The Complete Guide to RB Midrange in Pioneer

Ryan Normandin
May 25, 2022
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RB Midrange is a disruptive midrange deck that generates incremental card advantage with built-in two-for-ones. It is flexible, powerful, highly customizable, and has game against every deck in the format. In my most recent 100 matches with the deck (mostly MTGO leagues and challenges), I am exactly 70-30, and have greatly enjoyed tuning flex slots as the metagame has shifted. First, let's start with the core.

Manabase

4 Blightstep Pathway

4 Blood Crypt

4 Haunted Ridge

2 Den of the Bugbear

2 Hive of the Eye Tyrant

1 Sokenzan, Crucible of Defiance

1 Takenuma, Abandoned Mire

1 Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth

1 Castle Locthwain

1 Swamp

2 Mountain

1 Flex land – either second Castle Locthwain or second Swamp

Normally, a midrange deck with lots of threes and a decent number of fours might lean toward playing 25 lands, but Fable of the Mirror Breaker does a lot of work in ensuring you hit the fourth land. When (not if – I want to believe!) Blackcleave Cliffs is printed into Pioneer, that land will automatically have a home here, as the deck frequently wants BB and RR in order to double-spell, and it often tops out at 4 or 5 lands in a game. With playsets of Thoughtseize and Fatal Push, having access to Black mana Turn 1 is vital, but that must be followed up by Red on Turn 2, as every two-drop in the deck requires Red mana.

 

As things stand, the printing of Haunted Ridge made the manabase of RB Midrange serviceable. Den of the Bugbear and Hive of the Eye-Tyrant are powerful creature-lands, and the one-ofs provide plenty of niche utility. With only six Swamps in the deck, Castle Locthwain comes in tapped about two thirds of the time on Turn 3 and about seventy-five percent of the time on Turn 4. Those may sound like reasonable numbers, but this deck desperately wants its lands coming in untapped with its glut of two's and three's. Second Castle Locthwain is likely fine, but it has the most utility in the mirror, which has been less common recently. As such, I've leaned toward the second Swamp. If there's an uptick in RB mirrors, then the second Castle gets better, as there aren't too many other matchups where you have the time and life to activate it.


Maindeck

4 Fatal Push

4 Thoughtseize

4 Bloodtithe Harvester

3 Dreadbore

2 Kroxa, Titan of Death's Hunger

4 Graveyard Trespasser

3 Bonecrusher Giant

4 Fable of the Mirror-Breaker // Reflection of Kiki-Jiki

2 Chandra, Torch of Defiance

2 Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet

4 Flex Slots – Usually 1 four-drop and 3 one- and two-drops

Common choices include: Bloodchief's Thirst, Duress, third Chandra, Sorin the Mirthless, fourth Dreadbore, fourth Bonecrusher Giant // Stomp

Thoughtseize and Fatal Push are no-brainer four-of's, as two hyper-efficient pieces of interaction. Additionally, Revolt isn't too bad to turn on with Blood and Treasure. Dreadbore being a sorcery is frustrating, but it's the best catch-all we have. Kalitas may occasionally move out of the mainboard, but it's a powerful source of life-gain and can slam the door closed in creature matchups in a way that no other card can.

Every other card in the deck is there because it's flexible. Bloodtithe Harvester and Bonecrusher Giant // Stomp both kill creatures and attack for a chonky amount of damage, with Bonecrusher being a built-in two-for-one, and the Harvester's Blood token often reading closer to “1, T, Sac: Draw a card” in the late game or in matchups with dead cards.

 

Graveyard Trespasser and Fable of the Mirror-Breaker are all-stars in the three-drop slot. Trespasser usually two-for-ones, drains and gains, and interacts with the graveyard, all while being a 3/3 (or even a 4/4!) for three. Fable is like Pioneer's Seasoned Pyromancer; it creates a body, smooths your draws, and generates card advantage later. Its ceiling is much higher than Pyromancer, as if you're lucky enough to have two simultaneously, you can pay X mana to make X copies of Kiki-Jiki. Chandra, Torch of Defiance is your best generically good four-mana planeswalker. Sorin the Mirthless is another fine four-drop, but I tend to like the third Chandra more than the first Sorin. The 2/3 that Sorin ticks down to create is often low-impact and unable to keep Sorin alive, whereas Chandra at least kills something when she comes down or upticks to allow for a double-spell turn.

