September 24-25 Pauper Weekend Recap

This past weekend was the first set of challenges since the Initiative was taken down a notch. The resulting metagame has some familiar features but is hardly the same old Pauper. As anticipated, Affinity came out in numbers but was it a force to be reckoned with?

Affinity was almost certainly the best deck on the weekend, taking down 4 Top 8 slots in 12 Top 32 appearances. It averaged close to a Top 16 finish in the Swiss rounds and taking those four Top 8s into account had 27 more wins than losses. If these numbers were consistent for several weeks there might be an underlying issue with the deck but as it stands this weekend is just the first set of data.

So what are the take-aways from this weekend beyond the presence of Affinity? In my mind there are four.

Tolarian Terror is Real

The absence of Faeries is not surprising as that archetype tends to do better in more settled metagames. However the number of Dimir decks featuring Tolarian Terror might be a small bad omen for Spellstutter Sprite and Friends. Terror has some serious closing power but demands a deck full of spells as opposed to creatures. If Terror is as good as believed it could split Faerie stalwarts and open up the metagame some, giving a sense of dynamism between weeks when Terror is better than Sprite and vice versa.

Gatecrash

Basilisk Gate is a fantastic damage engine in otherwise anemic offensive decks. CawGate might be a fine collection of cards but without access to the Gate it can take forever to close out games. There are multiple varieties of Gate decks but my favorite right now might be the one starts with the Cauldron Familiar engine, backs it up with Deadly Dispute, and ends on Basilisk Gate.

The New Old Red

Kuldotha Red looks to be the leading red deck in the new metagame. It is low enough to the ground and has enough burn to supplement Monastery Swiftspear. I thought that given the meta shift that Red Blitz would be a larger factor but it seems that people cannot get away from value and Kuldotha Red, thanks to Experimental Syntheszier, has that covered.

On Ramp to Initiative

The Initiative is still present in the metagame, finding a home in the Green-X Arbor Elf ramp decks. These decks can accelerate into land destruction and top their curve with cascade threats like Annoyed Altisaur. Avenging Hunter slots perfectly into these decks and provides more persistent advantage than Owlbear. At the same time these decks are somewhat vulnerable to awkward draws and low to the ground decks that can get their threats under Stone Rain, so it remains to be seen if they have staying power.

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September 17-18 Pauper Weekend Recap

Okay to get things out of the way, the Dominaria United season as we knew it is over thanks to a few bans. If you want the full run down, please check out this highly detailed video from Gavin Verhey (and the other members of the Pauper Format Panel [of which I am a member]).

Okay, with that out of the way we are almost ready to look forward. Why almost? Because before we can discuss the texture of the format after the bans take place we need to better understand what was taking place leading up to today. For the record here is every deck with at least four appearances in the Challenges (or a Top 8 finish):

There’s a lot of information in here and it can be tough to parse the signal from the noise. The Kuldotha Red numbers, for example, are heavily inflated by 13 appearances in the September 18 Challenge which may have been a reaction to the success of Initiative running up to last weekend. Still, we can use the data to help make some “best guesses” as to what things will look like moving forward.

First and foremost, despite being not as relevant for the past few weeks, Affinity is absolutely going to be a major player in Pauper. The deck has lost nothing and is poised to find its footing without being pressured as early thanks to Initiative. Krark-Clan Shaman and Makeshift Munitions might falter in the face of Monastery Swiftspear but they do alright against Goblin tokens. And speaking of, a rise in Affinity makes all decks that run artifacts as an integral component somewhat riskier thanks to the up tick in Dust to Dust.

But you can’t keep Monastery Swiftspear down. The strategy was one of the best leading up to Dominaria United and adapted to the world of Initiative. Swiftspear decks are incredibly efficient and can win from nowhere thanks to the decks ability to churn through cards. I fully expect Swiftspear decks to return as the format’s clock.

Speaking of clocks, you can expect some form of Spellstutter Sprite deck to be strong. Get it? Because it’s like clockwork. Okay they’re not all winners but you get the point. Combining cheap blue filtering and countermagic with a removal suite has been good for quite some time and is going to remain a powerful option. The only way these decks could drop off a cliff is if Tolarian Terror decks are that much better.

Tolarian Terror came on strong this weekend and it is not hard to see why. It rewards you for playing spells by coming down quickly but unlike Gurmag Angler it does not eat the graveyard. This means each Ponder in the bin is a persistent point of generic mana. Terror decks can trade early and often on the stack and then mop up with their large, hard-to-solve haymaker. Now you can still Snuff Out a Terror but I imagine that we might see a small uptick in Diabolic Edict like effects in an effort to end the reign of this card.

