As promised last week, this week I am going to present a discussion of my current weapon of choice in Standard: Maternal Midrange. Named for the 'Maternal Witness' nickname for Den Protector, Maternal Midrange is an Abzan Midrange build centered around the inclusion of four copies of Den Protector while eschewing Deathmist Raptor and a lot of the common high-end Abzan power cards. Here is my current list:
First and foremost, this is a Den Protector deck. Den Protector promises a lot of flexibility in game via the choice of what spell to rebuy as well as an opportunity to continue to use our mana to affect the board even as our cards in hand begin to dwindle. To ensure that Den Protector will deliver on these promises in a way that doesn't punish us for spending five mana on a 3/2, it is important to include cheap and powerful interactive spells in the decklist that we can cast in the same turn we flip Den Protector face-up. Thoughtseize fits these criteria perfectly and the two mana removal spells round out our quota of cheap targets for Den Protector buyback.
One of the primary goals of this deck in-game is to cross the two spell turn threshold as soon as possible. Casting two spells a turn before our opponent is able to do the same provides us a sizeable tempo advantage. On any individual turn it is far more likely that we will be able to kill our opponent's creature and follow-up with a threat of our own than it is that our opponent will be able to do the same. Eventually this incremental tempo advantage will have our opponent on the back foot and forced to pull the trigger on their trump play -- which our flexible deck is more than capable of finding an answer to. That is, we gain a large information edge via our consistent two spell turns putting our opponent slightly behind and forced to make plays to regain the initiative. Flexibility is a weakness if forced to choose how to flex without information because we might choose wrong. Thanks to the information edge our deck consistently generates, our flexibility is only an asset.
In deck construction, three things help us reliably cast two spells a turn: cheap spells to cast, ways to hit land drops, and ways to refuel on gas. Coincidentally, these are all things that help us maximize Den Protector. The two main goals of the deck synergize perfectly in deck construction. Both want a high cheap spell count and a mana base that continues to develop throughout the game (managed via the inclusion of Courser of Kruphix alongside 26 lands). Den Protector itself is the primary enabler of the third requirement, ensuring that we have plenty of spells to cast throughout the game.
Finally, the inherent flexibility of an interactive Den Protector-based deck has led to one more core idea -- variety is good. By including less than four copies of many different cards we increase the choices available to us in-game. Den Protector buying back cards can make a two-of feel like a four-of with the important caveat that we get to choose what two-of to prioritize in a given game. The trick, of course, is making sure that we see the first copy of the card we want, which is why we max out on the cards that help us see more cards, like Abzan Charm (the scry lands in current Standard also do a lot of work in helping us get to the cards we want). If you look at the decklist, you will notice that the creature base is nearly all four-ofs, whereas almost none of the spells are. This is because creatures are not the intended target of Den Protectors ability, so we want the typical four-of consistency from that aspect of the deck. A varied spell base maximizes our ability to tailor our game plan to the matchup and scenario we find ourselves in.
Individual Card Choices
The most interesting card from a deck construction perspective in the creature core of the deck is easily Fleecemane Lion. Including Lion greatly raises the deck's aggression profile by allowing very fast starts with strong curve outs. Fleecemane Lion helps make Den Protector's body relevant, the early damage and cheap board presence making a flipped Den Protector a very relevant 3/2 with an even more relevant evasion ability. The increased aggression granted by the presence of Fleecemane Lion means that the deck is comfortable operating as both the beatdown and the control: a true midrange deck with intense amounts of flexibility.
For reasons akin to the arguments presented previously for a varied spell base in this deck, I have chosen to include three different one-ofs with unique and powerful effects that help to close out games. Currently, those three are Sorin, Solemn Visitor, Elspeth, Sun's Champion, and Whisperwood Elemental. Many, many games with this deck have convinced me that three is the total number of 'finishers' I want in the list. Den Protector can rebuy any of these super threats that are dealt with and playing three different cards in these slots gives us a great deal of versatility. Further, it means the deck plays out slightly differently based on which finisher it drew, which keeps our opponents in the dark about what our end game will look like while letting us use our flexibility to maneuver the game to an ideal spot for the finisher we have.
I believe Mastery of the Unseen is the most important card in the sideboard. It is a catch-all card that lets this deck go over the top of anything in the format (when coupled with the disruptive interaction that is the hallmark of this deck). Despite being amazingly powerful and boarded in in every non-aggressive match-up, it is not maindeck simply because it isn't as good in game ones. Decks tend to present the most objectively powerful version of their plan in their first game and then dilute it somewhat post-board to combat the opponent's strategy. Games get grindier, and Mastery of the Unseen really shines in those grindy games.
The removal suite is heavily dependent on the field you expect. Ultimate Price is currently at two due to the recent upsurge in the play of Stormbreath Dragon, but was at one for most of this Standard. Murderous Cut is also very good vs. Stormbreath Dragon, but you never want a second Murderous Cut due how the delve mechanic works. Bile Blight is great vs. Abzan Aggro for this deck as the two-drops are what you most need to kill, while Dromoka's Command is the best card vs. Red decks. Hero's Downfall is a card I don't think I will ever run less than four of in the 75, but whether the split is two-two or three-one is dependent, again, on how many Dragon decks you expect. If you want to try this deck, experiment with the removal spells and find the split that works best for you.
