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By: SpikeBoyM, Alex Ullman
Dec 15 2014 1:00pm
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Hello again. It’s been a while.

It’s easy for me to make excuses about why I haven’t used long form prose to express my thoughts on Pauper in the recent months. I could blame it on my upcoming wedding or perhaps my new responsibilities with another website. Chalk it up to lack of time or anything else that is perfectly reasonable.

While all this is true, it isn’t the cause. I wanted to have something to say about Pauper, about the impact of Treasure Cruise and the current state of the format, but the words just didn’t fall out. I got involved in debating the merits of Treasure Cruise on Twitter and went from being okay with it being legal to leading the crusade to ban the Khans of Tarkir common to being completely unsure on whether I should be simply alright casting the card.

I was so conflicted in part because I do not like what the card has done to the format. It is not that Treasure Cruise breaks Pauper in half (although it comes closer to doing that than any other recent printing) but rather the decks the card suppresses. The presence of Treasure Cruise enables any traditional attrition strategy impotent which in turn allows more combo-oriented decks to thrive, and it is these decks that pose the most danger to the health of Pauper. 

1.  Treasure Cruise 

Treasure Cruise is an undeniably powerful card. It announced itself rather loudly in Vintage through the Vintage Super League and in Legacy through the Star City Games Opens and Grand Prix New Jersey. Patrick Chapin went undefeated in matches against the very best in the world with a blue-red deck powered largely on the backs of the zombie oars people:  


This is a near Platonic-Ideal Treasure Cruise deck and goes a long way to helping to illuminate why the card should be fine in Pauper.

First, the arguments against its inclusion.

       Treasure Cruise is clearly the best draw spell in the format. While Ponder and Preordain do a better job on card selection and Sign in Blood can be cast earlier, nothing matches Cruise on raw power. The closest card may just be Foresee which in reality costs three whole mana more and still draws one card fewer.

       Blue is the best color in the format and has one of the easiest times getting cards into the graveyard thanks to cheap cantrips.

       The lack of permanent based card advantage engines (think Planeswalkers) make fighting Treasure Cruise a challenge for non-Treasure Cruise decks.

These are valid complaints and deal largely with the nature of Pauper. Being Eternal the format is going to skew blue, as Vintage and Legacy showcase, due to the weight of history. I feel the most salient point is the one about other potential card advantage engines. Pauper has no on-board way to generate extra cards on a turn by turn basis. Compare this to Legacy staple Liliana of the Veil or literally any Planeswalker. The lack of access to such effects makes it far harder for Pauper to fight Treasure Cruise; Tortured Existence simply is not enough.

Drawing three cards, without a doubt, is a Good Thing. However what makes Treasure Cruise a true force in other formats is how the spell interacts with other elements available in those card pools. Looking above to Chapins list we see Monastery Swiftspear and Young Pyromancer as cards that generate an immediate impact once a Treasure Cruise is cast, regardless of when they were summoned. This is perhaps the biggest difference between Pauper and other Eternal formats as it comes to Treasure Cruise.

First there is no Young Pyromancer analog. Young Pyromancer turns a Treasure Cruise into four potential power, enabled in no small part by cheap spells. While Pauper has access to Ponder, Preordain, Lightning Bolt, and so many others, it has no way to turn these spells into additional board presence. While not the only reason for Cruise’s success in older formats, the ability to turn the spell and its reapings into even more spells is a contributing factor to its potential.

Monastery Swiftspear does have cards similar in function. Kiln Fiend and Nivix Cyclops are the most common but Wee Dragonauts, Jeskai Student, Jeskai Windscout, Bloodfire Expert, and Gravelgill Duo all can be pumped by a Treasure Cruise and subsequent castings. The big difference here is that the earliest these creatures can enhance their damage output is turn three. Swiftspear, on the other hand, can start churning out excess points of damage as early as turn two. Imagine this sequence from Chapin’s deck: 

Turn 1: Play a Scalding Tarn and retrieve a Steam Vents untapped. At the end of your opponent’s turn cast Thought Scour, targeting yourself. You now have four cards in the graveyard.

Turn 2: Play an Arid Mesa and go get another Steam Vents untapped (5 cards in the graveyard). Cast Monastery Swiftspear. Cast Gitaxian Probe for two life (1 Prowess trigger, 6 cards in graveyard), cast Gitaxian Probe for two life (2 Prowess triggers, 7 cards in the graveyard), cast Treasure Cruise (3 Prowess triggers, 1 card in the graveyard). Attack for 4. 

Yes the above is an ideal scenario but still showcases how explosive Monastery Swiftspear can be in a deck with adequate support. Compare this to Kiln Fiend which has a higher damage ceiling on turn three but is far more constrained by the presence of Evolving Wilds over Scalding Tarn and Swiftwater Cliffs over Steam Vents.

