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Kicking it like a Middle-Schooler

Howdy folks! It's Joe Dyer here, and I am not actually here to talk about Vintage like I do on Vintage 101. Instead I'm here to talk about a new MTG Underground format that I have found myself completely in love with. The format? Well, it's called "Middle School".

Some background on my part. I found out about this format via Eternal Central originally, and what struck me as so interesting about it is that it effectively reminded me of my early years growing up playing Magic. I started playing Magic during Tempest block, almost always casually with friends at school. As we are all want to do in youth we made up our own rules for the game, and generally played for fun. We eventually found the actual rules in High School, and it was during this time that the Urza's Saga block was released, accelerating into the ending of the Weatherlight Saga in Invasion block. One of the products that came out during that time was the World Championship decks that showcased Pro player decks in a non-Tournament legal deck (with different card backs and gold borders). These products were pretty amazing as they showed people what it was like to play a Pro deck.

Fast forward to the middle of Onslaught block. I was starting college and felt rather disillusioned with Magic since I had nobody to play with after graduation. I quit the game and returned later on for Rise of the Eldrazi. One of the things that still stands out to me however was how much I enjoyed that era of my early days. Middle School as a format reaches me on that level, much like how Old School reaches those players who played during Alpha/Beta/Unlimited.

So without further ado, let's get into the thick of things.

What is Middle School?

Middle School, as the name implies, is a format that sort of bridges the gap between the format Old School and the format Modern. Specifically, the format covers every set printed from Fourth Edition to Scourge. Now, I may hear you guys saying "Wait a minute, isn't this just like Premodern?" Well, it is and it isn't. Premodern roughly covers the same expansion sets that were printed throughout the same time frame as Middle School, however there are some key differences to the format. For starters, Middle School also allows legality on every supplemental set / box set printed during the course of 1995 - 2003. What does this give us? Sets like Portal (all three versions), Starter sets, and box sets like Anthologies. Interestingly enough this does make a few outlier cards that normally would not be legal such as Hymn to Tourach because it was printed in the Anthologies box set.

Personal Tutor [POR] Hymn to Tourach [ATH]

In addition to the card set availability, Middle School also allows players to use any printing of a particular card (in order to help protect certain staples from being targeted by speculators) but they encourage people to seek out an era-appropriate printing. The format also allows for players to use cards from Collector's Edition International Edition and those sweet World Championships decks I talked about earlier. This means that Middle School largely falls in the same sort of grass-roots movement that Old School does in that events are largely unsanctioned for allowing these kinds of cards.

There are also some differences in how the format works compared to Premodern. In Middle School, there are some rules changes that allow for the game to be played the way that it was played during this era of Magic.

  • Mana Burn still happens - Under these rules players will lose 1 life for each unused mana in their mana pool at the end of each phase
  • Damage Uses the Stack - Based on the rules as to how they worked prior to Magic 2010, damage uses the stack, meaning that combat tricks like Morphling, Mogg Fanatic, etc. still function.
  • The "Wish" Cycle Functionality - During the original rules of this time, the "Wish" cycle from Judgment had the ability to not only find a card in your sideboard but also any card in your exile zone as well. This functionality was errata'ed off the Wishes, but is restored for the purposes of this format.

Eternal Central, who manages the format, also has a Banned List available for the Middle School events they run and what they recommend people use to play the format to make it more fun. As of today's printing, this banned list includes the following cards:

  • Amulet of Quoz
  • Balance
  • Brainstorm
  • Bronze Tablet
  • Channel
  • Dark Ritual
  • Demonic Consultation
  • Flash
  • Goblin Recruiter
  • Imperial Seal
  • Jeweled Bird
  • Lion’s Eye Diamond
  • Mana Crypt
  • Mana Vault
  • Memory Jar
  • Mind’s Desire
  • Mind Twist
  • Rebirth
  • Strip Mine
  • Tempest Efreet
  • Timmerian Fiends
  • Tinker
  • Tolarian Academy
  • Vampiric Tutor
  • Windfall
  • Yawgmoth’s Bargain
  • Yawgmoth’s Will

Much like how Premodern has a Banned List as well, the lists between the two formats are significantly different. In Premodern, cards like Force of Will are actually banned, which requires further bannings to bring down some of the more degenerate combos that exist in the format. However, cards like Tinker are not banned (which is widely known as one of the more egregiously powerful cards of its time). Middle School takes what I feel is a more sensible approach to the banned list. Here, Force of Will is not banned, but certain key enabler spells like Dark Ritual are banned which helps slow things down just a tad.

This thankfully does not mean that things are like Legacy where Force of Will is a necessity to play the format. One of the more interesting features of Middle School is that manabases aren't spectacular in nature, and the combo decks that do exist require a lot of hoops to jump through by today's standards (3+ card combos? Sign me up!) In actuality, the format is really wide open and ripe for deck-building, so if you like brewing and coming up with fun ideas, this format is really solid for that.

