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By: Tom Scud, Tom Scudder
May 11 2015 12:00pm
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 Gut ShotSpellstutter Sprite

Welcome back to Pauper Observed, where we spend lots of time watching replays so you don't have to. I'll get to my usual weekly review of a cross-section of the metagame, but first, let's talk about the biggest news to hit the format since Treasure Cruise got banned.

As part of the Friday afternoon reveal of Modern Masters 2015's contents, Wizards of the Coast revealed that Gut Shot, an uncommon from New Phyrexia, would be shifted from uncommon to common. It was like a thousand 1/1 blue creatures cried out in the night, and were silenced.

The card itself is very simple, and at first glance unimpressive - 1 red mana or 2 life to deal 1 damage at instant speed. Why should I pay 2 of my life for 1 of theirs? But the strength of the card comes from the ability to kill many creatures in the format with no mana invested.

The simplest advantage Gut Shot provides is the ability to get ahead on tempo, especially against aggressive decks. Very often, you will be able to kill your opponent's 1-drop for no mana while playing your own 1-cost spell (or laying a comes-into-play-tapped land, if you're playing a slower multicolor deck). While 1-drops that don't die to 1 point of damage, like Nettle Sentinel or Doomed Traveler, are at a premium in the format, there aren't enough of them for decks to fill their curve with them, and thus cards like Icatian Javelineers and Foundry Street Denizen see play. And, of course, there's the most dangerous opening drop in the game, the ever-popular Delver of Secrets. No more need you fear the Delver-flip-counterspell-counterspell opening. If you wait until your turn, with mana open, you can even play around Daze.

Gut Shot also allows decks to fight through one of the mono-blue Delver tempo deck's other most dangerous openings, in which a Cloud of Faeries on turn 2 is followed by a Spellstutter Sprite countering a 2-cost spell. Suddenly, the Delver player  has two 1/1 flyers ready to swing in and has also stopped the opponent from doing anything meaningful. A simple Gut Shot reverses that tempo swing; now the opponent has been able to move his or her game plan forward, whether with a Carapace Forger for beats, a Cuombajj Witches to annihilate the Delver player's creatures, or a (Squadron Hawks) to get ahead on cards. In the meantime, the Delver player is stuck having played a single unimpressive 1/1 flyer.

Aside from the strong plays against Delver, Gut Shot also kills several nasty sideboard creatures - Standard Bearer is bad enough for Stompy and Hexproof that the decks have traditionally carried the very unimpressive Hornet Sting in their sideboards specifically to interact with her. Obsidian Acolyte - though it's not played in the current W Tokens build - can make an MBC deck or UB Control deck cry. And while Gorilla Shaman will probably have already ruined an Affinity deck's mana base, at least Gut Shot lets the deck kill the monkey without exposing another land to removal.

Just to drive that home, take a look at MtgGoldfish's list of the 50 most played Pauper creatures.

There are 11 creatures on the list (as of Friday) that just plain die to Gut Shot, from #6 Cloud of Faeries to #47 Foundry Street Denizen, and 12 guys either sometimes die (#1 Delver of Secrets - catch him before he flips!), die but leave something annoying behind (#34 Doomed Traveler, #32 Young Wolf), or die, but only after getting value from an ETB or activated effect (#40 Liliana's Specter, #29 Crypt Rats). That's 23 of the 50 most-played creatures in Pauper (not counting Skarrgan Pit-Skulk or Auriok Sunchaser, which almost never hit the field as 1/1s). The spell kills a number of other annoying or powerful cards that missed the list but see play from time to time, including Sparksmith, River Boa (sometimes), and Elvish Mystic (and friends).

That said, there are a number of top decks that don't fear Gut Shot. Stompy only presents one good target in Quirion Ranger (and sometimes Vault Skirge), MBC only has Liliana's Specter and the occasional Fume Spitter, neither of which is played in all decks, and Affinity presents no targets whatsoever unless it's a build that runs Disciple of the Vault, a card that is currently far out of favor. You could theoretically use Gut Shot to turn a chump block into a trade in some instances, but that still puts you down a card.

In the middle of the pack, Gut Shot is somewhat useful against UR Fiend, where it lets you get rid of dangerous early Delvers and save your real removal for the even more dangerous Kiln Fiend and Nivix Cyclops; it's also pretty good against the W Tokens decks, both by slowing the early rush and by denying the deck value from an Icatian Javelineers, a Soul Warden, or a Suture Priest.

Among the more rarely played decks, some will hate Gut Shot, such as Elves and its many 1/1 mana dorks, and others don't really care, like Boros Kitty, which only brings out 1/1 creatures in packs of three Kuldotha Rebirth tokens.

