The February 26 and February 27 Pauper Challenges helped to clarify the current state of the format. While there is valid concern about the current Galvanic Relay Storm deck running around the format, the results are telling another cautionary tale.
Rakdos decks – both Affinity and Storm – are helping to shape the format three weeks into Neon Dynasty season. But that’s only part of the story. Pulling back further we can see that one deck is currently driving the Pauper metagame like two go-karts going pedal to the metal.
Rakdos Affinity is the most popular deck and one of the most successful. It is taking down Top 8s at an impressive rate and shows no real signs of slowing down. The deck, like several others, is making use of the powerful Experimental Synthesizer as a way to see more cards and power out fast starts. Affinity may lack the quick combo kill of Atog-Fling but it can still end games by turning lands into damage with Makeshift Munitions and Disciple of the Vault.
Affinity is at least a deck that can potentially be mitigated. Rakdos Storm has the advantage of copious fast mana and Galvanic Relay, which is much closer to Mind’s Desire than I gave it credit for last summer. The ability to store spells and lands, including rituals, gives Storm the resiliency and consistency needed to overcome hate.
Taking a step back, the nature of card advantage engines in Pauper has shifted numerous times over the past five years. Before the advent of Monarch it was hard to beat blue decks for the ability to draw cards, either through Ninja of the Deep Hours, Mulldrifter, Gush (at the time), Thoughtcast, or many other lesser engines. Boros was able to keep up thanks to stitching together draws with Prophetic Prism and Ichor Wellspring, but it was an uphill fight. Black was clearly a step behind even with Sign in Blood.
The Monarch spread card advantage to other colors but once Dimir and Izzet Faeries adopted the mechanic, card advantage once again became the domain of blue decks. However the addition of Reckless Impulse, Galvanic Relay, Deadly Dispute and now Experimental Synthesizer have given other colors a solid foothold in the way cards are accrued.
None of this is to absolve Affinity and Storm of the problems they may or may not be causing. Instead Pauper is now entering an era where the old rules of card advantage battles are being rewritten. Where once cards in hand were the most important thing it seems that being able to “store” your cards on board (or in exile) is now the way to go. And fighting these methods requires different tactics, if they even exist.
Attacking cards like Experimental Synthesizer are easier in that if you time it properly you can leave the card stranded in exile. But even then you are trading down a card as the egg already “drew” one card. Deadly Dispute is much harder to stop since it can chew up various bits of material. And Galvanic Relay sidesteps all of this since the cards are unassailable.
Previously at this point I would talk about action Wizards could take. However given my role on the Pauper Format Panel I am not going to make suggestions lest they be taken as a way the wind will blow. What I will say is that this new era of card advantage presents an interesting puzzle and one that, if handled judiciously, could lead to a more robust and diverse format moving forward.