Enough about the list and its specifics, here's a rundown of how it plays out against the biggest decks in Standard:
There are two distinct game archetypes that this matchup can play out in: fast and slow. Both decks have play in both types of game -- Esper can win with a turn five Dragonlord Ojutai as easily as we can with a Thoughtseize -> Fleecemane Lion -> Siege Rhino curve in fast games, and Den Protector gives us a reasonable plan going long. The key to the matchup is deciding early what kind of game your draw is best suited to and maneuvering into it. Thoughtseize is the card that will force this decision to a head, as Thoughtseizing away a fast game card in a game that ends up being fast-style is a devastating error. Don't be afraid to cast a face-up Den Protector if needed to apply the necessary pressure to win a fast-game. I feel favored in this match-up in every opening that isn't an early Dragonlord Ojutai with counter back-up for when they swing.
Game one you have a very sizeable handicap in that a lot of your cards are just dead. All of the two mana removal spells are just the worst thing in the world to have in your hand when your opponent plays a turn one Temple of Deceit. In boarding, we cut all of those cards and gain slow game help in Mastery of the Unseen as well as three additional Thoughtseize effects (borderline our best tool in the matchup). Depending on how much they lean on Ashiok determines how many Hero's Downfall you want, generally two or three. Elspeth, Sun's Champion is great if they don't have Silumgar, the Drifting Death and pretty terrible if they do.
The devotion deck needs to be slowed down for us to be in the game. Sometimes you can do this by disrupting their mana creatures, but more often this is done by killing their first few threats until they run out of gas. Thoughtseize especially is very good here, as it both lets you know which plan is better against their draw and goes a long way to furthering that plan. Whisperwood Elemental is their best card and we want to try and leave a removal spell up for it as often as possible. When given the choice between deploying a threat and leaving mana up for a removal spell, I lean towards leaving mana up if I am still making land drops. A clear board favors us and our threats are completely irrelevant when staring down any of theirs.
Post-board we optimize our removal suite (Ultimate Price and Hero's Downfall good, Dromoka's Command and Bile Blight bad), gain End Hostilities as a super powerful counter to their strategy, pick up additional copies of Elspeth, Sun's Champion and Thoughtseize and utilize Mastery of the Unseen to make sure we can close out games with our disruption optimized post-board 60. I tend to cut Fleecemane Lion here, as I don't like playing the tempo disruption role -- I want to answer all of their threats and win with what's leftover, not disrupt just long enough for a Fleecemane Lion to kill them.
I covered much of my thoughts on these mirrors in a previous article (which you can find here). In boarding with this version specifically, I like cutting every Thoughtseize and some of the two-mana removal (which ones depend on what version of Abzan they are on; you want Bile Blight vs. Abzan Aggro but not against anyone else). Against the more controlling Abzan decks, you don't want any of the two mana spells, with the exception of Dromoka's Command if they have Mastery of the Unseen. Out of the board you want the extra Elspeth, Sun's Champion, the Mastery of the Unseens and potentially the End Hostilities to have an answer for aggro curves.
Our game one can be pretty miserable, as so many of our keepable hands are just really bad vs. the average red hand. The goal is to Remove as many of their creatures as we can and protect our creatures to enable blocks when possible. If you have Fleecemane Lion and Ultimate Price on two, cast Ultimate Price first. You want to find a spot where you can save the Lion from a removal spell with a Dromoka's Command or an otherwise-useless-in-the-matchup Abzan Charm. Attacking early is important because their reach is stronger than our life gain and we need to close out the game before the top of their deck kills us.
In boarding, we immediately ditch our Thoughtseizes and Abzan Charms. Not having these terrible cards is likely our biggest gain, but the extra Dromoka's Commands are quite good and the Drown in Sorrows are nearly critical. I also put in the two Duress to try and snipe removal spells to keep our creatures alive. The post-board games play out much slower, as the red deck has to respect Drown in Sorrow or lose on the spot if we have it. I believe we are very favored post-board.
I think that Maternal Midrange is the best Standard deck I have worked with since the release of Khans of Tarkir. Its flexibility and wealth of in-game decision points is a huge draw for me, and I strongly encourage anyone who has been intrigued reading this to try it out if they haven't already. I am very excited to see how Magic Origins shakes this list up. Due to the flexible nature of the deck, the sheer power of the Abzan wedge, and the strong fundamentals the deck is based on, I expect that this deck will still be strong post-Origins. As spoilers roll out I will certainly have my eye out for new cheap spells and unique powerful late game effects to modify the list with. The creature core of the deck is likely too strong to be affected by the new cards, but if something truly special comes out it will only be a benefit. Either way, Maternal Midrange is the kind of deck that only improves when it has more options in the card pool to tailor itself to the current meta, so I have great hopes for Magic Origins.
Thanks for reading