July 30-31 Pauper Weekend Recap

Pauper has turned a proverbial page and we are now in the second four week stretch of Double Masters 2022 Season. The first month ended with Faeries, Boros, and Monastery Swiftspear at the top of the metagame with Affinity remaining a major contender. Last weekend saw a Challenge on Saturday and Sunday in addition to the Showcase Qualifier on Saturday. Where does that leave us at the end of the day?

While this image may be a bit hard to read, things should be somewhat clear. The same macro strategies continue to perform well with Affinity, Faeries, and Boros all taking down events. The big story, to me at least, is the ascendancy of the Lunarch Veteran version of Boros Bully that runs the Basilisk Gate damage engine.

While this is not the list that won Saturday’s Challenge, instead making Top 8 on Sunday in the hands of Folero, this deck does a feature Raffine’s Informant. Informant is a great back up to Faithless Looting. More than that, it is arguably better in concert with Prismatic Strands since it not only advances your board state but provides a fresh body to use when you Connive away the Flashback Fog.

Boros Bully was already a deck based on a damage engine – that of going wide and ending the gate with Rally the Peasants. Basilisk Gate gives the deck another engine that works in a different direction. Where Bully traditionally won by going wide, Basilisk Gate allows it to go tall and present a single threat that can end the game. Guardian of the Guildpact is a fine target but Sacred Cat might be better right now. With Monastery Swiftspear and Affinity pressuring life totals, a 1/1 lifelink that can absorb a blow and come out swinging for Armadillo Cloak levels of life gain is huge. The fact that it requires two answers from Faeries does not hurt either.

So where would I look next week? I expect cards like Suffocating Fumes to see some play especially since black seems to be back on the menu thanks to Vampire Sovereign decks. But if you’re an enterprising Pauper, you might want to dig a bit deeper into the bulk box because a new storm might be a brewing.

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July 23-24 Pauper Weekend Recap

After July 23 and July 24, Pauper has a full month with the Double Masters 2022 downshifts available and several weeks of some Battle for Baldur’s Gate cards distributed on Magic Online. The resulting format is somehow entirely expected and full of surprises.

July 2-July 24 Challenges; minimum 5 Top 32 finishes OR Top 8 finish

Let’s start by talking about the elephant in the room – Monastery Swiftspear. This one card has had a massive impact on the format. Not only is its natural home the most popular deck, but it has also cropped up in both the Rakdos Madness Burn deck paired with Seeker of the Way in Boros Blitz. Swiftspear is a fantastic aggressive threat – the kind the format has sought for years to make beatdown decks viable – and it has done just that.

All that being said, Red Blitz is merely good. It might be the most popular discrete deck but it is less popular than Spellstutter Sprite decks overall and has fewer Top 8 finishes as well. Despite its strength the strategy has natural foils. Now, no one life gain spell is going to stop Temur Battle Rage, but enough of them round after round will make for a much rougher go of things. Similarly having access to the correct removal (do I have to bring up Dead Weight every week?) can buy you the time needed to establish your game plan.

Before we get to the real winner of July I want to talk about Basilisk Gate. This card has proven to be an absolute house. GateBlade was an early winner and Gate based game plans have continued to perform. However they have not matched Zoohn’s original GateBlade success. This may be part of the midrange problem – where midrange decks can perform well in league, where the meta is more open, but struggle in Challenges if they do not come with the right suite of answers. For example, going into next week I would want to be prepared for Affinity (it did win Sunday after all) and Spellstutter Sprite.

What? You thought it went away? Spellstutter Sprite decks – Delver, Faeries, Izzet Faeries, Dimir Faeries – have 23 Top 8 finishes (almost 36%), almost 27% of the Top 32 volume and over 32% of the Winner’s Metagame. Spellstutter Sprite gets better the lower the overall mana curve of the format AND these decks do well in more open metagames. The result is that blue decks are doing exceptionally well, which means Kor Skyfisher and Battle Screech could be a smart meta call moving into next weekend.

So here’s where I am at: the format is still about Monastery Swiftspear and failing to have a plan for it is a plan to fail. However, you need to be prepared to beat Spellstutter Sprite while not ignoring the fact that Affinity is still a viable deck. If I were trying to game the meta, I would want to be a Kor Skyfisher deck with access to efficient removal that does a good job of handling Swiftspear but also has a plan to beat a Guardian of the Guildpact with a Basilisk Gate. If I wanted to do something completely left of center, I would look at a go-wide green deck that can pressure a life total or one that attacks resources. Whether this is something in the vein of Stompy or one that can resolve a quick Ulamog’s Crusher remains to be seen.