With all that said, here is my current list:

 

There are a couple of unorthodox cards in my list; the one that stands out the most is the mainboard copy of Hazoret the Fervent, first suggested to me by fellow Flipside Gaming writer Tzu-Mainn Chen. In grindy matchups (especially the mirror and UR), Hazoret is nigh-unkillable, closes games quickly, and provides reach. I've enjoyed it over the third mainboard copy of Chandra.

Hazoret the Fervent (AKH)

In the sideboard, like the main, you generally want flexible cards that can help against multiple matchups. Against UW Control, you want more planeswalkers (really doesn't matter which ones), and against spell-based combo such as Jeskai Ascendancy and Lotus Field, limiting their resources is more important than increasing your own. Liliana, Waker of the Dead is kind of like a reverse Chandra in that way; she can kill a creature like Chandra can, but instead of adding resources, she takes them away.

Skysovereign is a new card I'm trying out as a way to simultaneously interact with and pressure Monogreen Devotion. It can also turn the corner against creature decks like Monored or Winota.

Unlicensed Hearse is a standout, and has led to the biggest improvement in the UR matchup from the RB side. It sits around and dramatically slows them down, and then swings with a colorless body so large that it's impervious to red removal and Aether Gust.

The sideboard of RB should change week-to-week as decks grow or recede in metagame representation. If UR continues to decrease in popularity and, say, Lotus Field makes a comeback, you'll likely want to swap out Hearses for Damping Spheres. With a highly interactive deck like RB which cares a lot about what opponents are doing, tuning the 75 before every tournament is the most important (and often overlooked) way to gain an edge.

 

Tips and Tricks

  • Remember that you can sacrifice Bloodtithe Harvester (a Vampire) to Kalitas.
  • Reflection of Kiki-Jiki + Bloodtithe Harvester gives you a removal spell every turn, and allows you to churn through your deck with Blood.
  • Reflection can clone Harvester or Zombie tokens to provide endless fodder for growing Kalitas.
  • If you have one active Reflection and another Reflection (summoning sick or not), then on your opponent's end step, you can clone a Reflection, then use the token copy to clone the Reflection again, and continue to do this. You basically gain: “X: Make X copies of Reflection.” On your turn, you can funnel all the mana through the Reflections to make X copies of a bigger threat if you'd like, such as a Graveyard Trespasser or a Bonecrusher Giant.
  • If you clone a creature-land with Reflection, it does not enter as a creature; it will enter as a tapped land.
  • You can hold the Reflection activation alongside a Trespasser to exile things (such as Parhelion) at instant-speed from a graveyard.
  • When Fable transforms into Reflection, it exiles itself and returns to the battlefield, which means Revolt is turned on for Fatal Push.
  • If you're planning on killing something with Bloodtithe Harvester and also using the Blood, be sure to kill the thing first, and then activate the Blood.

 

Next, let's discuss the matchups against Pioneer's major players.


Naya Winota: Favored

Voice of Resurgence (2XM)

One of the reasons RB Midrange is so well-positioned right now is because of its lopsided matchups against the two most popular decks in Pioneer, Naya Winota and Monored Aggro.

Game 1 is the closest against Winota because of the lack of instant-speed interaction capable of removing the namesake threat. This means you should focus your resources on keeping their board clear. Dreadbore those Llanowar Elves if you have to! Fatal Push is the key spell, as it can kill Winota in conjunction with a Blood Token or a Treasure. You should be highly conscious of this if you stick a Kiki-Jiki. It's okay to throw away your 2/2 token if it means you have a Push ready to kill the Winota the next turn.

If you survive the early game, the most troublesome cards are Esika's Chariot, Fable of the Mirror-Breaker, and Tovolar's Huntmaster. If it looks like you're going to the late game, be sure to have a Dreadbore for Huntmaster and hold something for the transformed Fable. Otherwise, Fable will generate an endless supply of Voice of Resurgence tokens that will grow beyond your ability to answer them.

