January 2-3 Pauper Weekend in Review

January 2 and January 3 saw the first two Pauper Challenges of 2021. The combined Top 8s broke down like so:

  • 4 Dimir Faeries
  • 3 Faeries
  • 3 Flicker Tron (1 Win)
  • 3 WonderWalls
  • 2 Izzet Faeries (1 Win)
  • 1 Elves

Before I dive deeper I want to talk a little bit about my threshold for success in these tournaments. While making the Top 32 is an accomplishment, it only goes so far. I am looking for decks that consistently perform well, indicated by Top 16 or better finishes. It just so happens that decks that tend to go X-2 or better tend to finish in the Top 16 (or in a virtual tie for 16th place). A Top 16 finish roughly equates to a Win+ score in my measure, of 1 point. As the ratio of appearances to Win+ drifts towards one, that tells me a deck averages close to a Top 16 finish. As that number goes up past one, it represents a deck that consistently Top 8s.

Let’s look at those same Top 8 archetypes and their Win+:Volume value:

  • Dimir Faeries: 0.88 (24 appearances)
  • Elves: 1 (2)
  • Faeries: 1.33 (6)
  • Flicker Tron: 1.04 (23)
  • Izzet Faeries: 0.66 (38)
  • WonderWalls: 0.71 (17)

Not to take anything away from Elves or Faeries in this discussion, but their numbers simply do not stack up given the number of times they have made the Top 32 list. There are two other decks with more than 10 appearances: Burn (13 appearance, 0.38 ratio) and Stompy (17 appearances, 0.98 ratio).

Why all this talk about success? It is fun to look at the results and point out decks that have spiked results. I love looking for new and fun pieces of tech – like some WonderWalls decks eschewing Mulldrifter entirely – but what it all boils down to is this: Pauper is not in a good place.

More than this, Pauper has been struggling to find stability for years. The largest issue at hand is that long time problem cards are consistently overshadowed by newer problem cards. A few months ago I laid out the suite of cards I believed needed to be banned to try and fix Pauper. That list was:

  • All Monarch cards
  • The Tron Lands
  • Ephemerate
  • Burning-Tree Emissary

Since that time Fiery Cannonade was shifted to common and I now feel safe in keeping Burning-Tree Emissary around. But what about the other “three”? Kick them to the curb.

The Monarch is a broken two-player mechanic. I try to avoid hyperbole, but creating a game piece that cannot be removed and that generates an avalanche of card advantage is just bad for game play. The game becomes about winning second and taking/defending the Monarch first. We saw this with Palace Sentinels/Prismatic Strands, which is barely good enough anymore, and continue to see strategies propped up by the promise of free cards. Now that blue has access to Fall from Favor defending the crown is even easier since blue gets two chances to draw into new counterspells each turn.

Tron is busted. It gives the Tron deck a consistently reliable way to jump the curve and start doing multiple things a turn as soon as turn four. Now that these decks are shifting away from creatures and towards a Mystical Teachings control, things are going to get rougher. Control decks want to hit their land drops and Tron makes those land drops more important. Unlike other decks, Tron does not have to dedicate spell slots to mana advantage – it just has it naturally.

Ephemerate is too good on rate, especially when paired with Archaeomancer or Mnemonic Wall. The result of this engine is a “free” card every turn that can be difficult to disrupt. While not as egregious as the other cards on this list, I still think it warrants a ban at this time due to the fact that it is fairly easy to create a prison game state involving Ephemerate and one of various lock creatures.

I often get asked about what I think the format would look if these bans took place. Here is a highlight list:

  • The various Faeries decks would still exist but would move lean harder on spell based card advantage as opposed to Fall from Favor.
  • Monarch strategies would cease to exist as we know them; MBC would survive but Boros strategies would revert to relying on Kor Skyfisher and Prophetic Prism engines (sometimes called Boros Kitty); these decks likely remain strong thanks to Thraben Inspector.
  • The absence of Tron will open up opportunities for other big mana decks to exist. Whether these are Signet/Mind Stone fueled version of Teachings or ramp decks trying to leverage Growth Spiral remains to be seen.
  • Ephemerate decks would have to survive by just using Ghostly Flicker for their shenanigans.
  • I would expect to see a surge in other engines. Forbidden Alchemy, Tortured Existence, and Bonder’s Ornament could see a boost, not to mention other less popular options.
  • Aggressive decks could see a bump, especially as it relates to metagaming. Depending on what “control” deck is dominant in a given meta, picking the correct aggressive strategy could provide an edge.