But really, I’d probably play Kor Skyfisher.

I want to take a moment to thank all my Patrons – both old and new. Last week I saw the biggest jump in my growth in several years and 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 this work, rewards for my Patreon start at just $1 and every little bit helps.

July 16-17 Pauper Weekend Recap

The July 16 and July 17 Pauper Challenges continue to story of Double Masters 2022 and Battle for Baldurs Gate. Monastery Swiftspear is currently defining the format even if the decks it houses are not tearing up the metagame.

July 3-17 Pauper Challenges; minimum 4 appearances OR Top 8 finish

Monastery Swiftspear powered red decks are far and away the most popular discrete archetype. However, when looking at larger buckets we see Spellstutter Sprite decks as the most popular with just under 24% of the Top 32 metagame. When looking at the winner’s metagame – that is the share of wins at X-2 or better – Faeries comes in at just under 31%. Compare that to just over 16.5% for Red Blitz and the picture starts to become far more clear – Spellstutter Sprite is back even if it never left.

This makes sense. Roughly speaking you are going to be on the play 50% of the time and all of the spells in the Blitz deck are cheap. Spellstutter Sprite can stop them from storming off and put a blocker in the way of Monastery Swiftspear, buying you the time to draw into more counters and ways to mitigate the damage output. Or maybe you’re running red and you now have the time to find Lightning Bolt, Skred, or Fire // Ice.

All of this combined pushes the critical turn of the format down. While the Fundamental Turn – that is the turn when games are largely decided on the board – still hovers around 4, it may be that the most important turn in the format right now is turn two. If you are taking too much time off to develop your game plan, whether it be with tap lands or cards that do not directly impact the board, you can very easily find yourself three steps behind when it comes to Spellstutter and Swiftspear. At the same time the format is awash in sweepers that can do a solid job of helping you catch up, from Fiery Cannonade to the newer additions Breath Weapon and Arms of Hadar. All that being said you need to survive to that point.

So where does that leave the state of things? To me you really want to be looking at high impact one-drops. Cards like Lunarch Veteran have proven their worth already and maybe it’s time to bust out Soul Warden and Soul’s Attendant as well. I’ve already extolled the virtues of Dead Weight and believe it should be seeing way more play. Finally, it might be time to look at Elvish Mystic as a way to jump the curve and get you to the sweepers that much faster. If you’re trying for Arms of Hadar, Mind Stone or Signets might be the best call.

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Treasured Finds: Sarulf, Realm Eater

Welcome back to Treasured Finds: a place to appreciate Golgari and Witherbloom in Commander.

The other day a friend of me asked how I felt about the proliferation of potential Commanders. Overall, I’m fine with it as it not only gives more people access to different avenues of self expression but it also can enhances the sense of discovery I felt during the earliest days of Magic when I had to reach across the blacktop to try and learn every card to see what it did. It’s the joy of the prerelease that runs against an identity of a Magic player who desires perfect knowledge.

It’s not all upside. We get Commanders like Sarulf, Realm Eater which while undeniably cool, encourage a style of play that may be hard to swallow at more social tables. Sarulf wants things to die so you can blow up the world over and over again. Incredibly flavorful, but as someone who managed to achieve Sapling of Colfenor and Worldslayer once and everyone decided to concede so we could move to the next game, it isn’t exactly my jam (even if I do have a showcase version in my collection). There are lots of fun things that can be done with Sarulf, including turning the wolf into a Mutate stack (thanks EDHRec!) but the reality is that as a Commander it is hard for me to see a table where I leave happy by annihilating everyone in this specific way. It puts a target on your head and the second someone has a removal spell things are poised to turn south.

Instead I want to use today to talk about Sarulf and the black-green concept of unchecked growth. Golgari is concerned with the life-death cycle and this can be seen in its mechanics, but looking at the wider black-green slice of the color pie there is a through line of dangerous growth.

Grim Feast is not the first black-green gold card but it set the color pair on this path. Yes, your life total is going to grow as long as you can keep killing creatures. The spiritual precursor to Vulturous Zombie and Lord of Extinction, Grim Feast showcases this conceit of the color pair in that not only does it feed on death but that death is a hungry beast and wants to keep consuming. Doomgape is a clear descendant of this chain as it provides you with a nominally under-costed monster but one that has an unending need to consume. Where Sarulf feeds off of your opponent’s woe and potentially harms you, Doomgape eats your stuff and maybe deals some damage?