Additionally, while you are the control deck during the first three or four turns, you should begin attacking with Graveyard Trespasser as soon as you can. If you've stopped them from resolving a Winota and prevented their board from growing out of control, they're at their weakest point during turns 4 and 5, when they're trying to set up to resolve a Huntmaster or waiting to draw a Winota. If you can lower their life sufficiently, you can sometimes ping them for the last few points of damage off Trespasser triggers or Chandra upticks.

If the board gets clogged with Cat and Wolf tokens, you're looking for Kalitas, as that makes it impossible for them to close out the game. At that point, you should also have enough mana to sacrifice a Zombie (or a Vampire!) to Kalitas to turn on Revolt, and then push a top-decked Winota. Eventually, you can start attacking with the Kalitas, or set up a Chandra ultimate behind it.

When Thoughtseizing them on Turns 1 and 2, it is almost always right to take the threat. You cannot close the game quickly enough to prevent them from getting to their four- and six-drops. Use Stomps and other removal to answer the ones and twos; dying to a Huntmaster is the most likely outcome of Thoughtseizing an Elf. If you draw one of the two mainboard Duress, you should cast it before Turn 3 to maximize the chances of hitting a Fable or a Chariot.

To summarize Game 1: You win if you can control the board and pressure them, lowering their life total and setting up a strong position with Kalitas or Chandra going into the late game. You lose if they Winota you, your board is too weak to deal with a Chariot, or you fail to Thoughtseize or hold a Dreadbore for Huntmaster.


Sideboarding:

-2 Duress

-2 Chandra, Torch of Defiance

-1 Hazoret the Fervent

-2 Kroxa, Titan of Death's Hunger

+2 Ray of Enfeeblement

+3 Power Word Kill

+1 Kolaghan's Command

+1 Skysovereign, Consul Flagship

You adopt the “pile of removal” configuration post-board. The gameplan is largely the same, but now it's much easier to execute: kill absolutely everything. You have so much removal that you can typically kill Voice of Resurgence as well, as the tokens will be small and forced to chump block as you pressure them. Skysovereign is a fantastic way to continue to clear the board and end the game quickly, and Kolaghan's Command is typically saved for Chariot or for forcing them to discard the Huntmaster they've been holding.

It's much harder to lose to the primary Winota plan post-board, but Elite Spellbinder from their side does give them a powerful angle of attack, pressuring you in the air, where you're weaker, while simultaneously making it much harder to execute your plan of deploying threats and leaving up one or two mana for a removal spell. Usually, you have enough removal that Spellbinder isn't too painful, but if you're not careful, it can lose you the game.

 

Monored Aggro: Favored

The key to this matchup is to do the following:

1) Do not shock yourself if you can help it.

2) Answer Chandra, Dressed to Kill and Eidolon of the Great Revel as soon as you can.

3) Be cognizant of Den of the Bugbear.

If you do those things, they generally struggle to compete with your interaction and your threats. Many of your cards require more than one of their cards to answer (Graveyard Trespasser, Fable of the Mirror Breaker, Kalitas), which means you should aggressively use removal and deploy threats. Prevent your life total from going too low. If you do that, they can't compete with your superior board. Graveyard Trespasser in particular is a powerful card here; it's hard for them to answer and also gains you life. Don't be afraid to downtick Chandra and let it die immediately. Mainboard, they can't answer Kalitas without spending two cards, which means it's mostly safe to play out. Hazoret is a great blocker, but keep in mind that if they have Soul-Scar Mage, they can kill it with -1/-1 counters.

Thoughtseize is fine to cast if they have a couple cards in hand and your life total is stable, as you'll either net a life by nabbing a Skewer or you'll deal with a threat like Chandra or Bonecrusher, which generate card advantage.

Typically, you control the board early, they run out of gas, and you close the game with Kroxa or Graveyard Trespasser.


