SteveJeltz's picture
By: SteveJeltz, Rev. David Wright
Oct 09 2017 12:00pm
Login or register to post comments


Gatekeeper Cards


Gate Hound


So I was reading some great Pauper content the last couple weeks by Alex Ullman, a Pauper ambassador who has written for the format since it's inception, and he was talking about how to best read the metagame. And the key focus he highlighted was that the best way to determine what deck you should play (and what decks are succeeding), is to observe what are the most commonly played removal spells.    

What removal is being played is a great way to determine what is currently metagame effective. After all, even though as a Magic community we are susceptible to group-think, in general the cards that get the most play in winning decks are actually the most effective cards! So you can see if a set of spells is effective solely based on its frequency of play if its leading decks to win!

My co-writer Jason Moore likes to write about control decks for our site, and recently I challenged him to look at what using different color combinations do to change the tools and complexion of a control deck. His analysis was excellent because he looked at how each color’s strengths and weaknesses are a reflection of its toolbox, especially in regards to the most commonly played spells.

My goal today is to look at those removal spells. What are the format defining cards? Ironically they're usually not the threats themselves but the answer cards. 

These cards act as gatekeepers. They both derive the effectiveness of other strategies, and their frequency often both reflects and determines the viability of other decks in the format.


So we're going to look at the most commonly played removal spells in Pauper, and look at how these gatekeeper cards both shape and reflect our beloved format.



# 1 Lightning Bolt

 Lightning Bolt


Why it's good: Lightning Bolt is the gold standard. The quintessential multi-format all-star, Lightning Bolt shines when it trades evenly or better with any commonly played creature. It doesn't get any cheaper than 1 mana to play any spell, with one narrow, rare exception we’ll see later. As the single most commonly played spell in the format, we can be assured that Lightning Bolt will have Efficient utility. And it does! It trades with 17 or the 20 most commonly played creatures missing only the back half of the two undying creatures, Young Wolf and Stormbound Geist and the hexproof Silhana Ledgewalker.


What it teaches us: When point and click red removal is at its best, the format is currently revolving around small, singular fair threats, especially cards like Delver of Secrets and Nettle Sentinel. Most of the time, cards like this trade for any removal spell, so the key is efficiency. When the format moves towards either go wide strategies like GW tokens or go tall strategies like Kiln Fiend, Gurmag Angler or Slippery Bogles, then Lightning Bolt loses its edge.


Related cards: Galvanic Blast is the Lightning Bolt upgrade one is rewarded with for running the artifact lands. Flame Slash trades the instant speed and hits players utility for being able to hit a Palace Sentinels or a Myr Enforcer. Magma Spray is a specialized bolt to take out death trigger creatures like Young Wolf, Stormbound Geist and Loyal Cathar. And Chain Lightning is usually strictly worse Lightning Bolt, but sometimes a deck wants more than four of the effect, especially if they are interested in hitting players.



# 2 Pyroblast


Why it's Good: The number one counterspell in Pauper isn't blue! It's a blue hate card! In spite of only hitting one color, I firmly believe Pyroblast to be the most versatile Sideboard staple in Pauper. Why? Because blue is utterly dominant. In addition to the various Delver decks, nearly every control build and most Midrange decks in Pauper all run blue cards. And against blue decks, Pyroblast is a one mana Vindicate plus a one mana Counterspell rolled into one card.

What it teaches us: The ubiquity of Pyroblast immediately reveals the dominance of blue in Pauper since it's the most powerful way to fight blue decks. The irony of this staple card’s power is the adoption of blue Delver decks to run red so that can combat other blue decks!


Related Cards: As a counter, Pyroblast is the red Counterspell bearing on a slight vulnerability to Spellstutter Sprite due to its low CMC. Often played alongside other red staples like Lightning Bolt to provide more 1 mana answers against your most frequent opponents.