One really great thing about this format is that you can get a lot of inspiration for building decks by looking at many of the era's best decks in Extended and also the decks contained in the World Championship series. There are some incredibly wild decks here, as you can often play many of the intriguing combo decks of the time.

You can use this handy dandy Scryfall query to list every legal card in Middle School. This is a big help to learning what is legal and what isn't.

Common Format Archetypes

As a side note, this is nowhere near a real comprehensive list of everything you can do with this format. If you think a deck build is viable, it most likely is and one of the best ways to get great ideas on how to deck build within this format is also to look at older Extended lists and decks throughout the era that were popular. This format is so incredibly wide open that it is possible to build several different versions of the same deck based on play style.

In additon, all decklists have been carefully tuned so that they currently only show an era-appropriate printing for the purposes of aesthetics. After all, this is Middle School and there are no Modern borders here! This may impact the "price" listed for the deck since some cards may not appear available for Magic Online purposes.

Cereal Combos! I Like Breakfast!

One of the defining aspects of this era of Magic's history is the naming of combo decks after popular breakfast cereals or breakfast-related names. One of the most widely recognizable combos of that time is the combination of the cards Enduring Renewal and Goblin Bombardment, otherwise known as "Fruity Pebbles".

Enduring Renewal [ICE] Goblin Bombardment [TE] Shield Sphere [ALL]

Do you see the combo yet? It should be pretty easy to spot. Sacrificing a zero drop creature like Shield Sphere (or Phyrexian Walker) to Goblin Bombardment would deal 1 damage to the opponent, triggering Enduring Renewal to return the zero drop to hand to repeat it all over again. Because of the difficulty in assembling combos like this, Pebbles became widely known for another card in its repertoire, one used to tie the two halves together.

Academy Rector [UD]

Ah, yes, Academy Rector, one of the linchpins of the Pebbles combo build. Pebbles became so popular that many different varieties of the deck began to appear from "Cocoa Pebbles" (which utilized cards like Necropotence) to the deck "Wheaties" which not only utilized the Pebbles combo, but also used another powerhouse combination: Survival of the Fittest and Recurring Nightmare.

Another common combo from this era of Magic's history is the combo known as "Trix" (based on yes... the breakfast cereal). This combo hinged on using the following two cards in conjunction:

Illusions of Grandeur [ICE] Donate [UD]

Using Donate to give your opponent a copy of Illusions of Grandeur means that it is rather unlikely your opponent is going to be able to continue to pay the Cumulative Upkeep for very long. In addition, this leaves you with an extra 20 life to spare to be able to protect your combo while usually not dying. There are a number of ways you can build out a Trix variant, just as long as the two cards above are at the top of your decklist. This particular list is a Blue/Black variant, using another powerful pieces allowed in this format... Necropotence.

The presence of Necropotence in this format can be somewhat off-putting to those that might remember how powerful that card actually was back in the day, but one of the things that's really interesting about Middle School is that there is a plethora of enchantment destruction effects (even right down to good old Disenchant and the ever powerful Vindicate) that makes resolving a Necro a very intriguing proposition. In addition, the resource investment of having to play cards like Cabal Ritual and Lotus Petal to make for a Turn 1 Necro as opposed to just getting to play Dark Ritual is very real, especially in a format where Force of Will is legal.

Continuing our theme of popular breakfast cereals, another cerealized combo deck in the format is the deck Raisin Bran, which utilizes the card Aluren along with Cavern Harpy to generally make infinite life, infinite damage, you name it.

Another sweet combo deck idea that came out at me while I was researching this article is a deck based around the "Eggs" cycle of cards from Odyssey block. Combined with the card Helm of Awakening from Visions, you can cycle through your deck generating mana and casting spells until you can a lethal Tendrils of Agony against your opponent. This is a deck where you have to really work for a kill with the combo, and that makes it very interesting to me.

Enough About Combo, What About Control or Tempo?

So say you don't really want to play a combo deck, but you're still looking for some fun ideas to play around with. Well, there's all sorts of interesting and viable strategies. One of the more commonly well-known ones was a deck that was very prominent during Extended and one that people really like to play around with, hinging around the following cards:

Aquamoeba [TOR] Basking Rootwalla [TOR] Arrogant Wurm [TOR]

That's right. Madness. While we saw the mechanic return in the Shadows Over Innistrad block, Madness began in Torment, where it quickly defined Extended during its time. Madness is a varied deck, full of interesting interactions with cards like Wild Mongrel, countermagic like Circular Logic, and flashback spells like Roar of the Wurm. This deck is the purest form of Tempo, sticking a threat and providing a clock while you interact with your opponent to kill them.

