UW Midrange Primer: Assess, Adapt, and Ascend

Inspired by Darrel Feltner’s recent be-all-end-all primer for UW Tron, I’ve accomplished the same for an archetype I’ve known better than any other, UW Midrange. This primer, in collaboration with Sean Yang (a member from my UWx community on Facebook), will cover the design philosophy of this archetype, display the best card options available for building, revising, and updating this deck, and attempt to explain why it’s a viable choice for competitive play in the Modern format.

If you’re interested in delving even deeper into this archetype, I recently had the opportunity to interview one of the progenitors and masters of UW Midrange, MTGO’s Curryvore: Francesco’s Rare 1 on 1 with MTGO’s UW Master – Curryvore: Assess & Adapt

The History & Philosophy of UW Midrange

First and foremost, I think UW Midrange has been underrated and misrepresented in this format since its inception. One of the reasons may have to do with the way it’s perceived which begins with the philosophy of its core design and game plan. What works in Standard or in Legacy may not be a suitable direction in Modern. The traditional Control approach (draw, counter, kill, go) is utilized more effectively in Jeskai because it can apply pressure while interacting (as we’ve seen from its recent resurgence).

Unlike traditional UW Control, this hybrid, pioneered by MTGO’s JB2002 (Junichiro Bando), represented by Yuuya Watanabe, and adopted by Curryvore (Takaya Saito), has more threat density (focusing on two-for-ones and evasion) and generates card advantage through value and utility­-based creatures that play a defensive and/or offensive role depending on the game ­state and matchup.

Link to JB2002’s finishes on MTG Goldfish.
Link to Curryvore’s finishes on MTG Goldfish.

The balance between interaction and pressure (reactive vs. proactive) allow its flexible game plan to remain relevant to the meta and its designed to be adaptable vs Aggro/Midrange/Combo/Control. This makes UW Midrange one of the most viable and versatile archetypes in a format known for high variance.

Craig Wescoe briefly covered this deck after Yuuya Watanabe placed 10th with it at the 2015 World Championships:

From Craig’s article on 15 Best Modern Decks (Sept. 2015)

For reference, the following video showcases and commentates (by LSV) how a variation of JB2002’s UW Midrange deck is designed and played:

2015 World Championships

Round 5: Shaun McLaren (UR Pyromancer – 1) vs Yuuya Watanabe (UW Midrange – 2)

UW Midrange has the ability to attack from various angles and has numerous lines of play depending on different circumstances. Therefore, knowing when to adopt and execute either plan ­- beatdown or control -­ or when to utilize certain spells is key to this deck’s performance and success. This game plan consists of a balance between interaction and pressure through versatile and value/utility-based creatures, planeswalkers, and spells. It’s also commonly referred to as a reactive Jund/Junk (attrition) deck. This deck may have a steep learning curve but it rewards meta knowledge, adaptability, tight play, patience, and experience.

  • Your goal every game is to untap with four lands that can produce double white or triple blue on turn four. The deck becomes very threatening at this point.
  • Play defense until turn four. Force overextension into Supreme Verdict, then recover with threats. Think of it like an american football. You play your defense, and then you play your offense.
  • Generate value through your creatures.
  • Know which role you’re playing. The deck is a hybrid between a creature and a control deck that can switch between either.
  • Speaking of which, learn to clock. The deck sometimes needs to play very aggressively in order to win. This is very different from a traditional UW Control where its main game-plan is to ‘durdle’ the crap out of their opponents.

Be Proactive & Play to Your Strengths

I recently had a good discussion with a reputable player about the status of Control in Modern and we agreed with the following:

In Modern, it’s becoming clear that the decks that can do well are the ones that can disrupt your opponent while applying pressure. Midrange and control decks, historically, need to be able to adapt and this takes time. They’re not as inherently powerful as linear strategies, but they do allow you to outplay your opponent. You win off slim margins. You have to pick your battles.

If Eldrazi Winter of 2016, Grixis Death’s Shadow, Humans, and the recent NBL results taught us anything about Modern, it’s to be more efficient, proactive, and play more to the board. Despite combo decks such as Storm and Tron, Modern has been, and continues to be, a creature-dominant format.

