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By: Tom Scud, Tom Scudder
Jun 23 2015 2:58am
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Welcome back to Pauper Observed. I'll get to the usual daily event report shortly, but first, a few words about spoilers.

It's spoiler season again, when young Magic players' thoughts turn to the next upcoming set and how they can exploit the heck out of the newest tech. For Pauper players, particularly those who haven't been around the block a few times, spoiler season can be extremely frustrating, as most of the sneak previews doled out to web sites and tweeters around the world are of rares, mythics, and the occasional spicy uncommon. Commons are limited to a mechanics article on the opening Monday (you will have probably read it already, though I haven't seen it yet as I am writing this), maybe a cycle intended for limited, and that's about it prior to the full reveal, usually on the second Friday of spoiler season.

The reveal is also often a disappointment to people who set their expectations too high. Look at online discussions after the set has been revealed, and you'll see many people complaining that Wizards doesn't print good Pauper cards any more. I'd say this is an overreaction, but it helps to understand a few things about Pauper and what can be expected from new sets.

Pauper is a Legacy format

This has a few major implications. First and most important, there is already a huge card pool. Not counting Portal or the "un" sets, there have been 85 core sets and expansions released over the years. It's unreasonable to expect more than a handful of new cards from any set to be playable in competitive decks.

In addition, the design philosophy of Magic has changed over the years. The most famous declaration of a change in philosophy was Mark Rosewater's New World Order article a few years ago, but this has been an ongoing process for Magic's entire history. What it means for Pauper is that two-mana counterspells, strong one-mana blue cantrips, two-mana kill-nearly-anything spells in black or white, and three- or even four-mana land destruction spells are all things that will not see print at common again (and won't see much print at higher rarities). Another category of cards that Rosewater has specifically ruled out is reanimation spells.

On the other hand, while power creep for creatures has been relatively calm lately, they continue to be much stronger than they were in the early days of Magic. Auras continue to be pushed forward, as Wizards tries to make them playable despite the inherent two-for-one risk they represent. And while kill-anything removal is probably not coming back, flexible cards that kill small things, like Electrickery, Twin Bolt, and the rarity-shifted Gut Shot have all found their place in Pauper decks lately.

Common cards are balanced around limited. Period.

While Wizards can "hide" pushed cards or narrow sideboard cards for Legacy formats at Mythic or Rare rarities, thus ensuring that they don't come up very often in drafts or sealed pools, commons are, well, common. Anything printed at common will be opened frequently during drafts and sealed deck construction, and Wizards has to take the effects of those commons into account. The key article for understanding their thinking here is not so much the New World Order article as Sam Stoddard's 2014 discussion of Developing Commons. The most important thing he mentions is that Wizards is determined never again to allow a single common to dominate the game.

A cheap, efficient beater like Siege Rhino or Obzedat, Ghost Council is powerful on its own and dominates the board against lower-cost cards. Print a card like that at common, and everyone and his brother forces that color (or combination) if they possibly can. Pretty much any card that's 4/4 or larger and flies falls into this category, even if it's a french vanilla 5-drop.

I would also not expect a powerful sweeper like Crypt Rats or Pestilence again, and it's unlikely any X burn spell, much less one as flexible as Rolling Thunder, will ever see print at common again, either. However, take a quick look at the cards cited in Sam Stoddard's article. Notice what's listed, and what isn't.

The cards he lists as mistakes from the past are Timberwatch Elf, Spikeshot Goblin, Pestilence, and Sparksmith. But that's very far from a list of Pauper all-stars. When was the last time you played a game of competitive Pauper and said "Wow, that Spikeshot Goblin sure wrecked me"?

That's a little unfair, since Spikeshot Goblin is the only one of those four that doesn't see competitive play at all. The Elf is the key piece of a second-ish tier deck; Sparksmith does good work in Goblins but is hardly the centerpiece of the deck; and Pestilence has seen some play in Mono-Black Control but again is primarily a support card, and one that isn't always played.