What do I want to see in 2021? I want to see a Pauper metagame where you can choose from more than one of 4.5 decks and have it be considered a good idea.

December 18-January 3 Challenges; minimum 4 appearances (~2% volume) or Top 8 finish

December 26-27 Pauper Weekend in Review

After taking most of the week off from Pauper and instead focusing on Vintage Cube, I’m back to look at the results from the last weekend of 2020. The December 27 and December 28 Challenges show off a format that in some ways is more dynamic than it was before Commander Legends, but it other ways bears a startling resemblance to the days of Mystic Sanctuary.

There’s a scene in The Simpsons where Mr. Burns – the elderly billionaire – is visiting a doctor trying to find out why he hasn’t died. The physician uses a door and a handful of germ puppets. There are so many things trying to kill the man that none of them can actually get through the door. This leaves Burns believing his is invulnerable, despite the doctor’s meager protest.

The Pauper metagame has an air of variety these days. The addition of Fall from Favor has pushed Spellstutter Sprite decks back to the top of the heap. Izzet Faeries – which had been struggling before the latest release – had ten decks in the Top 32 on Saturday, placing three in the Top 8. Sunday saw the deck with four Top 32 finishes – half of those ending the Swiss in the elimination bracket. Out of 14 Top 32 placements, more than a third made the Top 8. This discounts the other Fall from Favor blue decks, which had two Top 8 finishes (both on Saturday) in 7 appearances. All told, the ultimate weekend of 2020 saw 21 decks that combined Fall from Favor with Spellstutter Sprite and 7 of them made Top 8.

Thus we have a veneer of variety. These are three distinct archetypes despite them all playing a similar game with their different pieces. Is this healthy or is it a sign of something wrong with Pauper?

Rumors of Tron’s demise were greatly exaggerated. The deck had two Top 8s, including a win , on the weekend. The deck is moving further away from Stonehorn Dignitary, cutting back to the minimum copies of Ephemerate and Ghostly Flicker and instead leaning harder on Mystical Teachings. Speaking of Teachings, Dimir Control has emerged as a fringe contender with a Top 8 finish on the weekend.

But the story of the weekend, to me at least, was Stompy. Many players had written their eulogy for Stompy after Fiery Cannonade had been revealed as a downshift. Instead pilots adapted, adding copies River Boa and Wild Mongrel while going to the bench for Safehold Elite and Young Wolf. In seven Top 32 finishes Stompy took home four Top 8 slots.

December 18-December 28 Challenges; minimum 3 appearances OR Top 8 finish

So where is Pauper heading into 2021? I think is very much like Mr. Burns. There are a lot of things wrong with the format at a competitive level but for now they are balancing each other out to some degree.

That “for now” is doing a lot of heavy lifting. The trend line seems to be an ascendant blue trio while Stompy has to do the work of keeping it in check. The big difference? A complete lack of Palace Sentinel based midrange decks. It’s weird to see but Palace Sentinels and Prismatic Strands had one Top 32 finish all weekend, and that was with the Strands in the sideboard.

The format has traded one symptom for another but the underlying issues remain.

Misplaying Bone Picker

Today I want to look at a relatively recent addition to Pauper in Bone Picker and discuss why I feel the card is being played incorrectly in the format. Bone Picker has an attractive stat line when it’s on and this has led many decks to include the card when I feel it is incorrect.

The most logical comparison for Bone Picker is Delver of Secrets/Insectile Aberration. In the ideal scenario both of 3/2 flyers for a single mana. Delver of Secrets was for many years a format defining threat that could apply pressure starting on the second turn of the game. While Bone Picker lacks the ability to consistently attack on the second turn (outside Wild Cantor shenanigans) it exists in a color where it is trivially easy to run Snuff Out to enable the pastiche of Morbid.

But this is where the comparison ends. Delver of Secrets simply asks that you pack your deck full of good spells to transform it into a threat. Bone Picker asks so much more. It is basically a modal Meld card that pairs with a significant portion of your deck but still requires a second half to be anything of note.

When playing an Aristocrats strategy in Pauper, you want creatures dying to work for you, you don’t want to work to have your creatures die.