What happens when you pair black’s “greatness at any cost” mantra with green’s desire for natural growth? That is what Sarulf excels at demonstrating. Playing black and green does not have to be about the meticulous march of card advantage. There can a high risk-high reward element to playing the color pair that can put a hurt on your adversaries provided you’re willing to pay that price.

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July 9-10 Pauper Weekend Recap

A little push goes a long way, so I want to start by thanking Brian Coval and Phil Gallagher for stumping for me over the weekend. When two people you respect a great deal – as Magic players and as people – give you a shout out, it helps to rekindle a fire.

For the newcomers, welcome! I’ll do a more involved pitch later but before you go read further it would help to familiarize yourself with this post, which details how I go about exploring the Magic Online Top 32 Challenge metagames.

Okay, so first off, Pauper is in a weird spot right now. Ignoring the actual games played the online is different than the one in the physical world. The Initiative cards (and some others from Battle for Baldur’s Gate) are not currently programmed into Magic Online and as such the cards are not factoring into these breakdowns. That’s an issue unto itself as Initiative looks to be really good. Monarch already generates a card of value each turn but Initiative can do more than that thanks to the synergy with Ephemerate and Ghostly Flicker. If you blink a Palace Sentinels when you have the Monarch nothing changes; do the same to an Aarakockra Sneak and you venture deeper into the dungeon.

And that’s not all – right now the Baldur’s Gate cards on Magic Online are somewhat difficult to acquire and are in short supply. This means decks lack last week’s winning GateBlade are, well, gated to a portion of the community.

All this being said, this post in concerned with the metagame as it exists on Magic Online. After the July 9 and July 10 Challenges, here is where things stand. The following chart includes every deck that has at least 3 Top 32 appearances over the four challenges since Double Masters 2022 hit MTGO or has at least one Top 8 appearance.

Going into the release of Double Masters 2022, Affinity was the clear best deck in the format. It had some of the best threats, great card draw, and resilience. The deck is still quite good but Monastery Swiftspear has remade the format in her image. Not only are Swiftspear fronted red decks the most popular at the moment, but the Khans of Tarkir downshift has made waves in other decks.

First off, Lunarch Bully is now the most popular version of Boros. This makes sense as it has some great blockers in Lunarch Veteran and Sacred Cat, while also having a decent amount of build in lifegain. Izzet Faeries is the best performing deck early on this season which may have something to do with the fact that it can run Lightning Bolt, Skred, Fire//Ice, and Izzet Charm.

Now none of this means that Affinity cannot rebound and have a fantastic season. The core has not changed and nothing has come along to disrupt its game plan – only to subvert it with speed. And it could just be that this early in a new set’s cycle people are trying new things out and putting down their Bridges for the time being. Early returns indicate that Affinity is still a factor, as is Spellstutter Sprite, with Swiftspear decks taking out a larger chunk of the meta.

So how do you fight this? I think longtime Orzhov-mage HeWhoIsinTheWater has a reasonable approach:

Orzhov Pestilence puts in work against Spellstutter Sprite decks and is not dead to Affinity. It can also use its eponymous enchantment to curtail other aggressive strategies, go over the tog of Moment’s Peace, and limit the damage that Goblin Combo can inflict. It also packs enough lifegain to survive against Monastery Swiftspear but it’s the sideboard copies of Dead Weight that are most attractive there. Swiftspear is dangerous for sure, but the ability to answer it on turn one is huge and can save you quite a few life points. If I were to play this deck I would absolutely be willing to add these to the main.

But what about next week? I would try to run the best Dead Weight deck I could that did not give up too much to Affinity while also potentially going over the top of other midrange decks. If I could get my hands on Arms of Hadar I would try my hand at a base-Golgari ramp deck in the vein of the popular Cascade strategies.

And now for that sales pitch:

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June 18-19 Pauper Weekend in Review

Normally I examine Pauper through the lens of different releases. In my mind it makes sense that, even if a new set does not completely change the format it does provide a new pool of cards. Given the slow and piecemeal roll out of Battle for Baldur’s Gate on Magic Online, and the rapidly approaching Double Masters 2022 with its powerful downshifts, I have decided to group these post Baldur’s Gate events with Streets of New Capenna season.