Sideboarding:

-4 Thoughtseize

+3 Power Word Kill

+1 Skysovereign, Consul Flagship

Post-board, just keep killing their stuff. They'll likely have Rampaging Ferocidon, so be sure to answer that before you deploy Trespasser if you can, but the post-board gameplay doesn't meaningfully differ from pre-board. You were favored already, and now you're favored by more.

 

Monogreen Devotion: Even

Old-Growth Troll (KHM)

This matchup mostly hinges on whether they do “the broken thing” quickly. If they can get a God-Pharaoh's Statue or a Storm the Festival on Turn 3 or 4, you're likely to lose, but you have enough interaction to make that tough.

The most important thing to do in this matchup is to play your cards. Players are sometimes hesitant to spend a removal spell on Old-Growth Troll or Cavalier of Thorns because of the value they provide on dying. Do it anyways! You lose the late game, so you are playing a tempo role in this matchup. Use as much of your mana as you can every turn, deploy removal aggressively, attack aggressively, and if you can, don't let Karn stick around. If you have a Dreadbore, then you can kill Kiora, but otherwise, you should probably ignore it; the seven damage is much better-utilized directed at their face.

Finally, because you desperately want to pressure them, most games you win involve waking up creature lands. Often, you'll make one attack that suicides a creature or two, but puts them dead to a second that ends the game.

Just remember your role: you are not a controlling midrange deck in this matchup, you're an aggressive tempo deck.


Sideboarding:

-2 Chandra, Torch of Defiance

-4 Fable of the Mirror-Breaker

-2 Kroxa, Titan of Death's Hunger

+1 Skysovereign, Consul Flagship

+2 Go Blank

+3 Power Word Kill

+1 Kolaghan's Command

+1 Ray of Enfeeblement

This is the sideboarding plan I am most unsure of. They have no impactful sideboard cards, so you're still playing against their Game 1 configuration. As such, you're looking to streamline your pressure+disruption plan. This means cutting slow, grindy cards like Chandra and Fable, and I think you have to cut Kroxa as well. Though an Escaped Kroxa is a great way to close a game against Green, without Fable, you don't have a way to discard it, and you very much do not want to cast it against them, as it's close to taking the turn off.

Go Blank is on the expensive side for hand disruption, but it can clear a Thoughtseized Storm the Festival and keep them low on payoffs. Ray kills Elves, and Power Word Kill deals with everything. Skysovereign and KCommand can nab planeswalkers while simultaneously pressuring their life total or their resources respectively. I like keeping 2 Duress, as the cards you're most afraid of are nonland, but adding copies risks running into trouble against hands heavy on Cavalier and Troll.

The gameplan is the same: use your mana every turn, aggressively chuck threats and removal at them, and hope they don't Storm you.

 

RB Midrange: even – favored if you draw Hazoret

 

The key to winning the mirror is to try to minimize the opponent's two-for-ones and maximize your own. When you Thoughtseize them, you should take Fable, Trespasser, and Chandra. If they ever offer a trade with their Trespasser, take it without hesitation. If you can kill a Trespasser by discarding a Kroxa, do it; otherwise, try to hold Kroxa until you're ready to Escape it.

Fable is the most important card in the matchup; whoever resolves more is likely to win. Bonecrusher Giant is also decent, as you can Stomp a Goblin token without feeling terrible. If you're playing Hazoret main, it is a nearly impossible card to beat as long as you're cognizant of their Bloodtithe Harvesters.

If you have the ability to, try to either downtick Chandra the turn she comes down, or cast her later in the game so you maximize the chances you get a card out of her before she dies.


Sideboarding:

-2 Duress

-4 Thoughtseize

+3 Go Blank

+1 Liliana, Waker of the Dead

+1 Kolaghan's Command

+1 Skysovereign, Consul Flagship

Like most grindy Black midrange mirrors, the games are likely to go long, and players are likely to end up top-decking. This means you do not want hand disruption, as it's the worst possible draw in the late-game.

Go Blank is so good on Turn 3 or 4 that I think it's worth it, even though it's not usually a great draw in the late-game. Otherwise, you bring in all your two-for-ones: Liliana, KCommand, and the Boat.

