard cards into the main deck (Aether gust) or potentially swap some main deck cards for ones better in different matchups given that we plan on cutting them in later games anyway.
Personally my primary goal is to always make sure I don’t need to play with any cards I hate in any matchup. When your deck is essentially just a pile of “good cards” you need to make sure it continues to be all good cards while keeping your threat/interaction ratio right for whatever matchup you’re against.
I’ll come back to this exercise once I’ve laid out my Yorion list.
With the release of Ikoria there has been much talk about the various companions and how overpowered starting with “an 8th card in hand” is. While I agree with this sentiment, I still think we’ve got an interesting format with a variety of companions seeing play and encouraging “fair” midrange fights. Luckily for us Bant is chock a block full of powerful cards and Yorion, Sky Nomand + Elspeth Conquers Death is a match made in heaven – or maybe the underworld depending on your perspective.
Now there are some challengers here needing an additional 20 cards so let’s update our previous model adding some new contenders and multiplying everything by 1.3 to see where it gets us.
12 16 Core – Uro, Growth Spiral, Elspeth Conquers Death, Omen of the Sea
I’ve added Omen as a core card, it’s both excellent at allowing Yorion to provide good value as well as trying to regain some consistency in our 80 cards deck. I will say that Elspeth Conquers Death now has a matchup where it’s fairly poor against Lurrus, so it might be questionable to call it core, but at least your first ECD can catch the Lurrus.
8-12 10-16 Interaction – Teferi, Aether Gust, Mystical Dispute, Shatter the Sky, Knight of Autumn, Essence Scatter, Neutralize
We got two solid counterspell prints in Ikoria, but not much else in the way of interaction. I’m personally a big fan of Essence Scatter. In past formats it’s usually a card that’s dead in a few matchups, but with nearly every deck running companions or Uro it’s always got a juicy target. In particular I like its flexibility against Jeskai Fires in post board games where you can catch a turn 3 Legion Warboss or a hastey Cavalier on later turns.
6-10 (+8) 8-13 (+8) Threats – Hydroid Krasis, Nissa, Dream Trawler, Agent of Treachery, Shark Typhoon, Cavalier of Thorns (Elspeth Conquers Death + Uro)
Shark Typhoon is an excellent print for us in Ikoria, particularly if we want to play a more instant speed centric game with additional counter spells. Agent of Treachery’s value also goes up in stock due to its powerful interaction with Yorion. Lastly I’ve added Cavalier to this list both because of its interaction with Yorion and it’s a reasonable choice if you just want another threat to pressure other decks.
1-4 2-5 Card Advantage – Tamiyo, Narset (Krasis)
While the format has slowed down a bit to give us more space to play card advantage, we’ve also added Yorion’s interactions to allow us to draw cards effectively, making these cards less necessary.
28-29 37-39 Lands
My main advice when it comes to your mana is if you’re going to play as many as 39 lands make sure you’re playing a healthy number of cycling lands. It’s important to keep in mind that while this deck thrives on threats that replace themselves you still need to find them. We should keep in mind that in most games of magic there is a somewhat obvious effect where the more lands you’ve drawn the less likely you are to draw more. However, this is dampened due to our large deck size ie. the probability of drawing lands remains more constant.
Also note that if we want to go heavy on Nissa, make sure to include some cycling forests which also allows us to push to higher land counts.
As for our colour splits, you’re aiming for one G and one U turn 2 along with two W on turn 4. Given Frank Karsten’s classic mana article to give us a 90% chance of having these colours on time this is asking us to have:
13 * 1.33 Green = 17.3
13 * 1.33 Blue = 17.3
16 * 1.33 White = 21.3
If we decide to play a bunch of Narset we may also want:
18 * 1.33 Blue = 24
Given that our manabase frequently comes into play tapped and casting Growth Spiral on turn 2 is key to the deck’s power, I recommend skewing even higher on blue and green sources. This is also helpful in the late game if we want to play and escape Uro in the same turn. Given these two points I don’t want more than 2 plains in my deck.
I’ve seen some lists playing things like Arboreal Grazer and Omen of the Hunt, but I just don’t think the deck needs that extra speed. I get that 80 cards dilutes our core ramp, but if you’re that worried about speed I’d personally recommend switching decks – something like Fires is better against those aggro decks. I’ve also seen a list with The Birth of Meletis, and while I think the theory that card is fine I don’t want to play enough plains to support it.
