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By: Kumagoro42, Gianluca Aicardi
Mar 05 2014 10:42pm
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I love this game. I love writing about it. Compiling lists about it. Evaluating it. Sometimes, I even play it. I'm an Accidental Player.

 As a player, and particularly as a Modern player, there's not a broad archetype I enjoy piloting more than midrange. Possibly because it's not even a real archetype: it's more accurately a particular calibration of your deck focused on the higher-but-no-too-higher casting costs. Usually, it's intended as emphasizing the range between CMC 3 and CMC 5 (with CMC 6 becoming more and more of an acceptable midrange curvetopper in post-Titan years), and it means playing with that kind of superior spells and creatures that the Timmy in me finds especially rewarding.

 Of course, by its very nature, midrange also means ramping. Yet not the extreme kind of ramp that hijacks the entire deck towards some splashy endgame. Something quieter and subtler, that just means you'll end up hitting 4 or 5 mana one or two turns earlier than usual. This is the entire midrange game, really: deploying your tactical superiority when the opponent is still dabbling in weaker stuff. You need tools to accomplish this goal, and those tools have historically been green's dominion.


 This until Theros gave us a new soft-ramp tool that every color can exploit, a tool that incidentally pushes the deckbuilding into another territory that I particularly love: playing with permanents.

 With its take on the Cabal Coffers effect re-oriented towards the active elements of the deck (your colored permanents) rather than the passive ones (your lands), Nykthos immediately looked like a game-changer to me. And despite being already featured in tier-1 decks all over Standard, there's still a casual quality to it, given that the entire concept of Nykthos appeals to permanent-lovers, and permanents are always more fragile than non-permanents in competitive play.

 All this to say that I recently started to brew a series of casual-competitive, midrange Modern decks built around Nykthos, particularly in monocolored green, black and white. Green because I find interesting to at least partially ramp in green without resorting to the more typical green trappings; black just in virtue of it being the color of devotion, if only because of a certain BBBB creature we're going to meet soon; and white because trying to ramp in white makes for a good challenge, as it's traditionally the least adept of all the colors for this kind of strategy. I could easily bring red and blue into the Nykthos/devotion proceedings as well (blue has access to Master of Waves, after all), but once I decided to write a couple of articles about this project, I wanted to inject some variety into the approach. And both red and blue already had a few interesting tools to go midrange from two different access points, both of which still speak to the "being monocolored matters" idea that defines the project; red with an enchantment and a planeswalker, blue with a creature and an artifact.


 You might have noticed that I'm listing the 5 colors of the mana wheel counterclockwise; it's because that's how I'll proceed to describe the decks. So let's start, shall we? (Just one note: I'm currently playing all these decks, one at a time, in the weekly Modern Ascension League organized by ellmaris. I'll do a follow-up to this article in about a month providing game replays and evaluations on how the decks went in an actual playing environment).



 So, on to the Nykthos engine. Which basically means finding early drops with a high amount of monocolored mana symbols in their casting cost. Which in turn basically means CC or CCC creatures (where C is a single color). The 3-drops are particularly appealing, especially in green, because you can envision dropping a turn-1 mana dork into a turn-2 GGG creature, into a turn 3 where you untap, drop Nykthos, and have 5 mana to spend (as a shortcut, remember that Nykthos taps for as many same-color mana symbols you have on the battlefield minus 3). There's an inherent risk in this plan: Nykthos gets in the way of any 3-drop with all colored mana in its cost, since, before its acceleration gets online, it's actually a colorless land. It's the reason why 3 is the correct number of Nykthos copies in this kind of build, I think, and the build doesn't have to rely uniquely on Nykthos to get going. Green helps in this regard because the 1-drop mana providers allow you to get one green mana more than your lands provide. Still, if you won't be able to drop a second Forest on turn 2, you won't get that GGG out in time. It's not a big issue, but it's something to keep in mind.

 This said, green has some excellent GGG creatures. But before getting to them specifically, I want to briefly illustrate the cycle that provides us with the most direct interaction with Nykthos in Modern: the hybrid 3-drop uncommon cycle from Shadowmoor.




