June 12-13 Pauper Weekend in Reivew

So we are two weeks into the Modern Horizons 2 season and things are…well, they certainly are something. To be blunt I don’t think the format is in a very good place right now (but my guess is you don’t need me to tell you that) but I want to take some time to dive a little deeper.

So let’s get some bookkeeping out of the way with regards to the June 12 and June 13 Challenges. Affinity was a dominant force, taking down seven Top 8 slots and both wins. Despite all the fear of Chatterstorm going into the season it is not the best deck in practice, although it might be the deck doing the best job of defining the format.

Currently the best three decks in the format comprise over 61% of the Top 32 metagame. Affinity is 28.91% of the Top 32 meta, with various Dimir decks clocking in at 19.52% and Storm variants at 13.29%. While it is only two weeks into the season these numbers still should be a cause of concern, especially since these are known actors in the metagame. By comparison the three most popular decks at the end of Strixhaven season had 17.24% of the Top 32 metagame (Dimir variants), 10.04% (Burn), and 8.71% (Flicker Tron). That’s just about 36%. Now this is not an apples-to-apples comparison as two weeks is not eight weeks, but the disparity in these numbers is stark.

How did we get here? Storm is clearly the best level zero deck – the deck might not have the numbers that others do but if you are not running an answer to Storm, whether it be hate cards or winning before they do, you are going to lose. This is where the other two decks come into the fold. Affinity is not only able to run efficient hate for Storm in Echoing Truth or Krark-Clan Shaman, but it can also run an over-the-top kill in Atog-Fling to go along with its new plan of free 4/4 beatdown. It is a robust deck that can get ahead and stay there. Enter Dimir with its good counter magic and free removal as a way to check Affinity as well as the possibility of targeted Atog-Fling hate in Hydroblast. Add to this the opportunity to run good anti-Storm cards – Echoing Decay, Echoing Truth, and to a lesser extent Duress.

So that helps to explain why these are the big three, but why are they so resilient? Against Storm ones needs specific hate drawn at the correct moment to have a shot. Dimir is easier as it is simply a good deck with a well established metagame pressence. But Affinity…Affinity was a sleeping giant.

Affinity has long been a deck, like Dredge in other formats, held back by potent sideboard hate. One reason Affinity never experienced a sustained run of success is that it was trivially easy to disrupt its mana thanks to Gorilla Shaman (and to a lesser extent Ancient Grudge). Running Affinity was a massive risk because there was a non-zero chance you were not going to be able to play the game. The indestructible lands changed everything. This is not to say that the only way to curtail Affinity is to target its lands but the lands were the risk in the risk-reward dichotomy. Now there’s no real risk, only reward. No deck can match Affinity for consistency and speed and thanks to Atog and Fling, removal can only do so much.

So what’s the solution? I don’t have one at the moment. I think that once Chatterstorm gets banned (which it probably will at some point), something from Affinity has to go with it to prevent it from increasing its dominant run. I know some folks have floated a potential Atog ban and that might be good enough.

But time will tell. For now, if you do not have a plan against Affinity and either Dimir or Storm, you might as well not bother playing.

And that’s never a good sign.

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June 5-6 Pauper Weekend in Review

It is impossible to talk about the June 5 and June 6 Pauper Challenges without discussing the format’s current sciurophobia.

Yes, I’m going to make you look it up.

It is extremely early in the Modern Horizons 2 season but there have been a number of developments that will have a profound impact. The first is the presence of a viable Storm kill card in Chatterstorm. Pauper is dense with rituals and card filtering so it is always one good spout away from exerting a ton of stress on the format. So here we are.

“But Alex,” you’re probably saying, “Storm wasn’t dominant. What gives?” Storm decks flexed their muscles and helped to narrow the metagame in the first week. Dimir Faeries was one the most played deck last season and kept the numbers up. The fact that it can run discard, Echoing Decay, and Echoing Truth just help it against Storm while not suffering against the wider metagame. Boros Bully has adopted Rustvale Bridge and other indestructible lands to go with Cleansing Wildfire (powerful against Squirrel Storm but weak against the Izzet variant) to pivot towards a land denial strategy with Fiery Cannonade in the sideboard.