How do you turn on Bone Picker? A creature has to die on either side of the battlefield. In Amonkhet Limited this could be accomplished with a removal spell or in combat. Trade off some smaller creatures then play Bone Picker and another creature – maximize your mana early to gain an advantage on the board. Creature combat is not a huge part of Pauper these days so the best way to make Bone Picker cheap is to have a creature die. You can either spend a removal spell on an opponent’s creature or send one of your creatures to the bin with Carrion Feeder. Both exchanges leave you down a card which is a fairly hefty cost. Because combat is so rare these days it is difficult to get Bone Picker at a discount without investing another card.

Compare Bone Picker to this format all-star:

Kor Skyfisher is not just a 2/3 flyer for two mana. It comes with a “drawback” that Pauper has turned into an advantage. While Skyfisher may be a tempo negative play (you are setting back your board development), pairing with cantrip artifacts turns Kor Skyfisher into part of a card draw engine. On rate both cards are similar but it is far easier to capitalize on Kor Skyfisher’s drawback than it is to take advantage of Bone Picker’s bonus. It doesn’t help the situation that Bone Picker trades with Kor Skyfisher, leaving the black player down yet another card.

None of this is to say Bone Picker is bad. As mentioned above Kor Skyfisher is tempo negative. The combat situation outlined previously would make Bone Picker tempo positive. Seeing as how blocking isn’t likely to come into vogue anytime soon there are ways to optimize for Bone Picker.

Mogg Fanatic and Fume Spitter come with built in ways to send themselves to the bin. These two can also pick off threats on the opponent’s board, leaving you with an opportunity to capitalize on the exchange. If you trade one of these for their Faerie Seer and leave yourself up a Bone Picker you are not only even on cards but you are ahead in the tempo game.

In my opinion this is the best way to play Bone Picker. You want to be left with the best threat on the board when the vulture resolves. If you’re investing additional cards into a cheap threat it might be better to run a cheap threat that does not need any help.

December 19-20 Pauper Weekend in Review

In my most recent Power Rankings, I put Tron in the top spot but wrote that it’s hold on Number 1 is the most tenuous it has been in quite some time. While Tron remains one of the most powerful decks in Pauper, the following circumstances have threatened its position:

  • One of the best ways to fight Tron was to stick an early Monarch and ride the extra cards to victory. Fall from Favor comes down a full turn earlier than the previous Monarch granters and the card gets run in shells with plenty of counterspells. This is a combination that can keep Tron on the back foot.
  • There has a been a surge in Atog + Fling decks. These decks have access to both Hydroblast and Pyroblast with the ability to win outside of the combat phase which can pressure Tron from another angle.
  • The latest iteration of WonderWalls has game against a wider swath of the field. As the deck already has a good Tron matchup, improving this deck’s position against the remainder of the metagame can spell bad news for Tron.

Going into the December 19 and December 20 Challenges, the metagame from Commander Legends looked like this:

Tron might have been on top but it has not been the dominant force of seasons gone by. The last weekend displayed just how fragile this grip on format is at this time:

The various Spellstutter Sprite/Fall from Favor decks are currently at the top, with Izzet Faeries winning both Challenges. Dimir Faeries is the most popular deck from the weekend but had a rough Sunday compared to Saturday. And yet lingering in third is Flicker Tron.

What fascinates me most about this weekend is the strong Stompy finishes. Two Top 8s in three total trips to the Top 32 may not seem like much but the deck has adjusted to the new metagame. Savage Swipe is no longer a four-of and instead the deck is trying to play more to the board, increasing the number of creatures. Given the lack of Palace Sentinels and really, blockers, this makes sense. Why load up your deck with a removal spell when your path to winning is trying to deal damage before they can muster any defenses?

I am interested to see if these trends continue. If Faeries decks continue to live at the top of things then that will represent a massive shift in the metagame. Despite being incredible powerful these decks are thriving in part because their natural enemies are absent. Kor Skyfisher is nearly absent and Pestilence is only moderately more prevalent. A shift to a Faeries dominated metagame could open up a new window for removal based midrange decks which could be problematic for WonderWalls but good news for Tron.

Of course this all presupposes that next weekend Tron doesn’t come out and smack down all the pretenders.

Svogthir’s Study: Sisters of Stone Death

Hello and welcome to Svogthir’s Study: a place to appreciate Golgari in Commander.

It’s been a month since my last entry into Svogthir’s Study and it’s not for lack of desire. When I started this project I was furloughed and figured I would make use of the hours in the day. Well, my furlough ended early and those hours were filled with work. And so I let this post linger in the thought box.

It didn’t help that this next Commander is a tough nut to crack.

