The Modern metagame is a tumultuous, ever shifting environment, where decks are constantly trying to overthrow the best strategy for their shot at the top. The strongest deck rarely keeps that title for long.
It’s the natural evolution of deck building. When the best deck is beating you, you adapt and change to give yourself the best shot of winning against it in the future. Powerful decks can often be hated out of popularity for a time, only to return when people would finally leave their hate at home. In a lot of ways, the meta is cyclical as the top decks are continually turning over and trading places. There’s a theory at work here, one that’s been around since archetypes first articulated themselves.
There are three main archetypes in Magic: Aggro, Control, and Combo.
It’s known as the Rock-Paper-Scissors of Magic.
The Rock-Paper-Scissor theory is Magic’s way of balancing metas. When one archetype becomes too dominant, another with a profitable matchup can step in and even things out.
- Aggro decks typically beat control decks since they’re capable of overwhelming interaction and winning before control’s more powerful spells can be impactful.
- Combo is favorable against aggro since they have very little in the likes of interaction or disruption.
- Control usually wins against combo decks because they have the ability to focus all of their interaction into the necessary pieces the combo needs.
These are Magic archetypes reduced to their simplest and most basic definition.
In Pro Tour Dragons of Tarkir, control was dominant with the very powerful counterspell Silumgar’s Scorn alongside Ojutai and Silumgar. Four of the top eight decks were control, and what was the winning card of Pro Tour Dragons of Tarkir?
The Top 8 consisted of ramp strategies looking to cast Dragonlord Atarka, control decks, and one Red Deck Wins pilot to take down the whole thing. This is a great example of Rock-Paper-Scissors Magic working as intended.
This theory isn’t always so cut and dry anymore though. As more and more Magic sets have been printed, more and more sub-archetypes have unfolded. Now we have ramp strategies like Amulet Titan, Death and Taxes strategies like Humans, prison decks playing Chalice and Bridge, and tempo decks like Death’s Shadow.
So where is midrange on this ever swinging pendulum? Where do we belong?
When is our deck poised to take the meta by charge?
The answer is never…but also always.
This is both the beauty and downside of midrange. Our deck is versatile. It’s of pile of good stuff that is trying to ensure our opponent can’t execute their plan. When the meta changes, we can change, ensuring we always have the answers we need to take down the top decks. We can pivot into an aggro deck against control, a control deck against aggro, and a tempo deck against combo. Opponents can have a difficult time trying to sideboard against G/Bx, because there isn’t one key point of attack. The deck has a low synergy with itself, making it resilient in almost any meta.
The problem with all of this is that Modern is incredibly diverse with more than twenty decks sharing over 1% of the meta and another hundred making up the rest. It’s impossible to have all the answers necessary to properly combat so many different decks. Midrange decks are at their best when the meta is narrowed and they can dedicate their answers to a handful of strategies.
We’re known as the 3-2 deck, the 45/55 deck, the deck that has a consistent 50% win rate regardless of the meta. Resilient, consistent, and pretty much always considered mediocre.
There are a few people who seem to always do well with these decks in spite of that reputation. Jadine Klomparens was constantly at the top tables of SCG Opens and Reid Duke seems to somehow always do well when he shows up with Liliana and Thoughtseize in hand. This isn’t some anomaly or lucky streak. This is skill and a fundamental understanding of what the deck needs to accomplish to win on a match-to-match basis.
The greatest pilots are able to harness the deck’s ability to be flexible and transform depending on the matchup. We’re seemingly lost somewhere between aggro and control. While its ability to role swap may appear as a lack of focus and poor deckbuilding, that flexibility is actually where its true power lies. But how are they able to take the same cards and do something different with them each round?
Over 20 years ago Mike Flores wrote one of the most foundational MtG strategy and theory articles called, “Who’s the Beatdown?” In the article, Flores breaks down the basics of role assessment in similar matchups. Flores explains that role assessment comes down to whether you are able to recognize when you are the beatdown trying to win in the early game, or the control deck trying to win in the late game.
Rock-Paper-Scissors Magic can often make role assessment easy and straight forward. Burn will always be the beatdown against Scapeshift, and Scapeshift will always attempt to be the control deck surviving the early turns until they can combo.
