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What's Wrong with Orzhov Midrange in Standard?

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A couple of weeks ago I wrote about an Orzhov midrange deck that has picked up some popularity in Standard. While it played a lot of cards similar to various all-removal Mono-Black Control decks, the Orzhov deck dipped into the progressive advantage of White, and added the oomph of arguably White's best control card in the format... A certain four-mana Planeswalker.


At the time of this writing, the Black-White archetype is still the second-most popular in Standard!

This is the kind of deck that people like to play if they want the sense that they are "playing Magic" ... You have a lot of cards with a lot of different functions; and good quality ones across the board, at that.

For me, the deck is kind of like The Rock... Theoretical chances against everything but one with few, if any, dominant matchups.

Two Surprising Matchups

I played roughly a bazillion Events this week; both Best-of-One and Best-of-Three to learn about this deck because it spoke to me. Before I became a Burn main, I was super into Black-White decks. Pro Tour Hall of Famer Raphael Levy even once asked me if I played Orzhov in every format!

In the process of playing so much, two matchups really jumped out as surprising: The opposite ends of the metagame.

Mono-Red Aggro: Surprisingly About Even

When you win you often win by a mile. When you lose, it's usually to a lucky topdeck just as you've stabilized. But at the end of the day, if the Red matchup is a positive one, it's not by much.

That, in and of itself, was really surprising to me. On the cardboard, Orzhov is theoretically a nightmare for Mono-Red; the Aggro versions, anyway. It comes out on turn one with Cut Down. Duress - let alone four main deck copies - is not the usual these days; but Duress is great at breaking up all versions of Mono-Red. It can give you the information you need to never pull your shields down against the Prowess / Showoff versions; and it can pre-empt an Urabrask's Forge.

Going into the middle turns, Graveyard Trespasser // Graveyard Glutton; The Wandering Emperor; and the Big Bat itself, Aclazotz, Deepest Betrayal // Temple of the Dead are all All-Stars against Red Decks. These cards are durable, card advantageous... And they all gain life! On paper Red Decks should be a cakewalk.

But!

It's a pretty medium matchup. I would choose to play against Mono-Red over a lot of the alternatives in Standard despite this, but mostly because I felt behind in a lot of other matchups.

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Blue-White: Also About Even

See, I thought this one would be a nightmare... But it kind of wasn't.

Black-White can win this matchup two different ways. One (the more common one) is on tempo. Duress is a good card to start on, and if you can start attacking with Caustic Bronco, the opponent is going to be pretty far behind. Blue-White has good answers to almost everything, but they can often be clumsy or inefficient. Three mana (or an extra card) for a Caustic Bronco; Map tokens across the board. Even in the middle turns, uw will often need to try to finish off a Planeswalker with a Restless Anchorage... and that will die to a Go For the Throat or - worse yet - a Cut Down.

The other way that Orzhov can beat Azorius is by overwhelming it with Planeswalkers. Blue-White has pretty good answers to almost everything but when it comes to opposing Planeswalkers - provided they resolve - that might be like two copies of Get Lost. I never actually made an opponent "take 13" in all my many travels, but I did force a concession or so from behind a trio of zero mana activations.

Your affinity with Standard Orzhov might have to do with the kind of player you are (or want to be). Personally, I like to play exploitative Magic. I want to play decks where I think I have an edge on the metagame, or at least do something a little different. The prospect of playing a deck that is like 50/50 against everything is like a nightmare to me. Again, this might be up your alley (check out my article on Agency in Magic: The Gathering)... But for Orzhov it's actually a little worse than that.

I found myself out-grinded by Golgari. Both decks have similar incentives, but Orzhov is generally better at maintaining life total, whereas Golgari is largely better at raw card advantage. In a mid-range matchup, grinding card advantage tends to matter more than life total. Cards like Mosswood Dreadknight draw fire but come back. At the three, it's hard to do better than Graveyard Trespasser // Graveyard Glutton... But Glissa can both fight a Werewolf heads up and actually draw extra cards.

The bigger issue is that from some perspectives, Orzhov is actually anti-exploitative. I would not recommend it whatsoever for Best-of-One.

I don't think I won a single game against Boros Convoke.

The four main-deck copies of Duress are a significant liability. Sometimes you'll be excited to start on curve... but then miss. This can be a double whammy! But it actually gets worse: Orzhov has no way, main-deck, to either keep pace with go-wide strategies on the ground, or catch up once the opponent is ahead. Cards like Depopulate or Gix's Command can help in sideboarded games, but you're basically starting off 0-1 against every go-wide strategy. Like I said, I lost every Game 1 to Boros; but also straight White Weenie and even an Azorius Soldiers (remember that deck?).

Basically lots of creatures are inherently card advantageous - Recruitment Officer, Resolute Reinforcements, or Adeline - whereas most of Orzhov's answers are both slower and one-for-one. The bigger issue is that all these decks just have more material than Orzhov can keep up with. God forbid they ever draw Imodane's Recruiter! Good blocks tend to be impossible, and beatdown destroyers like The Wandering Emperor are clunky without support from Temporary Lockdown or Sunfall.

Overall I found Orzhov to be inconsistent, despite its popularity. I won the first Event I played in, but also had multiple where I won literally zero matches. If you - like I usually am - primarily grind Standard Events to build your collection online (in addition to testing for the format) I can't recommend Orzhov.

[deck from https://www.mtggoldfish.com/archetype/standard-orzhov-midrange-mid#paper]


Orzhov remains the second most popular deck in Standard, but the build itself can be in flux.

This more recent version moves Duress to the sideboard and brings in a new tool for the main: Path of Peril. Path of Peril is actually quite an interesting control card. The "Cleave" version is a full-on Day of Judgment type (if a little overcosted). But the cheaper three-mana version helps to make for a wildly improved matchup against Boros and other go-wide White Weenie decks. If you can stall long enough, Harvester of Misery is even better at containing many small enemies... Because in its case, the 5-drop Spirit immediately seizes the initiative on the battlefield.

Both Path of Peril and Harvester of Misery are asymmetrical in that they can eliminate a lot of opposing material while leaving Orzhov's own creatures - at least the Preachers and Trespassers of the world - to attack and block another day.

Deep-Cavern Bat is a little anti-synergistic due to its cost and size, but the card is a little better than Duress in spots where Duress isn't good; and the lifelink tends to be relevant in all those matchups. Even if a 1/1 for two mana seems inoffensive, Orzhov has no shortage of ways to make creatures bigger - Wedding Announcement // Wedding Festivity, Virtue of Loyalty, and The Wandering Emperor, to name a few.

LOVE

MIKE

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