# 3 Hydroblast



Why it's good: when the best way to fight blue spells is with red spells, then the best defense a blue mage can muster is Hydroblast. While Red cards in Pauper aren't quite as ubiquitous as blue, it's still the second most played color, making Hydroblast a counter, a protection spell, and occasionally a kill spell all wrapped into one mana.


What it teaches us: That it teaches us: Blue mages know their biggest predator is Red, especially packing the power of the first two cards on our list Lightning Bolt and Pyroblast. Ironically, many of the Blue / Red color wars are actually mirror matches since Izzet Delver is the most popular deck in all of Pauper.

Similar Cards: Dispel, Apostle's Blessing, Chandra's Defeat.



# 4 Counterspell



Why it's good. The quintessential counter spell? It's Counterspell. Though I often compare the power level of Pauper not to Modern but to Legacy, we don't get Mana Drain in Pauper, or Force of Will or Flusterstorm. And Daze, while played, loses value because of the fair mana requirements of Pauper. So we settle instead for the ultimate fair counter: Counterspell. Counterspell doesn't trade up well for mana against mana threats. And it is quite limiting that it required you to sit back on mana for the opportunity to foil your opponent’s play. But the obvious play pattern of leaving UU up with a threat in play and passing the turn is enough of a signal to the opponent that unless they want to walk into a counter, its better to play around it, that sometimes you don't even need to fire it off!


What it teaches us: the success of Counterspell mostly teaches us that blue based tempo is in fact a reliable strategy. In spite of the presence of little green men and Pyroblast, games are won by sticking a threat and trading the opportunity cost of an opponent’s turn of action for leaving up UU.


Related Cards: Daze is the free counter of the format but it sets you back in tempo. Mono Blue Delver can run it, but the currently more popular UR Delver has trouble being set back on its mana since it takes more turns to get the right lands up. Deprive is Counterspells 5-8 with a drawback that occasionally can be an upside. Spellstutter Sprite is the card that makes Counterspell even more effective since the risk of running your play into a free counter on a stick that will attack you back the next turn is enough to keep some decks stuck in their tracks.



# 5 Electrickery


Why it's Good: When Delver / Faerie decks are the most popular decks in the format, then a Hornet Sting that converts into an instant speed sweeper gains a lot of mileage. Add on it's utility against other 1-toughness decks like Bogles, Elves, and various token strategies, and you're looking at a versatile staple.


What it teaches us: Most creatures in Pauper are Smaller than you'd think. If a one-damage effect is the most commonly seen sweeper in Pauper than anything bigger will likely trade 1-for-1 with removal. The versatility of Electrickery, that it can be either spot removal or a token sweeper shows why it shines even when it can't hit players or larger bodies.


Similar Cards: Nausea / Shrivel, Wail of the Nim, Evincar's Justice, Holy Light.


# 6 Chainer's Edict

 Chainer's Edict


Why It's Good: Though edict effects, so named because of the original Diabolic Edict, have always existed in Pauper, ever since its downshift in Vintage Masters, Chainer's Edict had provided tremendous advantage as a reasonably priced early play with a built-in two-for-one for the late game.


What it teaches us: Bodies are bodies. If you kill all the creatures, then it doesn't matter as much what your edict hits. Better yet, a Chainer's Edict doesn't discriminate against large bodies like a Gurmag Angler or even hexproof bodies like Gladecover Scout. Best against “Go Tall” decks like Bogles, Izzet Blitz, and Dimir Delver, and it's often paired with other removal.


Similar Cards: Diabolic Edict, Geth's Verdict, Devour Flesh, Innocent Blood, Celestial Flare



# 7 Gut Shot

 Gut Shot

Why It's Good: Secretly this is a green spell since that's the color that plays it out of the sideboard. An upgrade to Hornet Sting, it's 0 cost targeted removal for cards like Spellstutter Sprite and Standard Bearer

What it teaches us: That Phyrexian mana bleeds the color pie often shoring up the inherent weakness of an individual color.