Speaking of Artifact Lands, Affinity has emerged as the big winner thanks to Sojourner’s Companion, new lands, and Krark-Clan Shaman. The ability to wipe the board at will is huge when your likely to die from a horde of 2/2 squirrels in one turn. The fact that Affinity can back this up with eight different 4/4s and Atog/Fling makes it an absolute monster right now. The fact that Gorilla Shaman has lost some of its punch these days means it is going to take some time before the machine breaks down again.

So is this a problem? Chatterstorm has racked up numerous turn one wins and has people calling for a ban. Those of you who follow me know I’m no stranger to calling out problematic cards with some speed.

Here’s where I stand today: we need a little more time to see adjustments. If we start to see a rise in other decks and strategies than can compete in this new metagame, it might not need a bad. However if Chatterstorm creates a narrow metagame (similar to what we saw this past weekend) action will need to be taken to keep it and other meta monsters in check.

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In Anticipation of Modern Horizons 2

I couldn’t bring myself to do a metagame recap for the May 29 and May 30 Pauper Challenges. This has nothing to do with the outcome of those events but rather the looming specter of Modern Horizons 2. The set is poised to turn the metagame on its ear, and the addition of Chatterstorm is only part of the impending sea change.

Before diving deeper, I want to discuss how I view Pauper as it exists in the current moment. It is a format in flux but there are some things that have remained true.

  • The format has a fundamental turn of four. While some above average draws can get there on turn three, on average the game will hinge on the fourth turn.
  • There is little incentive to win early. Aside from WonderWalls combo and Burn there just is not a ton of pressure applied to the first few turns. The result is that over time we have seen decks shift towards a focus on dominant endgames as opposed to pressing an early advantage. You can see this in various two-color Spellstutter Sprite decks that over time cut Delver of Secrets in an effort to have a better late game.
  • Outside of hyperlinear decks and Tron, this has created a format of midrange. Due to the nature of most Pauper engines being ones of pure card economy, the resulting slog can often come down to who has more options. The advent of Cascade decks has changed this somewhat, forcing decks to not only accumulate cards but also to efficiently deploy them.

Modern Horizons 2 is going to change things. We have to start with Chatterstorm (you can read my thoughts here). I believe there is around a 5% chance that this card remains legal for the long term. Before we get to the sliding doors part of this run down, let’s talk about what the latest set is likely to do:

Pauper is going to get faster

Regardless of whether or not Chatterstorm is banned, MH2 is packing a ton of powerful options at the low end of the curve. The Dual Artifact Lands are going to make Affinity and Metalcraft more consistent while also giving more decks access to Galvanic Blast. The new Arcbound creatures and Foundry Helix are going to apply a ton of pressure and help to mitigate removal.

There are plenty of other cards that are going to apply pressure. Glimmer Bairn and Goblin Anarchomancer are begging to be paired with Sprout Swarm. Hell Mongrel and friends might just make Madness viable. Whenever a set like MH2 comes along it provides cards at a better rate than would appear in a Standard set. This alone helps to push the curve of the format lower.

More Engines

There are three different common creatures that tap to draw a card in Modern Horizons 2. Floodhound is the worst of these, costing three mana to Investigate. The nice part about the good dog is that you can store the clues for later. Gild-Blade Prowler asks that you have discarded a card before you get your draw, but if you have it costs a measly one mana and one life. Between Cycling lands, Retrace, and Tortured Existence, this card is set up to power black midrange decks up quite a bit. Deepwood Denizen might be the most expensive of the bunch, but when paired with Elvish Vanguard this basically costs a single green mana to draw a card.

These are just the card draw engines. Madness and discard decks acquired a ton of tools The +1/+1 counter theme might be strong enough to push a Hardened Scales style deck (we see you Vault Skirge). I don’t think it’s good enough but I definitely want Sinister Starfish to do something.

So we have a format that is pulled in two directions. We have the addition of cheap options that encourage earlier plays while also adding several engines that reward protecting the crown (but not the Monarch). Here’s how I see the format shaking out.

Chatterstorm is Banned

If Chatterstorm is banned in the first few months of its existence I think the format is going to be in a weird spot. Affinity and similar decks likely turn into one of the best things to do early. I don’t think we will see a settled “best build” for a few months.