Counters have an important role for Control players against particular decks, but playing to the board is ultimately where you want to be as a midrange or control deck out of the gates, at least against an open field at larger events. For instance, if you’re designing your main to hang with Tron, but are only covering land disruption, that plan isn’t going to cut it without pressure/clock. The same can be said about Storm, KCI, and others.

Unless you’re doing something unfair like in UR Moon, Jeskai Breach, or U Taking Turns, you might as well just focus your main on what your deck is designed to do best, then leave the more difficult matchups to the sideboard. That’s not to undermine versatility, but don’t stretch yourself too thin by being a jack of all trades but master of none. Respectively, don’t overcompensate or overlap in areas you’ve already covered or are fine against. It’s all about those ratios and seeing your main and side as one.

Designing UW Midrange

Francesco Neo Amati’s UW Midrange

Creatures (14)
Restoration Angel
Dragonlord Ojutai
Venser, Shaper Savant
Wall of Omens
Kitchen Finks
Vendilion Clique

Spells (13)
Supreme Verdict
Settle the Wreckage
Wrath of God
Spell Snare
Cryptic Command
Path to Exile

Planeswalkers (2)
Jace, the Mind Sculptor

Enchantments (6)
Detention Sphere
Spreading Seas
Lands (25)
Minamo, School at Water’s Edge
Hallowed Fountain
Field of Ruin
Celestial Colonnade
Flooded Strand
Mystic Gate

Sideboard (15)
Disdainful Stroke
Celestial Purge
Rest in Peace
Vendilion Clique
Stony Silence
Runed Halo
Supreme Verdict
Lyra Dawnbringer
Teferi, Hero of Dominaria

I was on Archangel Avacyn for Regionals, but am currently re-testing Dragonlord Ojutai. I’m giving JB the benefit of the doubt because he thinks it’s the best creature available for this archetype:

JB2002’s UW Control (for reference)

Creatures (8)
Dragonlord Ojutai
Wall of Omens
Vendilion Clique

Planeswalkers (5)
Jace, the Mind Sculptor
Teferi, Hero of Dominaria
Elspeth, Sun’s Champion

Enchantments (8)
Detention Sphere
Spreading Seas
Leyline of Sanctity

Spells (14)
Path to Exile
Spell Snare
Wrath of God
Supreme Verdict
Cryptic Command
Pact of Negation
Lands (25)
Celestial Colonnade
Field of Ruin
Flooded Strand
Hallowed Fountain
Minamo, School at Water’s Edge
Mystic Gate

Sideboard (15)
Celestial Purge
Rest in Peace
Stony Silence
Leyline of Sanctity
Wrath of God
Disdainful Stroke
Vendilion Clique

I can see running two Ojutai if it proves to be that good, or a 1/1 split with Avacyn, Jura, or another planeswalker.

Main Deck:
Creatures: 10-16
Planeswalkers: 0-­4
Spells: 16-­20
Lands: 24-­26

Note: ​If you play 24 lands, playing a lower curve or more cantrip like Serum Visions is recommended.

Recommended Max 4+ cmc:​​ 13 (2 max 5+ cmc spells)

Main Creature Core

Restoration Angel (3-4 copies)
The core of the core for this deck. Period. The deck is basically built around this card. If you want to improve with this deck, know how and when to play this card.

Vendilion Clique (2-3 copies)
Cliques make our bad match-ups into even match-ups. They present a clock AND they’re disruptive. Worst case, they’ll give us a re-draw, while getting a removal out from your opponent’s hand.

Kitchen Finks (2-­4 copies)  
Persisting through sweepers is the main reason we play this card but it’s just a great Magic card overall, packing an insane value for just three mana. Main-decking these makes any aggro matchups (except Merfolk) into a breeze. It’s also a great two-for-one against removals, especially Lightning Bolt and Fatal Push, and more if you can reset it with Restoration Angel.

Wall of Omens (3-­4 copies)
This plus Restoration Angel is your main source of card draw. You can cycle and Path to Exile these to get ahead of tempo vs. Control. Read the card as “draw a card, gain x life and have your opponent overextend on their board”.

