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By: SpikeBoyM, Alex Ullman
Sep 08 2014 12:00pm
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 In April 2015, provided nothing changes, I will be starting my tenth year of Pauper play. Considering that I started in what was the third 16 week season of the Pauper Deck Challenge, which means sometime around now Pauper began. Over this span I have formed quite a few opinions on the most common format. While I’ve (likely) written more words on the subject than anyone else, I have never discussed why I approach the format the way I do and the exact nature of that angle.


I am going to attempt to remedy that today. This is going to be a challenge for me if only because I’m not the best at communicating every nuance of my thought, but here we go.

Exploring the Metagame

If you ever find yourself on a visit to my page on Facebook you are more than likely to find a post (or two or several) tracking the recent Pauper metagame. For every event posted, for over a year now, I’ve been tracking archetypes and records. Since October 2013 I’ve been keeping this data in a spreadsheet and doing all sorts of fun things to see exactly what decks are doing well. Even though I am an English major by trade it is this math that has helped me to better see the format.

This endeavor started as a way to try and understand the impact of Cloudpost and Temporal Fissure. I felt that these cards, in the wake of the Storm and Infect bans, were hurting the format. I started tallying all available Daily Events and posting the results. After those cards were banned I never really stopped. I started to see trends in non-Delver decks (Delver remained at or near the top for the entire duration of my tracking) and would eventually see
metagame cycles.

Delver was a constant and after the advent of Gray Merchant of Asphodel, so was Mono-Black Control. White Weenie and Stompy were constantly present while Esper based Combo was routinely the best performing deck given a small sample size. Affinity would dominate then disappear and Tron would experience similar feast and famine cycles without ever reach the machine’s apex. Izzet Blitz performs at a rather consistent rate for a deck so loaded with variance.

With this information at my fingertips I can predict the directions the metagame will take and find the right cards to run in flexible slots. In Pauper this can be a huge advantage. Knowing that White Weenie is leaning towards running Kor Sanctifiers main makes removal like Journey to Nowhere worse.

What this really comes down to is respecting Pauper as a format. Some treat Pauper as a place where any deck is viable while others don’t care and just run a stack of commons. In the past there were those who saw the format as a personal gold farm. It is none of these. Rather Pauper is an eternal format, like Modern and Legacy. It has an entrenched set of decks and occasionally certain strategies make inroads. The metagame experiences cycles and is not static. The dynamic nature of the format means that niche decks could experience wild success in one week while being completely absent the next.

The data I collect is limited- it only reflects reported results of decks that accumulate at least one win. However this is the best data available and does reflect the successful archetypes and strategies. Months of data is far better than some anecdotes.

And honestly, I love watching the trends. Since the return of the Daily Events a few weeks ago there have been some major changes. Most notable Delver of Secrets based aggro-tempo decks have been usurped from their throne. While MBC has taken Delver’s place, that deck is not the unassailable monolith as was Delver for those months. The hope is that this metagame remains dynamic, which in turn makes this tracking of greater import. Watching the information is one way I approach Pauper.

Pillars of Pauper

In my opinion there are certain cards available in Pauper that are just plain old better than other options. These cards are so strong that they warrant being the centerpiece of plans of attack. While this model is not perfect it does help me to see how different decks operate  and ways to exploit not only these cards, but their weaknesses as well. Let’s take a trip around the color pie.

White

While it may seem odd, white is currently built around Kor Skyfisher. The Zendikar all-star fills many roles in Pauper. First it has the right size to block the various 2/2s running around while also being an evasive beater. More important it allows decks to reuse enter-the-battlefield abilities. In Pauper this is huge since all the best creatures tend to come with something extra tacked on. Odd as it may seem the best Kor Skyfisher deck is White Weenie which features only Loyal Cathar as a card that sings a synergy song with the Skyfisher. This, in some way, speaks to the power of Kor Skyfisher as a singular card. Kor Skyfisher decks also try to gain utility from their cards at every point of the game, making early turns resemble those coming later in the match.

Kor Skyfisher decks tend to be disrupted by removal. Their value comes from reusing certain effects and if the permanents to which those effects are attached no longer exist, well, then Skyfisher just becomes a creature with flying.

It will be interesting to see if Invasive Species can assume a similar anchoring decks. While similar, the Magic 2015 common is larger, these cards are only worth building around if their support are made appreciably stronger by their inclusion. Kor Skyfisher is the largest possible for its cost while Invasive Species is simply on par.

