January 7-8 Pauper Winner’s Metagame Recap

January 7 and January 8 Challenge Top 32 Metagame

Biggest Winner: Bogles

Biggest Surprise: Bogles

What I’d Play Next Week: Flicker Tron

Win +: Measures all wins better than X-3 in Swiss (X-2 is 1, X-1 is 2, etc). Measures a deck’s relative strength against the field in that event

K-Wins: Measures all wins less all losses, Top 8 inclusive. Measures a deck’s strength in a winner’s metagame

Wondering where my long-form breakdown went? You can find it here on my Patreon!

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Powerful vs Popular

I’ve had the opportunity to jump into a few league runs over the past few days and while my results are not where I’d like them to be (read: I’ve been losing more than winning), I have been learning a lot about the current lay of the land. Late Saturday night I posted the above statement, fully understanding that it would be inflammatory and dare I say it – click bait.

But I stand by it. Which leads to this post brought to you by the Sunday scaries.

If you hang out in the #MTGPauper Discord I manage for any amount of time you will no doubt come across conversation about the current prevalence of both Affinity and Kuldotha Red. The discussion focuses on play patterns, relative strength, and how often these decks seem to come up in both the League and Challenges. While neither of these decks have win rates that exist far outside the realm of “reasonable” they still are the target of ire.

Affinity is a monster of a deck which packs several draw twos, free threats, potent recursion and some serious reach. Kuldotha Red is another beast which leverages low to the ground threats with Monastery Swiftspear and an impressive burn package. The fact that both this decks are good has made them incredibly popular which means the variance one would expect to encounter playing against them is reduced due to sheer volume. In one run I face an Affinity deck three times in a row and even though they stumbled twice, I did not win a match in part because the variance was evenly distributed.

There’s something else at play here. The proliferation of power red “draw” like Experimental Synthesizer and Reckless Impulse has increased the consistency of hitting land drops outside of blue decks. Previously one of blue’s strengths was that it could use Preordain to run a low land count and still make critical drops during the early stages of the game. Experimental Synthesizer gives non-blue decks a chance to hit land drops more regularly giving increased strength to low land count red decks and strategies reliant on specific lands like Basilisk Gate.

I cannot understate this enough: red decks have an increased consistency of hitting key cards.

Something that has come up a lot in discussion is that you can no longer stumble and missing land drops is death. As someone who has played a ton against Delver and other Spellstutter Sprite strategies this is nothing new, but it feels dissonant when it happens against a deck packing a ton of Mountains.

So what can be done? At a player level it is all about being more consistent so that you do not stumble. This might mean running your own sculpting or a more robust mana base so that you can hit your own land drops and not fall behind in that regard.

At a format level, this is a tougher nut to crack. How does one balance for popularity as opposed to power? If a deck is popular and over the line then it is clear but what about when a strategy is above average (we’re talking in the 52-55% win rate, not 60% here)? Does it matter if the deck is popular or fringe in volume? Taking action based on raw volume is a risky path as you’d be playing whack-a-mole.

This is not meant to be a defense of Affinity or Red, and me posting this does not take away from the very real feelings of people who are taking a break from Pauper because they are not enjoying the format. What it is meant to be is insight into my observations and the thoughts currently rattling around in my braincase.

I want to take a moment to thank all my Patrons – both old and new. I am going to do my level best to keep providing you with the kind of content that brought you here in the first place. If you are interested in supporting my work, rewards for my Patreon start at just $1 and every little bit helps.

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Catching Up: December 24, 2022 – January 1, 2023

Top 32 Challenge Meta, December 17, 2022-January 1, 2023

Biggest Winner: Kuldotha Red

Biggest Surprise: Mardu Synthesizer

What I’d Play Next Week: Naya Gates

Win +: Measures all wins better than X-3 in Swiss (X-2 is 1, X-1 is 2, etc). Measures a deck’s relative strength against the field in that event

K-Wins: Measures all wins less all losses, Top 8 inclusive. Measures a deck’s strength in a winner’s metagame

Wondering where my long-form breakdown went? You can find it here on my Patreon!

Looking for another way to support my work? Click here for my TCGPlayer affiliate link. Any purchases through the link let the folks there know you like my content!

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.

I want to take a moment to thank all my Patrons – both old and new. I am going to do my level best to keep providing you with the kind of content that brought you here in the first place. If you are interested in supporting my work, rewards for my Patreon start at just $1 and every little bit helps.