 I listed them in order of tier: Boggart Ram-Gang, Wilt-Leaf Cavaliers and Plumeveil are the good ones. Ashenmoor Gouger is aggressive, but the lack of impact the turn it drops makes it less desirable in a midrange build; Wasp Lancer, Hearthfire Hobgoblin, and Wistful Selkie all have similar yet better options in, respectively, Nightveil Specter, Mirran Crusader and Carven Caryatid (a cantripping Gray Ogre is not particularly attractive in any case). Stalker Hag, Restless Apparition and Crag Puca are just bad, with the Hag at best an (unlikely) sideboard option. 

 Both the Liege and Demigod cycles also feature a high amount of same-mana symbols, but the former don't really make sense in a monocolored deck, while the latter are 5 CMC creatures that don't really help building your position through Nykthos – still, at least one of them will make an appearance in these decks, and the best of them remains good options for curvetoppers.

 Back to green, after this recon I was left with Boggart Ram-Gang and Wilt-Leaf Cavaliers as possible choices to consider. Both have merits: the Ram-Gang is more explosive, the Cavaliers have more defensive value. In the end, though, I decided for the other two big options for GGG creatures (excluding the ephemeral Groundbreaker, not suitable for the deck I was building, and Unyaro Bees, which is interesting but too dependent to the ramp – I would probably play a copy of it if I was able to play Green Sun's Zenith).


 I always thought Predator Ooze was a great creature. Its stopping power is absolute, barring an early Dismember, as is its growing rate. As for Leatherback Baloth, I knew I wanted to play Rancor in this deck, and the idea of attacking on turn 3 with a 6/5 trampler was alluring. Compared to the Cavaliers, the Baloth appears less able to consistently hold the ground, but it actually gives me the chance to block a 4/4; in the end I went with the superior body over the tactical advantage of vigilance, but a case can be made for one or the other or a mix of both in these slots.

 To power these 3-drops I added 6 Elves, which looked like a good enough number. Now I had to consider the 2-drops, too, which cover the case when I fail to have a 1-drop (or it gets removed, which is bound to happen in game 2 and 3 after the opponent figures out my plan), or to support a turn 3 play with an active Nykthos. In this regard, nothing beats Strangleroot Geist: it provides GG, it has haste so can attack along the Baloth/Ooze in that ideal turn 3, and can replace a turn 2 play in itself by wearing a Rancor with the extra mana (assuming the turn-1 Elf happened). Scavenging Ooze completes the lower part of the curve: it's not entirely linked to the devotion plan, but it's an important role player in the current, post-Deathrite Shaman meta.


 Getting to the higher casting costs, we find the two key finishers of the deck at CMC 4:


 Once I got 8 creatures providing GGG, I knew the ramp was going to produce quite a few mana in the midrange section of the game, while my early creatures were all solid and resilient enough (either because they have indestructible, undying, or a big toughness) to get me there against aggro builds. What I needed at that point was a mana dump, and Chameleon Colossus is possibly the best mana dump creature green can field, able to potentially hit harder than almost anything else, and getting the nice bonus of a protection that is often relevant. What big Colossi, Oozes and Baloths clearly needed, though, was some form of evasion, which in a mono-green deck equals to say trample. That's the reason a full playset of Rancor is there: not as much to maximize the early damage (although sometimes the deck can play fast aggro satisfyingly enough) as to make sure the big midrange finishers get through. At this point, the card that pulled all these threads together was none other than the Goddess of the Hunt herself, Nylea.

 When Theros first came out, I remember thinking that Nylea was the worst God of the bunch. And yet now I found myself upping the number of her copies in this deck to two, then to three. The reason is simple: when I drop a Nylea with an active Chameleon Colossus, life becomes very hard for an opponent trying to stop me through combat. And in a deck with that many G symbols, Nylea is very likely to start her career as a 6/6 indestructible beater; I even found some occasional use for her pumping ability, which is definitely the least relevant of her assets.

