The Snow-Covered Island Problem

I’ve had this idea rattling around in my head for some time now so I decided to put it to the digital paper. If you like this kind of content, please let me know (and consider becoming a Patron) to support more writing in this vein moving forward.

In a match of Pauper against an unknown opponent, the first land played on the other side on the table is Snow-Covered Island. How does this inform your play?

At a glance this is a simple question but understanding the implications of this land drop can set you up for success in the game and the format at large. The more one understands about the metagame dynamics and the choices people make in deck inclusion the better prepared one can be for what comes next.

Let’s start at Level One: currently there is one blue deck that cares about having Snow-Covered Island and that is Izzet Faeries. Sometimes called Skred Faeries, this deck is a blue-red Spellstutter Sprite midrange control deck that leverages powerful blue cantrips and counters with the red removal of Lightning Bolt and Skred. The deck relies on Ninja of the Deep Hours and Moon-Circuit Hacker (and occasionally a Monarch or two) to keep the cards flowing, giving it a steady stream of spells that tend to outclass those of the opponent.

While Izzet Faeries is the only deck where running Snow-Covered Island provides an in-game advantage, any blue deck can garner an out-of-game advantage by also running Snow-Covered Island in an effort to fool the opponent into planning for Izzet Faeries. Therefore Snow-Covered Island does not mean the opponent is running Izzet Faeries but rather almost any base blue deck. I would feel comfortable ruling out some of the Cleansing Wildfire piles since they really want to have an indestructible land on turn one to play their namesake spell on turn two, but that leaves the following decks as possible options:

  • Dimir Faeries
  • Delver/Faeries
  • Azorius Familiars
  • Izzet or Dimir Control (usually featuring Devious Cover-Up)

While it is plausible you will run into one of the true control decks in a random Pauper match, I would also feel comfortable assuming my opponent is not on one of those decks until proven otherwise due to their relative lack of popularity. Of course the first land drop is only so much information, we can also infer what they are piloting based upon the first spell they cast.

For example, if my opponent goes Snow-Covered Island into Faerie Miscreant I can put them almost assuredly on Mono-Blue Faeries while a Delver of Secrets means they are probably on Delver. Faerie Seer, on the other hand, means they could be any Spellstutter Sprite deck.

And what does this mean? If I am putting my opponent on one of the mono-blue decks it indicates that they are trying to play a proactive tempo game and that I should respond in kind. Their main piece of on-board interaction is Snap and I should do my level best to not put myself in a position where they can Snap a creature of mine for value and leave up Counterspell or Spellstutter Sprite. I also want to be pressuring their life total in way that makes Mutagenic Growth a dead card while not offering trades where it would blow me out. These decks are also more reliant on Ninjas to see fresh cards so I would block more frequently and time removal so that I can ensure it resolves.

But this is only the case if they lead on Miscreant or Delver. What about Seer? In that case I do not have enough information to make an informed decision.

What if their first spell is Preordain? Again, there is not enough information to make an informed decision seeing as that card show up in nearly every blue deck (even if they Faerie deck above does not run that specific powerhouse).

If my opponent leads on Ponder I would put them on Familiars (and a less than ideal hand at that). Familiars ideally wants to lead on Preordain or Ash Barrens and them casting Ponder means they kept a borderline hand – one that had enough action to keep but not a top tier starter. Still, I would prepare myself to try and win through discounted Snaps. I would save removal for Sunscape Familiar and try to maneuver the game to a point where I could choke them off of resources for a turn to then resolve key removal and threats. I would also try to end the game before turn five if possible to prevent them from clawing back into the fight with Mulldrifter.

Ash Barrens can be a dead giveaway if they fetch the second color but outside of Familiars it is not uncommon to see Dimir and Izzet Faeries fetch a second Island with Ash Barrens. This allows them to obfuscate what variety of Faeries they are actually playing. Fetching the second color can also provide a bounty of information. Getting a Swamp can indicate my opponent has a slower hand and might be leaning on Snuff Out to protect their early turns while getting a Mountain can mean something similar and I would put them on Lightning Bolt instead of Skred as it is more efficient in the early turns of the game. In both instances I would also guess they either have additional blue sources or hand sculpting to get them to their third and fourth land drops.

The final play that is likely to take place is Brainstorm at the end of my first turn. Here they are most certainly on either Dimir or Izzet Faeries and would plan accordingly. In both cases you want to avoid getting blown out by Spellstutter Sprite so you would have to sequence your plays in such a way that the world’s smallest Mystic Snake is less effective. Beyond that I would not put too much stock on guessing their hand as Brainstorm into Ash Barrens or Evolving Wilds gives your opponent the opportunity to see so many cards. However if they Ash Barrens in their upkeep I would assume that they have a removal heavy hand as they are willing to take turn two off of board development to set up their mana.

Snow-Covered Island might only belong in one deck but it sees play in just about every blue deck for a reason: deception. Learning how to decipher your opponent’s strategy from the get go can give you an edge, but only if you have a deck prepared to fight the battle on the correct axes.

Published by Alex Ullman

Alex Ullman has been playing Magic since 1994 (he thinks). Since 2005, he's spent most of his time playing and exploring Pauper. One of his proudest accomplishments was being on the winnings side of the 2009 Community Cup. He makes his home in Brooklyn, New York, where he was born and raised.

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