We are likely to see a ton of Spellstutter Sprite decks as a way to apply control the game with counter magic. White decks probably get a boost thanks to Dust to Dust. People are going to try and make Mono-Black work and chances are it will not succeed thanks in part to how well Affinity matches up with Swamps.

In this world, Tron is likely to emerge as a strong contender. I think the days of Gorilla Shaman acting as a check on Affinity are numbered. Instead we are going to see cards like Ancient Grudge and Shattering Pulse, which can handle multiple non-land artifacts, go up in value.

The format will likely look similar to what currently exists, only with the specter of Atog looming large. Decks that can fight against Fling and win will be set up for success.

Chatterstorm Stays Legal

Here is where things get interesting. I think if Chatterstorm stays legal it is going to force a shift in the way Pauper games are played. Instead of trying to eventually win the game, players are going to have to try an actively win. Again, Affinity style decks are probably one of the early favorites here as they are established in their paths to victory.

Delver of Secrets probably makes a comeback. Access to a quick clock is likely to be vital in racing an army of Squirrels. The fact that Delver decks can also easily pack Echoing Truth and counters make them a solid choice in fighting Storm decks.

Black decks get a boost here. Echoing Decay is a decent card in its own right but can do serious work against an army of tokens. Black decks also can run Crypt Rats which can put a crimp in the plans of those squirrels.

The big losers in this world are Monarch and Tron. Don’t get me wrong, both of these will still be major players. However pushing the format closer to turn 3 to turn 4 makes it harder to justify taking the first three turns to play for a payoff. Tron could likely handle Affinity and other aggressive decks but will have to make concessions in the mana base in order to fight Storm early. Similarly, Monarch decks might find themselves under additional pressure from colorless creatures (Myr Enforcer and Salamyrdar Enforcer), meaning Prismatic Strands might not be good enough.

There’s more, of course. Until the games are actually played and cards are either banned or not banned everything is up in the air. Regardless, the next few weeks are going to be incredibly interesting and exciting.

May 15-16 Pauper Weekend in Review

We are now second four weeks of Strixhaven season. The May 15 and May 16 Pauper Challenges showcased a continuation of trends seen in the first four weeks.

Spellstutter Sprite decks performed extremely well this past weekend, taking down 5 Top 8 slots overall. The other top decks from the first month – Burn, Grixis Affinity, and Flicker Tron – stood strong and had a decent showing. The success of Boros Monarch on Saturday should not come as a shock. Boros Monarch has traditionally been strong against Spellstutter Sprite decks and Burn while having the tools to easily negate Affinity (between Gorilla Shaman and Prismatic Strands). It follows that it was well positioned to have a solid showing. The question is whether or not it can keep pace with the rest of the format. Last week I said I expected to see a rise in Pestilence as a way to counteract Faeries. I dun goofed but seeing Boros Monarch thrive on Saturday means that if you came to beat Faeries and Burn you were on the right track.

Looking ahead to next weekend I would want to be off of Burn. I think its time in the spotlight has passed and we are going to see more life gain in the next few Challenges. Ramp decks could be poised to succeed next weekend for a few reasons. First is that they can match up well against Spellstutter Sprite decks, especially if they can get a jump on the first few turns. Cascade and Bonder’s Ornament means that they can keep on cards with Monarch. Finally these decks also have access to the tools to fight Affinity.

These decks can struggle with hyper linear strategies, however. So if I wanted to juke the ramp players I would be exploring my friend Slippery Bogle or trying to set up a Tuktuk Rubblefort.

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May 8-9 Pauper Weekend in Review

Strixhaven Midyear Break

We are four weeks into Strixhaven season and thanks to the May 8 and May 9 Pauper Challenges we have the results of eight different events. To that end I want to do a slightly deeper dive on the winner’s metagame.

But before we get to that, here’s a TL; DR quick hit version:

  • Dimir Faeries is the most popular archetype and is somehow both better and worse than its raw numbers.
  • Flicker Tron might be the best deck but its standing is more volatile than in season’s past.
  • Burn is underrated and under-respected.

So let’s take a look at the winner’s metagame as it relates to raw volume. Any deck listed has at least 5 Top 32 finishes, which is approximately 2% of the Top 32 metagame.