Finally, Initiative is not dead. Arbor Elf powered ramp decks have been a staple of the format for the better part of the year and they just added another tool. Avenging Hunter had already shown up in spots and Goliath Paladin looks like it can hold the fort rather well. The fact that this deck can also ramp into Imperial Oath – and those tokens can wear Forge counters rather well – means Selesnya Ramp may just be the next big midrange thing.

What decks do you think are going to show up this week? What strategies are you excited to play?

I want to take a moment to thank all my Patrons – both old and new. I am going to do my level best to keep providing you with the kind of content that brought you here in the first place. If you are interested in supporting my work, rewards for my Patreon start at just $1 and every little bit helps.

The First Two Weeks of Dominaria United

But let’s be real – this is all about the Initiative.

Dominaria United and Initiative came to Magic Online at almost the exact same time and since then there have been four Challenges, with the Initiative taking down two of them. Given that these cards are still somewhat scarce on MTGO I do not want to read too much into the initial data. At the same time, I want to do a better job exploring what story the data I collect is telling. To that end, I am adding another metric.

In his recent run on the mothership Frank Karsten has shared how he derives a “match weighted” metagame – total match wins less total match losses. While Karsten is able to do this for every deck in an event I am limited to the Top 32 lists. For those wondering why I only use the officially reported results, it is because it is the only way I can get completely accurate decklist information. So this metric gets entered into the chart under the title of “K-Wins“. This number takes into account elimination round success in a way Win+ does not. It also allows me to compare actual volume to the volume as it relates to Win+ and as it relates to K-Wins, giving us an idea of where a deck’s so called “True Volume” should reside.

With that out of the way, let’s take a look at the first four weeks:

Right out of the gate it becomes clear that the new metagame is different from the one that existed prior to Initiative. While Grixis Affinity is still a top tier deck (6 Top 8s, 1 win, True Volume at 15.45%), everything surrounding it is different.

Initiative is clearly a big player, to the point where the deck is being run in line with Storm combo. Dimir Initiative takes the Faeries shell but eschews Ninja of the Deep Hours for a game based around the powerful four drop options. It also has added Dark Ritual to try and play to the board earlier. Dimir Initiative has 5 Top 8s and a win, and thanks to some very strong showings has a True Volume of 12.59%, out performing its actual metagame presence by 2.43%. Turbo Initiative takes this a step further and goes all in on resolving one of its namesake cards as early as possible. The deck burst on to the scene this past weekend so it only has a single Top 8 and win to its credit, but it is definitely a deck to watch.

CawGate has emerged as a real contender thus far this season. It has 4 Top 8s in 8 total Top 32 appearances, and a win. It runs the right mix of countermagic and hard to block creatures that it can take the Initiative, while also preventing it from going back with Prismatic Strands. It’s True Volume of 9.46% is over three percentage points higher than it’s actual volume, which indicates that it has been underplayed to this point.

This deck, which I’m calling Kuldotha Red, is a mashup of various red decks. It takes elements of Burn and Blitz, while layering on the Kuldotha Rebirth value engine. Going wide gives it another dimension of attack against the Initiative and thus far it shows: 6 Top 8s in 11 Top 32 finishes and a True Volume of 11.57%.

Okay, but what does this all mean? Grixis Affinity and Initiative are likely the best decks thus far, but there is a strong case to be made that both have vulnerabilities. CawGate seems very well suited, at least to fight the damage from Affinity and push through Initiative. Beyond that it does appear the other Guardian of the Guildpact strategies could find a niche in the meta, if they can survive long enough to resolve their key threat.

Alternatively you could go way under with cards like Gingerbrute, Tormented Soul, and Glaze Fiend all seeing play in part due to their ability to get through unhindered. Changeling Outcast and Slither Blade also place in this space and might just be good enough to fight for the one drop slot. But until then, watch out for Initiative because that mechanic is very real.

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August 27-28 Pauper Weekend Recap

Last week I went into some detail on some of the stories of Double Masters 2022 Season. The final weekend challenges of the season were won by established decks Gate Blade and Red Blitz but Grixis Affinity, and more importantly the Affinity shell, put up good numbers.

There are a lot of interesting threads woven through the past nine weeks, but if I had to pick the most important it would be that red is likely the best color in the format right now.

Let’s go back to the first few events after Monastery Swiftspear was downshifted. Red Blitz put a new pressure on the format due to its ability to consistently present a game ending threat on the third or fourth turn of the game. What made Blitz so dangerous was that it did not rely on Lightning Bolt and similar effects to get the job done and instead is built on cheap spells that either replace themselves or have some other benefit.

