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By: SteveJeltz, Rev. David Wright
Aug 07 2017 11:00am
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Metagaming And Deck Evolution    


 So you have a favorite deck, and you know find it's now not winning as much as you used to win. Or maybe you’ve picked up a new deck, but you don't know necessarily if the list you've got is the best tuned for the current decks you think you're going to play. Or maybe you just want to stay ahead of the curve and learn how to customize your deck so that you know how to tailor it for the changes you see from week to week and season to season.  

How do you make good choices? How do you know what to cut and what to add? How do you translate observation, intuition, or even hard data into results?  

Today we're going to explore to the topic of how to update your favorite decks and how to recognize changes to the metagame.

Remembering Your Goal

Vigilant Sentry

The primary object any Magic: The Gathering game is to win by reducing your opponent's life total to zero. This object remains regardless of the different strategies a deck may employ and even across different formats. You can Sneak Attack at me with your Emrakul, The Aeons Torn in Legacy and whomp me for 15 and set me back 6 permanents in the process, or you can Skullcrack my face in Modern in response to my feeble attempt to regain life back with Feed The Clan, or you could be assembling your army of dork soldiers via Oketra's Monument in Standard to rush me before I can deploy my board sweeper. You’re still trying to reduce my life total to zero.

And yes, alternate win conditions do exist, and occasionally we need to monitor them if they become popular enough to win consistently. Poison counters have at times been a terrifying force. Or, once in awhile, mill decks become a real thing in competitive play and not just a pet deck. An example or a competitive mill deck is Lantern Control in Modern, though here in Pauper certain fringe strategies can also win by emptying our library, such as Turbo Fog and UB Teachings using cards like Jace's Erasure and Curse Of The Bloody Tome. But before we get too far lost in a Battle of Wits about alternate ways to win, let's remember that if we add up all formats, the overwhelming majority of games of magic, probably north of 95%, end when one player’s life total drops to zero.

Matchups and Sideboards



Given that we know the object of the game remains the same regardless of the strategies both we and our opponents use to get there, we can evaluate our expected success based on comparing how effectively our strategy will match against our opponent’s strategy.

Some matchups are utterly lopsided. For example, my favorite deck to pilot in Pauper is a removal heavy black red Midrange deck. It has like a 19-1 record against Izzet Blitz. The Kiln Fiend Pilot just can't get a threat to stick. And as they spin their wheels with cantrips, we actually get so ahead on cards that past about turn 6, it's not a game. On the other hand, the deck I like to pilot has an abysmal matchup against Hexproof. With so many main deck targeted removal spells, come game 1, I'm sitting with at least 10 dead cards.

Now most of us are adept at using our sideboards. We know how to recognize when a card sitting in our pile of 15 is just gas against a particular opposing strategy. Pyroblast against blue decks. Maybe we put it there on purpose hoping to face that opposing strategy. Gorilla Shaman against Affinity. Duh. A higher skill set comes in recognizing which cards are either dead or ineffective from our 60 that need to come out. You can't Terminate a Slippery Bogle. That's obvious. But some are more subtle. For example, I had to learn the hard way that the Monarch mechanic is a liability playing against any deck running Spellstutter Sprite. The combination of the creature having flash, flying, and the Delver decks ability to effectively combat instants means they’re going to steal the crown from you whether you're ready or not.

But do you want to know the next level of deck preparation beyond knowing how to sideboard in your answers and recognizing what needs to come out? It's building your whole 75 with your opponents’ decks in mind. Beyond making substitutions between games 1 and 2, we also need to think about how we recognize how to make effective substitutions between match 1 and 2 or tournament 2.

Recognizing Trends in the Metagame

Goblin Game


For many years over the history of Pauper, one of the consistent performers was Mono-Black Control. Built on a backbone of lifegain, two-for-ones and removal, the deck was an attrition monster.