Winner’s Metagame, April 17-May 9

Speaking from the perspective of popularity, Dimir Faeries leads the way with Stompy and Flicker Tron in the second group, Burn, WonderWalls, Grixis Affinity, and WonderWalls as the next tier and a large scrum around the 5% mark. This is a relatively diverse metagame at a macro level – even if you lump all the Spellstutter Sprite decks together they don’t top 20% of the raw volume.

Dimir Faeries has backed up this popularity with four wins – the most of any archetype – and 7 Top 8 appearances. Dimir Faeries is one of the better decks once you make it to the elimination rounds but perhaps due to its popularity can often suffer in the Swiss. Consider if you will how powerful Snuff Out is and how awkward it can be in the mirror. Dimir Faeries therefore may struggle against itself but have a strong matchup against the field at large.

None of this is to say Dimir Delver is a bad deck. Rather it occupies a weird space where going into the Top 8 it is merely good, but once there it can be a dominating force. Compare this to Flicker Tron (no wins, 9 Top 8s), which does a great job of making the Top 8 (over 39% of Tron decks in the Top 32 make the Top 8), but struggles to seal the deal (at least in this season). Still, it is hard to argue against Tron as the best deck as it is more likely to finish int he Top 16 than outside it at this point.

Weighted Metagame, April 17-May 9

This leads us to the curious case of Burn. Burn is an archetype by some Pauper regulars as it is perceived as a deck that requires a different skill set – a skill set some imply is “less than”. It is hard to deny that over the first four weeks of Strixhaven season Burn has been borderline great. It has a win and 7 finishes in the Top 8. That puts it into conversation as one of the better decks for the past four weeks.

If you look at Dimir Faeries and Flicker Tron as one end of the interactivity spectrum, the other two top decks – Burn and WonderWalls – showcase how to succeed in the face of countermagic. Both of these decks are relentless in their assault and approach the game from a different angle of attack. The result is that they can simply win when opponent’s are unprepared. These decks likely benefited from a lack of Orzhov Pestilence based decks in the field, which tend to not only pack creature removal and discard, but also have access to some powerful life gain spells.

So what does this mean for the next few weeks? Personally I would be avoiding combo decks that fold to removal. I would also avoid Faeries as I expect to see a surge in Pestilence and similar effects. As a result I anticipate seeing a surge in other Monarch strategies, Tron, and more traditional Delver strategies. Consequentially I could also see a boost to Elves as WonderWalls takes a small step backwards.

What do you think? What will be the big player in the run up to Modern Horizons 2?

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May 1-2 Pauper Weekend in Review

Last week I talked about the threat of a “Combo Spring” and this week I wish I was clever enough to come up with a good Groundhog Day joke because it seems like my prediction came six weeks too early. The May 1 and May 2 had their fair share of combo decks but the real story was the power of sideboard cards.

May 1 Challenge
May 2 Challenge

I had underestimated the ability of Hydroblast as a way to combat First Day of Class combo. The Goblin Combo deck struggles when the field is full of cheap interaction. It follows that we saw a resurgence of blue based tempo and control decks – 9 of the decks to make Top 8 this past weekend had access to Hydroblast or Blue Elemental Blast. The fact that these cards also have utility against some key players – Boarding Party and Fiery Cannonade – doesn’t hurt.

The deck that benefited the most from the metagame shift is Grixis Affinity. Eschewing green and Carapace Forger, Grixis Affinity is more reliant on Atog as a way to end games in concert with Disciple of the Vault. The result is midrange deck that can attack from multiple angles and is strung together with powerful card draw and selection (Thoughtcast, Night’s Whisper, Witching Well). Perhaps the most important addition as of late is Makeshift Munitions, which can give the strategy some much needed reach and board control elements.

Why did Grixis Affinity surge? Looking at the results it appears that folks valued the ability to Snuff Out more than the chance to run Gorilla Shaman. That meant the Counterspell decks of the weekend were paired with black rather than red, which reduced the amount of powerful artifact hate. The result is a weekend that catapulted Grixis Affinity up the power rankings.

So what does that mean for next week? I would definitely stay off of Grixis Affinity next week, or any Artifact Land based deck. I’d also do my best to avoid running blue or red as I would like to avoid getting ‘Blasted out of the tournament.

