I use a few different metrics when looking at the Top 32 metagame. The first is just Raw Volume. The second is Win+, which takes the sum of all wins at X-2 or better in the Swiss and assigns a score; Win+ is helpful in measuring a deck’s Swiss round performance. K-Wins takes all of a deck’s wins and subtracts its losses, Top 8 inclusive; this helps to give a measure of overall performance. The final is one I call True Volume, which takes the average of all three volumes (Actual, Win+, K-Win). This number helps to provide the most robust image of a deck’s performance in the metagame.
What does it mean to define a format? Any Magic format is by and large determined by the cards that are legal to play therein. A great number of cards automatically disqualify themselves due to rate or simply being outclassed. Merchant of Secrets comes to mind as a card that should not see competitive play since it is expensive for what it does and is obsoleted by a great many things. The point of all of this is to say that despite a massive cardpool any discrete Magic format is going to have some cards that simply should not see play.
Let’s go back to Invasion Block Constructed. With such a small card pool a powerhouse like Flametongue Kavu did a lot of work in setting the tone of gameplay, so much so that Hall of Famer Zvi Mowshowitz won the associated Pro Tour with maindeck copies of Galina’s Knight. Now this is not a treatise on the health of a format two decades gone but rather an example of what I am trying to get at. Creatures in that day needed to have an immediate impact lest they be rendered useless by FTK. You can run a similar exercise with any era and find the cards that help to shape the format, like Cut Down and Fable of the Mirror Breaker in current Standard. Cut Down places a restriction on what early drops are reasonable while Fable is one of the best things you can be doing in Standard.
What happens when the cards that define a format go too far? This is when things start to trend towards being warped. Let’s go back to Flametongue Kavu – if that persisted throughout its Standard reign to the point where the only other successful decks in the format were priced into running Galina’s Knight or creatures with five toughness that would have been a huge problem. Similarly one can look to CawBlade as a deck that contained several cards that not only defined their format, but completely warped Standard around them (and were subsequently banned).
So what does this have to do with Pauper? There has been a lot of talk over the better part of the past year as top whether or not red decks, supported heavily by Monastery Swiftspear, are warping the metagame. The recent results point to decks that have a strong red matchup as finding success. Even so I have long been of the mindset that red is not warping the Pauper meta but rather helping to define it. The line is close to be sure but rather than a format filled with decks that are running Galina’s Knight the format has adjusted to red’s place as the focal point of the metagame.
Bogles, Dimir Terror, Naya Gates, Faeries, and Black Gardens are all decks that are reasonable in their own right but also have a good matchup against red. Now it is possible that these decks, as currently constructed, would not have the same success if red were not as prevalent. That also presupposes that these decks would not adjust their builds to a different metagame – something that Bogles has been doing for years to be sure. The fact that the decks at the top of the format have good matchups against the most popular deck is not a symptom of something nefarious but part of the reality of a competitive metagame.
Now there is something else to consider. The examples I cited above came from time bound formats. Block Constructed would end with the release of a new block and Standard saw cards cycle out every year. Pauper is a non-rotating format so cards do not leave unless they are banned. This then gets to the question as to what is the threshold for banning a card (something I will not be getting into today) but something to consider is the pressure the red decks are putting on Pauper. While red is largely contained from a metagame perspective, there is no doubt that the ceiling of red’s draws exert a great influence on what sort of strategies are viable long term. That there are several decks finding success that lean heavily on taplands indicate that at the moment there are ways to come back from behind against red.
So where does that leave things with actually playing Pauper? Red continues to be popular but at the moment Faeries sees more play and is having more success, as has been the case for some time. Early removal remains at a premium but as Kuldotha Rebirth has given way to Kessig Flamebreather in red, sweepers have gone down in value. It looks like the format is primed for a reevaluation of removal. Suffocating Fumes seems like a larger risk in the wake of Ninja of the Deep Hours and so the rise of Jeskai Ephemerate, with its access to recurring removal and Fiery Cannonade/Breath Weapon seems to be the way to go fora versatile answer to the current threats being presented in the format.
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