Flex Creatures

Blade Splicer (0-4 copies)
Blade Splicer doesn’t work as well with sweepers as Kitchen Finks, but it’s still very good at playing offense or defense, and can quickly get out of control with Restoration Angel. In a more aggressive tempo-based build, Blade Splicer is a strong choice and preferred over Kitchen Finks. In regards to sweepers, Settle the Wreckage may be the best choice in the main, with Supreme Verdict reserved for the side.

Snapcaster Mage (0-2 copies)
A UWx deck without Snapcaster Mage?! While it’s one of the best blue spells, it’s a bit low-impact in this deck compared to Jeskai where it’s known for Bolt/Snap/Bolt and more reactive spells. However, if you’re playing 14+ instant/sorcery spells, and want to add a tempo angle with Vendilion Clique and Restoration Angel, then one-two Snapcaster Mage may be worth consideration. They also gain more utility with our sideboard counters. Keep in mind, though, that it’s a ‘nonbo’ with Rest in Peace.

Flex Top End (0-2 spots)

Sun Titan (0-1 copy)
Although Elspeth, Sun’s Champion is the best six drop in a vacuum, Sun Titan provides unparalleled value if left unchecked. From buying back lands like a Celestial Colonnade or Field of Ruin to Spreading Seas and Detention Sphere and value creatures like Wall of Omens, Kitchen Finks, and Vendilion Clique, Sun Titan is one of the most synergistic top ends we have access to. In fact, he used to be played as a one-of in JB’s lists for years leading up to 2016. The caveat is that he costs six, doesn’t have protection, clashes with Rest in Peace, and won’t run away with a game the way Elspeth, Sun’s Champion can. The upside is that it gets around Thalia, Guardian of Thraben and can’t be Negated or Stubborn Denialed.

Lyra Dawnbringer (0-2 copies)
Great in a creature and/or Mountain-heavy meta. The card basically says, “you win the game if you slam this down against Burn, Affinity, Hollow One, or Mardu Pyro”. It doesn’t matter if she dies because your opponent has to overuse their resources to kill her. Play two in the main if you are expecting a lot of aggro and creature decks. Lyra making your Restoration Angel into 4/5 with lifelink is a huge swing that is undervalued. The main downside to the card is that she’s pretty terrible against Control, Combo, and big mana decks. Additionally, it is sometimes a tempo loss if you don’t have a Restoration Angel in play.

Archangel Avacyn (0-1 copies)
She’s essentially Restoration Angel and Serra Angel in one (with additional upsides). She’s powerful from multiple angles; offensively and defensively. Having flash with a high ceiling is what sets her apart from other top end options in the main. While transforming her is more difficult to pull off, her flip side provides a one-sided wrath effect against aggressive strategies which could force your opponent to hold back on offense. On the other hand, her four toughness without first strike makes her a little undersized on defense against x/4+’s compared to Lyra Dawnbringer (unless she’s transformed).

Tip: Gideon Jura’s +2 works well with Archangel Avacyn as it forces attackers into your blockers.

Dragonlord Ojutai (0-2 copies)
Dragonlord Ojutai is one of the safest five-drops for the main because it can immediately protect itself upon resolution, making it relevant against removal, Teferi, Jace, Karn, and more. Notably, several top decks, including Jeskai, have trouble dealing with it. Furthermore, its ability is similar to activating a Search for Azcanta, but with the ability to net any card, which can put you significantly ahead. It’s also absurd when you’re untapped and have Restoration Angel, Cryptic Command, Negate, or Minamo, School at Water’s Edge ready to protect it. More often than not, untapping with Ojutai means you’re likely winning. If you’re playing Ojutai, be sure to include a copy of Minamo, School at Water’s Edge. It’s worth noting that Ojutai isn’t as good at defending or if you’re playing from behind, unlike Lyra or Avacyn.

Venser, Shaper Savant (0-1 copies)
The good? Venser is a Remand/Boomerang on a body that can be blinked with Restoration Angel. The bad? It’s a 2/2 for four mana. That said, it has a wide array of relevant applications. Curryvore recently added one to the main as a response to Meddling Mage, Thalia, Guardian of Thraben, and Kitesail Freebooter in Humans, and as a tempo threat vs Tron and Combo. Interestingly enough, Venser is also half of a Cryptic Command, so it’s not unreasonable to shave your third or fourth Cryptic if you’re playing him.