Blue

There are many contenders for the best blue card. Delver of Secrets is an illusion - it only succeeds because elements exist to keep later threats down. Spellstutter Sprite is a better choice but requires too many other cards to function optimally (similar to Kor Skyfisher). Spire Golem is the next logical choice yet its power stems from its ability to work well with the actual pillar here: Counterspell. Blue decks are built around being reactive and Counterspell is the best tool for this as it answers everything. Period.

Counterspell warps decks around it by forcing a reliance on blue mana. It also requires its host to play a game where it can always leave UU up. This helps to make cards like Delver, Spellstutter Sprite, and Spire Golem powerful inclusions - they allow Counterspell to operate optimally. The Izzet Control deck from last year also operated on the same metric, only it also liked leaving up red mana.

Taking advantage of this reliance on reaction is the best way to combat Counterpsell decks. Establishing an early threat or overloading a wall of permission can leave a deck built around the instant without a great answer. Often resolving a single major threat can be enough to undo all the work of a blue mage. The other way is to pack your own counters, which when combined with the “strong” threat axiom helps us to understand why Delver was so popular before- it could fight Delver.

Black

People are going to expect me to say Corrupt or Gray Merchant of Asphodel. They’re wrong. The best card to build around in black is Chittering Rats. Chittering Rats, once it hits the table, sets an opponent behind. The fact that it fuels devotion and helps to end the game through Gray Merchant of Asphodel is just gravy. Unearth, the card, is nearly omnipresent in black decks because it means more Chittering Rats can enter the battlefield in a given game. Chittering Rats also plays well with so many other cards in the format by virtue of being a creature (see Kor Skyfisher or Okiba-Gang Shinobi) that it warrants a position as a corner stone.

Taking out Chittering Rats means drawing enough cards to not care about the agonizing loss of one in hand. Gaining card advantage, in anyway, can mitigate a chain of Chittering Rats. Once they are on the battlefield they don’t really do much unless they die. This makes white removal or other effects that exile them especially strong in context. 

Red

It’s Lightning Bolt. Lightning Bolt is so strong that even decks that don’t run it can be Lightning Bolt decks (I’m looking at you Affinity). Lightning Bolt does a ton of work by either ending games or it clearing out blockers. The decks that are headlined by Lightning Bolt tend to either
beatdown like Goblins and Izzet Blitz or seek to go over the top like Burn.

Lightning Bolt decks are not so easily countered. Those that feature creatures require cheap removal and other ways to keep life totals high. Fighting actual Burn decks necessitates the inclusion of dedicated lifegain, which, while useful in the former situation is rarely enough to win the game.

There is a certain beauty to the simplest card in this list has the simplest entry.

Green

Green is similar to white in that its pillar is on the outside looking in currently. Rancor fuels beatdown decks but requires some specific circumstances. Fallen from a pedestal after the neutering of Infect, green creature decks are limited to Stompy and Hexproof. This is odd as Stompy tends to be one of the better performing aggressive decks. The problem may reside in the abundance of Mono-Black Control at the moment as that deck is incredibly well positioned at beating up on unprepared Stompy pilots.

You see Rancor decks need their creatures to stay in play and removal, especially that which can hit multiple creatures, helps to keep the battlefield empty. Firebolt and Chainer’s Edict are fine answers but a card like Disfigure can be a backbreaker. Some of Rancor’s power stems from its ability to raise itself from the dead and without that the card is merely okay. 

There are other cards that approach the status of pillar - the core of Esper Combo, the Urza Tron - but these five to me are the reasons to build decks. When I sit down and approach the format I have to ask myself not only which card will I be playing (if any) but also how am I going to beat these cards when I face them.

Power

I’m not beyond brewing up something new. When I do I want to make sure I am doing so for a reason. If I stray from a pillar I want to do so for something powerful. Using Arbor Elf and Voyaging Satyr with Wild Growth and Utopia Sprawl to power out threats? Powerful Building a deck around Tortured Existence to reuse Gray Merchant of Asphodel and Mulldrifter? Absurdly strong. There are plenty of abstractly potent cards that don’t see play at the moment. Finding them, in conjunction with the metagame data available and seeing if they can attack a pillar- that is how I brew.

So this is how I think about Pauper. It is a format like any other. It has its best cards and strong decks. Not only that but there is a significant amount of untouched space for new decks to emerge and combat the status quo. These are my angles of attack. What are yours?