Here's a list of cards he didn't mention: Delver of Secrets, Ethereal Armor, Ghostly Flicker, and Nivix Cyclops. These are all cards that were added to the Pauper card pool after New World Order came into effect, and they're all cards that are key and powerful parts of competitive decks. Treasure Cruise was so powerful that it was banned.

Powerful Pauper cards are more powerful in constructed decks

As a consequence of the limited balancing, the most powerful cards in Pauper are ones that aren't extremely strong in Limited. There are a couple categories of card that become more powerful in constructed decks than they are in limited.

The first is extremely aggressive cards, like Foundry Street Denizen or Young Wolf. In limited, one-drops, even very good one-drops like Monastery Swiftspear, become outclassed quickly by three- or four-drops and are often terrible top-decks. Many strong limited players argue that you should never play one-drops and your deck's curve should start at two, with only the rarest of exceptions. (Gatecrash's hyper-aggressive format made it one of those exceptions, and Denizen was actually pretty heavily played for a one-drop). However, a constructed deck can back the Denizen up with another 20 or so other red one- or two-drops, making him a consistent 2/1 or better, and can bring enough aggression to the game to keep the game from ever getting into a board stall. Likewise, the constructed Stompy deck has way more main-deck ways to make Young Wolf's 1/1 or 2/2 body meaningful than any limited deck could manage.

The other class of cards that benefits from being in constructed decks are those with strong synergy. In the Pauper Hexproof deck, Ethereal Armor is crazy - the threat of a two-for-one is nearly eliminated by the fact that nearly all the deck's creatures are hexproof, and half of the cards in the deck are enchantments (many of them cantrips), so it almost always comes in as a +3/+3 and gets bigger from there. In draft or sealed, the card was okay if you happened to also draft several copies of Arrest, Stab Wound, Knightly Valor, or other good enchantments, but it was not highly sought after - the danger of a two-for-one outweighed the potential bonus, which was usually only 1/1, 2/2, or sometimes 3/3.

Delve cards are another example of this. In Khans of Tarkir draft (and KtK-FRF), Treasure Cruise was a good card that most slower blue decks wanted, but you could usually pick one up as a tenth pick, and you didn't really want to run two. In any format containing enough cheap cantrips to easily fill a graveyard, the card was bonkers and got banned within months; only in Standard (and block) can you still run a full set of four. Gurmag Angler and Sultai Scavenger aren't as broken as Cruise, but again they are capable of being run out at a much earlier stage of the game than they ever could in limited or even Standard. For more synergy examples, look at basically any card in the UR Fiend or Affinity decks; Affinity, especially, is almost nothing but synergy cards.

Temur Battle Rage is an interesting case; on the one hand, the card's Ferocious ability is one that's pretty easy to turn on in Limited, as games usually go long enough for both players to cast their four- and five-drops. However, it is a card that is at its strongest when a creature is attacking into a clear or nearly-clear board and the majority of the double-strike damage can go to the face. As a result, the card has made waves in constructed Pauper.

While as of this writing, only a handful of cards have been spoiled for Pauper, none of which look very exciting, one interesting revelation was the mechanic of Spell Mastery, as seen on the preview card Fiery Impulse, an instant for 1 red mana that reads: "Fiery Impulse deals 2 damage to target creature. Spell mastery: If there are two or more instant and/or sorcery cards in your graveyard, Fiery Impulse deals 3 damage to that creature instead." The card itself is unplayable due to being strictly worse than Lightning Bolt and generally worse than a lot of other red burn spells, and especially since the difference between two damage to a creature and three damage to a creature is minimal in Pauper. If the Spell Mastery bonus had shifted it to 4 instant-speed damage, that would have been something. That said, the mechanic is sufficiently difficult for a limited deck to turn on early that something powerful might yet be printed. We'll see!