Main Planeswalker Core

Jace, the Mind Sculptor (1-2 copies)
UW Midrange is one of the best shells for Jace, the Mind Sculptor, probably falls slightly behind UW Miracles, Blue Moon, and other UR Combo decks. It’s quite simple to protect your JTMS with this deck. It’s sometimes hard to generate more value with its 0, as we lack the shuffle effect, but when in doubt, just +2, which is a powerful way to soft-lock your opponent while you’re beating down.

One of the main reasons we play JTMS over other Planeswalkers is the -1 (Unsummon ability). We can return our creatures to replay and generate value with their ETB effects. We can also return a big and important creature like Lyra Dawnbringer, Archangel Avacyn, Dragonlord Ojutai, or Restoration Angel before sweeping the board. All in all, JTMS performs very well in this deck.

Flex Planeswalkers (0-2 spots)

Elspeth, Sun’s Champion (0-1 copies)
If you’re going to prioritize any six mana spell in this deck, it’s her. Sorry, Sun Titan. Her -3 wrath effect is also one-sided with your core creature suite, which is significant. While not necessary, she’s simply the best way to close the door against grindy match-ups.

Teferi, Hero of Dominaria (0-1 copies)
Ah, the hero the UWx deserved. This is just a great Magic card. The only downside to playing this is that our deck can’t fully utilize the untapping of two lands as much as Jeskai would but is better post-board when we bring in more counters. The other way to utilize his +1 is by leaving mana open to flash in Clique or Resto. His ultimate also forces concession and is a faster clock than Jace, the Mind Sculptor. I think it’s one of the best top-ends there is in UWx.

Gideon Jura (0-1 copies) 
This used to be the go-to planeswalker for this deck. I still think that it’s one of our best top ends, but I think JTMS and/or Teferi can do things a bit better now. It’s still a great choice if you’re expecting a very aggressive field as it can provide the bonus of protecting JTMS and take over on its own.

Tip: You can also attack, blink it with Resto, reset its loyalty, and +2 or -2 in your second main phase.

Gideon, Ally of Zendikar (0-1 copies)
Gideon is another great Magic card. It makes our deck very aggressive once it lands and presents a serious clock. As an added bonus, it’s usually a two-for-one. Like Jura, Ally also has synergy with Resto. I believe that Gideon, AoZ works even better in a more aggressive build of this deck which plays things like Blade Splicer. Overall, Ally is one of the best walkers against Control and Midrange.

Elspeth, Knight-Errant (0-1 copies)
Before Ally was cool, Knight-Errant ruled. Her 1/1 tokens aren’t as impressive as Gideon’s 2/2s and she doesn’t attack on her own but she has the ability to grow larger than Ally or turn any creature (besides Wall of Omens) into a win condition (including Kitchen Finks as a whopping 6/5 or 5/4 with flying). She’s also recommended if you’re playing Geist of Saint Traft in the side, which can be a two turn clock. There are enough bodies here for her to be relevant. Lastly, her ultimate is, and has always been, nuts. That said, she may be a better option out of the board, especially if you’re on Geist and Gideon(s).

Gideon of the Trials (0-2 copies)
Trials is essentially a more versatile pseudo-Geist of Saint Traft for UW. It plays better with Supreme Verdict, shores up some of this deck’s more difficult match-ups, threatens opposing walkers, protects you and JTMS, shuts down manlands, turns the corner (important vs Combo and Tron), and can be blinked by Resto. If you’re opting for Trials, trim down on Finks. You only want a max of four between both.

Main Spell Core

Path to Exile (4 copies)
Best spot removal in Modern, no brainer to play four.

Detention Sphere (2-­3 copies)
Your catch-all removal. It’s clunky, but it’s still a very good removal and a potential multiple-for-one.

Supreme Verdict (2-­4 copies)
Supreme Verdict is arguably the best board wipe in Modern and should be prioritized over other options but the presence of Meddling Mage in Humans has forced us to play a split between Wrath of God and Settle the Wreckage.

