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.

July 30-31 Pauper Weekend Recap

Pauper has turned a proverbial page and we are now in the second four week stretch of Double Masters 2022 Season. The first month ended with Faeries, Boros, and Monastery Swiftspear at the top of the metagame with Affinity remaining a major contender. Last weekend saw a Challenge on Saturday and Sunday in addition to the Showcase Qualifier on Saturday. Where does that leave us at the end of the day?

While this image may be a bit hard to read, things should be somewhat clear. The same macro strategies continue to perform well with Affinity, Faeries, and Boros all taking down events. The big story, to me at least, is the ascendancy of the Lunarch Veteran version of Boros Bully that runs the Basilisk Gate damage engine.

While this is not the list that won Saturday’s Challenge, instead making Top 8 on Sunday in the hands of Folero, this deck does a feature Raffine’s Informant. Informant is a great back up to Faithless Looting. More than that, it is arguably better in concert with Prismatic Strands since it not only advances your board state but provides a fresh body to use when you Connive away the Flashback Fog.

Boros Bully was already a deck based on a damage engine – that of going wide and ending the gate with Rally the Peasants. Basilisk Gate gives the deck another engine that works in a different direction. Where Bully traditionally won by going wide, Basilisk Gate allows it to go tall and present a single threat that can end the game. Guardian of the Guildpact is a fine target but Sacred Cat might be better right now. With Monastery Swiftspear and Affinity pressuring life totals, a 1/1 lifelink that can absorb a blow and come out swinging for Armadillo Cloak levels of life gain is huge. The fact that it requires two answers from Faeries does not hurt either.

So where would I look next week? I expect cards like Suffocating Fumes to see some play especially since black seems to be back on the menu thanks to Vampire Sovereign decks. But if you’re an enterprising Pauper, you might want to dig a bit deeper into the bulk box because a new storm might be a brewing.

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.

July 23-24 Pauper Weekend Recap

After July 23 and July 24, Pauper has a full month with the Double Masters 2022 downshifts available and several weeks of some Battle for Baldur’s Gate cards distributed on Magic Online. The resulting format is somehow entirely expected and full of surprises.

July 2-July 24 Challenges; minimum 5 Top 32 finishes OR Top 8 finish

Let’s start by talking about the elephant in the room – Monastery Swiftspear. This one card has had a massive impact on the format. Not only is its natural home the most popular deck, but it has also cropped up in both the Rakdos Madness Burn deck paired with Seeker of the Way in Boros Blitz. Swiftspear is a fantastic aggressive threat – the kind the format has sought for years to make beatdown decks viable – and it has done just that.

All that being said, Red Blitz is merely good. It might be the most popular discrete deck but it is less popular than Spellstutter Sprite decks overall and has fewer Top 8 finishes as well. Despite its strength the strategy has natural foils. Now, no one life gain spell is going to stop Temur Battle Rage, but enough of them round after round will make for a much rougher go of things. Similarly having access to the correct removal (do I have to bring up Dead Weight every week?) can buy you the time needed to establish your game plan.

Before we get to the real winner of July I want to talk about Basilisk Gate. This card has proven to be an absolute house. GateBlade was an early winner and Gate based game plans have continued to perform. However they have not matched Zoohn’s original GateBlade success. This may be part of the midrange problem – where midrange decks can perform well in league, where the meta is more open, but struggle in Challenges if they do not come with the right suite of answers. For example, going into next week I would want to be prepared for Affinity (it did win Sunday after all) and Spellstutter Sprite.

What? You thought it went away? Spellstutter Sprite decks – Delver, Faeries, Izzet Faeries, Dimir Faeries – have 23 Top 8 finishes (almost 36%), almost 27% of the Top 32 volume and over 32% of the Winner’s Metagame. Spellstutter Sprite gets better the lower the overall mana curve of the format AND these decks do well in more open metagames. The result is that blue decks are doing exceptionally well, which means Kor Skyfisher and Battle Screech could be a smart meta call moving into next weekend.