Role Assessment is more difficult to analyze in matches where the strategies are very similar. The question becomes a lot harder to answer when you look at the Burn vs Affinity match. In this aggro mirror, who is supposed to be the beatdown and which aggro deck has to take the awkward role of control?
Affinity has way more sources of repeatable damage that come down faster than Burn. Off the top of the deck, Affinity’s card quality is also much poorer than Burn’s. Ornithopter looks pretty bad when your opponent is drawing Lightning Bolt every turn. Because of this disparity in card quality, Affinity wants to end the game fast and Burn wants to prolong it into the late game. Therefore, Affinity is the beatdown and Burn is the control deck.
In most cases, Affinity and Burn will be the beatdown. Really good aggro players will be able to make the call when they rarely have to change pace. Midrange however has to change their role every match. This requires midrange players to have a vast knowledge of the meta and a deep understanding of other decks.
Our deck’s goal is to stop the opponent from accomplishing their game plan and it’s hard to do that when you don’t know what that game plan is. The only way to be effective with your discard, threat assessment, and role assessment is to learn everyone else’s deck as if they were your own. The best G/Bx players are the ones that are also very good Tron players, Control players, Dredge players, Phoenix players, and so on. They understand all the ins and outs of their opponent’s strategies. They can look at their opening hand with discard and be able to perfectly predict what they’re going to do with the cards as if they were their own.
Once you know what you’re up against and what their strategy is, you’ll have to decide whether you need to be control, or the beatdown.
It’s game one. You’re playing G/B. You play a Treetop Village and pass. Your opponent plays a Flooded Strand and passes back to you.
Are you the control deck, or the beatdown?
You might say, “Woah, woah, woah, I don’t even know what they’re playing. How am I supposed to make that decision now?”
Well, your opponent didn’t give you much to go off of, but now it’s your turn. You play a Blooming Marsh with the choice between playing Tarmogoyf and holding up Abrupt Decay.
This is where knowing the top decks in the format and their lists comes into play. As soon as you see Flooded Strand, your mind should race through all the possibilities.
U/W Control? Cheeri0s? Izzet Phoenix?
Then you have to become the Control player, the Cheeri0s player, the Phoenix player; ask yourself what your likely turn one play is. For Phoenix and Cheeri0s, you’re probably looking to play some kind of cantrip to set up for a powerful turn two. As the Control player, you’re probably fine with fetching a tapped shockland on the opponent’s end step to save some life or leaving up Spell Snare. Phoenix and Cheeri0s want a more proactive turn one whereas Control is the one more likely to pass.
Lastly you should consider meta presence and card amounts in those lists. Phoenix and U/W Control are far more popular than Cheeri0s and Control plays the full playset of Flooded Strands whereas Phoenix only plays two if any.
All of this information is processed in a matter of seconds between them playing the land, passing, and you taking your draw step. You can come to the likely conclusion that you’re up against Control which means you need to be the beatdown. If you’re wrong and it’s Phoenix, you won’t be too disappointed since Goyf would have likely been your play anyway with nothing relevant to kill on turn two that you can’t kill on turn three. The only way you get really punished here is if it’s Cheeri0s, but you know that’s less likely so it’s worth the risk.
This example showcases one of the many reasons why discard is so important to our deck. One of its many functions is allowing us to know what we’re up against from the get-go, so we can assess our role with certainty. Without that knowledge, we’re forced to use our experience and best judgement. It’s time to be proactive and play out that Tarmogoyf.
Let’s look at a couple other openers involving another U/W land using the above mentioned hand and land sequence.
In either case, are we the control deck, or the beatdown?
Similar questions should race through your mind.
What decks play Seachrome Coast into Visions?
What decks play Seachrome Coast into Vial?
Even newer players are unlikely to assume Coast into Vial is a U/W Control deck, but Coast into Visions might give them pause. Again, knowing the most popular decks and their latest lists is important for role assessment. Seachrome Coast is a U/W land, but the primary U/W deck of Modern doesn’t even play it.
If I’m the G/B player and I see Seachrome Coast into Visions, I’m going to immediately think Cheeri0s. If I see Seachrome Coast into Vial, I’m going to assume Humans or perhaps Spirits. In either scenario, we are the control deck. Both Cheeri0s and Humans are looking to win as fast as they can, with Cheeri0s winning as early as turn two. Our job in these matches is to survive the early turns so that our card quality can outclass and topple over theirs later on.