Note: A minimum of 3 sweepers is recommended, with four to five in the complete 75.

Cryptic Command (2-4 copies)
Your bread and butter. Though sometimes clunky, it’s perfect for a deck like ours as it’s quite flexible both offensively and defensively.

Spreading Seas (4 copies)
Taking a cue from BennyHillz tried-and-true UW Control, land-hate is a legitimate strategy in our deck, especially with our ability to follow up with pressure. You think this card is not good enough? Perhaps dedicate more study to other decks in Modern and learn which lands to attack. It also makes our Tron matchup about even to favorable alongside four Field of Ruin, counters, Stony Silence, and pressure.

Flex Spells (2-4 spots)

Serum Visions (0-2 copies)
While it’s not the best here as it is in Jeskai or UW Control, I think there’s a place for Serum Visions in our deck. Its main purpose isn’t really utilized early (unless you have to), but to smooth out your mid to late game. There’s almost no room to play Serum Visions from turn one through three in this deck, but finding answers and thinning out “air” in a deck that is trying to be flexible is very important. It’s also valuable if you have to board out Spreading Seas or Wall of Omens in some match-ups. Another potential option in this type of deck would be Anticipate.

Spell Snare (0-2 copies)
I used to play a full playset of these back in the day, thanks to JB2002, but I don’t think that’s practical against a large unknown field. It lets us catch up on tempo in the early turns and lets us counter some of the best spells in the late game. But, the thing is, counterspells just aren’t in a favorable position right now. You can play anywhere from zero to two without being wrong.

Tip: Fran’s Modern Meta Spell Snare Guide

Negate (0-2 copies)
Basically, same story as above. You need to fit at least two Negates in your 75 to have game against Control, Combo, and Tron. I believe Negate’s upside is big enough to play at least one in our main.

Pact of Negation (0-1 copy)
Pact of Negation isn’t as common as Spell Snare or Negate but we’ve seen JB2002 play one to ensure he can resolve an expensive spell through an opponent’s counter, protect his spell against removal, or can tap out and still counter an opponent’s spell.

Runed Halo (0-2 copies)
We love two-for-ones and that’s exactly what Runed Halo provides. It’s quite relevant against several different archetypes ranging from Storm to Bogles. While additional removal spells like Condemn, Oust, Blessed Alliance, and even Azorius Charm are reasonable, they aren’t as versatile or disruptive as Runed Halo.

Tip: Fran’s Runed Halo Guide

Leyline of Sanctity or Gideon’s Intervention (0-1 copy)
Each of these have been played as a single copy in JB2002’s main and are intended as tech to address combo, Shift, and discard while also being applicable vs Burn. One to two additional copies of Leyline of Sanctity are commonly played in the side. While not a hoser like Leyline, Intervention gives you Runed Halo and Nevermore in one dual effect.

Main Land Core: 24-26

Flex Lands

Core/Flex Sideboard Cards

Common pitfalls players make when building their SB is adding cards that are good in match-ups that are already fine or they try to overcompensate for that one match-up that their deck is bad against. There’s no need to go overboard; Modern is a WIDE format, so pick cards that are good against a lot of decks, not only a select few (unless, of course, you know what the field is). You only have 15 slots, so use them wisely. Our deck is great at being flexible and switching roles, but know which role you’ll be playing in the given matchup.

Sideboard Core

Sideboard Flex

(0-2) Planeswalkers
Elspeth, Sun’s Champion, Teferi, Hero of Dominaria, and Gideon, Ally of Zendikar immediately come to mind. Jace, Architect of Thought is reasonable, too, if you’re having trouble vs tokens. They have to be game-breaking once they land to make it worthwhile.

(1-2) Removal/Sweepers
You NEED four to five sweepers in your 75 for a field filled with filthy Humans, so additional board wipes may include an additional copy of Supreme Verdict, Wrath of God, or Settle the Wreckage. If you play four in the 75, have an Engineered Explosives or Elspeth handy as well. In fact, EE is probably better if you’re expecting more Merfolk or Elves. It’s solid vs Bogles, too. Other options include Blessed Alliance, Condemn, Oust, and even Threads of Disloyalty.