April 17-May 1, minimum 4 appearances

April 24-25 Pauper Weekend in Review

Or Here Comes Combo Spring

There were two Challenges this past weekend and in both the April 24 and April 25 events combo did quite well, taking down a combined 5 Top 8 slots (and two wins). There were also four dedicated combo decks in this week’s League results. These results don’t take into account decks like Affinity and Elves, both of which have “combo elements, or Tron and Familiars, which have combo locks. Pauper is primed for a season where combo decks could dominate. I want to take some time to explore why.

Decks with at least three appearances OR a Top 8 through the first four Strixhaven Challenges

Combo has been a tricky archetype for Pauper. When combo decks are good they tend to be overpowering. Traditional Storm combo with Empty the Warrens and Grapeshot proved to be too strong for the format. Cloudpost powered Temporal Fissure decks were too strong for the format. Cloud of Faeries, Frantic Search, Peregrine Drake – all too good in their respective combo decks. Most recently Gush was banned which neutered Izzet Blitz and Tireless Tribe (although both still pop up from time to time).

All of these combo decks were heavily spell based. While some utilized creatures as components or spouts, they all tended to primarily win through casting cheap instants and sorceries and leveraging their ability to control the stack and defend their victory condition. They were also all blue, which made defending their wins that much easier.

The problem with these decks is that Pauper lacked the tools to effectively constrain them. There are no Arcane Laboratory or Rule of Law effects. There are no Mindbreak Traps. No Inquisition of Kozilek or Thoughtseize; no Meddling Mage or Damping Sphere or Thalia, Guardian of Thraben.

And given the nature of Pauper there never will be.

So why do I think we are poised to enter a time when combo decks will not only be viable but will be actively good? It all has to do with their composition. These decks are largely creature based but they all operate on different axes of attack. The result is that while the format might be able to answer one at any given time another combo deck can rise for that weekend and do well.

Additionally, the best color against creature based combo is black and black is not exactly heavily played at the moment. Mono-Black Control is living on borrowed time and Gray Merchant curve draws. Other black midrange decks have moved away from heavy hand disruption and instead lean on black for removal and occasionally Blightning.

There are some common pinch points in many of these decks and being prepared for them can help you mitigate some otherwise tough matchups. Elves, Goblins, and Walls all lean heavily on one toughness creatures (Quirion Ranger and Skirk Propspector). Cards like Mogg Fanatic, Fume Spitter, Granger Guildmage, Gut Shot, and others can act as a check on these. Goblins and Cycling Songs both lean on their graveyard so Crypt Incursion or Tormod’s Crypt can come in handy. Having access to pinpoint discard either main or side can help as well. While Duress will whiff, cards like Castigate, Divest, or Memory Leak can help (even if that last one is a tad expensive). And finally, I would try to find a good home for Pestilence, but one where you can get it out a turn earlier.

Pestilence is a fantastic card for controlling the board. The ability to consistently keep the battlefield clear of small creatures makes it a potent option for combating creature based combo decks. The issue is having it out before their fundamental turn – turn 4. Pestilence needs to be active on turn 4 to matter in these matchups. This means having access to ramp, whether it be Sakura-Tribe Elder or Charcoal Diamond or an appropriate Signet. All of these can help you stick the Enchantment on the third turn putting your adversary in a bind. This is a small edge of course but these edges can add up over a large enough sample size.

But with any of these checks you have to accept a few truths. First is that sometimes the combo deck is just going to have it and there’s nothing you can do. Second, you have to accept that sometimes you’re going to have the wrong hate and you’ll just have to take your lumps. That’s why it is so important to find answers that can act as guards against multiple archetypes and not load up on Trespasser’s Curse as your only anti-combo card (although tutoring it up with Heliod’s Pilgrim seems fun).

So that’s where we are. Combo is on the rise and that’s a good thing. It makes the format more dynamic and rewards correctly anticipating shifts in the metagame. So what does that mean for next week? With both WonderWalls and Goblin Combo on the rise I would expect a decent amount of decks to be loading up on Snuff Out and Gut Shot next weekend. I don’t think that will be enough to hold these decks back but it might be enough of a window for Stompy or Bogles to make a big swing at things. So where does that put me? On desperately trying to find a good Pestilence deck.

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