Even though we’re the control deck against both Humans and Cheeri0s, our turn two play will likely differ. Cheeri0s immediately puts you on your back foot and either forces you to have an immediate answer on turn two or risk losing. For this reason, holding up Abrupt Decay is the best play. On turn three we can establish our clock while leaving up Fatal Push so that we’re never fully shields down.
Against Humans, we’re still looking to be the control deck but we have a little more time to get our footing before they can go wide. Tarmogoyf is a great offensive creature but in this match it reinforces our controlling stance as a huge defensive wall on the ground. Depending on what the opponent plays on their turn, there’s a chance we’ll untap with two removal spells at the ready and a large Goyf poised to protect our life total and eventually turn the corner.
Modern is unforgiving, and misinterpreting the examples mentioned above can equate to misplays and consequences leading to a loss. While that seems a little unreasonable and unfair to lose for misreading a turn one play, it’s the nature of the beast. Modern is a format where games are typically decided in turns two through four. Slipping up in those critical early turns can lead to disaster.
In the sideboarded games you’re going to have a lot more information to work with. You’ll know right from the start whether you’re the control deck or the beatdown. You’ll be able to sideboard cards and mulligan appropriately with that in mind.
But what about midrange mirrors?
What happens when decks built with this kind of flexibility face off against each other?
How can we assess who’s the beatdown and who’s control?
The rules of assessment don’t really change. We’re still going to look at card quality and who has the stronger late game. For an example, consider the Mardu Pyromancer match against something like Jund.
In this case, Mardu Pyromancer has the better late game. Between their powerful draw creatures like Bedlam Reveler and their ability to loop them back with multiple K-Commands, Jund gets drowned in card advantage. Jund usually wants to get to the part of the game where players are top decking because Jund usually has the better card quality. This is not one of those matches. Jund’s best draw is a 3/2 with haste that cascades into a planeswalker. Mardu’s best draw is an two mana 3/4 with prowess that evades most of your removal and also just so happens to be Ancestral Recall.
Jund wants to get this game over with by keeping the board clear and the graveyard empty for Reveler. Mardu wants to muddle the board with Young Pyromancer and Lingering Souls tokens so they can get to the late game where they can chain Revelers. In this midrange slugfest, Jund is the beatdown and Mardu is control.
There are many other examples we could examine but it almost always comes down to the same question of who has the stronger late game? In cases where it’s much closer to a true mirror, with a lot of overlap in the two lists facing off, role assessment will largely be decided by the texture of your opening hand and may be subject to change throughout the match.
That’s right. Not only do you have to assess your role for the match as a whole, but you also have to know when to switch gears and pump the brakes or more importantly turn the corner.
If you’re supposed to be the beatdown and have to switch to a controlling stance because you’re falling behind, it likely means you’re about to lose. The best example I can think of for this is when players have to stop adding pressure to the board against Tron because they have to spend their mana and turns trying to keep them off Tron instead. The biggest mistake players make in these situations is not taking risks, or playing to survive instead of playing to win. When you’re the beatdown, transitioning into a defensive posture has to be the last resort.
When Storm was prevalent, players would constantly make the mistake of thinking they were control. They’d use their first three turns playing discard, holding up removal, and be unwilling to put a threat on the battlefield until they could do so while also holding up interaction. This was done out of fear, and ‘playing it safe’ often meant applying little to no pressure. Storm is a very consistent turn three kill but just because it can kill fast doesn’t mean it’s the beatdown. Remember, the question always comes back to who has the stronger late game?
Storm has a much stronger late game than something like Cheeri0s, which crumbles in the face of interaction. We need to be the beatdown against Storm, because it’s very resilient and can bury G/Bx with cards like Pieces of the Puzzle. Taking a defensive position against Storm usually gives them more than enough turns to mitigate the damage done by early interaction and even combo off through it. Sometimes when you’re the beatdown you have to take risks early to get ahead and hope that you can keep them off balance enough to cross the finish line without recoiling into defense.
Taking risks as the beatdown is critical to winning a lot of the games that you need to end fast. The same is true when you’ve been acting as the control deck and then need to become the beatdown.
In Pro Tour Rivals of Ixalan, Reid Duke put on a great showing with Abzan and illustrated this point perfectly. His opening hand was somewhat lackluster, with no discard or early removal. It consist of lands, Tarmogoyf, Scavenging Ooze, and a Maelstrom Pulse. Even with no early game interaction, Reid was able to use his creatures, and later his Lingering Souls, to create a strong defensive position against his Humans opponent.