The next point is one that cannot be ignored: the quality of cards drawn in Pauper off of a Treasure Cruise will, on average, being lower than those in Modern, Legacy, and Vintage. This should go without saying but it has a bearing on how games with Cruise play out. While Pauper has cards like Arc Lightning and Firebolt it is rather difficult to cast them for full value the same turn as a Treasure Cruise in a proposed UR Tempo deck unlike Forked Bolt above. To wit: 

 

Izzet Blitz
surucucu 4-0 in a Pauper Daily Event 12/8/14
Creatures
4 Delver of Secrets
4 Kiln Fiend
4 Nivix Cyclops
12 cards

Other Spells
4 Apostle's Blessing
1 Artful Dodge
3 Assault Strobe
2 Dispel
4 Gitaxian Probe
4 Lightning Bolt
4 Ponder
4 Preordain
3 Shadow Rift
2 Treasure Cruise
31 cards
Lands
9 Island
5 Mountain
3 Terramorphic Expanse
17 cards

Nivix Cyclops

These two archetypes seek to capitalize on Treasure Cruise in similar ways to Patrick Chapin’s deck. The first plays up the tempo elements but already we can see a different. First off there is no Young Pyromancer like card that turns spells into free pressure. Second the spells being drawn are all one-for-ones. In Chapin’s deck Forked Bolt, Remand, Electrolyze, and occasionally Izzet Charm are all capable of generating tempo and card economy. The first deck has no such cards. The Izzet Blitz list plays up the Monastery Swiftspear attribute of the deck but is so focused on going for a one-shot kill that all the cards act as Vapor Snag- creating damage without advantage. The truth is a Chapin-esque deck cannot exist at the same clip in Pauper because the cost of the cards that one wants to draw off of a Treasure Cruise are simply too high. When you cast a Treasure Cruise you want to be drawing cards that do more than just trade off. 

2. Treasure Cruise’s impact 

Just because decks in Pauper cannot utilize Treasure Cruise in an optimal fashion does not mean the card is bad. Rather the presence of a cheap “draw three” has changed the landscape of the format. The ability to quickly recover and refuel after an attrition war has shoved one of Pauper’s most consistent decks off of the summit. 

 

Mono-Black Control
HDTV 4-0 in a Pauper Daily Event on 12/7/14
Creatures
4 Chittering Rats
4 Crypt Rats
4 Cuombajj Witches
4 Gray Merchant of Asphodel
4 Liliana's Specter
20 cards

Other Spells
4 Chainer's Edict
2 Corrupt
2 Disfigure
4 Sign in Blood
3 Unearth
2 Victim of Night
17 cards
Lands
4 Bojuka Bog
1 Quicksand
18 Swamp
23 cards

Gray Merchant of Asphodel

Mono-Black Control is a disruption based attrition deck.  The goal is to leverage Chittering Rats into a position where game ending spells like Gray Merchant of Asphodel and Corrupt can seal the deal. To this end MBC will run effective removal spells like Chainer’s Edict and Crypt Rats but the deck still largely deals in fair trades. The dynamic that has developed is one where MBC can trade even early and start to pull ahead until Treasure Cruise is cast and then the blue deck has undone so many carefully planned trades. HDTV tries to remedy this by running the full four Bojuka Bog - a piece of technology that should not be ignored.

The end result of this interplay is that MBC, as currently constructed, is not set up to fight against blue decks running Cruise. MBC can adapt (including more two-for-ones; playing for an even longer game with cards like Grim Harvest; maindeck Bojuka Bog) and will but the premier disruption deck has been dethroned.

Thus a door has been opened for decks that rely on arranging cards into specific configurations and using those to win the game. I’m talking about combo decks.

 

For those unfamiliar this is how Esper Combo works:

1.     Have at least one, but preferably two copies of Azorius Chancery and/or Dimir Aqueduct in play

2.     Have at least one, but preferably two copies of Nightscape Familiar and/or Sunscape Familiar in play

3.     Have access to Cloud of Faeries, Ghostly Flicker, Sage’s Row Denizen, and Mnemonic Wall

4.     Cast Cloud of Faeries for U, tapping both karoos. Untap both lands (net 5 mana) and then loop Ghostly Flicker with Mnemonic Wall, targeting the Wall and the Cloud. This will create an arbitrarily large loop. Eventually cast Sage’s Row Denizen which, thanks to the loop, will remove every card from the opponent’s library.

There are other ways to win- the mana generated can be fed into Capsize over and over to demolish a board state or the deck can simply remove enough blockers for Mulldrifter beatdown to win. Esper Combo sees a ton of cards and is incredibly redundant (it can win with Snap instead of Flicker, for example) and has no horrendous matchups. The deck is click intensive, meaning that it is not an ideal choice for those who are not practiced but the deck is incredibly strong.