Now let’s build our deck:
For interaction I’ve chosen a fairly tempo centric interaction suite vs the hard counters or more removal heavy suite for aggro. I believe this set is a fairly well rounded game 1 interaction suite. If the format slows down further I’d be interested to try a full suite of Neutralizes.
I’ve continued to choose the 3rd Krasis over more card advantage options. I believe Narset is at her best against other UGx decks, but they simply aren’t popular enough to want her in our main deck. She’s quite poor against aggro and I’m not a fan of her against Fires decks either. I’ve found two Tamiyo to be enough to be able to find one in the late game to work as a pseudo “tutor” to find our key interaction or threats.
For my threat suite I’ve chosen to play 3 Nissa, but I could see playing even less. I don’t think she is at her best in this format in particular against Rakdos or Jeskai Fires, however when she isn’t answered she can snowball games like nothing else in the format. I’ve chosen to eskew Shark Typhoon despite thinking that card is extremely powerful. If Reclamation and the other midrange decks get more popular I may want to play more Sharks.
This mana base gives us 22 white 26 green 24 blue. A solid base for all of our spells, colour requirements get pretty easy when you play so many lands! I skew a bit more to green as those are the same sources I don’t want to play early in land heavy hands so I can cycle them away in the late game
Developing the Sideboard
We now will go through all of our sideboard options and the matchups we want to consider. Remember that this is an iterative process and we may need to go back to our main deck if we can’t make the sideboard slots work to our liking.
Grafdigger’s Cage – A rare “must have” for the Gyruda matchup. They board in Destiny Spinners to blank our counters and when Gyruda resolves they can go way over top of us. I’m not convinced this deck is that great, but without cage the matchup is quite hard.
It is also a fine sideboard option against any Lurrus deck.
Narset, Parter of Veils – Good option for 4c Nonsense, Reclamation and Bant mirrors.
Knight of Autumn – Good against Rakdos Sac and Reclamation, also decent against Mono R and Adventures (if that’s still a deck)
Wilt – I believe this is the best option to blow up Wilderness Reclamations. If that’s a matchup that concerns you this may be a good option. However I personally like Knight of Autumn a bit better at the moment as a better choice against Rakdos and Mono Red.
Shatter the Sky/Time Wipe – Rakdos and Mono R (play 4x Shatter before Time Wipe)
Tolsimir, Friend to Wolves – Rakdos and Mono R. If you’re worried about aggro I generally like a couple wolf friends over additional wraths.
Mystical Dispute – Any deck with blue cards.
Aether Gust – Mono Red, Fires, Bant (you don’t always want 4x here)
Devout Decree – Rakdos, Mono Red
Glass Casket: – Rakdos, Mono Red, Gruul? In general I prefer decree as a more versatile option in game against Mono Red and Rakdos able to take out threats like Obosh and Torbran, but if you want more of a catch all against something like Gruul or Adventures you may want Casket instead.
Agent of Treachery – Fires, Bant, 4c Nonsense, Gyruda. Agent + ECD + Yorion is our ultimate endgame if our plan is to trade resources to the bitter end. I believe this plan is at its best against Fires and serviceable in the other matchups.
Dovin’s Veto – Reclamation, Bant, 4c Nonsense. A good option if you feel you need to answer your opponent on the stack rather than answering it once its resolved through something like ECD. I believe Reclamation is the only deck where this is the case, though some of the 4c Nonsense decks may trend that way as well.
Shark Typhoon – Reclamation, Bant, 4c Nonsense. I’d like Typhoon more if I were playing more instants. The main deck I’ve proposed is not set up that well either to leave mana up or resolve multiple non-creatures spells after hard casting this. It’s a very powerful card, but I’d want to reconfigure other parts of my list.
Now that we have a list of cards we’re considering for our sideboard let’s take a look at which matchups need slots.
Trim: Nissa, Shatter the Sky, Dream Trawler
I really like game 1, but the post board games get harder. It is an interesting matchup where you both need to be sure you don’t die early to Warboss backed by dispute while also making sure you go over top of them effectively. You can’t play too many anti-warboss cards either as they are mostly dead against the rest of the deck – Essence Scatter is an all star here. Regarding Shatter the Sky I generally like a few on the draw, but they aren’t necessary on the play.