So here’s where I am at: the format is still about Monastery Swiftspear and failing to have a plan for it is a plan to fail. However, you need to be prepared to beat Spellstutter Sprite while not ignoring the fact that Affinity is still a viable deck. If I were trying to game the meta, I would want to be a Kor Skyfisher deck with access to efficient removal that does a good job of handling Swiftspear but also has a plan to beat a Guardian of the Guildpact with a Basilisk Gate. If I wanted to do something completely left of center, I would look at a go-wide green deck that can pressure a life total or one that attacks resources. Whether this is something in the vein of Stompy or one that can resolve a quick Ulamog’s Crusher remains to be seen.

But really, I’d probably play Kor Skyfisher.

I want to take a moment to thank all my Patrons – both old and new. Last week I saw the biggest jump in my growth in several years and 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 this work, rewards for my Patreon start at just $1 and every little bit helps.

July 16-17 Pauper Weekend Recap

The July 16 and July 17 Pauper Challenges continue to story of Double Masters 2022 and Battle for Baldurs Gate. Monastery Swiftspear is currently defining the format even if the decks it houses are not tearing up the metagame.

July 3-17 Pauper Challenges; minimum 4 appearances OR Top 8 finish

Monastery Swiftspear powered red decks are far and away the most popular discrete archetype. However, when looking at larger buckets we see Spellstutter Sprite decks as the most popular with just under 24% of the Top 32 metagame. When looking at the winner’s metagame – that is the share of wins at X-2 or better – Faeries comes in at just under 31%. Compare that to just over 16.5% for Red Blitz and the picture starts to become far more clear – Spellstutter Sprite is back even if it never left.

This makes sense. Roughly speaking you are going to be on the play 50% of the time and all of the spells in the Blitz deck are cheap. Spellstutter Sprite can stop them from storming off and put a blocker in the way of Monastery Swiftspear, buying you the time to draw into more counters and ways to mitigate the damage output. Or maybe you’re running red and you now have the time to find Lightning Bolt, Skred, or Fire // Ice.

All of this combined pushes the critical turn of the format down. While the Fundamental Turn – that is the turn when games are largely decided on the board – still hovers around 4, it may be that the most important turn in the format right now is turn two. If you are taking too much time off to develop your game plan, whether it be with tap lands or cards that do not directly impact the board, you can very easily find yourself three steps behind when it comes to Spellstutter and Swiftspear. At the same time the format is awash in sweepers that can do a solid job of helping you catch up, from Fiery Cannonade to the newer additions Breath Weapon and Arms of Hadar. All that being said you need to survive to that point.

So where does that leave the state of things? To me you really want to be looking at high impact one-drops. Cards like Lunarch Veteran have proven their worth already and maybe it’s time to bust out Soul Warden and Soul’s Attendant as well. I’ve already extolled the virtues of Dead Weight and believe it should be seeing way more play. Finally, it might be time to look at Elvish Mystic as a way to jump the curve and get you to the sweepers that much faster. If you’re trying for Arms of Hadar, Mind Stone or Signets might be the best call.

If you could take a moment to support my content through Patreon I would greatly appreciate it. Rewards start at $1 and allow me to take the time to dive deep into the issues surrounding Pauper.

Treasured Finds: Sarulf, Realm Eater

Welcome back to Treasured Finds: a place to appreciate Golgari and Witherbloom in Commander.

The other day a friend of me asked how I felt about the proliferation of potential Commanders. Overall, I’m fine with it as it not only gives more people access to different avenues of self expression but it also can enhances the sense of discovery I felt during the earliest days of Magic when I had to reach across the blacktop to try and learn every card to see what it did. It’s the joy of the prerelease that runs against an identity of a Magic player who desires perfect knowledge.