The philosophy of the mono black control deck was something like this:

  1. My opponent needs to play creatures to win.

  2. I will design my deck that I trade favorably with any creature based strategy. I want you to play creatures all your against me.

  3. I will win through card advantage by first rendering my opponent’s tempo based attack obsolete and then cleaning up with whatever I have left, trusting that a long game favors me since I can recoup resources better than my opponent.

This deck was a monster. It had everything you needed to negate an early advantage on the opponent’s side: cheap diverse, efficient removal; hand attack disruption, value creatures in spades and backbreaking life gain via Tendrils of Corruption and Corrupt.

Then the deck got even better. When Theros introduced the devotion mechanic, Mono Black Control was its biggest beneficiary, transforming from an attrition strategy to a haymaker Midrange deck with the inclusion of a single power creature: Gray Merchant of Asphodel. It was Corrupt on a stick, but could be even better, rewarding you for the same gradual board position dominating strategy the deck had already employed. For a period of time, it was Pauper’s most played deck.

Today, Mono Black Control is close to non-existent in the Pauper metagame.

So what happened?

  1. The decks it beat evolved

 Natural Order 

Until about the last three months, the most played creature in Pauper for a calendar year was Young Wolf. Why does this matter? Because this core value of this card is how it frustrates removal, especially cards like Chainer's Edict. Another top 10 creature was sideboard staple Stormbound Geist. And still other decks have evolved to play Eldrazi Skyspawner, Nest Invader, Flayer Husk, Mogg Raider and Doomed Traveler. All of these cards started as answers to black’s attrition based strategy. Today it's not enough just to pack your deck with removal. Nor can you count on lifegain removal spells to keep you in the game. For a strategy like Mono Black Control to succeed again, it needed to evolve.


  1. New strategies rendered its core strategy obsolete.


The most popular non-Aggro decks in Pauper today all run one card: Prophetic Prism. These are decks that are trying to gain card advantage from a different route than MBC’s two-for-ones. Kuldotha Boros and Boros Monarch decks use the artifact as a recursion engine to make all of their creatures cantrips while fixing colorless utility lands and turning on metalcraft. Then there are the UrzaTron decks that take their love of Prophetic Prism one step further. Not only does it fix for five colors. Not only does it let you convert your abundant colorless mana into the most powerful colored spells you could choose, but it acts as a makeshift Treasure Trove when you combine it with an on-board Mnemonic Wall and in-hand Ghostly Flicker allowing you to limitlessly draw cards at instant speed for the reasonable cost of 2U. Toss in the lifegain and revision engine of Pulse of Murasa and you can see that MBC just can't keep up and is suddenly, shockingly destined to lose the long game. 

  1. Its card selection doesn't fit the current metagame.


Cards like Dead Weight, Cuombajj Witches, Geth's Verdict, Tendrils of Corruption, and even  Gray Merchant of Asphodel are all unmistakably powerful cards. But what makes them powerful is that they can be uniquely strong and efficient at rendering other specific strategies moot. They are reactionary cards, technology developed to precisely strike at opposing weaknesses. These aren’t generically powerful cards like Mulldrifter that are proactively beneficial regardless of what strategy your opponent is pursuing. But when technology gets stale, it becomes ineffective. 

How to Evolve with the Metagame


 So you realize after a string of painful losses that your favorite deck just isn't holding up. Your opponent seems more prepared and your answers just don't line up. How do you make adjustments?

  1. Data is your friend.



In spite of wizards recent data embargo limiting the daily decklists published per constructed League to 5 distinct lists per day (down from 10), you as an internet browser have an unbelievable amount of metagame data at your fingertips. My go-to resource is who publishes two extraordinarily helpful charts for Pauper players. One is a visual breakdown of the most popular decks in the format with approximated metagame share based on their reported 5-0 finishes, that can be found here. 


The other is a list of format staples, telling us the most frequently played cards in Pauper, the ones you're most likely to see, and it can be found here.