Sisters of Stone Death is from an era before Commander was as large of a thing as it is today. Legendary creatures didn’t need to carry a format on their back and you can see that in this eight mana spell that you need to put more mana into for maximum value. Compare the Sisters to Dragonlord Silumgar and you could drown a leviathan in the gap between the two in efficiency.

I wish I had more to say about the Sisters that can’t be better said by their EDHRec page. You can lean on the creature type and go for Gorgon Tribal, featuring Hythonia the Cruel. Or you can go for Lure Tribal and turn the Sisters into a combat dominating machine. If I were building this deck, I would go for the second option.

How would I do this? I’d start with ramp – every mana elf I could get my hands on. I’d want various forms of protection – Asceticism comes to mind – as possible. Why? I want to make sure that once the Sisters are ready to rumble there’s a loaded Druid’s Repository ready to make a new suite of statues.

How would you build Sisters of Stone Death? What’s your favorite “bad” Commander?

Treasured Find: Grappling Hook

The First Four Weeks of Commander Legends

December 12-13 Pauper Weekend in Review

The December 12 and December 13 Challenges close out the first four weeks of Commander Legends season. Won by WonderWalls and Dimir Delver, these two events put a cap on an interesting month of Pauper.

The big story of the last month is Fall from Favor and its massive impact on the Pauper metagame. I’m on the record as saying I think that the Monarch promotes poor play patterns while incentivizing defense to the point that going on the offense is a strategic error. But it goes deeper than that – Fall from Favor has fundamentally changed the way Pauper games play out.

Before we get to that, I want to discuss what I mean about poor play patterns. The Monarch is zero sum – if one player has it the other cannot. This means that keeping the emblem is incredibly important and once online, relatively easy. The Monarch represents one free card every turn and if your opponent is only able to present one new threat per turn then you are coming out ahead (one spell to deal with the threat, one fresh draw). Monarch encourages you to sit back and let the cards roll in while also making it challenging for your opponent to enact their own plan if it involves attacking.

Leading up to Commander Legends you could make the argument that Pauper revolved around Burning-Tree Emissary. Stompy was the so-called clock of the format – its consistent turn four kill gave Pauper a fundamental turn, a focal point around which the game needed to be built. Before Fiery Cannonade decks had to lean on Moment’s Peace and similar effect to survive which in many ways is responsible for how we got to the point we were at the end of Zendikar Rising season. In my opinion the addition of Fall from Favor has changed the fundamental turn – the turn on which and entire game can pivot – to the third turn.

A Fall from Favor on turn three usually will end the game. The avalanche of card advantage can be challenging to overcome and requires significant effort. As a result we have seen a shift the appearance of aggro and also a replacement of the Clock. In my opinion, the metagame looks something like this:

  • WonderWalls (Cascade) is the Clock – It represents a reliable turn four kill that is difficult to disrupt.
  • Boros Bully is Aggro – It’s ability to go wide while also packing its own Monarch engine gives it the tools to beat down.
  • Spellstutter Sprite/Fall from Favor decks are Midrange – These decks can now pack their own Monarch cards and as a result have a far easier time assuming both aggro and control positions.
  • Flicker Tron remains the Control.

The result is a new metagame that is surprisingly diverse and has a healthy appearance:

The first 8 Challenges of Commander Legends Season

I’m going to say that again: this is a diverse and somewhat healthy metagame, at least according to the numbers. There are 14 decks that represent over 2% of the metagame volume (5 appearances) with another two – WonderWalls and Gruul Ramp – that are sitting at 1.97% of metagame volume. Flicker Tron is at it’s lowest volume in quite some time and it has a relatively reasonable delta between actual volume and weighted volume. Fully half of these decks are outperforming their actual volume with another one – Jeskai Affinity – one good result away from doing the same.

So on hand we have a diverse metagame with a decent spread of archetypes, none of which are dominant to the point of being troublesome. On the other hand we have a large number of decks that lean on the Monarch for their success. Around 53% of decks, by volume, lean on the Monarch (this excludes Tron builds) and Monarch decks account for around 57% of weighted metagame volume.

Now these Monarch decks look drastically different – there are the various Delver/Faerie decks, traditional Boros/Orzhov midrange, and even Gruul Ramp which can cascade into the crown. The question remains – is this healthy?

Putting my cards of the proverbial table, I do not know. On the one hand we are seeing diversity of archetypes and not only that, a diversity of successful archetypes. At the same time many of these decks are leaning on the Monarch which as explained earlier, does promote a back and forth. Instead we are seeing decks like WonderWalls which can deal with one free draw since it wants to vomit out four threats on turn four and win the game on the spot.