It’s not all upside. We get Commanders like Sarulf, Realm Eater which while undeniably cool, encourage a style of play that may be hard to swallow at more social tables. Sarulf wants things to die so you can blow up the world over and over again. Incredibly flavorful, but as someone who managed to achieve Sapling of Colfenor and Worldslayer once and everyone decided to concede so we could move to the next game, it isn’t exactly my jam (even if I do have a showcase version in my collection). There are lots of fun things that can be done with Sarulf, including turning the wolf into a Mutate stack (thanks EDHRec!) but the reality is that as a Commander it is hard for me to see a table where I leave happy by annihilating everyone in this specific way. It puts a target on your head and the second someone has a removal spell things are poised to turn south.

Instead I want to use today to talk about Sarulf and the black-green concept of unchecked growth. Golgari is concerned with the life-death cycle and this can be seen in its mechanics, but looking at the wider black-green slice of the color pie there is a through line of dangerous growth.

Grim Feast is not the first black-green gold card but it set the color pair on this path. Yes, your life total is going to grow as long as you can keep killing creatures. The spiritual precursor to Vulturous Zombie and Lord of Extinction, Grim Feast showcases this conceit of the color pair in that not only does it feed on death but that death is a hungry beast and wants to keep consuming. Doomgape is a clear descendant of this chain as it provides you with a nominally under-costed monster but one that has an unending need to consume. Where Sarulf feeds off of your opponent’s woe and potentially harms you, Doomgape eats your stuff and maybe deals some damage?

What happens when you pair black’s “greatness at any cost” mantra with green’s desire for natural growth? That is what Sarulf excels at demonstrating. Playing black and green does not have to be about the meticulous march of card advantage. There can a high risk-high reward element to playing the color pair that can put a hurt on your adversaries provided you’re willing to pay that price.

Do you enjoy my Commander content? If so, consider becoming a Patron.

July 9-10 Pauper Weekend Recap

A little push goes a long way, so I want to start by thanking Brian Coval and Phil Gallagher for stumping for me over the weekend. When two people you respect a great deal – as Magic players and as people – give you a shout out, it helps to rekindle a fire.

For the newcomers, welcome! I’ll do a more involved pitch later but before you go read further it would help to familiarize yourself with this post, which details how I go about exploring the Magic Online Top 32 Challenge metagames.

Okay, so first off, Pauper is in a weird spot right now. Ignoring the actual games played the online is different than the one in the physical world. The Initiative cards (and some others from Battle for Baldur’s Gate) are not currently programmed into Magic Online and as such the cards are not factoring into these breakdowns. That’s an issue unto itself as Initiative looks to be really good. Monarch already generates a card of value each turn but Initiative can do more than that thanks to the synergy with Ephemerate and Ghostly Flicker. If you blink a Palace Sentinels when you have the Monarch nothing changes; do the same to an Aarakockra Sneak and you venture deeper into the dungeon.

And that’s not all – right now the Baldur’s Gate cards on Magic Online are somewhat difficult to acquire and are in short supply. This means decks lack last week’s winning GateBlade are, well, gated to a portion of the community.

All this being said, this post in concerned with the metagame as it exists on Magic Online. After the July 9 and July 10 Challenges, here is where things stand. The following chart includes every deck that has at least 3 Top 32 appearances over the four challenges since Double Masters 2022 hit MTGO or has at least one Top 8 appearance.

Going into the release of Double Masters 2022, Affinity was the clear best deck in the format. It had some of the best threats, great card draw, and resilience. The deck is still quite good but Monastery Swiftspear has remade the format in her image. Not only are Swiftspear fronted red decks the most popular at the moment, but the Khans of Tarkir downshift has made waves in other decks.

First off, Lunarch Bully is now the most popular version of Boros. This makes sense as it has some great blockers in Lunarch Veteran and Sacred Cat, while also having a decent amount of build in lifegain. Izzet Faeries is the best performing deck early on this season which may have something to do with the fact that it can run Lightning Bolt, Skred, Fire//Ice, and Izzet Charm.