The gameplan is the same: minimize opposing 2-for-1's, maximize your own. Now that you don't have Thoughtseizes, opponents are more likely to resolve Fable; you absolutely must make sure you have an answer for Reflection of Kiki-Jiki. If you don't, you will lose the game. Hazoret remains the best card in the matchup post-board.

 

UW Control: Favored

Absorb (RNA)

Game 1 is tough, but Games 2 and 3 are favored. Widespread adoption of The Wandering Emperor has made the matchup a bit tougher, but you have excellent interaction and a diversity of threats; the key is to try to line your threats up so their answers don't work.

For countermagic, they typically have Absorb and Dovin's Veto. If you think they have Veto, play Trespasser. If you think they have Absorb, play your worst threat or a noncreature so that they'll be stuck with awkward Vetoes later. Try not to overextend into Supreme Verdict either; a single Trespasser is great, or a Bloodtithe and a Fable, etc.

Loot away your Fatal Pushes with Fable or use them on Emperor Tokens. Escape Kroxa as soon as you can so that they don't get it off Farewell. Chandra is your best card, followed by Fable and Trespasser. Use your Thoughtseize and Duress to clear the way for the threats you care about resolving.


Sideboarding:

-4 Fatal Push

-2 Kalitas

+2 Duress

+3 Go Blank

+1 Liliana, Waker of the Dead

Post-board, you have eleven hand disruption spells. Use them wisely, but use them. The play pattern is typically:

1) Spend early turns doing hand disruption, deploying a threat or two.

2) On Turn 4, low on resources and under pressure, they Verdict.

3) You resolve a planeswalker or a Go Blank which carries the game from there.

Once again, you're fundamentally playing the same game that you were in Game 1, but your deck now has no dead cards in it, which should give you an edge. They need to have the right answers at the right time, but there's no wrong threat.

Their best card against you post-board is Dream Trawler. Nothing you can do but hope they don't draw it, Thoughtseize it away, or keep them so low on resources in hand that they stick it empty-handed and you can Dreadbore it.

 

UR Phoenix: Slightly favored


Thing in the Ice is awful against you and the Phoenixes themselves aren't too much trouble; the games you lose are the Temporal Trespass games. The Phoenix player will be trying to steer the game in such a way that they can build up more and more resources until they can do everything in one turn, combo'ing off to bring back three Phoenixes and then taking an extra turn.

Preboard, absolutely eat their Phoenix if they mess up and discard it before they can return it. Otherwise, Trespasser is your best card, pressuring them and delaying their Treasure Cruise by perhaps a turn. Your hand disruption should prioritize their card advantage; their one-for-one removal is what you care least about.

Preboard is tricky and will feel likely be close; just keep attacking them, and keep some removal to deal with a late-game Thing or a sudden horde of Phoenixes. Hazoret is phenomenal here as well; they do not have an answer to it, and it closes the game quickly enough to race their combo setup.


Sideboarding:

-2 Chandra, Torch of Defiance

-2 Dreadbore

-1 Fable

-2 Kroxa

+2 Duress

+3 Go Blank

+2 Unlicensed Hearse

They will be siding in Young Pyromancer and Aether Gust, so you want to keep Push. Dreadbore being a sorcery is awkward, and Chandra is slow, fragile, and easy to deal with. Fable is decent, but on the slower side, so we shave, and Kroxa is too risky with Gust.

Like UW Control, you need to keep the pressure on their hand and their life total. Cast your spells and attack them. Unlicensed Hearse is insane against Phoenix; eating two cards a turn can meaningfully slow their Cruise, and then attacking for 10 on a Gust-proof body is a great way to close the game.

Go Blank when they're low on cards in hand or when they are high on cards in graveyard, as you again want to watch out for a combo setup.

Hazoret is again fantastic; it is Gustable, but you apply enough pressure on their hand that you should be able to stick one and kill them.

 

Monoblue Spirits: Favored

There's not much to talk about here because your gameplan is extremely straightforward: kill everything you can. You will naturally accumulate two-for-ones and light card advantage, so once they're out of resources, you can kill them with anything, as they can't catch up once they're behind.