And Now, Back to Our Regularly Scheduled Programming

Thursday's daily continued to reflect the format's successful adjustment to the rise of Burn a few weeks ago. Burn continued to be the most popular deck, with 10 out of the 74 entries, but not one of those decks made it to 3-1 or better. MBC was second-most popular, with 9 decks entered, and was better than average, with 3 decks finishing in the money. Other popular decks were blue-black control (8 decks, 1 winner), Esper Fae Combo (7 decks, 2 winners), and Delver (6 decks, 1 winner). Decks that punched above their weights included Elves (2 decks, 2 winners), UR Fiend (5 decks, 3 winners), Stompy (3 decks, 2 winners), and UB Angler (4 decks, 2 winners). Points for originality go to a mono-blue, mono-mill deck that finished 3-1 with a deck relying on the Whirlpool Rider/Jace's Erasure combo and an Abzan Tortured Existence deck that used white mana for a bit more than a splash with main-deck Auramancer and Qasali Pridemage. A full list of decks can be found at my facebook page here; Wizards' official listing of the winners' decklists is here.

The Winners' Circle

Ten decks made it through three Swiss rounds at 3-0 and played for a perfect finish. The pairings were:

Bzrts, playing UR Fiend, versus Wisnia, playing Goblins. Bzrts defeated MBC 2-1, Affinity 2-1, and mono-blue mill 2-0; Wisnia defeated Delver 2-1, Burn 2-0, and Esper Fae Combo 2-1. The UR Fiend deck managed to win the race, 2-1.

Indelay, playing UB Control, faced off against Warmarco, who made his third straight appearance in this column with a Delver deck. Indelay defeated Stompy 2-1, MBC 2-1, and Mono-white Tokens 2-1. Warmarco won against Red-Black Control 2-0, UB Angler 2-0, and Elves 2-0, and proceeded to complete an 8-0 sweep of the day with a 2-0 win over Indelay.

ScionOfJustice, playing Elves, played Slick_Deadly, playing an MBC variant. Scion got to the match by defeating Burn 2-1, taking out a blue-green rogue deck relying on cantrip creatures 2-0, and beating Hexproof 2-1. Slick_Deadly took out Boros Kitty 2-1, Delver 2-1, and Stompy 2-1 en route to a 3-0 record. Slick_Deadly's deck was interesting in that it went a bit further in the direction of Devotion and the Gray Merchant racing plan by using four Dauthi Slayers in place of more traditional reactive/control cards to push damage, increase on-board Devotion, and make the Merchant more likely to deliver a knock-out punch. In the event, the lack of Crypt Rats in the main deck and sideboard turned the matchup from one that normally favors MBC to one that favored Elves, and Scion won in three closely contested games 2-1. Based on the quality of games, this one could have been my featured match; in the first, the MBC deck narrowly escaped an alpha strike by using a ton of hoarded removal to win with one life left; in game 2, the Elves went off with Spidersilk Armor protecting a legion of elf tokens created after a Distant Melody; lost two-thirds of their board to a double Shrivel; but managed to win anyway with the remaining pieces.

However, I instead chose to focus on the matchup between Asilwen's Jeskai Kitty control deck and Cruentum_Dei's Esper Fae Combo deck.

Featured Match: Esper Fae Combo vs. Jeskai Kitty

My choice of this matchup was occasioned by a poster on Reddit who asked how Esper Fae could possibly win against a deck with 8-10 removal spells; here's a match between the combo deck and a control deck running 12 main-deck removal spells, extra hate in the sideboard, and a pretty strong draw engine to draw into the removal, and we'll get to see precisely how a good Esper Fae pilot can roll right over that. (Oops, spoiler).

An adaptation to the burn-heavy meta can be seen here in the main-deck Lone Missionary; another 7 hate cards for Burn live in the sideboard. I hadn't realized until I started editing this article that Cruentum was playing without Sea Gate Oracles in his deck, which is an interesting departure. The other draw spells are certainly more powerful but give him fewer targets for Ghostly Flicker and Snap and fewer blockers against aggressive creature decks. Cruentum_Dei is one of the most experienced pilots of the Esper combo deck and I think one of the earlier adopters of Gray Merchant of Asphodel as a win condition in place of Sage's Row Denizen.