Now none of this means that Affinity cannot rebound and have a fantastic season. The core has not changed and nothing has come along to disrupt its game plan – only to subvert it with speed. And it could just be that this early in a new set’s cycle people are trying new things out and putting down their Bridges for the time being. Early returns indicate that Affinity is still a factor, as is Spellstutter Sprite, with Swiftspear decks taking out a larger chunk of the meta.

So how do you fight this? I think longtime Orzhov-mage HeWhoIsinTheWater has a reasonable approach:

Orzhov Pestilence puts in work against Spellstutter Sprite decks and is not dead to Affinity. It can also use its eponymous enchantment to curtail other aggressive strategies, go over the tog of Moment’s Peace, and limit the damage that Goblin Combo can inflict. It also packs enough lifegain to survive against Monastery Swiftspear but it’s the sideboard copies of Dead Weight that are most attractive there. Swiftspear is dangerous for sure, but the ability to answer it on turn one is huge and can save you quite a few life points. If I were to play this deck I would absolutely be willing to add these to the main.

But what about next week? I would try to run the best Dead Weight deck I could that did not give up too much to Affinity while also potentially going over the top of other midrange decks. If I could get my hands on Arms of Hadar I would try my hand at a base-Golgari ramp deck in the vein of the popular Cascade strategies.

And now for that sales pitch:

If you could take a moment to support my content through Patreon I would greatly appreciate it. Rewards start at $1 and allow me to take the time to dive deep into the issues surrounding Pauper.

June 18-19 Pauper Weekend in Review

Normally I examine Pauper through the lens of different releases. In my mind it makes sense that, even if a new set does not completely change the format it does provide a new pool of cards. Given the slow and piecemeal roll out of Battle for Baldur’s Gate on Magic Online, and the rapidly approaching Double Masters 2022 with its powerful downshifts, I have decided to group these post Baldur’s Gate events with Streets of New Capenna season.

With that out of the way, we have our second four week chunk of data from this season, hanging out with trolls under various Bridges. Pauper has seen some interesting developments at its fringes recently, with beatdown Goblins adopting Experimental Synthesizer, Cascade going back to Mulldrifter, Boros Tribe combo emerging, and Turbo Fog establishing itself as a metagame player. All in all, 17 different archetypes topped 2% of the Top 32 metagame (at least six total appearances).

All archetypes with at least 6 T32 appearances May 28-June 19

In case it is not clear, I am going to highlight a segment of this spreadsheet – the righthand most columns.

Despite there being 17 different archetypes with at least 2% of the Top 32 metagame, only one deck topped 10% and it was that same deck that topped 20% – Grixis Affinity. While these decks are not entirely the same – some skew more towards control with cards like Counterspell, for example – the fact that this is the only deck to reach such a level is both impressive and foreboding. If you group all the Spellstutter Sprite decks they come to 13.55% of the Top 32; all the Boros decks here make up 12.15% of the Top 32 metagame.

Put another way, Affinity is just that good.

If you’re reading this article you don’t need me to tell you that Affinity is great. At this point it is clear that some action will need to be taken. I am not going to speculate on what action could be taken today because I’ve done it recently and frankly there’s not much else to be said.

Instead I want to talk about the edges someone can going in this metagame. These days the best way to approach the metagame is to figure out which linear deck is best positioned for that week. Kuldotha Goblins, Red Blitz, Bogles, Heroic – all of these decks excel at enacting their game plan and each have a decent fail rate if met with the correct counterplay. And that is where Pauper is right now – to gain an edge you have to be willing to take a risk.

The best decks – Affinity, Faeries, Boros – are all decks with a high floor and a high ceiling, Affinity being the best there. Many of the linear decks listed previously have a higher ceiling but the floor is subterranean. Still, if you are looking for an advantage that is one area to explore.

And for next week what would I be trying to do? I’d want to do something red for access to Flaring Pain. After a strong showing from Bogles over the past few events, I fully expect Fogs to be out in force.

If you enjoy my more dedicated Pauper content, consider supporting my work via Patreon. Rewards start at just $1 and every little bit is appreciated!