Pauper is undergoing a radical change in the way card advantage flows and for the first time it is not clear what color is number one.
In order to understand what is going on it is important to first know that for the vast majority of Pauper’s history the best way to gain card advantage was to play blue. Deep Analysis, Compulsive Research, Mulldrifter, Ninja of the Deep Hours and even cards like Foresee and Probe were the ways to pull ahead. Other decks had to rely on creature based card advantage like Chittering Rats or Skirk Marauder to try and eke out value. And while blue continued to add powerful options to Magic Online like Gush and Accumulated Knowledge, other decks could “go under” blue and win before the cards they accumulated could be converted into game winning pieces.
While some non-blue decks tried their hand at the card advantage game – namely Kuldotha Boros/Boros Kitty with Kor Skyfisher and Glint Hawk working with Ichor Wellspring and Prophetic Prism – it wasn’t until Modern Masters 2017 hit Magic Online that we saw our first major shift in the card advantage paradigm with the introduction of the Monarch mechanic and Palace Sentinels. Now white-based midrange decks had a reliable way to accrue resources but with one major advantage: they did not have to expend mana to get the cards.
Let’s compare these two strategies. Blue decks had relied on both instant speed methods of card accumulation, like Mystical Teachings chains or Think Twice, or the “tap out” method of cards like Compulsive Research or Mulldrifter paired with Undying Evil or Momentary Blink. In order to facilitate this, blue decks either played a Flash or Skies game or were paired with cheap interaction to buy time until their card draw engine could come online and dominate the game with hard to remove threats like Spire Golem or Shimmering Glasskite. Now the best tap out way to accumulate cards was by pairing the Monarch with cheap removal since it would generate cards turn after turn.
This was a seismic shift. Blue decks were no longer the only game in town and while “tap out” decks persisted, the most successful decks in this era (that went unbanned, we don’t talk about Treasure Cruise or Gush) were Delver or Faeries decks – the ones that evolved from Skies. Mulldrifter decks also persisted but they cheated on mana in some way, whether that was with Tron or in the Familiars shell. In order to effectively leverage the tap out nature, blue decks needed access to excess mana.
The Monarch changed all of that. Blue tap out decks had to expend early interaction in the hope of drawing two or three cards which meant that strategies designed to “go under” their wall could apply pressure. Monarch decks could spend the early turns trading off removal spells and blockers knowing that their engine, once online, would recoup most of their losses. Monarch decks excel at converting cards in hand into game actions starting on turn four or five. The nature of these play patterns made it difficult to beat Monarch decks with creatures until Savage Swipe came along but that’s another story.
The Monarch remains a hugely influential part of the Pauper environment and recently was adopted by the various Faerie decks. The newer breed of Faeries had access to it all: great card selection early, cheap interaction, and snowballing card advantage with Ninja of the Deep Hours and their Monarch of choice.
All of this changed in 2021.
Deadly Dispute and Galvanic Relay (alongside Reckless Impulse and Experimental Synthesizer) changed the nature of card advantage in Pauper. Deadly Dispute hearkens back to the days of Kuldotha Rebirth sacrificing Ichor Wellspring. Now Dispute does the same job while also leaving behind a Treasure token acting as a black pastiche of Ancestral Recall. The red impulsive draw spells can store cards in exile, protecting them from already ineffective discard spells.
The shift might seem minor at first but the reality of the situation is that it has shaken the way card advantage works in Pauper. First with Deadly Dispute and similar (if less powerful) effects black now has the ability to play at a “flash” game, cashing in resources at the opponent’s end step or in response to removal for a burst of cards. This gives other decks access to the ability to untap with a fresh grip and deploy threats in a way it could not before. Storing cards in exile, specifically with Galvanic Relay, means a deck can accumulate an absurd number of cards and then deploy them on the next turn. This gives Storm decks an advantage in that they can keep their win hidden from interaction for a turn cycle and preventing counterplay. Compare this to blue card draw which is bound at the time of casting, or Monarch which generates value turn over turn. Relay is akin to having the Monarch for ten turns but the cards only accessible for a single turn.
None of this is inherently good or inherently bad; rather they represent a shift in the way Pauper has to approach fights over card advantage. It is Carlos Romao’s Fact or Fiction innovation but in reverse – rather than fighting over the cards drawn it is correct, even more than before, to fight over the draw itself. Duress was already a card that had a narrow window of opportunity before becoming nigh useless and now it has less time to matter.
Still, there are ways to disrupt the new normal. The first, as mentioned previously, is early interaction. Duress might not be perfect but a well timed copy can still be devastating. Spell Pierce is also stronger now as it can either counter a spell outright or tax mana in a way that prevents the utilizing impulsive resources. All of this only matters if paired with a quick clock to pressure the opponent and so cards like Gurmag Angler and other options that can dodge Galvanic Blast and Snap are paramount. But it should be noted that given how much card draw is out there right now you do need to have a plan for what happens when your opponent stabilizes.