Using these two you can know what’s out there so that you're managing your own resources wisely. You can know, for example, if black mages are running more Doom Blades or Chainer's Edicts. Or that any deck running red is likely packing four Pyroblasts so that as a blue mage, you need to respect that one open red mana.


But there's another place you can derive data too, and that's from your own results. Wouldn't it be helpful if you knew you were 60-40 against Delver or 80-20 against Izzet Blitz, or which deck just dogged you that you needed to be ready for it? I know for example that my pet deck has a very tough time against Burn. However, with the frequency that I play Burn in the Pauper Leagues, it's not actually worth adding a dedicated sideboard slot against it instead of a deck I play almost every time through the league, like Affinity. The same cannot be said about 2-man queues...


  1. Build your 75 with opponents in mind.

Brilliant Plan


So we've got our data. We know what's out there. How do we build to meet our opponents’ strategies head on? Looking at the data I mentioned above here’s a few observations:


  • The thirty most played cards in Pauper are all blue, red, or artifacts and are all representative of two decks: Izzet Delver and Affinity. We need to come prepared for these two decks at the very least.

  • The most overall played cards represent those that are both good within these strategies and against them. Know and utilize these cards whenever possible.

  • The next block of cards are all green Stompy cards. Still a deck, folks. You need a proactive plan for turns 1-3, or this deck will run you over.

  • Midrange and control decks are more varied these days but have a few common building blocks: value lands, recursion engines, especially using the graveyard as a second library, and Prophetic Prism. If you can't go under them, focus on attacking these resources.


  1. Know when to wave the white flag

Path of Peace


     As a former Mono-Black Control pilot, I knew that my friendly matchups were all against creature decks and my rough matchups were against spell heavy decks, especially blue control builds and red burn.


    Then as their list evolved, I started losing more to creature based decks like Stompy too.


    But I still was winning less than half my matches against spell based decks too.


    So who was I supposed to beat?


   One of the hardest choices to make is when to let go of a favorite deck. It may not be that your strategy is inherently weaker, but with a changing metagame, the landscape has made your strategy weaker as everyone else has changed. If you liked Midrange strategies, maybe your new deck is Dimir Flicker or Boros Monarch or something more fringe that you can master without opponents being ready for it like Tortured Existence.


Or maybe you can tune that Mono Black Control list into something that does exploit today’s metagame. Pestilence... Monarch cards...  Life gain... I like where this is going…. 

Keep having fun out there, 



This was very well done. In by DimeCollectoR at Mon, 08/07/2017 - 23:59
DimeCollectoR's picture

This was very well done. In particular I appreciated your ability to blend general advice with specific metagame trends and deck examples. I also enjoyed your use of MBC as a point of reference. I'm going to absolutely revisit this in the future. Solid work!

Thank you Jason. I appreciate by SteveJeltz at Tue, 08/08/2017 - 06:52
SteveJeltz's picture

Thank you Jason. I appreciate your work as well. We have a solid cadre of Pauper writers here at PureMTGO. I had a request for you since you build a lot of decks and like deck crafting theory. Could you do an article exploring the different kinds of U / x control and what the advantages are to each second color?

That's a good idea. Probably by DimeCollectoR at Tue, 08/08/2017 - 17:59
DimeCollectoR's picture

That's a good idea. Probably won't be my very next article topic, but that's definitely something I can do. I appreciate the request!

I was following your UW by SteveJeltz at Wed, 08/09/2017 - 10:51
SteveJeltz's picture

I was following your UW Control build, and it seems like the main advantage of white as your second color is adding recursion via cards like Kor Skyfisher. Azorius Kitty was a UW Control deck of sorts, but you're packing a lot more white removal into yours. I personally prefer point-and-click red removal, especially when it means I get to have Pyroblast in my sideboard, but red doesn't add much card advantage. The main advantages of Black seem to be the UB multicolor cards like Forbidden Alchemy, Mystical Teachings, and Probe as well as the ETB synergies like we see in Dimir Flicker.