(0-4) Creatures
Wurmcoil Engine, one to two Lyra Dawnbringer, Archangel Avacyn, Dragonlord Ojutai, Teferi, Mage of Zhalfir, Linvala, Keeper of Silence, Sower of Temptation, Glen Elendra Archmage, a third Vendilion Clique, two to three Spell Queller, two Aven Mindcensor, one to three Geist of Saint Traft, one to two Spellskite, etc. These slots need to be given to creatures that will literally win the game if you play them, or provide disruption/pressure vs Combo, Control, or big mana.

(0-3) Disruption
Crucible of Worlds, Leyline of Sanctity, Rule of Law, Ghostly Prison, Grafdigger’s Cage, etc. are solid options If you’re looking for more hate cards to complement Stony Silence, Rest in Peace, and Runed Halo.

Note: I didn’t mention Damping Sphere because it’s generally better in more aggressive decks that can capitalize on its disruption. Otherwise, Stony Silence and Runed Halo more effectively cover its role vs their respective decks.

Mostly Neutral-to-Favorable Matchups

From my knowledge and experience, the deck doesn’t have many unfavorable match-ups. We can be 40/60 to 60/40 across the board with this style, but fast mana decks and Combo presents the greatest challenge. We don’t commonly blow decks out either, but it’s certainly possible with this direction. On the other hand, it’s a deck that requires and rewards finely-tuned skills, knowledge of your deck, pilot experience, and the ability to adapt to an ever-changing meta.

Favorable:​ 55+ %

  • Burn
  • Affinity
  • Bogles
  • Infect
  • Death’s Shadow
  • Naya Zoo
  • Grixis Control
  • Ponza
  • Dredge
  • Living End
  • Hollow One

­Neutral: 45-55%

  • UWx Control
  • Jeskai Combo (Nahiri, Saheeli, Kiki)
  • Company/Chord (Knightfall, Counters, Spirits)
  • BW Gideon
  • Hatebears
  • Lantern
  • KCI
  • TitanShift
  • Jund
  • Junk
  • Mardu
  • Humans
  • Eldrazi/Death & Taxes
  • Eldrazi Tron
  • Gx Tron

Unfavorable:​ <35-45%

  • Storm (Neutral with Spell Snare, Runed Halo, and more creatures with flash in main)
  • Ad Nauseam ­
  • Scapeshift
  • Amulet Titan
  • U Tron
  • Ux Turns
  • URx Breach
  • Blue Moon
  • Merfolk
  • Elves
  • Mill

Turning the Corner: Who’s the Beatdown?

Recommended reading: Eight Core Principles

This is an oldie, but a classic. It continues to perplex me to come across seasoned players who have a difficult time grasping this concept. One of the most prevalent misconceptions is that a good Control deck is either reactive or proactive, not a hybrid. This one-dimensional philosophy couldn’t be any further from the truth, especially in this format. One of the most important skills that separates good players from great ones is being able to assess situations, evaluate your role, determine your lines of play, leverage resources and information, and then adapt – knowing when to hold up or tap out. Patience is imperative. To do this effectively, your deck’s design requires a balance between reactive and proactive elements that will provide you the tools to swiftly turn the corner. This may not suit one’s play style, but it is a valuable skill to hone as a designer and player. If you remember the power of Caw-Blade in Standard, or Stone-Blade in Legacy, you’ll know exactly what I’m referring to. This is also why Jeskai Control works as well as it does in Modern.

Drawing cards, countering spells, disrupting lands, and killing creatures is great, but winning in a timely manner is arguably the most important goal, whether that be pressuring your opponent’s life total or forcing concession.

As a player proficient in UWx archetypes and metagaming, I’m always assessing the field and finding ways for UWx to adapt. We each have our own preferences and play styles, but don’t let your biases dictate reason, or impede progress. Ultimately, Control needs to adapt to the rules of Modern if it wants to remain relevant and competitive. UW Midrange has been one of the most viable ways to do it.

Assess. Adapt. Ascend.

Thank you for reading!