Madness is a really sweet and interesting deck honestly. It's very powerful deck but it does have a lot of little moving parts, which is very reminiscent of how Magic worked during this era.

On the flip side of this, if you'd like to play some form of pure control, one of the earliest defining strategies of Legacy is also legal in this format, Landstill. Landstill functions on the back of the draw engine Standstill and utilizes creature lands like Mishra's Factory or Faerie Conclave while your opponent tries to not break the Standstill lock. If you're an Azorius mage at heart, this might be a deck worth looking into, since you get to play sweet cards like Wrath of God and Accumulated Knowledge.

In addition to control decks, there are multiple ways you can build prison strategies as well. Artifact strategies like MUD, Replenish based strategy, and other things like Tax Rack (Scroll Rack + Land Tax) are all viable in this format. However, one deck that tickles my fancy is the fact that you can play the strategy of Enchantress thanks to the fact that the following cards are legal:

Argothian Enchantress [UZ] Enchantress's Presence [ONS] Serra's Sanctum [UZ]

Enchantress is a prison deck that functions on the basis of drawing cards with the Enchantress effects and mana ramp provided by cards such as Wild Growth and Fertile Ground and lock pieces like Worship and a win condition provided by the two-card combination of Earthcraft + Squirrel Nest.

Another cool interaction in this deck is the ability to repeatedly trigger Cloud of Faeries with Words of Wind to force your opponent to bounce their permanents repeatedly.

What If I Want To Be Aggressive? Gruul Smash!

Well, this era doesn't go to Ravnica, but that doesn't mean you can't play an aggressive deck. In fact, many of the aggressive strategies of the time are perfectly playable. Things like Goblins, Mono-Red Sligh, Green Stompy are all perfectly playable and powerful. Goblins is especially interesting given that it gains access to both Goblin Lackey and Goblin Matron as well as Goblin Ringleader and Gempalm Incinerator. This deck more than anything comes close to how actual Legacy Goblins looks like without the presence of a card like Aether Vial. As a one-drop, Lackey is probably one of the best creatures that could ever exist in the format honestly. It is very powerful on Turn 1.

Goblin Lackey [UZ]

However, that being said, if Goblins turning sideways isn't your thing and you just want to throw some Bolts at your opponent, you can go back down to the old school Red Deck Wins style for some sweet spell-slinging action.

Another highly aggressive strategy that you could peruse in this format is a deck that utilizes a lot of pump effects in addition to one of the better Auras that exists in the entire game.

Rancor [UL]

Rancor actually holds a special place in my mind, as Urza's Legacy was such an incredibly powerful set for its time. It was a set I seriously collected a lot of because I enjoyed the storyline and the flavor, but cards like Rancor were amazingly powerful for Commons at the time. So of course, Rancor is at the forefront of this deck: 10 Land Stompy.

Okay, But What If I Want to Play Midrange?

Midrange decks that have some level of disruption and creature control plus creatures to finish the game off with are certainly playable. In fact, one of the most Midrange deck that has ever existed in the history of Magic can be played in this format. It's a deck that even today its name is used... can you smell what the ROCK is cooking?!

Phyrexian Plaguelord [UL]

That's right, the Rock (a GBx Midrange deck) is one of the origins of Midrange decks as they exist today, with The Rock being represented by Phyrexian Plaguelord (a reference to the famous wrestler Dwayne Johnson) and "his Millions" (which is represented by the card Deranged Hermit). This deck utilizes the combination between Survival of the Fittest and Recurring Nightmare as part of its disruptive engine before assembling a lethal army to bring the beatdown.

The Rock is a very powerful deck and a very attractive option to play in this format, and the above list isn't hard and set on how to build it. There are varying ways of building this deck, which makes it one of the more intriguing builds in the format to me. Not to mention you get to play cards like Cabal Therapy and Pernicious Deed which are among my favorite cards in the entire game.

Wrapping Up

So, thus concludes our look at the Middle School format. This format is very interesting and there is a ton of space within it and that is what makes it interesting. I myself am working on a Middle School deck (likely a variant of the Rock) because I find the format excessively fascinating to discuss.

I'd like to thank a few folks for assisting me with the decklists in this article, namely msteve, garbageaggro, ecaffery, and Nat Moes of the Team Serious crew. If you're looking for some further awesome resources on this format, please check the following links to learn some more.

As always if you'd like to talk about Middle School or anything else Magic related, hit me up on Twitter, and I will be sure to respond to you. I'm also always around the MTGGoldfish Discord server as well if you'd like to chat. In the future, if people would like to see further content about Middle School as a format, I would definitely be interested in talking about it more. So let me know down in the comments what you think!

Until next time, keep casting Breakfast Cereals!

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