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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April 17-18 Pauper Weekend in Review

Strixhaven is here! The latest set has hit Magic Online and we already have seen some of its impact in the April 17 and April 18 Challenges. While it is still far too early to draw conclusions about what this season might look like, we can infer some things about next weekend.

April 17 and 18 Pauper Challenges

First I think we can all agree that yes, Flicker Tron is the deck to beat early on but that would be the case regardless of any new release. What is interesting is that we are seeing various aggressive decks on the rise. As we saw at the tail end of Kaldheim season, decks like Boros Bully and Stompy were returning to the fold. Now both of these decks have access to some new toys in Thrilling Discovery and Bayou Groff and it would not surprise me to see them continue these trends.

So what would I do next weekend? Currently I would stay away from a dedicated land destruction deck. Between Elves, Stompy, and WonderWalls Quirion Ranger is likely to be everywhere, saving lands like nobody’s business.

I would also anticipate people trying out First Day of Class combo. Using a sacrifice outlet and a creature with Persist, you can generate an unbound loop once First Day of Class resolves. While the Goblin version is the cleanest, I can also see a version leaning on Essence Warden and Marauding-Blight Priest working, as that version can access Mesmeric Fiend in the main.

Here are some lists making use of the new cards from last weekend:

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April 10-11 Pauper Weekend in Review

Well, Kaldheim season has finally ended. With the Strixhaven Prerelease starting on Magic Online this Wednesday we can expect the new cards to be available for next weekend’s Challenges. As a result, the April 10 and 11 Challenges put a cap on one of the most interesting and dynamic Pauper seasons to date.

March 27-April 11 Challenges, minimum 4 Top 32 appearances

At the end of the day Flicker Tron came back in a big way while Boros Bully and Stompy also had some return to form. The new players – Gruul/Jund Ramp and Jund Cascade – struggled as the metagame shifted towards aggression and more cheap interaction. Elves and WonderWalls had solid showings in the last few weeks of the season and Cycling Songs also made its presence felt.

So at the end of the day, what is the story of Kaldheim season?

Kaldheim Season, minimum 13 Top 32 appearances

Going into Strixhaven season the deck to beat is Flicker Tron, Make no mistake – it remains the best deck in the format by a decent margin. It isn’t the utterly dominant force it has been in years past but it is still absurdly good. Izzet Faeries and Dimir Faeries are also fantastic – I would have Dimir Faeries as the better deck but the numbers seem to contradict that. Boros Bully is also back on the menu. SanPop ran a version with maindeck land destruction to a Top 8 this past weekend and I wonder if that becomes the standard moving on.

What about Jund Cascade? The deck is certainly powerful but it suffers from the same fate almost all midrange decks meet: when its answers miss the meta, it will suffer. The biggest problem with Jund Cascade is that its spell suite is constructed in such a way that it only has so many spots to work with, meaning it has to lean on less specialized answers. It doesn’t surprise me that as the meta has gone wider a deck leaning on Chainer’s Edict has suffered. Will it be back? Of course – Cascade is powerful.

So where would I be week one? That’s simple. I’d be running First Day of Class combo with Skrik Prospector and Skirk Drill Sergeant. Because that just seems fun.

Learn, Lessons, and Pauper

Strixhaven is bringing a new take on Wishes to Magic and for the first time allows Pauper decks to access this powerful ability. Wishes – originally from Judgment – let you tutor for a specific subset of cards from “outside the game”. In tournament games this means going to your sideboard. For the remainder of this post whenever I refer to Wish I will be talking about it in the context of tournament Magic.

Learn is a keyword that lets you either retrieve a Lesson from your sideboard and put it into your hand. If you do not Wish for a Lesson, then you get to discard a card from your hand and draw a card (rummage). Learn and Lesson are both interesting in that they force you to not only question the value of a card, but also the value of a card slot.

Let’s start with Learn. Outside of First Day of Class (which has combo applications with Persist), these cards are all overcosted by about a mana for their base effect. The ability to rummage is something but unless you are benefiting from the rummage (perhaps with Stinkweed Imp) these cards are not worth the cost. Put bluntly – none of the effects on the cards with Learn are powerful enough to warrant including without access to Lessons.

This leads to the questions as to whether or not any Lessons are good enough. There are nine common Lessons – four colorless sorceries and one for each color pair – and none of them are powerful enough to include in any maindeck. Are they strong enough for a sideboard slot? Maybe, depending on how you value a slot in your sideboard.

Roughly speaking, a card in your sideboard is somewhere between 3 and 4 times as important as a card in your maindeck when it matters. When a sideboard card does not matter its value is roughly zero. The Lessons are all worth about a card, especially if you can get one for “free” by casting a spell with Learn. Yet the opportunity cost of including one of these in your sideboard is astronomical in that you are trading a potential game-breaking card for a card that is merely okay.

In aggregate I do not think this mechanic is worth it in Pauper. Of course there are exceptions, some of which might even matter. The leading example I can think of is in Heroic, where Guiding Voice is far from embarrassing. Considering how linear of a deck Heroic is, you rarely want to sideboard too many cards in or out. That means the deck can find home for a few Lessons in their extra fifteen. Expanded Anatomy feels like a win in Heroic as well, growing a creature and giving it the ability to stay untapped for a potential crack back. I could also see builds of Heroic with Seeker of the Way making use of Introduction to Prophecy in the midgame.

So where does this leave Learn? Most of the time you are not going to want these effects in your Pauper deck. The exception is when you are running a highly linear deck that does not want to sideboard out too many cards and could make use of a Wish-like sideboard as a way to marginally improve different matchups while not giving up on too many high impact sideboard cards.

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