February 27-28 Pauper Weekend in Review

We are in the second month of Kaldheim season. At the end of the first four weeks Boros Bully and Dimir Faeries had taken over the top two spots, knocking Flicker Tron down to third. The metagame seemed to be realigning, with Flicker Tron, Spellstutter Sprite/Blue Monarch, and Cascade/Ramp as the main pillars. The February 27 and February 28 Challenges saw something of a return to form with four copies of Flicker Tron making the Top 8 on Saturday and with Tron being the most played archetype on the weekend.

The above chart takes into account decks that appeared at least twice or made Top 8. And that being said, there are a few things to note.

  • Cascade continues to evolve. 13 decks on the weekend ran some form of Cascade, with five being WonderWalls. On the ramp side of things there was a shift towards Temur Ramp, potentially as a way to outdraw other ramp strategies.
  • Cascade is also finding its way into Tron builds with a Cascade fueled version of Temur Tron making Top 8 in the hands of Paul Rietzl and Cascade Tron with Maelstrom Colossus showing up.
  • Boros Monarch seems to have shifted away from Palace Sentinels and towards Crimson Fleet Commodore.
  • Stompy might as well not exist.

What does this mean for next weekend? Don’t count Tron out. Despite having a down few weeks before, Flicker Tron has seemed to rebound. More than that, with other Tron builds showing up it may encourage folks to diversify the spouts for their mana abundance.

I would also expect Izzet Faeries to be on the upswing. Izzet and Dimir tend to trade off and after a few weeks of Dimir being on top it’s due to see a bit of a dip.

Finally, I would explore running Hindering Touch. Do not get me wrong – this card is not great. However with so many decks leaning on Cascade as a way to come from behind, the opportunity to counter both the spell with Cascade and whatever it Cascades into should not be ignored.

February 13-14 Pauper Weekend in Review

The February 13 and February 14 Pauper Challenges took place in the shadow of a potential format shake up. A banned and restricted list update was scheduled for February 15. While the update was known to be targeting Uro, Titan of Nature’s Wrath, the assumption was that other formats would also see changes. Given language in the Fall from Favor ban update, it was not outside the realm of possibility that Pauper would also see a shake up.

As we now know that was not the case.

Normally I am the one at the forefront of calling for bans in Pauper. I am on the record as saying I feel that several bans should have already taken place. It therefore shocks me quite a bit to write these next words:

In my opinion, Pauper is the healthiest it has been since the period between the ban of Peregrine Drake and the release of Modern Masters 2017.

More than, this, Pauper looks actively good. Yes there are still problematic strategies and a number of “feel bad” moments (which I promise you I will get to) but there is a relatively large variety of potentially successful archetypes. Let’s take a look at the first six Challenges. This chart takes into account every deck that has at least 4 appearances in the Top 32 or a Top 8 finish.

January 30-February 14 Challenges

Decks in blue are those where their Weighted Volume – that is their share of the winner’s metagame – is higher than that of their actual Volume – their overall percentage of the Top 32 metagame. If we just take into account decks with more than one appearance there are 11 such strategies. Unlike previous seasons, the is no outlier like Flicker Tron which had a positive delta of over 5%. Instead what we see is a large variety of distinct decks that can reliably be found in the Top 16 and knocking on the door of the Top 8.

Another column worth noting is Win+:Volume. When this number exceeds 1 it means the deck is more likely to Top 8 than Top 16. Before the Fall from Favor ban, Commander Legends season had three such decks (where the archetype was at least 2% of the Top 32 metagame). Currently there are no decks that meet the 2% threshold (4 appearances) where this number exceeds 1. Not only is there a variety of options but they are all of a similar power level (as indicated by these results).

Pauper is fine, case closed. Right?

Not so fast. This data set draws upon a fairly small sample size (6 events) and before making any sweeping pronouncements I’d want to see more events. There is also the question of “at what cost?”. Yes, Tron is currently down, but does the format want a top tier land destruction strategy? Pure Monarch strategies are suffering but the Monarch has been adopted into more decks as a way to keep up on cards. Even Bonder’s Ornament has found its way into decks that cannot easily make use of the card as a way to fight opposing copies.