I’ve been one of the staunchest supporters of bans in Pauper. I believe the Monarch promotes poor game play. But these results are giving me something to think about. I do think that if these trends continue we are going to see an increase in the polarization of the format between the Clock and the Control. I also am concerned about the increasing homogenization of decks as over 50% Monarch is alarming. I still think action needs to be taken.

But what do you think?

December 5-6 Pauper Weekend In Review

Fall from Favor tempo decks went undefeated in the Swiss on both days before sweeping the Top 8 on Saturday and Sunday. Twitter is awash with discussion about how the format is dominated by the Monarch.

I wish there was more to say about Pauper at this time…and there is…sorta.

This chart tracks every archetype that has at least 2% of the total metagame volume (approximately 4 appearances) or a Top 8 finish. Six events into Commander Legends season and already Tron is pulling away from the pack in Top 8s. Looking at these top decks, however, the number that are running the Monarch is nothing short of astounding as it now includes almost every Spellstutter Sprite deck. Decks that are not Tron or Monarch (or some combination) account for just over 22% of all wins above X-2. This number might not seem so bad until you break down that remaining 78%.

Tron, with and without Monarch, accounts for 23% of all wins above X-2. That means decks packing the Monarch account for around 55% of all wins at X-2 or better.

There’s a Pauper PTQ on January 23rd. There is a very real cost to not fixing the format before that event. Magic Online PTQs attract a wide swath of players – not just dedicated Pauper grinders. If this is their first exposure to Pauper and they see “Monarch: The Format” are they really going to come back? Like it or not, Pauper can’t survive on die-hards alone.

The choice to me is either to kick off the new year right or the first foot of the format six feet under.

November 28-29 Pauper Weekend in Review

What makes up a healthy metagame in a non-rotating Magic format? I think that depends on a number of factors. One of the big critiques of Modern, from a professional player standpoint, was that it was so wide open that it was difficult to feel prepared for a major event. This was a boon to both the casually competitive and aspirant player base. The wide open nature of Modern meant that it was possible to have “your deck” and have a shot. Something similar can be said for Legacy. It is tough to balance having a format with a plethora of options and one that can stand up to being played ad infinitum. This is why that, for competitive play, Wizards will often introduce new, smaller formats. Extended begat Modern which begat Pioneer which, in ten years will beget something new. For a format like Pauper, I think there is merit in having something of an unbalanced metagame provided it is relatively open.

Here is where the top of the Pauper metagame stands after the November 28 and November 29 Challenges (taking into account any deck with at least 3 appearances or a Top 8 finish):

In these four challenges there have been 68 decks that have finished with a 4-2 or better record. 45 of them are running at least one Monarch card in their 75 (66%). The decks break down like this:

  • Monarch decks: 24 copies
  • Spellstutter Sprite + Monarch: 14
  • Jeskai Affinity w/Fall from Favor: 2
  • Tron: 15 (including 5 with access to the Monarch)

All told these decks account for 81% of the top of the Winner’s metagame over four challenges. Now there is some variety in these archetypes – Boros Bully and Boros Monarch; Pestilence Control and Dimir Control options; Mono-Blue, Dimir, and Izzet Spellstutter Sprite builds; Tron with Staunch Throneguard main and Tron with Fall from Favor in the sideboard.

Is this healthy? It all depends on your point of view. On one hand there are options of what to play but at the same time the decks are slowly trending towards homogenizing. There were several images going around this weekend involving five copies of Fall from Favor on a battlefield, sometimes representing the Monarch changing hands half a dozen times.

Right now there are no real checks on the Monarch. More than that, aggressive decks outside of Boros Bully and Jeskai Affinity (the latter of which is soft to Gorilla Shaman) are non-existent. Playing out creatures is a massive risk since that opens you up to having it Fall from Favor and start giving your opponent more resources.

Gavin Verhey has said that Wizards is closely monitoring Pauper and that we can expect action if things are out of whack. I think my opinion is well known at this point – what do you think?

In the interim, if you are going to play Pauper I would advise against exposing yourself to Fall from Favor. Whether this means running Yavimaya Barbarian or just not running creatures, that last thing you want to do is make it easy for your opponent to draw cards. Gut Shot, Snapback, Snuff Out – these are going to be your friends moving forward. If you decide to run creatures, you better be sure to be packing enough ways to gain the crown back should your opponent be trying to win.