Where does Delver go after this? The deck has been one of the top decks in the format for years, and its combination of aggressive starts and lock-out countermagic will still be there. While a powerful main-deckable hate spell will hurt the deck, I don't think it will kill it. You can expect Delver decks to adopt Mutagenic Growth as a regular feature to fight back; like Gut Shot, it's a card that has a number of other uses as well and it already sees some play among Delver decks.

We Now Return You to Your Regularly Scheduled Programming Already in Progress

Two decks have managed to push themselves above the 5% threshold on my rolling four-week average, so I am expanding from a top 5 to a top 7 table. Share is the percentage of all decks that the deck makes up (regardless of wins and losses). PPE is Packs per entry - the number of packs that the average deck won - for example, if a deck has three entries and one finishes 3-1, earning 6 packs, the deck has a PPE of 2.0. The average PPE for all decks entered in a daily event is 2.2 - thus Burn has been well below average, MBC has been slightly below average, Affinity and UR Fiend were almost dead on average, and Stompy, Delver, and W Tokens have all performed considerably better than the average deck over the past four weeks. As usual, a great deal more is available from my spreadsheet.

Deck Share (Weeks 3-6) Share (Weeks 2-5) PPE (Weeks 3-6) PPE (Weeks 2-5)
MBC 15% 16% 1.93 1.81
Delver 10% 11% 3.21 3.43
Affinity 10% 10% 2.13 2.15
UR Fiend 8% 8% 2.17 2.50
Stompy 7% 7% 3.11 2.14
Burn 6% 5% 1.63 1.51
W Tokens 5% 3% 3.08 4.14

One note on these results: Last week, after my sample saw a relatively poor showing by MBC, I noticed that there were several strong showings in the daily events that I did not watch. As a result, my numbers skewed somewhat away from those reported by Alex Ullman on his facebook page and MTGGoldfish - I showed slightly more Delver wins than MBC, despite a larger MBC share of the decks played, while analysts working from the official WotC reports showed a substantial lead for MBC.

This isn't completely unexpected, given that I'm using a different sample than the official data. I'm still recording many of the same games, played using the same cards and rules, mostly by the same players, with the same general access to information; I expect that over time, these discrepancies will even out. For the moment, you probably want to assume that the MBC results listed above fall a bit short of the deck's performance in the larger metagame.

The week that was

For the week, MBC was solidly above average, a hard task for the deck that everyone is gunning for, with a 2.46 PPE across 26 entries. Delver was also solid if not spectacular, with a well-above-average 2.67 PPE. W Tokens jumped all the way to the second-most-popular deck, with 17 entries, but a combination of more sideboard hate and a less experienced player base brought the deck's average results back to earth. Its 1.76 PPE wasn't absolutely terrible, but it's well below average and if it continues to produce at that level, its new devotees may well abandon it. Affinity and UR Fiend continued to swing wildly, following up last week's positive performances with outright bad PPEs of 1.44 for Affinity and 1.5 for the Fiend deck. Burn followed up an absolutely terrible performance last week, when 13 entries managed zero 3-1 results, with a better but still below-average 1.92 PPE. But the biggest swing of the week came from Stompy, which had outrageous numbers: out of 13 decks entered, one finished 0-2, two finished 1-2, one finished 2-2, six finished 3-1, and three finished 4-0, for a ridiculous 5.31 PPE. For the week, Stompy decks managed a crazy 34-14 match record.

Right behind the top decks in total popularity was UB Angler, a deck that was originally created to take maximum advantage of Treasure Cruise by using self-mill effects to fuel delve spells like Cruise and Gurmag Angler. The deck has surprisingly been able to adapt to a cruise-less world by adding other draw effects and additional Delve creatures to its suite of point removal spells and countermagic. The deck has quietly put up solid results for several weeks and has a four-week PPE of 4.0. Another deck that has been putting up strong results outside of the top seven is Esper Fae Combo, whose mysterious underperformance I discussed here a couple weeks ago. The deck had a strong week with a 4.14 PPE, and is now back above average and trending upwards.

Matchups and Science!

Laboratory Maniac

And on to last week's matchup data, now including Burn, and some interesting results that led me to formulate a theory about why and how decks' results swing from week to week. Again, data for previous weeks can be found at a spreadsheet I maintain.