Let’s look at two quotes from the recent banned list update. First, in discussion of Pioneer and the bans of Balustrade Spy and Undercity Informer. The key text is highlighted:

Now let’s look at the section on Modern, specifically Tibalt’s Trickery. Again, the key text is highlighted:

These are two key points explicitly called out:

  • Difficulty of meaningful interaction
  • The proliferation of non-games

What is meaningful interaction? In the case of Oops! All Spells, there wasn’t much Pioneer decks could do as the deck could easily win in the first few turns of the game. Compare this to Tron where interaction does matter early but as the game draws on, it matters less and less (which in turn leads to a state of “non-game”). But, importantly, the game did not start in such a state.

Let’s look at Monarch. Can one meaningfully interact with the Monarch? Not really, but again it usually does not come down until turn four at the earliest. And while the Monarch can indeed lead to a state of “non-game”, just like Tron there is game to be played before this point.

At what point does a game become a non-game? At what point does interaction cease to matter? I think it is clear that over the past few months we have seen an overall increase in the power level of successful Pauper strategies and while some decks have been able to adapt others have been lost to the churn of time.

Does this leave Pauper is good place? I am not sure. I do not like the “wait and see” approach as it has burned the format several times in the past. And there is nothing guaranteeing that the problems of a few months ago won’t come back and rear their head in a few weeks. But I am going to draw a two conclusions from the information available:

  • Wizards wants Pauper to be powerful: Tron and Monarch are powerful mechanics and the decks built around them are similarly strong; Spellstutter Sprite is a powerful card. It is safe to assume that there should be powerful options in Pauper.
  • A fundamental turn of Four is acceptable: Very few games of Pauper are effectively over before turn four. This may change with the recent increase in Arbor Elf/Acid-Moss decks but for now, games usually have interplay up to this point. If we ever see that turn skew lower, action is likely (see Fall from Favor).

Pauper is the healthiest it has been in almost five years. Whether or not it is a healthy format in the abstract remains to be seen but if you are interested in playing with powerful commons, now is a great time to test the waters.

February 6-7 Pauper Weekend in Review

We are now four challenges into the Kaldheim era and the new metagame is starting to take shape. Taking into account the February 6 and February 7 Challenges, here is every deck that has either a Top 8 appearance or has at least three appearances in the Top 32.

January 30-February 7 Challenges; 3 total Top 32 appearances or Top 8 finish

Saturday was won by Dimir Faeries with the following decks also making the Top 8: Boros Bully, Burn, Elves, Flicker Tron (2), Goblins, and Jund Ramp. Sunday saw Gruul Ramp win the day with Dimir Delver, Dimir Faeries, Elves, Flicker Tron, and Izzet Faeries (3) also making the Top 8. There’s a lot to unpack in the first two weeks but to me, at least, there has been a relatively large shift in the current top pillars.

Going into Commander Legends it would have been reasonable to label Tron, Palace Sentinels, and Spellstutter Sprite as the pillars of the format. These three represented focal points for many of the top strategies with other decks finding success by sneaking through the gaps that these three left open. This is not to say that the only good decks ran these cards – you could clearly make an argument that Lead the Stampede/Winding Way could lay claim to top pillar status as well – but if I had to pick a big three, it would be those.

Until Kaldheim. The impact of Commander Legends is still being felt thanks to the additional Monarch options and curve topping Cascade cards, but now with latest set added to the mix the recent changes are more fully realized.

Tron remains a focal point of the metagame. While the deck has adjusted over time and we are seeing the deck focus more on dictating the rules of battle on the stack as opposed to the battlefield. Tron can easily shift back if needed – it is an excellent control deck after all – but for now if you can play to the board quickly you have a shot against Tron.

Spellstutter Sprite decks have not gone anywhere, but these decks have also become the predominant Monarch strategy. Dimir Delver, Dimir Faeries, and Izzet Faeries have all been just fine without Fall from Favor and while Behold the Multiverse is doing a fine job, many of these builds have turned in some capacity to the Crown. Free card draw and counterspells is a winning combination.

The final pillar I want to talk about today is Arbor Elf ramp. These decks have taken the metagame by storm and if you combine the Gruul and Jund variety, they are the second most popular archetype behind Tron (that is, if you don’t also group Dimir Faeries and Izzet Faeries or Dimir Delver and Dimir Faeries, but you get the point). These decks are quite capable of playing to the board quickly and thanks to Annoyed Altisaur and Boarding Party they are able to put a ton of permanents on to the battlefield. The duo of Llanowar Emissary and Sarulf’s Packmage makes it trivially easy to keep the cards flowing and sometimes turn two Mwonvuli Acid-Moss just wins games.