Mono-Black Control was one of the tougher matchups for Esper Combo (although we’re talking small edges here). MBC had access to cards like Duress to remove key pieces and Okiba-Gang Shinobi to brute force away resources. Combined with fantastic removal which could be used to pick off key combo elements and the automatic disruption of Chittering Rats, as well as the occasional surprise Choking Sands or Bojuka Bog and it becomes easy to see how MBC could harray Esper Combo. Now, however, with MBC on the decline and not poised to return immediately Esper Combo can ascend to the top of the metagame. And that is exactly what has happened in the past two weeks.

An unintended consequence of Treasure Cruise is that it exposes Pauper’s glaring weakness to combo decks. While many of the game’s best combo pieces are common, from one mana cantrips to rituals, the answers to combo decks almost exclusively reside at uncommon and rare. There are good reasons for this, mostly related to limited play and accessibility for non-hardcore Magic players. The result is that many of the best combo cards have been removed from Pauper because the format could not support the weight of cards like Grapeshot, Empty the Warrens, Temporal Fissure, and Frantic Search.  One has to wonder if a card from Esper Combo will find its way on to this list if the deck’s dominance is here for the duration.

The format can adapt, but Pauper moves slowly. Sorcery speed removal like Chainer’s Edict and Flame Slash have become the norm due to their ability to handle many of the format’s key threats no-questions-asked. These powerful spells are pretty bad in a world where instant speed removal is necessary and so a move back towards Lightning Bolt and Victim of Night makes sense. Skred, Ghastly Demise, and Vendetta are also attractive, and cost effective, options. Another way to go is to attempt a Destroy All Monsters approach and include multiple high-quality removal spells to supplement Chainer’s Edict in order to make sure that nothing on the opposing side sticks. This angle of attack may work against the majority of decks but without the pressure provided by attacking it may falter in the wake of Esper Combo which can just summon everything in one turn for victory. 

3. Decks for the new era 

Considering this new metagame where Esper Combo and Affinity have asserted themselves at the top while Mono-Black Control and Delver duel for second, there are a number of approaches to take. It is important to note that even though only one of these decks runs Treasure Cruise that the card still shapes many of the decks taking slots five and higher in deck popularity; it can be expected that about 50% of the top ten performing lists can have access to Treasure Cruise, meaning it must factor into our plans.

The first way I have been approaching this metagame is with a deck that is much closer to Patrick Chapin’s Modern deck than anything else. Azorius Delver seeks to apply pressure early while using cheap spells to advance the game plan. 

Azorius Delver
Alex Ullman proposed Pauper deck
Creatures
4 Delver of Secrets
4 Jeskai Student
1 Hopeful Eidolon
9 cards

Other Spells
4 Ponder
4 Preordain
2 Sunlance
4 Battle Screech
1 Cenn’s Enlistment
2 Treasure Cruise
3 Gods Willing
3 Vapor Snag
4 Mana Leak
1 Echoing Truth
1 Think Twice
28 cards
Lands
9 Island
7 Plains
4 Tranquil Cove
2 Terramorphic Expanse
22 cards

Jeskai Student

Lacking Monastery Swiftspear this deck leans on Jeskai Student for the same sort of damage bursts, albeit at a slower rate. Battle Screech is not Young Pyromancer but its ability to flood the board with threats while triggering Prowess makes it a fine approximation. More than that Battle Screech presents four potential threats in one card meaning that a fully realized Screech comes out ahead of a Treasure Cruise. The inclusion of a single Hopeful Eidolon is a concession to needing additional white creatures to flash back Battle Screech but it also does work in turning on Prowess and making a flipped Delver of Secrets into a pseudo-angel.

Gods Willing is quite a spell here. While not the card advantage package of a Forked Bolt it can still be cast easily after a Treasure Cruise and nets a Scry, which is more than nothing. Being able to counter targeted removal is key in this deck as the mass of tokens can render Chainer’s Edict and its ilk less than perfect. Vapor Snag also functions as a way to clear a path and deal at least three damage while also being easy to cast off of Treasure Cruise.

As for the refuel station this deck is set up to make use of Treasure Cruise in the midgame. Speeding through the deck early with Ponder and Preordain can keep a graveyard stocked and Cenn’s Enlistment can provide a steady supply of coal for the impending tombfire. Once a Cruise resolves the game should end in a flurry of Gods Willings and Jeskai Student attacks.

Azorius Delver is one way to build a tempo deck for the current Pauper. Another option would be to eschew blue entirely for red and utilized Jeskai Student and Kiln Fiend in a different Battle Screech shell. Stitched together with Faithless Looting such a deck could also run Goblin Bushwhacker for a potential overrun kill.