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December 17-18 Pauper Weekend Recap

Top 32 Metagame for the December 17 and December 18 Challenges

Biggest Winner: Grixis Affinity

Biggest Surprise: Izzet Faeries

What I’d Play Next Week: Naya Gates

Win +: Measures all wins better than X-3 in Swiss (X-2 is 1, X-1 is 2, etc). Measures a deck’s relative strength against the field in that event

K-Wins: Measures all wins less all losses, Top 8 inclusive. Measures a deck’s strength in a winner’s metagame

Wondering where my long-form breakdown went? You can find it here (today’s is available to the general public), on my Patreon!

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A Bridge too Far: Epilogue

Earlier this week I wrote about the current status of Affinity and part of the issues surrounding the strategy as it relates to Pauper. There has quite a bit of discussion around the article and instead of rehashing the content of the piece I want to pose a rather broad question: When should bans be considered? Because it’s fresh in the format’s zeitgeist I am going to use Affinity as a primary example.

Before diving too deep I want to point out that given the breadth of cards available to the format the banned list is relatively small. Pauper has 31 cards called out on the Banned List while Legacy has 62 (and some additional cards where the reasoning is enumerated at the link). Modern, for example, has 48. In the case of Pauper it is possible some of these cards could eventually come off the list while others probably should be added. The list of banned cards in Pauper comes from multiple different eras and ban philosophies. All that being said, here are some of my personal criteria for looking at potential targets for removal from the format.

Digital and Tabletop

One thing that comes up often in these discussions is how tabletop players do not experience the same metagame issues as those who primarily play digitally. While both are part of a wider metagame, digital players often get in more games due to the nature of the play environment. None of this is to say that the tabletop experience is somehow less valid as the digital incentives can also skew the decks that see play in that environment. However with many of these elements I tilt in favor of the digital landscape experience due to the raw volume of games that are played there.

Ubiquity

Pauper should be a place where you can play a wide variety of decks. One of the best things about Magic is how it allows players to express themselves in a variety of ways. In non-rotating formats this is a tough thing to balance as there are times where certain styles of play may simply be a bad choice. What’s worse than this, in my opinion, is when the number of choices is significantly restricted. The most recent example of this I can think of revolves around Arcum’s Astrolabe. While it was legal, Astrolabe was a dominant force in the format and while it was believed that it could enable different strategies it ended up pushing the format towards base white value piles. The result was a metagame where the correct question to ask about the format was which Astrolabe deck was best. Astrolabe provided so much value and allowed decks to subvert the mana system in ways that made it miles ahead of everything else.

So how does this relate to Affinity? Currently things are not as clear cut as they were in the Astrolabe meta and there are viable archetypes that are not “Affinity”. That being said there are elements of Affinity showing up in various other decks, most notably the interaction of Deadly Dispute with the Artifact Lands. Dispute has come up often as a card worth looking at – and that very well might be the case – but then the question would linger of what Dispute looks like in a world without the Bridges. What is more likely to break again in the future – the Artifact Lands or Deadly Dispute?

At the same time ubiquity cannot be the end all-be all. Cards like Preordain and Lightning Bolt show up in in a large majority of decks that can support them without necessarily stifling deck diversity. The problem isn’t only presence but rather than that presence comes at the expense of other potential strategies.

Crowding

Separate from the omnipresence of cards is what certain decks can do to a metagame. Let’s look at Tron. The efficiency and strength of its mana engine means that other late game control decks have a significant barrier to overcome in order to be viable – why bother playing any other control deck when Tron is far and away the best one? This has come up at other times in the format’s history as well, notably with Monarch based strategies forcing out other midrange options.

Let’s go back to when Cloudpost was legal. Cloudpost not only was the best mana engine for a control deck but it also came with a built in defense from aggressive strategies thanks to Glimmerpost. The latter day Locus with the Mnemonic Wall and Ghostly Flicker engine put games out of reach of most beat down decks without needing to rely on Fog effects.

So where does this leave Affinity? Again, Affinity itself is not crowding out any decks per se, but rather inclusions like Krark-Clan Shaman and Makeshift Munitions are making life difficult for traditional aggressive strategies. One could make the argument that typical beatdown has no real home in large card pool formats and that is reasonable, but we are seeing a significant decline in the number of creatures turning sideways thanks to these cards and the copious amounts of fuel provided by the Artifact Lands. If the lands were removed these cards would still see play but the cost associated with them would increase, adding tangible cost to keeping the game locked down late.

Mana

If a card can subvert the mana system it tends to end up on my radar. Time after time, cards that cheat on the amount of mana produced have caused problems. Cloud of Faeries, Peregrine Drake, Treasure Cruise, Gush, Cloudpost, the Storm mechanic – the list goes on and on. It should come as no surprise that Affinity fits neatly into this category. Affinity is a cost reduction mechanic but the culprit, more often than not, are the Artifact Lands. Each of these produces at least one mana a turn but ask anyone who has faced down double Myr Enforcer on turn three – they produce closer to three mana on average.