Deck vs. Affinity vs. Burn vs. Delver vs. MBC vs. Stompy vs. UR Fiend vs. W Tokens vs. Aggro vs. Control vs. Other
Affinity 3-3 0-2 2-0 5-5 2-2 1-2 2-1 0-1 4-3 2-6
Burn 2-0 1-1 2-3 2-2 2-3 0-2 3-1 1-3 3-2 5-3
Delver 0-2 3-2 2-2 3-5 3-2 0-0 1-4 2-1 7-1 7-4
MBC 5-5 2-2 5-3 5-5 1-5 5-3 4-4 2-0 7-7 6-7
Stompy 2-2 3-2 2-3 5-1 2-2 2-0 1-2 1-1 7-0 8-1
UR Fiend 2-1 2-0 0-0 3-5 0-2 1-1 0-1 2-1 2-7 2-5
W Tokens 1-2 1-3 4-1 4-4 2-1 1-0 2-2 1-1 2-8 1-8

What immediately jumped out at me from these results were the last two columns, particularly for Stompy and W Tokens. Both decks were above average against most other top-7 decks, and finished witha  winning record overall against the top tier. But Stompy managed a cool 16-2 versus all other decks, while W Tokens got smashed by a combined 4-17. Last week, I observed that UR Fiend had picked up a lot of wins against "Other" decks, and suggested (correctly, it turns out) that this luck would not last; this week, the Fiend decks only went 6-13 versus the non-top decks.

This led me to the following hypothesis:

Decks that have a large swing from week to week, largely do so because of their performance against decks outside of the top tier.

For a first pass at testing this hypothesis, I looked at the data for results versus top 7 decks and results versus other decks this week and last week. As I didn't tabulate the data for Burn, I had nothing to compare in that case.

Deck Week 6 vs. Top Week 6 vs. Other Week 5 vs. Top Week 5 vs. Other
Affinity 15-15 6-10 25-15 2-6
Burn 12-12 9-8 N/A N/A
Delver 12-17 16-6 31-23 6-8
MBC 27-27 15-14 26-30 21-16
Stompy 17-12 16-2 7-14 6-6
UR Fiend 8-10 6-13 16-21 15-8
W Tokens 15-13 4-17 17-10 16-6

What can we conclude here? Not a whole lot; Affinity's week-to-week swing was mainly due to changed performance against the top decks; Delver maintained a similar overall performance with a completely different profile, at least along this axis. Stompy reversed its results both against the top decks and the others, though the swing against "Other" was much more pronounced. UR Fiend and W Tokens fit most closely with my thesis.

There are other potential reasons that decks' performance could have swung - for example, W Tokens may have gotten much worse against control decks because those decks changed their focus to include more multi-target spells and less point removal to deal with the token deck's challenge. But it's an interesting result nonetheless.

I would have predicted a return to the mean by Stompy regardless of this result, but it does make me reverse my initial opinion concerning W Tokens. Without this matchup data, I would have predicted that the deck would continue to fall, and fade out of the metagame within a few weeks. Based on this, I'm going to guess that it rights itself against the field and continues to produce solid numbers. We'll see how that bears out.

Back to Modern Masters

Finally, while Gut Shot is clearly the most impactful rarity downshift in MM15, there are other cards worth some discussion. Lonely Cannibal on the Pauper Reddit posted the first list that I saw of the downshifts, and there's some very good discussion there.

The cards that strike me as potentially playable in competitive decks include the following:

Plagued Rusalka - Carrion Feeder is the sacrifice outlet of choice for most decks that try to leverage morbid effects, effects from creatures going to the graveyard, and similar strategies. However, most of these decks tend to be closer to the control than the aggro end of the spectrum, which makes a sacrifice outlet that can't block pretty awkward. Rusalka provides additional board control to these decks, although the change from zero mana to sacrifice to one is significant and might keep her from playing a role. Also, she dies to Gut Shot.

Scion of the Wild drew some attention since it was downshifted all the way from Rare - still, it was an odd rare to begin with, as its ability has been uncommon since Alpha's Keldon Warlord. It is one of the better aggressive three-drops that Green has available, but unfortunately (1) Stompy does not want three drops, (2) Elves probably doesn't want a non-Elf in this slot, and (3) token decks would much rather use Pallid Mycoderm as a finisher since he makes EVERYTHING on their board huge. The best shell I can think of for a Scion deck is a more aggressive take on Elves, leaving out the Priest of Titania and huge mana sinks and focusing on mana dorks, cantrip elves, and Scion and Timberwatch Elf. This plan looked a lot better before Gut Shot was revealed; the fact is that too many mana dorks just die to Gut Shot.

Conclave Phalanx has potential value as a sideboard card in tokens decks; however, taking a turn out from racing isn't something those decks are very happy to do, especially if it only puts one additional body on the board. Cards like Soul's Attendant fulfill two roles in the W Tokens decks; providing a needed one-drop and also gaining life to help win races; Phalanx would fill a higher point on the curve, one already choked by multi-token producers and anthem effects. Still, a point in the Phalanx's favor is that he doesn't die to Gut Shot.

Finally, with Skyhunter Skirmisher and Viashino Slaughtermaster, Pauper now has three creatures with built-in double strike. It might be possible to create a wins-from-nowhere deck that leverages this. There are a lot of problems with that idea, starting with the unimpressive stats of the three double-strikers we have. It's also worrying that both of the new double-strikers die to Gut Shot.

Be seeing you.