 The finishing touches of the deck are only meant to protect the plan, despite doubling as further late-game aggression. I originally wanted some CMC 6 action, because I was confident to get there eventually (plus, I love me some CMC 6 action). I experimented with different green things (not owning Primeval Titan at the moment –  which would have led to an overused Kessig Wolf Run plan, anyway). I briefly entertained a quirky Vigor idea, then I thought Soul of the Harvest would do me good, replenishing my hand. But in the end I didn't need that too often, and would consistently find myself sideboarding my couple of Elementals out come game 2. What I really needed was protection against the ubiquitous Mirran Crusader. And that meant colorless creatures.


 It's hard to question the power of both Wurmcoil Engine and, to a lesser extent, Steel Hellkite. Together, they give me stopping power, mad lifegaining, anti-flyer protection, and a chance to blow up the opponent's board. The metallic Dragon is also a further mana dump, if needed.


 The last two elements of the deck both have "versatility" as their watchword (also flavor, since the deck's theme is Nylea and her woodland hunt). If Bow of Nylea wasn't legendary I would probably play more than 2 copies between main deck and sideboard, because it provides a vast range of applications, and stays constantly useful under any board state. If there's a suitable flyer (think Vendilion Clique, transformed Delver of Secrets, Flickerwisp), the bow's job is to kill it; otherwise, it'll boost something; and if not, it'll give me 3 life per turn, which becomes crucial against burn, because it essentially means "countering" a Lightning Bolt per turn.

 As for Garruk, Primal Hunter, I confess I just wanted to play with him in a shell that didn't necessarily turned him into a card-drawing sorcery. The triple green matches the engine of the deck, and the free Beasts are certainly welcome; still, the two Garruk copies are typically my first two slots for sideboard switcheroos. I'm even considering playing Acidic Slime main deck in place of them, as an utility/protective tool that can double as aggressive land destruction, considering I could play it as early as turn 3.

 The sideboard had different versions. Currently I'm trying Leyline of Lifeforce against heavy control decks that steal my tempo with Remand and such. With that many creatures, the Leyline is very effective, and entering the battlefield before the beginning of the game means I don't need to waste mana on it (which would result in loss of tempo in itself), like Defense Grid would ask me to. Plus, Defense Grid becomes ineffectual in late game, which is when I need to make sure Nylea or a Wurmcoil get through. And the Leyline provides mana symbols for Nykthos, too. On the downside, the multiple copies of it become mostly dead cards.

 Against graveyard strategies, I can field up to 4 Scavenging Oozes, which are also good for their lifegaining ability (made more powerful by the sheer number of creatures in the deck) as well as aggro potential. Spellskite is there against Infect, Bogle and Splinter Twin. Nature's Claim and Acidic Slime are two different speeds of artifact/enchantment hate (the former also for Auras/Splinter decks). While Silklash Spider is mostly anti-flying-token warfare, but the deck also suffers flyers in general, and the Spider is one of the best techs against them, especially in a deck that can ramp.


A midrange Modern deck by Kumagoro
4 Figure of Destiny
3 Akroma, Angel of Fury
3 Bogardan Hellkite
10 cards

Other Spells
4 Braid of Fire
4 Koth of the Hammer
4 Magma Jet
4 Slagstorm
4 Comet Storm
2 Obliterate
4 Faithless Looting
26 cards
24 Mountain
24 cards

4 Blood Moon
3 Ghostfire
3 Sowing Salt
3 Ricochet Trap
2 Shunt
15 cards
Akroma, Angel of Fury


 With this deck we find ourselves in a wildly different territory: no Nykthos, therefore not a lot of permanents. It's a deck that I already used in the past when Seething Song was still playable, and that would help me ramp into Demigod of Revenge. Now the deck had to redefine its own engines: Koth was already there, and it's still the best argument in favor of a mono-red midrange ramp. But the new tech is this one:

 Braid of Fire is a cool but tricky card: you drop it early on, it starts giving you an increasing amount of free mana each turn (it's worth noting that it was designed back when mana burn was still a thing, so now we get to exploit a whole new dimension of its power). The catch is: that mana needs to be used during your upkeep. That calls for flash creatures, instants and instant-speed effects. And these are the ones I chose:


 Figure of Destiny comes early, attracts removal, can go off without the Braid's help, but clearly wishes for that 8/8 stage once the Braid gets going.