 

 

I'm not actually very fond of the three-color version of the kitty/kuldotha deck, much preferring the two-color Boros Kitty version with its more consistent mana base. That said, I can understand the design decision here: a desire to have more artifacts to return to the hand with Glint Hawk and to power up Galvanic Blast leads to more artifact lands; a desire to have more things to sacrifice for value to Kuldotha Rebirth adds the Chromatic Stars. With 3 stars, 4 extra artifact lands, and 4 prisms, you might as well add an extra color and why not put in another way to sacrifice Ichor Wellspring for value with Perilous Research?

In any case, Asilwen is an experienced pilot of the deck and has guided it to many 3-1s and several 4-0s.

Game 1

The first game started slowly. Cruentum_Dei was on the play, and for the first two rounds both players played lands and the only spell cast was Asilwen's turn-two Ichor Wellspring. The Esper deck missed its third land drop, but Asilwen could only play a Prophetic Prism and tap-land in response. Esper went island, Preordain, island and the Jeskai deck finally found some threats, missing a land drop but casting Kuldotha Rebirth (sacrificing the Wellspring) and Kor Skyfisher (returning the Prism).

Dei started getting his Esper on, tapping an island for mana, playing a Dimir Aqueduct, Snapping the Skyfisher (untapping aqueduct and island), and then casting Nightscape Familiar into Compulsive Research. Asilwen attacked, sent the Familiar on a Journey to Nowhere, and cast a Chromatic Star, leaving one mana up to interact if needed. Dei replied with a Foresee, sending all four cards to the bottom, played a Plains, and passed. The Jeskai deck attacked once more, cast a Prophetic Prism, but still couldn't find another land drop and had to pass with 2 mana up instead of developing the board. The mana came into play as Dei cast Sunscape Familiar into Compulsive Research but a Galvanic Blast took down the Familiar before anything else could happen. The Esper deck laid a second Dimir Aqueduct and passed with 2 aqueducts and an island in play. The Jeskai deck cast another Prism (still not finding a land), cast Kuldotha Rebirth sacrificing the Star (still no land), attacked, and passed with one mana up. The Esper deck was now at 11 life and facing 6 damage incoming plus an unknown amount of burn. Odds were pretty good that this was the do-or-die turn.

And so the sequence of play went: Sunscape Familiar into evoked Mulldrifter into Cloud of Faeries (untapping two Aqueducts) into evoked Mulldrifter into Ghostly Flicker targeting Cloud and Mulldrifter into Plains into Compulsive Research into Snap on Cloud into Cloud - at this point all lands are untapped and 2 blue and 4 black mana are floating - into Mnemonic Wall (retrieving Flicker) into Ghostly Flicker on wall and cloud. Here Asilwen, having shown inhuman patience in sitting through all those earlier snaps and flickers, stepped in and fired a Galvanic Blast at the Wall. Unfortunately, Dei had a Capsize in hand, cast it (without buyback) on the wall, and had enough mana after the Cloud of Faeries untapped both Aqueducts again to cast wall and flicker again.

At that point, the game was over aside from a whole lot of clicking. At this point, Dei cast flicker six times, targeting Cloud of Faeries five times and Mulldrifter once. Between those castings came a Compulsive Research, a Foresee, a Mulldrifter, two Clouds of Faeries, another Mulldrifter, a Nightscape Familiar, and finally a Gray Merchant of Asphodel; the merchant was flickered an additional six times for a lethal 21-point life drain.

Game 2

For Game 2, Asilwen attempted to go on the offensive early, dropping a turn two Skyfisher and returning a land to hand. Unfortunately, Cruentum had the Snap, which was followed by a Sunscape Familiar. Asilwen stayed choked on lands by replaying the Skyfisher, and Dei remained on target with the land drops, playing an island to go with an existing island and plains and casting a Compulsive Research. Asilwen finally got a second land on the table to stay and started attacking with the Skyfisher; Cruentum dropped a Mnemonic Wall and got back the Snap.