With that out of the way, we have our second four week chunk of data from this season, hanging out with trolls under various Bridges. Pauper has seen some interesting developments at its fringes recently, with beatdown Goblins adopting Experimental Synthesizer, Cascade going back to Mulldrifter, Boros Tribe combo emerging, and Turbo Fog establishing itself as a metagame player. All in all, 17 different archetypes topped 2% of the Top 32 metagame (at least six total appearances).

All archetypes with at least 6 T32 appearances May 28-June 19

In case it is not clear, I am going to highlight a segment of this spreadsheet – the righthand most columns.

Despite there being 17 different archetypes with at least 2% of the Top 32 metagame, only one deck topped 10% and it was that same deck that topped 20% – Grixis Affinity. While these decks are not entirely the same – some skew more towards control with cards like Counterspell, for example – the fact that this is the only deck to reach such a level is both impressive and foreboding. If you group all the Spellstutter Sprite decks they come to 13.55% of the Top 32; all the Boros decks here make up 12.15% of the Top 32 metagame.

Put another way, Affinity is just that good.

If you’re reading this article you don’t need me to tell you that Affinity is great. At this point it is clear that some action will need to be taken. I am not going to speculate on what action could be taken today because I’ve done it recently and frankly there’s not much else to be said.

Instead I want to talk about the edges someone can going in this metagame. These days the best way to approach the metagame is to figure out which linear deck is best positioned for that week. Kuldotha Goblins, Red Blitz, Bogles, Heroic – all of these decks excel at enacting their game plan and each have a decent fail rate if met with the correct counterplay. And that is where Pauper is right now – to gain an edge you have to be willing to take a risk.

The best decks – Affinity, Faeries, Boros – are all decks with a high floor and a high ceiling, Affinity being the best there. Many of the linear decks listed previously have a higher ceiling but the floor is subterranean. Still, if you are looking for an advantage that is one area to explore.

And for next week what would I be trying to do? I’d want to do something red for access to Flaring Pain. After a strong showing from Bogles over the past few events, I fully expect Fogs to be out in force.

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A Rant About Different Tweets

Yesterday the Pauper Format Panel released its view on the current state of the format and everything was quiet for about a day. And then Kalikaiz – someone I respect quite a bit when it comes to Pauper – released this thread on Twitter:

And just like that, the conversation began anew.

Once again, I am going to put this in the big font:

These are my opinions and not those of the Pauper Format Panel. I am not the Scarlet Witch and do not have the kind of power.

Okay let’s go.

Is Affinity a problem? Even if the numbers do not bear it out long term the perception is that the core of the deck has become an issue for Pauper. The Bridges have provided the deck with all the reward and none of the risk. The points about Dust to Dust are valid in that it might be the best sideboard card for the matchup but it still is a two-for-one where you’re spending three mana to deal with two cards which cost almost nothing, if not entirely free. The addition of Deadly Dispute (and other sacrifice outlets) means that you aren’t even going to get the full value off of Dust to Dust all of the time. This has led to a format that is reliant on a sideboard card that isn’t doing the job it is assigned.

But that’s not the whole story. Affinity has eaten up a lot of real estate thanks to its powerful core – material, Galvanic Blast, and Deadly Dispute is a solid combination and forms the backbone of many different strategies at the moment. That Dust to Dust is ineffective here is part of the problem but it is more that the Dust to Dust plan – that is blowing up lands in an attempt to buy time – works better when it involves actual Land Destruction. The Thermokarst decks have picked up steam as a way to go over the top. They run a consistent mana engine that gets them to Cascade threats early and can dominate a “fair” game. The result is a combination of problematic cards and play patterns that many people find less than fun. I do not like using “fun” as a metric since it is so subjective, but when a format becomes “blow up your lands and win” or “blow up your lands and lose”, there might be something underfoot.

So hypothetically speaking what happens if the Bridges go away? The hope is that other decks can assert themselves in an old new way. Boros and Faeries return and Affinity sticks around in a more vulnerable state. The hope then would be that aggressive decks could make a comeback and help handle the Cascade/Land Destruction decks that are currently keeping bounceland strategies from competing.

Right?

If the Bridges go Affintiy probably reverts to a viable Tier 1.5/2 option. The deck still has to face the wrath of Mox Monkey but with Deadly Dispute and Makeshift Munitions that probably is not as scary a proposition. Maybe Etherium Spinner catches on for real this time or the deck just cycles through various less robust cores from week to week.

Boros is likely to get stronger in such a world. Without having to dedicate the same number of sideboard slots to Dust to Dust it can round out its extra stack with some of white’s more powerful sideboard options. What probably won’t happen is a return to the decks that relied on four drops – why would Boros do this with access to Experimental Synthesizer? – as it can be far more efficient and lean.