 Bogardan Hellkite is probably the most powerful flash creature available in red. It's also powered by a turn-5 Koth.

 Akroma, Angel of Fury is the centerpiece finisher of the deck. You drop her face-down for 3, then you morph her via Braid or Koth. Then you dump your excess upkeep mana into your firebreathing evasive trampler that doesn't fear neither Path to Exile nor Unsummon. It's a dangerous proposition, of course, because she'll stay a very fragile 2/2 for at least one turn most of the times (and the opponent is bound to realize what that face-down card is after the first time), but it's a very rewarding plan when it pays off. 

 Finally, the deck can try and win (or at least clear the board) with a super-charged Comet Storm.

 For the rest, Slagstorm is meant to make us survive to aggro, but it doubles as direct damage in a pinch (and it kills Liliana of the Veil). Faithless Looting and Magma Jet dig into the deck and/or eliminate early threats and/or deal those final 2 points of damage. And Obliterate, which unfortunately entirely depends on Koth, is a cool way to close a game where you have Koth and a Braid out, since both survive the obliteration.


 The sideboard features the inevitable Blood Moon, which is actually a candidate for main deck action. More interesting are Ghostfire, against those pesky protected from red (they never see it coming!), and Shunt/Ricochet Trap as surprise effects to fight control decks, considering we only have a handful of finishers (in this sense, Ricochet Trap works as a counter of counters, you just have to redirect the counterspell on the Trap itself). Finally, I can never resist bringing Sowing Salt along in red-heavy builds, because you don't say no to such a powerful tech against Tron.



 The thing about the interaction between Nykthos and black is that it becomes very predictable because of this card:

 At the same time, it would be absurd not to include it in a mono-black devotion deck. So what could I do to go overboard with the concept? Well, I had two over-the-top, devotion-friendly creatures to exploit right here:


 Both are extremely powerful on their own, and also have the curious characteristic of fueling devotion (which, in case of the Gray Merchant, is more of an endgame than a ramp), yet needing some degree of early devotion to be powered out, because if you have 3 Swamps and Nykthos you can't play the Obliterator. But if you have 3 Swamps, Nykthos, and 3 black mana symbols on the board, you can.

 Like in the green case, then, I needed to put in place a solid structure of early devotion providers. Historically, black has excellent BB-costing 2-drops (just consider that one of my cards comes directly from Limited Edition Alpha), and I selected these four ones, filling a total of 8 slots:


 Black Knight and Stromgald Crusader are interchangeable, and while the Crusader is the superior card strategically (providing the kind of mana dump a Nykthos deck can use), I wanted to have an early blocker that could survive its peers, and that's the role of White and Black Knights since the dawn of time.

 Withered Wretch is no Scavenging Ooze, but I feel like some level of main-deck graveyard hate is needed in this time and age.

 Gatekeeper of Malakir isn't actually a 2-drop because, unless I'm desperate, I'll always want to play him as his kickered self (especially against Bogle). Which brings us to a group of devotion providers that double as creature removal.


 Royal Assassin is another old-school card that nobody plays anymore and has the stigmata of casual play all over it, but an active Assassin can be a nasty customer if you can't deal with it, and it contributes double black for devotion purposes. Skinrender is just amazing (another way to deal with Predator Ooze, by the way), while the couple of Massacre Wurms is probably a bit odd, considering they're the higher-costing creatures in the deck. They could easily be replaced by Wurmcoil Engine, for the same line of reasoning I made in the case of the green deck. I like the black Wurm, though, as it's the bane of certain aggro and token decks, and this build can cast it soon enough in most occasions.