Cut: Elspeth Conquers Death, Mystical Dispute, Agent of Treachery
Trim: Nissa, Tamiyo, Teferi
This is one of our harder matchups, and we need to make a lot of swaps when sideboarding. It’s possible I should be separating Lurrus and Obosh in this discussion, but honestly I haven’t had enough experience against Obosh to really differentiate. For example Elspeth Conquers Death is fine against Obosh, but you really don’t want to draw more than 1 against Lurrus. Aether Gust can be hit and miss, I usually like 2, but this can change depending on their build.
Cut: Shatter the Sky, Dream Trawler
Trim: Tamiyo, Elspeth Conquers Death, Agent of Treachery
Against the more flash centric versions I also like to cut my Nissas as they are hard to resolve. I’ve frequently cast my Knight of Autumn just to play as a 4/3 to force them to act.
Cut: Shatter the Sky
Trim: Dream Trawler
Not many dead cards in the mirror – so don’t go overboard in your sideboard. In fact I don’t really think about the mirror much when building my sideboard as most cards aren’t going to improve things much anyways.
Cut: Tamiyo, Dream Trawler
Trim: Nissa, Krasis
You frequently can’t do much about Gyruda. Just try to find your counter spells and pray. If Gyruda lands big you can sometimes sweep it away with Shatter, and if it’s on the small side ECD + Agent can be enough. This matchup is rough if you aren’t playing cages, if you’re not don’t your plan should be to go heavy on counters, and make sure you’ve also got answers to Destiny Spinner.
Cut: Tamiyo, Agent of Treachery, Mystical Dispute
Trim: Nissa, Elspeth Conquers Death
Not much to say here, it’s slightly unfavourable for us but not bad. We generally die when we don’t have Shatter or double interaction by turn t4 and then we can still die if they had Anax or rebuild into Embercleave. Teferi is much better than he looks here, because he can save us from Embercleaves. Don’t be afraid to just play him and tick up.
Cut: Shatter the Sky
Past shatter all of our cards are fairly well suited for these midrange battles. Dovin’s Veto and other counters out of the board to stop their haymakers can be strong, but I’m not afraid to play without them. Hard to give much detail past that as I’ve seen these decks doing all sorts of things.
The last thing to consider is how good or bad a matchup currently is and how much the specific cards help us. We want to get the “best bang for each slot”. So for example if I have a good matchup, but not enough cards to swap I don’t care as much to ensure I have slots as I’m likely ahead there anyway. On the flip side if a matchup is nearly unwinnable even when I draw my sideboard cards, why waste our slots there? Luckily this is a format where our bad matchups (Rakdos, Red and Gyruda) all have sideboard options that can help dramatically. Game one is hard, but not unwinnable and I actually like all 3 once we’re into the sideboard games.
Given the matchup spread and how many “bad cards” we have it’s clear that we need to use much of our sideboard against Rakdos. As Cage is key against an otherwise unwinnable matchup while also solid vs Rakdos it makes the cut. With this plan we are able to remove all of our “bad” cards for Rakdos and Red while also having just enough slots to maintain solid matchups elsewhere.
To try and show the power of building your deck this way, let’s consider a meta game where aggro and RB have faded away. How would we build our deck then?
With less aggro we can skew our interaction for stack based warfare! Narset is pretty poor against aggro, but quite a good flexible card otherwise, so we’ve removed some threats to fit her in. We’ve shifted away from Krasis and Dream Trawler for the instant speed threat in Shark Typhoon. If instant speed isn’t important they also give us the late game threat of hard casting two Typhoons in one turn.
This mana base gives us 21 white 23 green 24 blue. We’ve needed to increase our blue count for Neutralize and Narset while cutting a couple lands as Neutralize and Shark Typhoons can cycle to dig in a pinch and removing Krasis means we can’t handle flood quite as well. Castle Vantress also gets a bit better with so many instants, so I’ve added a second.
When looking at the sideboard note that even though we’ve skewed our main deck to beat a slower metagame, we don’t continue this trend into our sideboard. We only have a couple cards that we need to side out in those slower matchups, so we focus on catching up against the aggressive decks. I’ve cut the cages from this build as Gyruda has been seeing less play and if RB is also being played less it just isn’t worth the slots. We can use the glass casket to remove destiny spinners and try to fight them on the stack.
I hope I’ve given you some valuable insight into my process for building midrange and given you the tools to tweak Yorion Bant for your own percieved metagame. I’m sure I’ll be referring to this myself as we get closer to the May Mythic Qualifier. Best of luck on the ladder and whatever other online events you’re competing in!