Transliteration: Playing Catch Up

Things have been hectic. When I wrote about Pauper mana bases over two months ago I anticipated the series becoming a regular feature on this here blog. Turns out life had other ideas and time was at a premium. But now as work slows down and I can find my footing once more now seems a good as time as any to tackle a subject that’s been rattling around in the ole’ brain case for a while.

Until recently Pauper was a format about accruing value over time. Cards like Preordain and its ilk would improve card quality while Ninja of the Deep Hours would allow you to pull ahead. Mulldrifter was the gold standard of burying your opponent in card advantage for years – so much so that before Ephemerate players would try to extract more value with Undying Evil – but the past few years has changed the nature of card advantage in Pauper.

First came the Monarch and really, Palace Sentinels which provided a steady stream of fresh draws. After that we got new forms of card draw in the shape of Deadly Dispute and then a game breaking in the Initiative. Now it was easier than ever to go up on resources and in many cases, it was also less of a challenge to deploy them. The decks that were able to pull ahead in this race could do so at an improved rate which further exposed an aspect of how games of Pauper play out: it can be very hard to catch up once you are behind.

How does one catch up in a game of Magic? If you are facing down an onslaught of creatures then Wrath is what you need; stuck in a control mirror and Sphinx’s Revelation can pull you ahead; midrange slogs can come down to who has a the better Planeswalker engine online.

An aside: The introduction of Planeswalkers, and therefore designing for an environment where they exist has had a profound impact on Pauper and the need for cards to have an immediate effect. This is a subject for its own post but it definitely merited mention here.

Pauper does not have access to these effects at the same clip and so for quite a lot of the format’s history the aggressive decks tried to race before the avalanche of cards put a stop to their advance.

Tortured Existence

Let’s start with engines – cards that convert one resource into another. Without access to true Planeswalkers Pauper had to rely on fragile ways of grinding out the long game. Tortured Existence is a fan favorite and Grim Harvest had its time in the spotlight as a way to recur threats. These were slow ways for creature based decks to keep up with card flow but compare this to something like the original Elspeth which could just continue to spit out tokens – one can pull you to parity (or even ahead) without nearly as much work. There are plenty slow engines in Pauper that can help win the game, but they are few and far between (Cenn’s Enlistment and Tilling Treefolk come to mind) but often times these are just worse than drawing more cards. The Monarch and Initiative also fill this role but come with the risk of giving that same advantage to your opponent.

Instead, the easiest way to try and pull ahead on the board is to, well, draw more cards and deploy them. As the card pool grows then more efficient cards will continue to be printed which in turn makes pure card draw that much better. Unlike other formats with powerful engines there are few incentives to actually play a value engine (damage engines are another story altogether).

Deep Analysis

What about card advantage battles? Deep Analysis remains one of the best ways to try and pull ahead. If the front half is countered there’s always the Flashback. But compare this to something like Magma Opus – Deep Analysis can help you claw back into a game but lacks the oomph to pull you ahead all on its own. This is part and parcel for Pauper as the effects are smaller by design. The result is that once you are behind on cards it can be extremely difficult to pull yourself back into a game. Consequentially it means that it is often correct to be as proactive as possible so that you do not find yourself in a space where you have to play catch up on cards.

This pushes the format towards cheap two for ones and lower curves. The ability to accrue more cards and then deploy them is a recipe for success. It follows from this that the Monarch was such a success for so long – free card draw and cheap spells was a winning combination until the Initiative came along and didn’t even ask you to cast a spell to garner an effect.

Krark-Clan Shaman

Until recently, board wipes in Pauper were not hugely impactful. Crypt Rats and Pestilence could keep a board clear at a heavy price and Electrickery was stellar and handling smaller creatures. Then came Fiery Cannonade, which put threw a real wrench into the works for traditional aggressive strategies. Still, some of these decks tried to go bigger and it worked (after a fashion). The lack of true board wipes meant cards like Moment’s Peace and Stonehorn Dignitary held value for their ability to hold back hordes. In these cases the control deck would need time to establish the win but if they were too far behind it could all be for nought.

I saved this one for last because currently it is not exactly the case anymore, at least when it comes to one style of board wipe. Krark-Clan Shaman has emerged as a real player in this area thanks to its ability to clear the ground (literally) and leave behind an army of Myr Enforcers and the like. The issue at hand is that unlike a board wipe in a traditional midrange or control deck, Affinity has the tools to easily reload and deploy threats almost immediately after wiping the board.

Another aside: It should start to be clear that Affinity is a deck that can do it all. It packs a ton of efficient card draw and cheap spells so that it can easily pull ahead. It has access to a few engines thanks to Deadly Dispute and Blood Fountain and as we already discussed a fantastic way to wipe the board. Affinity is a capital “B” Beast.

So what does this all mean? Outside of Affinity most decks rely on card draw to come back from behind. Basilisk Gate is a low (mana) cost damage engine that brings along a deck building restriction. However the reward for being able to turn it on is massive enough to plan around. Annoyed Altisaur has the capability of catapulting decks from behind to ahead provided it comes down early enough in concert with Arbor Elf and Utopia Sprawl. Other decks try to buy time with the aforementioned Stonehorn Dignitary, Moment’s Peace, or Prismatic Strands.

So what does this all mean? Where in other formats there are multiple options to pull ahead or come from behind given your deck’s overall game plan, Pauper has relatively few.

  • Pauper largely lacks board wipes, so time becomes an important resource
  • Engines are mostly inefficient aside with a few exceptions
  • Cheap card draw, threats, and answers are abundant so simply “drawing more” is a valid plan

While this last point can be extrapolated to other formats as well (one only needs to look at the busted card that is Expressive Iteration), the lack of other high impact incentives – whether that be Planeswalkers or prison-like pieces – also helps to push Pauper into a place where the best bet to getting ahead is to start there.

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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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