 You can see there's a fair share of control cards disguised as devotion elements, which matches a battle plan where it's Gary the one charged with the duty of administering the final blow. Two other choices are linked to this concept:


 Geralf's Messenger is not a great card in this deck, but it's a BBB provider that starts chipping away at the opponent's life total without the need of attacking. Of course Nightveil Specter would probably be better in these slots, but I don't own them right now.

 And as risky as Cavern of Souls looks in the build, there are 16 Zombies main deck (two more in the sideboard), and Gary needs to get through at any cost.

 The deck is rounded out by a playset of Hero's Downfall, just to be safe, plus a couple of the always powerful Phyrexian Arena (which also happens to be a double-black permanent). Stillmoon Cavalier is an improved Stromgald Crusader, both having similarly protected counterparts hosing other colors in the form of the sideboard options Dunerider Outlaw and Phyrexian Crusader.


 Leyline of the Void is my sideboard weapon of choice against graveyard (same line of thought as for Leyline of Lifeforce: it drops for free, it fuels the devotion engine); Ratchet Bomb and Steel Hellkite try to fight protection and non-creature permanents; and the singleton copy of Erebos, which I felt was due, can intervene against Soul Sisters builds and alike.



 This deck derives from a similar build I played in Tribal Apocalypse last year. It's a deck that ramps into big artifacts via Grand Architect and his Vedalken colleagues...


 ...but is actually centered around having all Islands as lands, to serve Vedalken Shackles (and where else you would play Vedalken Shackles if not in a Vedalken deck?), which in turn is even further enhanced by its interaction with Trading Post.


 PureMTGO's Lord Erman recently wrote an entire, brilliant article about the Post, and I share his enthusiasm for the card: it's impossible not to find a use for Trading Post once you have it on the battlefield, and the Vedalkens are just the best at putting it out sooner rather than later.

 I maintained a few cards from the original build, like the Ethersworn Adjudicators, which are a good card but mostly linked to the Vedalken theme (and also forced me to include splashes of white and black for their ability); and the singletons Icy Manipulator and Lux Cannon, cute but probably not super-effective catchall solutions to all troubles.

 Once freed from the constraint of the 20 Vedalkens, though, I was able to experiment with other artifact threats like Myr Superion, a classic of Grand Architect builds, and Lodestone Golem, one of the stars of artifact-heavy archetypes across all formats.


 Finally, the couple of Lightning Greaves is just meant to protect the various architects and engineers, then turn the finishers into haste-speed threats (and put the Adjudicators immediately online, I guess, although it's hard to have the resources for such a move right away, since the Architect doesn't produce colored mana).

 The sideboard features Relic of Progenitus against graveyard tricks (I always try to find alternatives to it, but this is an artifact deck after all), and Ratchet Bomb as a generic solution, particularly against the token swarms. I also always include Bribery in my blue builds because it's just great to use it against Tron or the sort of combo decks that plan on a grand finale with Emrakul. I can't imagine what kind of bribe would convince Emrakul to switch sides, but apparently some guy from Mercadia City knows the answer.



 White and devotion: not as easy as it seems. White is a color with good creatures but that typically relies on its powerful removal spells to achieve board superiority. I was planning a mono-white deck that would eschew entirely the Path to Exile/Wrath of God route, and even Oblivion Ring didn't satisfy me enough with its meager, single white mana. I knew I would use Wall of Omens, despite not serving Nykthos exceptionally well, because I desperately needed the deck to flow a little, and Wall of Omens is perfect for that, working to put me into the midrange action through the combination of cantripping and stopping power.

 Other than that, I wanted something unusual. I considered all the WW options. Serra Avenger is usually a great creature, but it doesn't play the role of an early devotion provider, because without an Aether Vial, it can't be dropped before the 4th turn, which is too late for the plan. I was going to resort to a not very exciting White Knight. Then I remembered this guy:

 Knight of the White Orchid was perfect: he would defend me almost as well as White Knight, giving me two white symbols, and ramping on his own. Granted, he doesn't guarantee a ramp all the times, but it might happen, especially if timed right.