Take Lava Dart for example. Trading a Lightning Bolt for a Quirion Ranger against Elves is often correct but never felt great as a red player. Lava Dart wants to be spent early so it can be “free” later for the combo turn. Crash Through and Ancestral Anger both give evasion while drawing cards and like all other spells in the deck add to the damage output. Red Blitz is a deck that is more than the sum of its parts but requires one of its spouts to function. Compare this to traditional Burn which is a deck where each spell will almost always fulfill its purpose regardless of the other cards in play or in your hand.

But then there’s Grixis Affinity. Part of this decks strength resides in its resilience with Blood Fountain but this deck also has a very “red” angle of attack thanks to Makeshift Munitions. Converting otherwise useless resources into damage, even a single damage, is enough to end the game eventually. While Affinity can kill quickly thanks to Myr Enforcer and Gurmag Angler teaming up with Galvanic Blast, it has become a red deck far more comfortable in the latter turns of a game.

So for one of the first times in Pauper’s history red has the ability to kill you fast or slow. The kind of cards that are good against fast red are not as strong against slow red and vice versa. Even cards that are somewhat powerful against fast red, like Weather the Storm, are somewhat useless in the face of Temur Battle Rage.

Fast forward four weeks to the first dribs and drabs of Battle for Baldur’s Gate on Magic Online. The set almost immediately makes an impact thanks to the pairing of Sacred Cat and Basilisk Gate in Gate Blade. This damage engine catches on in Boros Bully, adding Lunarch Veteran as another source of life gain. Now there are decks capable of pressuring life totals early and often while also bolstering their own in the face of red decks. Lunarch Bully caught on quickly, perhaps because it was proactive or perhaps because the shell already existed. This past weekend Gate Blade won on Saturday and was the most popular Top 32 deck on Sunday. And it did this in part by being a traditional White-Blue Control deck in a field of red.

So where does that leave the format in the wake of Dominaria United? While the set looks interesting nothing jumps out as format shaking. Instead we already saw a bit of a course correction on Saturday with an increase in Gruul Cascade decks running Thermokarst and Mwonvul Acid-Moss, possibly as a way to hit Gates and possibly due to how good Annoyed Altisaur is against Counterspell. If I were trying to level the metagame for this weekend, I would look at a way to fit white into the Cascade-Ramp engine as a way to preserve my life total.

I want to take a moment to thank all my Patrons – both old and new. I am going to do my level best to keep providing you with the kind of content that brought you here in the first place. If you are interested in supporting my work, rewards for my Patreon start at just $1 and every little bit helps.

August 20-21 Pauper Weekend Recap

Today’s entry is going to lean heavily on this post, so please read that first. After eight weeks of Double Masters 2022 season, I want to take a look at three of the top decks but to do that we need to establish some parameters.

First, let’s talk about the fact that I only examine the Top 32 decklists. When I started this project that was the only data readily available where I could verify the composition of each deck. These breakdowns are not meant to be a comprehensive look at every matchup but rather an exploration of what is doing well on a week to week basis. Using the Top 32 as a cutoff while far from ideal gives me a concrete data set that is accessible through Wizards’ own website.

The measure upon which a lot of these conclusions are drawn is Win+. This measure looks at decks and assigns them one point for each win at X-2 or above. So in a six round Challenge a 4-2 record has a Win+ of 1, a 5-1 record a Win+ of two; for a seven found Challenge a 5-2 record has a Win+ of 1 and so on. This is because an X-3 record, more often than not, is the breakeven point. Sometimes an X-4 record sneaks into the Top 32 (more often than not these days), but when looking at the relative strength of a deck in a given field, I’m looking at wins above the break even point.

Win+ gives another pool of volume data – that is the entire collection of Win+ points available in a Top 32 pool. This provides a chance to examine how much of the winner’s share an archetype is occupying. Win+ can also be compared to a deck’s presence in the metagame to give an ratio that, the closer it is to 1, the closer a deck is to consistently placing in the Top 16 as a Win+ score of 1 often (but not always) equates to a Top 16 finish.

With all of that out of the way let’s take a look at Double Masters 2022 season broken down into chunks: July 2-July 24 and July 30-August 21:

Today I want to talk about Grixis Affinity, Red Blitz, and Izzet Faeries.