Similar Cards: Hornet Sting, Mutagenic Growth.



# 8 Gleeful Sabotage

 Gleeful Sabotage

Why It's Good: Gleeful Sabotage provides a cheap two-for-one that aggressive green decks can use either against Affinity, which runs larger creatures or against Tron builds that rely heavily on artifacts like Prophetic Prism for colored mana. As a bonus, it can also kill the notorious artifact lands such as Great Furnace.

What it teaches us: Affinity is often referred to as a deck that can only exist in Pauper because of the presence of strong hate cards. Even though Gorilla Shaman has more raw power, Gleeful Sabotage brings versatility. That it can act as a double Stone Rain, a double Doom Blade, or a mix of both packs a lot of power into two mana, provided you can pony up the bodies to conspire.


Similar Cards: Ancient Grudge is the best substitute for creature light decks, Gorilla Shaman for any deck running red, Dust to Dust is white's best double artifact kill spell.


# 9 Skred


Why It's Good: Skred is a specialized burn spell that stretched red's inherent weakness of relying on points of damage to kill a creature. Sometimes Lightning Bolt isn't big enough to kill the format's biggest threats: Gurmag Angler, Myr Enforcer, and Ulamog's Crusher. Even though Skred manipulates your deck requirements to force you to play basic snow lands, tossing a couple of Snow-Covered Islands and Snow-Covered Mountains in a deck can be a plus alongside cards like Gush and Ash Barrens.


What it teaches us: That red's damage based removal is still currently preferable to black, even though black's removal can be unconditional. Also that red is an inherently more powerful color in Pauper right now, both because it shores us blue's weaknesses and also because it unlocks access to the best sideboard cards in the format.


Similar Cards: Flame Slash is the closest competitor, but other specialized red burn spells include Firebolt, Pillar of Flame and Magma Spray.


# 10 Doom Blade

 Doom Blade

Why It's Good: Doom Blade barely squeaks in on this list at number ten. It's actually not that well positioned right now, but it can be a role player in a control deck. Though it does its job of almost unconditional removal, its lack of efficiency hurts its place on the list, especially because the most important creatures to kill with more than three toughness, notably Gurmag Angler and Striped Riverwinder don't die to Doom Blade! But it does take care of other "go tall" creatures like Atog and Kiln Fiend quite nicely.

What it teaches us: Doom Blade is the baseline of removal spells in Pauper. Since it actively trades down on mana with many of the format's threats, it needs to be paired both with cheaper, more conditional removal spells and card draw so that the tempo loss of playing Doom Blade in a aggro format can lead to advantage in the long game. Because its an instant, and because it only requires one colored mana, Doom Blade is currently the kill spell of choice for control decks that utilize other instants such as Ghostly Flicker since it allows the caster to leave up mana for both.


Similar Cards: Journey to Nowhere is the white Doom Blade. Murder is an expensive Doom Blade that can hit black creatures. And if you're really desperate, Unmake can even get around death triggers.




Bonus Feature


Top 5 Ixalan cards for Pauper:


  1. Skymarch Bloodletter

    A fairly weak flier on its on, but because of the ETB-drain life trigger, its actually a one mana cheaper win condition to replace Bloodhunter Bat in decks looking to set up an infinite loop of ETB-triggers.
  2. Pounce

    As an instant, Pounce may challenge the place of Epic Confrontation as the main deck removal spell of choice in Stompy decks. 
  3. Legion Conquistador

    Is 3-mana vanilla 2/2 Squadron Hawk anywhere on the same power level as real Squadron Hawk.
  4. Bishop's Soldier / Queen's Commission

    I like lifelink creatures in White Weenie decks a lot. I'm not sure these two are on the same power level as Seeker of the Way.
  5. Prosperous Pirates

    This is another powerful ETB trigger that could generate a lot of mana in Ghostly Flicker / Mnemonic Wall decks.

What Ixalan cards have caught your eye?