Tempo presents an opportunity to fight the metagame on in a relatively fair manner. The goal is to get ahead on time and never relent. What happens if we take this idea to an extreme and seek to jump the curve before an opponent can establish a presence?

 

 

 


Simic Delve wants to hit someone in the face with a 4/4 and do it as early as turn three. Every card in the graveyard is more potential damage in the form of Hooting Mandrills or Werebear. While these may seem like a non-starter it works surprisingly well as long as one carefully manages Threshold - Mandrills is still quite threatening when cast for three or four mana. Keeping the graveyard full is not difficult between Satyr Wayfinder, Careful Study, Commune with the Gods and the Golgari duo of Golgari Brownscale and Moldervine Cloak.

On Golgari Brownscale: this lizard is your resilience to removal. While it may be ploddingly slow the ability to consistently “draw” a 2/3 send it into combat makes it an attractive option for the beatdown. Moldervine Cloak also sparkles in this shell as it turns any measly 1/1 into a force of reckoning. The opportunity of having three extra haste damage, almost on demand, is a huge get for a deck seeking to punch through damage.

Treasure Cruise here occupies a very different space than it does above. Here it operates as a source of card advantage as opposed to a way to force through extra damage. Cruise is part of the endgame itself instead of drawing you towards the closer. The ability to turn Treasure Cruise into actual damage through Wild Mongrel increases its utility, as if that were possible.

Simic Delve is basically all offense as evidenced by the suite of bounce. Vapor Snag and Rushing River exist to push through damage. Unlike Azorius Delver, Simic Delve has troubles the more turns that get added to the counter. The lack of a true stalemate breaker Battle Screech leads the deck to lean on a combination of Moldervine Cloak and a threat. While easy to assemble it is entirely possible to run out of cards or time before the resilient plan succeeds.

Finally, what happens if we try to ignore Treasure Cruise? 

 

Rakdos Revelation wants to obsolete Treasure Cruise. The idea here is that every spell is actually multiple cards. Bitter Revelation therefore turns into the opportunity to “draw” four cards (although it tends to net three). Rakdos Revelation achieves this by forcing a late game thanks to an abundance of removal. It is entirely likely that some number of Flame Slash and Chainer’s Edict should be replaced with Terminate or Ghastly Demise to combat Esper Combo as per previous conclusions.

The name of the game is survival. Blocking and trading is not a daunting prospect with the ability to get cards back from the dead with Morgue Theft and Grim Harvest. Once the game has gone long it is a simple matter of winning with one of many different breakers: Cavern Lampad turns any creature into an evasive threat; Twisted Abomination becomes a copy of The Abyss; Scuzzback Marauders does not care about blockers. Heck, even Vithan Stinger can deal the final points thanks to the backup of Firebolt and Lightning Bolt.

Grim Harvest decks, ones seeking the hold the ground early until the instant can come online in the mid-to-late game, are ideal for grinding against Treasure Cruise. While the blue spell represents a one-time surge Grim Harvest represents far more than three cards given a game going long. The key to getting to this point is the removal. Here we see the value of Firebolt and Chainer’s Edict in that these individual spells can answer 66% of a resolved Treasure Cruise. While not nearly the level of a Planeswalker these kinds of spells can help to mitigate the negative card economy that comes from playing against Cruise. Even if an adversary spends a card to take out your graveyard these spells will have often done their job, making the trade come out in the flashback player’s favor.

Abundant removal and access to persistent discard positions Rakdos Revelation well against Esper Combo. Keeping their pieces off the board until an Okiba-Gang Shinobi can decimate a hand is much easier when each removal spell handles two creatures or operates at instant speed. The worry here, of course, is if the game goes excessively long that Esper can just win anyway. Of course, this is the threat of any great combo deck. 

4. Conclusion 

Treasure Cruise, regardless of its presence in the top decks, has signaled a change in the Pauper metagame. Attrition decks have to adjust vering further towards true two-for-ones as opposed to short bursts stunting of development. The ability for any deck playing blue to simply tap one land and refill has rendered old models of exchange obsolete. The opening for combo is wide and can present something rather insidious for the health of the format. Treasure Cruise is clearly a great card even if its upper limit in Pauper is less than that of Modern. One mana for three cards is good, no matter how it is sliced. Yet Pauper is the eternal format where Cruise is likely safest. It is only the presence of Cruise and how it affects other decks, creating openings for less interactive strategies, that presents true danger.

This returns us to the age old question: What is Pauper? While conceived of as a way to be competitive with commons the format has absolutely developed into something more, yet this proviso marks the only guidance. The next stage of Pauper evolution hinges on Wizards taking a look at the format- what is succeeding and what is failing- and imposing some sort of will to usher Pauper into a new vibrancy. As it exists, the lights may go out. 

Keep slingin’ commons-

-Alex