Red Blitz – the Monastery Swiftspear powered Temur Battle Rage deck burst on to the scene and has an immediate impact. In the first four weeks it had 9 Top 8s in 42 total appearances, including a win. Despite reshaping the metagame in many ways it was merely a good deck and not a great one – it did not outperform it’s volume by that much (actual volume: 16.41%; winner’s share: 16.84%) and had a Win+:Volume ratio of .76. Despite taking a back seat in the next four weeks it arguable did better on these metrics – eight Top 8s in 33 appearances with an actual/winner’s split of 11.46%/12.32%. The Win+:Volume ratio this time as .79. Over the eight weeks of the season so far Red Blitz has 75 total Top 32 appearances, 17 Top 8s, a W+:V ratio of .77 and an actual/winner’s split of 13.79%/14.57%.

Red Blitz has been a consistently good, but not great deck, over the course of the season.

This sets the stage to talk about Grixis Affinity. The deck was overshadowed by Blitz in the first four weeks with only 20 Top 32 finishes, including 5 Top 8s and a win. The W+/V ratio during this time was .75 and the actual/winner’s split was 7.81%/7.89%. In other words, for the first four weeks of the season Affinity was merely another good deck if you look just at the results.

The second four weeks tell a different story. Affinity has 17 Top 8s with 4 wins in a whopping 62 Top 32 appearances. The W+/V ratio improved to .79 (the same as Blitz over the same time span) with an actual/winner’s split of 21.53%/23.22%. Over the entire season Affinity clocks in with 82 Top 32 appearances, 22 Top 8s with 5 wins, a W+/V ratio of .78 and an actual/winner’s split of 15.07%/16.08%.

Grixis Affinity has had a stellar month and that has more than made up for a slow start.

When looking at the Winner’s Metagame it is vital to understand that these two decks are shaping it. Despite falling off as of late Red Blitz is an absolute house of a deck and Grixis Affinity has transitioned to being the preeminent control deck in the format. These two have made up a little more than a quarter of the Top 32 metagame this season, over 30% of the weighted metagame, and almost 29% of all Top 8s, with Affinity winning 5 of 17 challenge level events.

So why do I also want to talk about Izzet Faeries?

In the first four weeks of the season, Izzet Faeries had a respectable 21 Top 32 appearances with 7 Top 8s and a win. It’s W+/V ratio was .9. In the second four weeks of the season the deck had another 20 Top 32 appearances, 8 Top 8s and a win but it had a W+/V ratio of 1.1 – meaning it averaged better than Top 16 appearance. Overall Izzet Faeries has 41 Top 32 appearances with 15 Top 8s, 2 wins, and a W+/V ratio of 1. It has been the most consistent deck all season.

Now this analysis does not correct for raw volume – Affinity has twice the Top 32 appearances as Izzet. It also does not take into account what happens outside the Top 32. Taken together this information helps to paint a picture of the different poles of the current Pauper metagame.

Red Blitz is very much the clock of the format – it establishes the timeline by which other decks must establish a defense or succumb to pressure.

Affinity is the control deck, built with effective card draw, resilience, and interaction, it will win the game if it goes long.

Izzet Faeries is the one of the viable midrange options right now and trends towards control but does a fine job of clearing the board to end the game.

It’s not included in the wider breakdown the but the latest build of Boros Bully using Lunarch Veteran and Basilisk Gate is the best “midrange” aggressive deck by a decent margin as it can both go tall with Gate or wide with Battle Screech and Rally the Peasants.

So where does that leave Pauper? Red is everywhere but Galina’s Knight is not a large enough threat to end the game. Affinity presents a real riddle for the long game as failure to exile its threats means they are just going to come back. Regardless we are only a few short weeks away from Dominaria United which could inject some new tools into the format.

For now, I am going to leave you with the full chart metagame breakdown for Double Masters 2022 season so far.

I want to take a moment to thank all my Patrons – both old and new. I am going to do my level best to keep providing you with the kind of content that brought you here in the first place. If you are interested in supporting my work, rewards for my Patreon start at just $1 and every little bit helps.

August 13-14 Pauper Weekend Recap

Dominaria United previews are about to get underway but for now Pauper is still living in the world of Double Masters 2022. The August 13 and August 14 Challenges, as well as the Showcase Qualifier, were dominated by Affinity. For much of the past year this has been a common refrain and critique of Pauper: despite all the bans, Affinity is still a powerhouse.