There are other interesting developments – the power of the Arbor Elf/Cascade shell appears to have pushed WonderWalls to the side, opening up space for new builds of Elves to emerge. Decks that can function on fewer lands – like the recent build of Goblins popularize by Willy Edel – can also find success. This new metagame also might require some operational adjustment, such as relying more on Evolving Wilds rather than Ash Barrens to fix mana and feeling comfortable not acting on the first few turns against a potential Thermokarst.

So what can be done? It may be time to look at cards like Crack the Earth and Raze as ways punish players who lean on Utopia Sprawl. Boomerang and Eye of Nowhere saw play in Standard mana denial strategies when Tron was a force back in the Kamigawa-Ravnica days. Temporal Spring is a fan favorite that happens to play nicely with Coiling Oracle and Growth Spiral.

What does this mean for next week? I would expect the deck to beat to be Elves. Not only does it have a natural foil to ramp thanks to Quirion Ranger, it has solid game against both Tron and Faeries. If that isn’t your thing I would look to Goblins. No matter what, I would want a plan to beat the ramp decks.

January 30-31 Pauper Weekend in Review

Kaldheim season is here and the new cards have already started to make an impact. While the early winners are the new Snow Duals, Behold the Multiverse and Jaspera Sentinel both made waves this past weekend. Behold the Multiverse is a potent card draw spell and had enough obvious power to make an impression. Jaspera Sentinel was a card I missed but it makes perfect sense. In Elves it serves as another suite of Birchlore Rangers, albeit one that has a cap on how often it can be used.

This is all well and good but at the end of Sunday, it was clear that at the macro level not much had changed.

This is a breakdown of the first two Kaldheim Challenges and the format has returned to its resting state. Tron might have entered this weekend behind Dimir Faeries in the Power Rankings but that doesn’t mean the deck missed a step. Tron is also a deck that rarely has to fully reconfigure itself and can instead focus on marginal upgrades. Compare this to the other decks in the format – many of which had to adjust to new mana bases in the span of a few days. While Tron likely would have had a great weekend regardless, there is something left to wonder about how potent the various Spellstutter Sprite decks would be with the proper mana bases. I fully expect these decks to settle on more stable mana bases this week while other builds start to exploring what they can do with the new dual lands.

So where does the format go from here? It is pretty clear that Tron and Spellstutter Sprite are the name of the game. It would follow suit that Elves remains a good choice moving forward. It also would not surprise me to see Bogles adopt Arctic Treeline as an improvement in their lands. Finally, I think if anyone can crack a Pestilence deck that has a good sideboard against Tron they’ll be well positioned.

Thoughts from the January 23 Super Qualifier

Commander Legends season is done and my post-Fall from Favor Power Rankings are available here. Rather than do a deep dive on the Super Qualifier, I am going to give some quick hits and snippets of my thoughts on the event.

1. The Pauper Meta vs The Actual Meta

Every time there’s an event larger than a Challenge, the Pauper metagame seems to look drastically different than the one that format regulars experience. I think if you asked any Pauper regular what they were expecting to be out in force on Saturday they would have said Tron. And while Tron did show up, the most popular deck was Gruul Ramp (even if it did perform rather poorly). So what gives?

I think it’s a few things. First, Pauper is a relatively slow moving format when you’re always playing it. That being said when there are real stakes on the line people who usually are just observing the format are going to try to meta against the known field. Here’s how things may have played out:

  1. Tron is the de facto best deck
  2. Ramp is new and has some game against Tron – if enough people run Ramp, it could keep Tron down
  3. Faeries decks have game against Tron while having outs to contain Ramp

If all of this is how things played out it could explain how two Orzhov Pestilence decks found themselves positioned to win the tournament.

2. What’s real? What’s fake?

I think we learned a lot about what decks are actually good and which ones are illusions. A lot of the usual suspects are archetypes you absolutely have to respect. Tron, Dimir Faeries, Izzet Faeries, Stompy, and Orzhov Midrange seem to be making up the new metagame. Decks like WonderWalls have dipped a tad and even old stalwarts like Boros Bully and Boros Monarch seem to be struggling in this new world.

To be clear, when I say real and fake, I do not mean that the “fake” decks are bad, but rather that they lack sustained success at this time.

Let’s use Gruul Ramp as an example. While this deck might be a solid choice I do not think it is real in that it is not a smart pick in an open metagame. Since the deck hit the metagame it has 18 total appearances in the Top 32 (both before and after the Fall from Favor ban) and it has 3 Top 8s. However it is more likely to appear in 17-32 than the Top 16.