Then, he did something that caught the commentators and everyone at home off guard. After Reid had been on defense and attacked aggressively for six turns down to five life; he gained some back with Scavenging Ooze, and then decided that it was his turn to be the beatdown. Take note of the analyst giving Tay Jun Hao the Advantage Bar as soon as Reid comes to the realization that he’s running out of time to win.
I remember watching this and thinking:
Reid what are you doing! You’re at seven! and your opponent is at 20! You’re in no position to be aggressive!
But Reid recognized something nobody else did. Reid’s creatures were larger than Tay’s. While that meant they had been doing a great job at keeping Tay’s ground creatures at bay, Reid also recognized that he was out of action against Tay’s three cards in hand. After this attack, Reid used his last card in hand, Abrupt Decay, to kill the Mantis Rider and then had to top deck against Tay’s three cards in hand. Tay, having had more creatures on the battlefield and more cards in hand, had gained the advantage of likely winning the game if it were prolonged.
Reid realized that he needed to be the beatdown, whether he wanted to or not. He had done a beautiful job of using his life as a resource, utilizing his Spirits for blocks only when necessary, and valuing his Scavenging Ooze activations. At this point though, he didn’t have a lot of life to play with anymore and he was running out of Spirits.
Over the next couple of turns Reid was able to leverage his Shambling Vent and Scavenging Ooze to keep himself alive while simultaneously attacking hard. Reid’s creatures were so large that Tay could only take two hits before he needed to start blocking, creating more food for the Scavenging Ooze. Tay plays out the rest of his cards and ends with a Reflector Mage to send Reid’s large Ooze back to hand.
Now Reid is at three life staring down ten power spread over five bodies. He has a Scavenging Ooze he can’t play because of Reflector Mage and a Fatal Push he can’t cast because of Meddling Mage. Would you have attacked if you were in his position?
Between Tay’s fresh draw step and sacrificing the Canopy, he’s only able to add a small Champion of the Parish to the board with a redundant Thalia in hand. When Reid untaps he’s able to replay his Ooze and a Grim Flayer and continues to press his attack. The following turn he draws Pulse for the Meddling Mage unlocking the Fatal Push on the Thalia and attacks for the win. For ten straight minutes the analyst gives Tay the advantage until the turn before he scoops to Reid.
Not only did Reid recognize when he needed to switch gears from the defensive to the offensive, but he took risks. By attacking with the Goyf in the above shot, he left himself with no good blocks against the 4/3 first striking Thalia. Had Tay drawn a Mantis Rider or Thalia’s Lieutenant, Reid would have been under considerable pressure and may not have won. He rolled the dice anyway and was able to strong arm his opponent into a position of weakness.
Role Assessment is so important for midrange. We don’t have the pleasure of being primarily Rock, Paper, or Scissors. Instead we’re shifting back and forth, which can be a mentally taxing effort. Not only do we need to appropriately assess our role in a matchup, but we also need to constantly re-analyze our position throughout the game.
The best way to sharpen this skill is to be patient. Players who take very little breaks from playing Abzan, Jund, and G/B tend to find themselves on autopilot, making split second decisions based on similar ones they’ve made in the past. Instead, you need to be in the moment and make decisions appropriate for the scenario at hand. Take your time and formulate the best plan to win the game, whether that’s as the beatdown or the control player. If the plan has to change, you’ll need to have the awareness to identify that, and the timing to execute.
Imagine playing a game of Rock-Paper-Scissors with a friend and instead of revealing at the same time, you got to see what your friend presented before choosing yourself. This is the power of our deck. We’re able to take the same 75 cards from match to match and give them a different purpose based on our opponent’s strategy.
Discard can make way for your aggression or ensure your opponent’s aggression can’t be effectively unleashed on you. Cards like Tarmogoyf and Lingering Souls can both create an impenetrable wall or attack overwhelmingly. Our Fatal Pushes can clear the way for our attacks or kill our opponent’s creatures before they kill us.
You and your unknown opponent look at their opening hands.
You both keep.
You play a turn one discard spell.
You’re about to find out what your up against, what your role is.
Rock, Paper, Scissors,