July 30-August 14 Challenge results, minimum 4 appearances OR one Top 8 finish

This got me thinking about the four macroarchetypes and how they have stacked up against each other over the past seven weeks of the season. So let’s take a look:

Red Decks: Burn, Madness Burn, Red Blitz

July 2-July 24: 26.56% of the T32 Metagame; 28.31% of the Winner’s Metagame
July 30-August 14: 18.75% of the T32 Metagame; 16.94% of the Winner’s Metagame

None of this should be too surprising. In the wake of Monastery Swiftspear’s downshift many players flocked to red spells. In the intervening weeks as the meta has adjusted and shifted, red has taken a pretty significant hit. Red, despite being a powerful strategy, has a natural foil in life gain. While it is not an end all and be all, sufficient life gain present in the metagame can make it far more difficult for these decks to succeed. The abundance of Sacred Cat and Basilisk Gate decks, backed up with Lunarch Veteran, can help to mitigate the damage output.

Boros Decks: Blitz, Bully, Gates, Kuldotha, Synthesizer

July 2-July 24: 8.98% of the T32 Metagame; 7.89% of the Winner’s Metagame
July 30- August 14: 17.42% of the T32 Metagame; 19.19% of the Winner’s Metagame

While correlation is certainly not causation, we can infer that the increase in Boros decks (and the wide release of Baldur’s Gate cards) helped to bolster Boros while suppressing Red Decks. Boros is also a traditional enemy of Faerie decks and as we will see in a little bit these were extremely popular in the first half of the season. The issue with Boros is how diverse the archetype can be with strategies often bending boundaries and bleeding into one another. And yet these decks have enough differences to be distinct.

Faeries: Delver, Dimir Faeries, Faeries, Izzet Faeries

July 2-July 24: 26.95% of the T32 Metagame; 28.31% of the Winner’s Metagame
July 30- August 14: 16.97% of the T32 Metagame; 15.81% of the Winner’s Metagame

Faeries started out incredibly strong and has come back to the pack. None of this is surprising as Faerie decks often wax and wane in strength over the course of a season.

Affinity

July 2-July 24: 7.81% of the T32 Metagame; 7.89% of the Winner’s Metagame
July 30- August 14: 20.99% of the T32 Metagame; 23.72% of the Winner’s Metagame

That’s a pretty wide disparity. Looking at New Capenna season (April 30-June 26), Affinity had an 18.87% Top 32 metagame share while it had an even 20% of the Winner’s Metagame. So what happened during the first month of this season? Again, correlation is not causation but it appears that a lot of players shifted to Monastery Swiftspear at least initially before returning to the machine. It is also possible that with multiple high profile events taking place more recently (Qualifiers and the like) that people are more eager to try a deck that many consider to be “the best”.

The New Normal?

I am going to admit that sometimes I see format health discourse less as something constructive and more as a desire to return to some old glorious state. For people who have been playing Pauper for some time a lot of staple decks have fallen by the wayside and new metagame monsters – like Affinity – have emerged. As the cardpool grows so to does the overall power level and similarly, decks built on synergies that are common will get more tools – Boros is going to get more value creatures, blue is going to get more cheap spells, Affinity is going to get more Artifacts.

So then what should be the threshold for action? That is far less clear, even to me. You could look at metagame volume and how much a deck wins or you could try to examine play patterns and see whether or not they meet some arbitrary metric of “fun” or “desirable”. Historically cards have ended up on the Pauper ban list if their rate was too good (that is, the actual cost was too low for the output) and stifling the wider metagame.

Looking at the numbers posted above one could make the argument that Affinity has crossed this threshold and when the entire mechanic is based on “rate” then maybe it’s time to look at what makes that rate so attainable if and only if it deserves a ban.

But unlike bans of yore, Affinity isn’t stifling other decks to the point that other major players are being lapped by the archetype. Unless it actually is and then there’s a bigger question knocking down the door:

What is Pauper’s new normal?

Decks like Stompy and Mono Black Control are barely viable these days, overtaken by other strategies that do what they do, but better. Affinity, Boros, Faeries, and Red are all at the top right now and outside of Red decks the others do not have clear and obvious counterplay options. But should the format be reshaped by a bevy of bans or should it adjust to a new, higher power level?

This isn’t a question to be taken lightly as any action could have unintended consequences. I am not of the belief that the format is suffering under a weight of ban debt but rather that over the past two years several cards that may have been offensive in the format’s not too distant past have found their niche. Yet that is only my opinion and I know plenty of folks out there have different ones.

So again, is this the New Normal? And if so is it still fun?

If Affinity is a problem then what else might be lurking underneath? And if Affinity takes a knock. what else has to go to keep the format healthy, vibrant, and evolving?

I want to take a moment to thank all my Patrons – both old and new. I am going to do my level best to keep providing you with the kind of content that brought you here in the first place. If you are interested in supporting my work, rewards for my Patreon start at just $1 and every little bit helps.