I do not love drawing comparisons to Vintage, but Mishra’s Workshop produces three mana for artifacts on the regular in that format. Pauper Affinity is a deck loaded with contextually better versions of Mishra’s Workshop. Now Vintage has several other factors to consider, as well as the Restricted List at its disposal. Pauper, however, does not need to exist under these constraints.

Counter Play

A few weeks ago I wrote this in my article discussing Pauper’s identity:

When I look at a deck or interaction that is causing concern one question I ask myself is this: is there anything I could have reasonably done differently? The answer might lie in the in-game decisions or the composition of my deck, or even my deck choice. If there is no reasonable decision I could make differently then there may be a larger problem

Pauper’s Identity Crisis

Now I am not going to sit here and say there is no way to interact with Affinity, because there are. Dust to Dust exists and cards like Smash to Dust and Ancient Grudge, while reduced in efficacy, can still have an impact. But there is a difference between interaction and meaningful interaction. If, on the play on my second turn on I cast Revoke Existence on my opponent’s first Artifact Land and follow it up with a three drop on the next turn, is that a meaningful interaction? In most cases the answer is no as I gave up a significant turn of development and valuable tempo to take my opponent off of a land that produces more than one mana, only to have them follow up with another land that does the same thing. It takes Affinity less than one turn to come back from each “land destruction” spell.

This was one reason why Gorilla Shaman was so important in the context of pre-Modern Horizons 2 Affinity. Shaman represented a massive threat that forced Affinity to try and develop other parts of its board in an effort to attempt to resolve spells that mattered. Meanwhile the presence of Mox Monkey made running Affinity a risk. Perhaps it pushed meaningful interaction too far but it did not render the deck a non-factor.

So where does this leave the current iteration of Affinity? To be clear the strategy of Affinity does not strike me as offensive. However the indestructible Bridges do check a lot of these boxes – they are becoming a ubiquitous inclusion to shore up decks with Deadly Dispute, they are helping to crowd out creature decks due to the way they fuel Makeshift Munitions and Krark-Clan Shaman, they cheat on mana and they are hard to interact with in a meaningful way.

Personally speaking, my goal would not be to remove Affinity entirely. Rather the hope would be to leave it as a viable metagame option that hovers between 7% and 12% of the over all competitive metagame. Frankly, that is my goal for the format as a whole – a bunch of decks that dwell in this area instead of some chewing up over 20% of the winner’s metagame. I hope this piece provides some additional information and insight into my thought process. If you’re interested in discussing this further be sure to join the MTGPauper Discord Server.

I want to take a moment to thank all my Patrons – both old and new. I am going to do my level best to keep providing you with the kind of content that brought you here in the first place. If you are interested in supporting my work, rewards for my Patreon start at just $1 and every little bit helps.

Looking for another way to support my work? Click here for my TCGPlayer affiliate link. Any purchases through the link let the folks there know you like my content!

December 10-11 Pauper Weekend Recap

Combined Top 32 for December 10 and December 11

Biggest Winner: Bogles ( :cough cough: )

Biggest Surprise: Bogles

What I’d Play Next Week: Dimir or Rakdos with Debt to the Kami

Win +: Measures all wins better than X-3 in Swiss (X-2 is 1, X-1 is 2, etc). Measures a deck’s relative strength against the field in that event

K-Wins: Measures all wins less all losses, Top 8 inclusive. Measures a deck’s strength in a winner’s metagame

Wondering where my long-form breakdown went? You can find it here (today with a first four week breakdown), on my Patreon!

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December 3-4 Pauper Weekend Recap

Combined Top 32 for the December 3 and December 4

Biggest Winner: Grixis Affinity

Biggest Surprise: Madness Burn

What I’d Play Next Week: Bogles if you can solve the Krark-Clan Shaman Problem

Win +: Measures all wins better than X-3 in Swiss (X-2 is 1, X-1 is 2, etc). Measures a deck’s relative strength against the field in that event

K-Wins: Measures all wins less all losses, Top 8 inclusive. Measures a deck’s strength in a winner’s metagame

Wondering where my long-form breakdown went? You can find it here, on my Patreon!

Looking to buy any of the decks listed above? Click here for my TCGPlayer affiliate link. Any purchases through the link let the folks there know you like my content!

Is Kuldotha Red a Delver Deck?

Check out my latest article, live now on ChannelFireball!

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I want to take a moment to thank all my Patrons – both old and new. I am going to do my level best to keep providing you with the kind of content that brought you here in the first place. If you are interested in supporting my work, rewards for my Patreon start at just $1 and every little bit helps.