Asilwen played a third artifact land (two Great Furnace and one Ancient Den) and used a Galvanic Blast to clear the wall off the table. Cruentum made a fifth basic land drop (three islands, a swamp, and a plains), evoked a Mulldrifter, cast Ghostly Flicker on the Drifter and an Island (leaving two Islands untapped), Snapped the Skyfisher, and cast Preordain and a Nightscape Familiar. Asilwen threw another Blast at the Sunscape Familiar. Asilwen's next turn consisted of replaying the Skyfisher, returning the Furnace to hand, and replaying the Furnace.

Cruentum played an Azorius Chancery, cast another Nightscape Familiar, and cast a Mnemonic Wall, returning Ghostly Flicker to hand. Asilwen responded to the Wall's trigger with an overloaded Electrickery, sending both Familiars to the graveyard. Asilwen then played an Ancient Den for a fourth land, cast an Ichor Wellspring, and attacked, bringing the Esper player to 14 life and passing the turn with RW mana untapped. Cruentum played a plains, cast Foresee, putting 3 cards on the bottom of the deck and 1 card on top, attacked with the Mulldrifter, and passed with an Azorius Chancery and an island untapped. Asilwen attacked again (bringing Cruentum to 12 life), played a Prophetic Prism, and passed again, but at the end of turn, Cruentum responded with a Snap on the Skyfisher into a Reaping the Graves, storming for 3, returning a Nightscape Familiar, a Sunscape Familiar, and a Mnemonic Wall to hand.

The following turn was another example of how the Esper deck can just plain overwhelm a control deck's removal. Cruentum cast Nightscape Familiar into Sunscape Familiar into Compulsive Research into Cloud of Faeries into Mnemonic Wall (returning Snap) into Snap on the Cloud of Faeries. At this point, Asilwen tried to stop the train with another overloaded Electrickery, but Cruentum was able to cast Ghostly Flicker on the wall and faeries three times, use the mana to flicker the two walls (returning Snap again), regenerate the Nightscape Familiar, and Snap the Cloud of Faeries again. 

Once Electrickery had cleared the stack, Cruentum replayed the Cloud of Faeries, flickered it and the wall four times, and cast and flickered the Gray Merchant again for lethal.

Final Thoughts

Following this week, Pauper Observed is going on hiatus for at least a month. It's been a lot of fun; I'd like to thank Najay on reddit, Patrick Johnson, and everyone else who has helped out with the various data-collection projects.

6 Comments

Whoops! by Tom Scud at Mon, 06/22/2015 - 18:44
Tom Scud's picture

Apologies for the super-dumb (and kinda racist) Rosewater/Rosenberg typo/thinko.

Also forgot to mention what the two featured decks did to get to 3-0. Cruentum_Dei beat RW Tokens 2-1, UB Control 2-0, and Burn 2-1, and Asilwen beat Delver 2-0, Burn 2-1, and MBC 2-0.

Rosewater/Rosenberg by longtimegone at Mon, 06/22/2015 - 19:22
longtimegone's picture

I think it's a fair mistake to make. They have articles on the mothership by someone by the name of Mike Rosenberg, and I'm *constantly* clicking them thinking it's an article by Mark Rosewater.

Nothing racist about it, just has to do with how our brains shorthand the recognition of words, sometimes it trips us up a bit when they are similar enough.

Not like super racist, but by Tom Scud at Mon, 06/22/2015 - 19:37
Tom Scud's picture

Not like super racist, but reaching for a stereotypical Jewish name like "Rosenberg" is not a great thing to do.

I has actually read an by JXClaytor at Tue, 06/23/2015 - 02:57
JXClaytor's picture

I has actually read an Rosenberg article earlier and skipped straight over it. It has been fixed.

Thanks! by Tom Scud at Tue, 06/23/2015 - 08:06
Tom Scud's picture

Thanks!

Don't Worry About It... by Fred1160 at Tue, 06/23/2015 - 07:35
Fred1160's picture

In today's hyper-correct politically correct social justice warrior society, people can make an honest mistake and think, "Oh, no! Someone might think I'm racist!" Intent is the key but appearances are everything when dealing with people who are perpetually outraged by everything.