This past season I had a long and torrid love affair with Esper Midrange. Long, because I played the deck for months. Torrid, because the deck wasn't very good and I didn't win that much with it despite my best efforts to tune it "expertly" against the metagame.
Still, I can't get away from it. I love the deck and am always interested in finding a way to make it work again, even if it never will. We are who we are.
Enter Enter the God-Eternals and Liliana, Dreadhorde General. It's time to try again.
I'm going to come clean. I specifically engineered those two paragraphs just so I could write "enter enter" and have it be grammatically correct. We are who we are.
I think these two cards are going to be great in blue midrange. When I say blue midrange, I'm referring to things like U/B Midrange, Esper Midrange, and Grixis Midrange, which all enact a fairly similar game style. Sultai Midrange, on the other hand, is more of a Golgari base shell and plays out a bit differently than these decks do. Sultai can still potentially use these cards, especially Liliana, Dreadhorde General, but I'm not going to be focusing on that deck.
Enter the God-Eternals does quite a bit for five mana. Generally speaking, paying five mana for a removal spell isn't worth it, but tacking on a 4/4 body and 4 life is incredibly relevant. Incidental life gain is a huge benefit for control or midrange decks so that aggressive decks can't finish them off before they can stabilize, and the 4/4 body represents a huge body to stabilize behind once you factor in the life buffer. It's similar to how Wildgrowth Walker's combination of life gain and a big body makes it difficult for red and white aggro decks to beat it. Either one alone is usually not enough, but the combination is deadly.
Milling four cards is fairly irrelevant in most cases, but can be useful to enable graveyard strategies, turn on Search for Azcanta or mill over jump-start cards like Chemister's Insight. I don't suspect this to come up often, but it will be a nice surprise when it does.
Liliana, Dreadhorde General is impressive. While I don't think that Liliana, Dreadhorde General is as good as something like Elspeth, Sun's Champion was, I do think that she's pretty close. Blue midrange decks will benefit the most from Liliana, Dreadhorde General because her abilities are fully maximized in such a shell.
Her -4 ability, which is effectively Barter in Blood, pairs well with the kind of removal that midrange decks generally play. Picking off annoying creatures first and then using this ability can set it up for maximum carnage. This ability also addresses holes in their strategy, such as dealing with threats like Carnage Tyrant that traditional removal doesn't touch.
Her +1 ability is a great threat-generation engine. It can create a stream of threats backed up by removal. A common weakness of midrange decks is that they can flood on removal and run out of threats, so this is perfect. The static ability naturally pairs well with the +1 and -4 abilities, but especially in a midrange deck where you typically play a lot of creatures—often ones that demand immediate answers or they take over the game. Drawing a card any time those creatures trade in combat or eat a removal spell, and doing so without the traditional life loss, is massive. Being able to -4 and sacrifice two mediocre or spent early-game creatures and get 2 fresh cards out of it while also wrecking your opponent's board isn't too bad either.
When you boil it down, the traditional flaw of midrange decks, especially in game one, is that you can easily draw the wrong half of your deck against whatever your opponent is playing. That's been true for ages, and it even holds true for a card like Enter the God-Eternals, which is not great against a deck like Esper Control with no creatures.
Liliana, Dreadhorde General doesn't really have a wrong half. The +1 and static ability are great against decks where the -4 ability sucks, and the -4 has potential against any creature deck. The only matchup where I would consider it marginal would be against a truly non-interactive deck like Nexus of Fate that neither cares about your creatures nor presents its own.
This deck has a few major flaws. One is that it doesn't offer much card selection, has cards that cost two through six mana, plays three colors and plays a lot of lands. It's prone to flooding, screwing, and getting clumped on uncastable cards more than other decks, and doesn't have a card like Chemister's Insight to fix that, like Esper Control. While you could play Chemister's Insight, it's not super effective in a deck that lacks sweepers and needs to establish board presence. Unlike Sultai Midrange, it doesn't have the explore package to smooth things over either.
Another big flaw is that it will often just get rolled over by red decks in games that go long because it lacks fast closing power and also lacks good and reliable life gain, at least in game one.
Lastly, it struggles hard against control in game one without a good clock and with too many bad or dead cards against a control deck.
I've tried to address a number of those flaws in this deck. Arguel's Blood Fast and Enter the God-Eternals both provide life gain to survive against red decks. Arguel's Blood Fast also helps with flooding out and helps with running out of gas against control decks. Arguel's Blood Fast hasn't seen a lot of play recently, especially with Mortify in the picture, but I think the card might legitimately still be great.
Finally, I cut all the cards that were really underpowered and of medium quality and usefulness in the deck, like Deputy of Detention, which I hated, and Basilica Bell-Haunt. Those cards are now in the sideboard for the matchups where I know they will be good, like aggro decks.
I don't know how much the amass mechanic will feature in Standard, but Hostage Taker is a strong card against it, providing even more reason to play a card that is already just phenomenal. Hostage Taker also combats flooding out and pairs nicely with that Time Wipe in the sideboard for the old onesie-twosies-trickeroosie of baiting your opponent into overextending and then punishing them.
I bumped up to 26 land with the addition of Enter the God-Eternals and Liliana, Dreadhorde General to the deck. I want to ensure I can cast those cards on time and I think Liliana, Dreadhorde General in particular is going to be a massive benefit to this deck by providing threats, answers and a card advantage engine all in one if she goes unanswered for any period of time. This deck is great at protecting planeswalkers, making Teferi, Hero of Dominaria and Liliana, Dreadhorde General both potent choices.