Sideboarding:

-2 Kroxa, Titan of Death's Hunger

-1 Hazoret the Fervent

-4 Fable of the Mirror-Breaker

-1 Duress

+2 Ray of Enfeeblement

+3 Power Word Kill

+1 Kolaghan's Command

+1 Skysovereign, Consul Flagship

+1 Liliana, Waker of the Dead

Your sideboard plan, brilliantly, is to cut any card that doesn't kill stuff or gain life and bring in every card that does kill stuff.

Post-board, assuming your draw isn't awful, this matchup will not feel close. You might actually feel like a bad person as you simply kill every single card they play, but hey, RB is great against creature decks.

 

RW Heroic: Favored

Heroic beats you if they have multiple threats (preferably one Arcanist) backed up by Gods Willing. Outside of that, it's pretty straightforward to kill the few threats they deploy and nab the Gods Willing with Thoughtseize. If you stretch into the mid/late game, then Fable making copies of Harvester to kill their board or even just making chump blockers is difficult for them to beat.

Post-board, bring in the usual pile of removal.


Sideboarding:

-2 Duress

-2 Kroxa, Titan of Death's Hunger

+2 Ray of Enfeeblement

+3 Power Word Kill

 

Mardu Greasefang: Even

Parhelion II (NEC)

You are a substantially better fair deck than Mardu Greasefang is; the games they win are the Greasefang games, not the fair games. As such, you need to do everything in your power to ensure that you are ready for a Greasefang. Game 1, this is mostly luck. You have to aggressively dig to a Push and a way to Revolt it, or Thoughtseize the Greasefang away and then close by pressuring with Trespasser and Fable. If they keep a combo hand in Game 1, you will likely lose unless you're heavy on interaction.


Sideboarding:

-2 Duress

-2 Chandra, Torch of Defiance

-2 Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet

-1 Hazoret the Fervent

-2 Kroxa, Titan of Death's Hunger

-2 Dreadbore

+2 Ray of Enfeeblement

+3 Power Word Kill

+3 Go Blank

+2 Unlicensed Hearse

+1 Kolghan's Command

This is another deck that struggles severely against Unlicensed Hearse. Outside of that, make sure you're holding up removal for Greasefang. The matchup gets much better post-board, but especially if they're on the play, they can still cheese you with the combo kill. They can't win a late game against you, so the primary focus needs to be on stopping Greasefang.

 

Lotus Field: Even

Not much to this matchup; Game 1, you're hoping you find Thoughtseize, they stumble, and you can pressure them, but you're likely going to lose. You're just not fast enough to race their combo. Once you realize they're Lotus, prioritize deploying hard-hitting threats, as damage is the most important thing. Play Bonecrusher on Turn 3, try to get Kroxa going as soon as possible, etc.

 

Sideboarding:

-2 Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet

-2 Dreadbore

-4 Fatal Push

+2 Duress

+3 Go Blank

+1 Kolaghan's Command

+1 Liliana, Waker of the Dead

Unfortunately, you have more dead cards than you can side out, but the extra hand disruption and lower density of removal will help to make your deck feel much more evenly matched. If they kept a hand with no Lotus Field, Thoughtseize away the Sylvan Scrying. Otherwise, you generally want to take Pieces of the Puzzle and Hidden Strings.

This deck hasn't been seeing much play recently; if it returns, you'll want Damping Spheres in your board. Sphere is easily answerable, but it tends to buy you the one turn you need to get that extra damage in and kill them, especially alongside the increased post-board disruption.

RB Midrange is a great choice in Pioneer if you like having game against every deck you play and a high level of customizability week to week. There's no deck in the format that I feel unfavored against; everything feels competitive or favorable, and you have a high number of favorable matchup among the current most popular decks.

Ryan Normandin is a grinder from Boston who has lost at the Pro Tour, in GP & SCG Top 8's, and to 7-year-olds at FNM. Despite being described as "not funny" by his best friend and "the worst Magic player ever" by Twitch chat, he cheerfully decided to blend his lack of talents together to write funny articles about Magic.

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