In a dynamic metagame that would be fine since there would be a point in the cycle where running Gruul Ramp is the correct call. Pauper is not dynamic in this way as it is non-rotating and it is very difficult to shift the metagame. The result is that Gruul occupies a space where it will absolutely get some people but probably will never be the “right” choice.

3. What next?

I have been thinking a lot about what these results mean in the bigger sense of the format. BluStalker had a great observation in the MTGPauper discord: the Super Qualifier was about playing to the board and decks that did that well saw success. Compare this to a traditional Pauper Challenge, which is all about playing to the stack. What comes next is likely a return to stack based play.

Or rather it would if not for Foretell. Foretell seems very strong in a format where you need to overload counterspell strategies. The ability to put your spells on layaway means you can continue to develop your game plan while potentially forcing your opponent to hinder their board development. The big question of course is how good will this be against Tron.

Honestly? I’m hopeful but not optimistic.

4. What are you talking about?

This was a bit of a ramble, I know. I struggled to write about the qualifier because if history has shown us anything it’s that these events do not matter to the metagame. Come this weekend the same players are going to be playing the same decks and that’s that. The metagame will continue to revolve around Tron for the foreseeable future unless Foretell is light years better than I imagine.

There are going to be blips going forward. Decks will spike results and maybe something powered by the new snow duals will stick. More likely, though, is we are going to regress to the mean of the format.

January 16-17 Pauper Weekend in Review

The January 16 and January 17 Pauper Challenges were the first major Pauper events to take place after Fall from Favor was banned. With Kaldheim only a few days away normally we would be in a lame duck format. Thanks to a Super PTQ this weekend, that is not the case. Taking place on Magic Online on January 23, the event will aware two slots to the Kaldheim Championship on Arena.

For those of you interested in the breakdown of last weekend, here’s an abbreviated look:

Let’s say you want to play in the PTQ this weekend and you’re starting from almost zero Pauper knowledge. Here, then, is my crash course on the format:

1: Tron is the best deck

The Tron deck in Pauper is nothing like the Tron deck in Modern. Tron is a big mana Mystical Teachings control deck. While it may have access to a prison style endgame using Mnemonic Wall and Ephemerate to loop Dinrova Horror or Stonehorn Dignitary, the current crop of decks eschew this for Mulldrifter beats and repeatedly casting Rolling Thunder. Tron facilitates this in part to a large suite of dual lands and a package of mana fixing artifacts in Prophetic Prism and Bonder’s Ornament. While Expedition Map was recently banned Tron can use Impulse and Crop Rotation to assemble its mana engine and even has access to Pulse of Murasa to get back lands that have gone to the bin.

Tron rarely has to dedicate any resources on its own turn to develop its mana base. Unlike ramp decks from other formats it does not need to do anything beyond play a land each turn. The abundance of cheap interactive spells available means that as long as Tron survives the first few turns unscathed it can do it’s thing. Recently players have taken to running Gruul Ramp which on its face should be able to contain Tron.

Here’s the thing about Pauper Tron: land destruction is bad against the deck. Hand disruption is also pretty bad against the deck. Graveyard hard? You guessed it, pretty bad against the deck. Now if you can do a little bit of everything you can buy yourself some time but that’s a big ask. There are three ways to fight Tron that have proven successful as of late:

  • Counterspells: Delver and similar decks that can apply pressure early while countering key spells in the early and midgame can steal wins before Tron comes fully online.
  • Monarch: Decks that can stick an early Monarch can sometimes ride the excess of cards to victory. This is harder to do now thanks to Tron’s ability to churn through cards with Bonder’s Ornament.
  • Overload: Decks like Elves and WonderWalls can simply do too much in the first three turns of the game and ride that to victory. Elves suffers from a vulnerability to Fiery Cannonade but WonderWalls is the real deal.

If you want to run Tron this weekend I would get practice reps in first. Then I would also look for edges in both the mirror and against WonderWalls. I think cheap removal is going to be very important in the tournament.

2. Don’t sleep on Spellstutter Sprite

The Fall from Favor ban was done in part to rein in blue tempo-aggro decks. Delver, Dimir Faeries, and Izzet Faeries are still strong decks despite losing the aura. These decks can control the pace of play and are the very best Counterspell decks in the metagame. While Delver of Secrets has gone out of fashion as of late, the threat did help to propel two decks to victory this past weekend. Delver style decks are incredibly powerful and run some of the best cantrips ever printed and can draw tons of cards with Ninja of the Deep Hours.