Dovin's Veto is a nice addition to the sideboard, because it's easy to lose counter wars with Negate when you only have a few copies in your deck—and it's also a nice multicolor option to pair with Hero of Precinct One. A small upgrade, but I can imagine it being quite strong in a variety of spots where your opponent is trying to protect specific spells and can't.
I think moving to Arguel's Blood Fast as the card advantage engine and having a top end of two extremely powerful planeswalkers in Teferi and Liliana will help fix a lot of the problems with the deck running out of gas or flooding out. Arguel's Blood Fast transforming into Temple of Aclazotz and Enter the God-Eternals natural +4 life will help keep the deck alive vs. creature strategies. I can't say that the deck will work this time, but once again I find myself hopeful that I get to play Esper Midrange competitively.
Seth Manfield played a Dimir Midrange deck at the very first Mythic Championship in Cleveland to a 7-3 finish.
Dimir in some ways played out fairly similar to Esper Midrange, but instead of a more creature-oriented gameplan with Hero of Precinct One it instead relied on excessive and stifling hand disruption to pave the way for Doom Whisperer.
I imagine this deck working a bit differently now, thanks to Enter the God-Eternals and Dreadhorde Invasion.
Without cards like Hero of Precinct One to build an...army, this deck sometimes lacks ways to pressure the opponent, and can flood out and lose even when it's way ahead.
Dreadhorde Invasion fixes that. Instead of flooding out and dying in a long game, you can lose one life per turn instead and die to yourself long before that point. It's so obvious, how could nobody see it?!
In all seriousness, I think Dreadhorde Invasion in combination with Enter the God-Eternals is a nifty combo, and this deck with its pile of hand disruption spells is the perfect place to pair the two. The way it works is that as long as you control an army creature, which Dreadhorde Invasion creates, you're forced to continue to grow that creature each turn instead of generating new ones. This is typically a drawback, in that you'd rather just create new creatures rather than turn your 2/2 into a 3/3. However, once that creature hits 6 power, it gains lifelink on attacking.
Enter the God-Eternals, by virtue of the amass keyword, is also forced to put its counters onto an already-existing army creature instead of creating a new one, but with the last line of text on Dreadhorde Invasion, that could easily be a benefit rather than a curse. You can take a 2/2 army, turn it into a 6/6 while also killing a creature and gaining 4 life and then swing and gain another 6 life.
Enter the God-Eternals takes the place of Doom Whisperer in this deck. While ultimately this may be a weaker way to approach this deck than Seth's original vision, you can't really play a lot of copies of both cards or else you run the risk of clunking out with too many expensive cards.
Without Doom Whisperer, Disinformation Campaign gets significantly worse, which means we need to turn to a new source of card advantage...or rather Karn advantage, if you will. Karn, Scion of Urza is a good engine for hitting land drops and eventually finding great spells if left alone for a while and decks that have a lot of cheap interaction, like this one does, are great homes for Karn because they can more easily play him on an empty or near-empty board and keep him alive for a while.
In matchups where Enter the God-Eternals isn't worth it, the deck can easily shift to playing the Doom Whisperer and Disinformation Campaign package, which is in the sideboard.
One new card that I think gives this deck something important is Blast Zone. One of the issues with Dimir and Grixis decks is that they can't beat enchantments, and often find themselves just folding to Wilderness Reclamation or Search for Azcanta or other meddlesome permanents. Blast Zone offers a way to deal with these cards, even if it requires a large mana investment. I think that's a massive upgrade to a deck like this and a benefit of sticking to two colors, since the three-color decks have to stretch harder to make it work.
This is definitely the deck that gets the biggest power boost, because not only does it gain access to Enter the God-Eternals and Liliana, Dreadhorde General, it also gains access to Nicol Bolas, Dragon-God, which is an extremely difficult-to-cast planeswalker but one I suspect is close to the power level of Teferi, Hero of Dominaria, which has defined Standard for a while now.
Grixis is the one deck that I don't think actually wants to maindeck Enter the God-Eternals. I think The Eldest Reborn is actually a stronger five-mana spell in this deck because the deck has seven incredibly powerful copies of Nicol Bolas across two iterations to return with The Eldest Reborn, and that's not even mentioning its Natural Affinity with Liliana and her -4 ability.
With that being said, this deck has no way to gain life or come back against aggressive strategies, so being able to sideboard into a lot of effective removal with lifegain attached like Moment of Craving and Enter the God-Eternals will provide it with a reasonable gameplan after sideboard against red and white aggro.
Grixis still lacks an effective way to answer enchantments, but now the power level of the deck is so high that it may not truly matter.
I think it's entirely possible to later look back on this decklist and laugh at how foolish it was to play less than four copies of Nicol Bolas, Dragon-God. The card has a kind of obscene power level in that the +1 ability puts a massive amount of pressure on your opponent while also drawing cards.
Thief of Sanity is the one card in the maindeck that I strongly question. While a very powerful card and great with all the hand disruption, it may be correct to eschew it entirely and focus exclusively on paving the way for the two Nicol Bolas cards to dominate the opponent. More cheap interaction in the form of removal, countermagic or hand disruption may simply be better, or alternatively ways to draw cards to ensure that five mana can be hit in a timely fashion.
One thing I enjoyed about building these decks is that they all look different in unique ways. They each have an identity and a strategy that isn't simply a mirror image of the other two decks but with different colors. Esper focuses on Hero of Precinct One, Dimir has the Dreadhorde Invasion angle, and Grixis is just Bolas tribal.
I know that I shouldn't, but I actually do carry high hopes that these strategies will work, even though I've been burned so many times in the past trying and failing to make it happen. I can only imagine myself wasting countless hours yet again slaving away at various blue midrange strategies. Worse yet, I actually can't wait to do exactly that. We are who we are.
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