 I also found Eight-and-a-Half-Tails at WW, and that's a strong tactical card that warrants at least a singleton copy.

 The 2-drops seemed satisfying enough to me, so I proceeded to the 3-drops, searching for those elusive triple-white. I was faced by several options, but none of them felt right (Opal Guardian? Meh), not until I remembered the hybrid cycle mentioned above. And while the triple mana of Hearthfire Hobgoblin wasn't enough to justify what amounts to a bad Mirran Crusader, the cycle gave me the excellent Wilt-Leaf Cavaliers, which I had reluctantly left out of green, and a card I always liked: Plumeveil.

 Now, Plumeveil is a defender, so its uses are limited to prolonging the game, but that's exactly what I wanted to do with this deck. A 4-powered, 3-mana flash flyer can stop many threats and act as a removal in many occasions. And at this point the deck had 8 triple-devotion guys like its green counterpart, albeit definitely more focused on defense.

 My research also brought to my attention an Angel that I never really considered useful before: Angel of Jubilation.

 Her stats might seem sub-par, but it's actually just the same cost/body ratio of Emeria Angel. I admit the main point of interest are those three white symbols in her cost, but once you accept to bring her into your team, she gives you an universal boost (particularly appreciated by my Knights, including the inevitable Mirran Crusaders), and a bonus ability that is more interesting that you give it credit for. Because if you think about it, that stops all the fetches (which is why I just use Flagstones of Trokair in the deck), and, whoa, Birthing Pod? Has she ever been used as an anti-Pod tech? I doubt so.

 The rest of the creatures features a couple Banisher Priests (preferred to Fiend Hunter because I already have a lot of defensive stuff) and a singleton Heliod, because I felt his vigilance can be useful and his secondary ability is a mana dump outlet, and I don't have too many of those here (I should probably use Stillmoon Cavalier, but it was already in the black build, felt more black than white, and it's a nombo with Angel of Jubilation). Plus a couple of big high-end Angels just to exploit the possible ramp.


 The "support" cards particularly shine, though. Spear of Heliod is another boost with additional removal capabilities. And speaking of removal, remember how a permanent-based white deck would lose all those amazing removal spells? Well, maybe not: what is Elspeth Tirel if not a sweeper with suspend 1? Which also provides lifegaining against burn and more board presence. And the always powerful Gideon Jura, another creature in disguise (and another provider of WW while we're at it), adds some tactical options of his own. You can hardly find a couple of planeswalkers more effective on the board, and of course they're both 5 CMC cards, which means not fast at all, but that's where the Nykthos ramp will hopefully help.


 In the sideboard, I wanted to include Devout Lightcaster (for the WWW aspect), but in the end it wasn't worth it in the current meta. Kor Firewalker is more relevant against burn, while Grand Abolisher fights countermagic, and both of them have double white in their costs.


 On the graveyard hate side, my chase for devotion-friendly costs landed on Wheel of Sun and Moon over the more typical Rest in Peace. You want to play with the Wheel for the art alone!

 Similarly, Aura of Silence is the best permanent for fighting artifact and enchantments. And the transversal heroes of these builds, Wurmcoil Engine and Steel Hellkite, also show up to give me a safety line against nasty stuff like Stormbreath Dragon.

 So, this is it. Five colors, five decks, five ways to go midrange. Now it's just a matter of knowing how they actually work (spoiler: the green one works well enough, it made two times 3rd place in the league). Rendez-vous next month to find out.


Excellent article, there are by romellos at Fri, 02/28/2014 - 14:37
romellos's picture

Excellent article, there are lots of interesting ideas here that can give a light to the future brews of Nykthos themed decks.

I especially liked the Red by Lord Erman at Fri, 02/28/2014 - 16:13
Lord Erman's picture

I especially liked the Red deck which reminded me of a Braids of Fire/Paradox Haze deck I had many years ago. Maybe a single Dark Depths in there just for lolz?

EDIT: Doh, Dark Depths is not Modern legal. Nevermind me.