Delver decks have been around long enough that their pinch points are well known. Being able to pick off multiple small flying creatures helps to reduce the efficacy of Spellstutter Sprite while also protecting your life total. Pestilence is a hard answer to these decks but getting it to stick isn’t always easy. Fiery Cannonade and Electrickery are not as powerful since Delver decks can also run Blue Elemental Blast/Hydroblast. These cards are great in part because they answer their red counterparts, which are some of the best sideboard cards in Pauper.

3. The Monarch is still very good

Just because Fall from Favor was banned doesn’t mean the king is dead. Palace Sentinels is back in a big way, helping to put two decks into the Top 8 this weekend. The interaction between Sentinels and Prismatic Strands is format defining at this point and helps the Monarch player keep the cards flowing. These days dedicated Monarch decks need a secondary engine to keep pace. Kor Skyfisher is the name of the game, picking up Prophetic Prism or Omen of the Dead. Boros Bully is an aggressive slant on Monarch and leans on Faithless Looting to keep its card quality high.

The various Spellstutter Sprite decks have not abandoned the Monarch. While mono blue has shifted away both Dimir and Izzet are running one of their four drop options. Azure Fleet Admiral and Crimson Fleet Commodore both dodge Fiery Cannonade but Thorn of the Black Rose dodges all the elemental blasts.

If you are taking the Monarch into this weekend, know when to side it out. You do not want to leave the Monarch in if you are not going to be able to protect and leverage the advantage. In a Monarch mirror you want to be the person who steals the crown, not the one who brings it to the party. Keep this in mind as it may be correct to have access to extra copies of the effect in your sideboard.

4. Don’t sleep on Stompy

Stompy has never gone away. An aggressive green deck that has significant play against the metagame thanks to Savage Swipe and Vines of Vastwood, Stompy was left for dead by some in the wake of Fiery Cannonade. The deck has adjusted and continues to put up solid results. The biggest strike against Stompy this weekend might just be the prevalence of Bogles in PTQs. Bogles has a high success rate in Pauper PTQs due to its ability to just win. Why does this matter? One of the best cards out of Monarch to fight Bogles is Standard Bearer. Flagbearers can absolutely throw a wrench into Bogles’ game plan while also hindering Stompy until a Swipe is found.

That being said Stompy is still a good choice if you want to beat down. You either want to pack extra fight spells or Viridian Longbow in your sideboard. I would also err against Elephant Guide and instead focus on finesse. It is not that Elephant Guide is a bad card rather I think you can get more mileage out of additional instant speed pump in the form of Groundswell or other options.

5. Superman Pants

I wrote about how Bogles tends to do well at Pauper PTQs. The deck is relatively high variance but has just as high a ceiling. The deck is fully capable of winning from nowhere and the addition of Ram Through has given Bogles yet another angle of attack. Abundant Growth and Cave of Temptation provide access to high impact sideboard cards like the aforementioned Elemental Blasts as well as Flaring Pain. That being said Bogles is a known quantity and people are going to come prepared.

This is where Heroic comes in. Heroic is a fringe deck that plays similarly to Bogles. The big difference is that it eschews pure Hexproof for spells like Emerge Unscathed and Karametra’s Blessing. Heroic can also pack Mana Tithe and as long is it draws lands it can function. The biggest downside of Heroic is that it fold rather hard to Prismatic Strands and Moment’s Peace. But if you’re running this style of deck you have to, on some level, hope to dodge. My advice here? Lapse of Certainty could help. And if you’re going to run Heroic, I’d also advise on some number of Sunlance or Journey to Nowhere in the sideboard.

6. What I’d run

I think Tron is the best deck by quite a bit but I also am not practiced enough with it to consider running it. Additionally, I hate the play pattern and would prefer to be active. To that end I would almost certainly play an aggressive slant on a mono-blue Spellstutter Sprite deck. Whether or not it includes Delver of Secrets, I’m less sure, but if I am running Mutagenic Growth and Piracy Charm, chances are I’m also running Delver. And I’m likely running Elusive Spellfist over Augur of Bolas to press the advantage.

So that’s my quick and dirty guide for this weekend. Feel free to tweet at me with questions about the format or hop into the MTGPauper Discord to chat with some of the top minds in the format.