Faeries will continue to do what it always does and be one of the best decks in the format. Maybe it gets better with fewer copies of Makeshift Munitions but maybe it also takes a hit as more people can focus on Spellstutter Sprite as opposed to Myr Enforcer. Perhaps something needs to be banned from this core in the future but honestly at this point who knows?

But what about aggro? We’ve seen the emergence of a Goblin deck that leans on artifacts and Kuldotha Rebirth but other than that the innovation has mostly been in “go tall” decks like Bogles and Infect. This is not a Pauper problem as much as one that plagues non-rotating formats. The removal gets better, the card draw gets more efficient, but it’s really hard to have a better aggro creature than a 2/2 for one mana.

I don’t think the decline of Affinity – and with it Krark-Clan Shaman and Makeshift Munitions- is going to lead to a resurgence in aggro decks akin to Stompy. I do not think the incentives are there to play traditional beatdown in Pauper. Will creature-combo return? Possibly, but that doesn’t mean the Thermokarsts are going away.

Pauper is on the same timeline as other non-rotating formats. Over time the interaction will get cheaper and more efficient. The best card draw will rise to the top and creature decks are forced to look for another angle. Legacy has Death & Taxes and Modern has at different times had Hammer Time, Hardened Scales, and Humans (as well as others).

So really, what’s the problem?

The problem is not only about cards at the moment but rather that the cards present are encouraging some less than ideal play patterns. The hope appears to be that by knocking the Bridges down (and potentially taking some other cards with them) the format can achieve some previous state of grace. The hope is that doing this removes the incentives to engage in those play patterns and instead opens things up.

But my question is this: does it? Does removing the Bridges and sure, let’s throw the Monarch in (as it is also a popular subject in these discussions) really change things up? If such action is taken, what do you think will happen?

Mono-Black Control is a deck that has, by and large, been surpassed by the format. When almost every color has two and three drops that generate value the incentive chain Chittering Rats into Gray Merchant of Asphodel is low. No one bats an eye at this (and in fact MBC is a bit of a meme in some competitive spheres). The same can be said of Stompy but for different reasons. Unless you want to take a phalanx of chainsaws to the format, I’m not sure traditional aggro can every achieve the level of success it did when Stompy was at its apex.

But this is just one person’s opinion and I want to hear from you: what action do you think should be taken and, importantly, what are the consequences of that action? What will the format look like if your plan is enacted? Sound off in the comments, in the #MTGPauper Discord, or in the replies to the tweet where I post this.

Catching Up with Pauper – May & June 2022 Edition

Every so often I need to step away from Pauper. It is not an indictment of the format but rather sometimes, the world just gets to be too much. Without getting into too many details, the past few weeks were really rough on my as a parent of a school-aged child in the United States. Normally at the end of these posts I make a request to sign up for my Patreon but today I’m asking that if you were going to sign up to instead donate that money here.

There’s been a lot going on in Pauper the past few weeks, especially given the announcement that Battle for Baldur’s Gate would not be released on Magic Online in a way the coincides with its paper release. While there are some clues as to which cards are going to be available (thanks to the collection filter on the platform), the Pauper playing masses are trying to piece together what the near future is going to resemble. Affinity remains the fulcrum of the metagame thanks to its powerful threats and ability to easily reload. Krark-Clan Shaman and Makeshift Munitions also give the deck a way to defend against swarm strategies. Looking at the sum of its parts it makes sense that the rest of the format revolves around Affinity.

Yet the metagame around Affinity continues to churn. For a few weeks we saw Familiars, both Azorius and Esper, get a ton of press. More recently Turbo Fog and base-green Cascade/Ponza decks have been picking up popularity. While drastically different on the surface, these decks all share a very important elements that might be contributing to their success.

First, these decks are strong in a place where Affinity is weak: Dust to Dust. Availing itself as a key card these days, not being hit by Dust to Dust is a great way to gain an edge in the current metagame. In a similar vein these decks are resilient to Blue and Red Elemental Blasts. While each of these decks does have cards that get hit by these cheap spells, they all have some way to combat them – Familiars and Turbo Fog have recursion engines that can rebuy key pieces while the green ramp decks have Cascade threats to get around countermagic.

Out of all of these I think that Turbo Fog is the best positioned moving into this weekend. Despite their strength, both Familiars and Cascade have a common weakness to a resolved Magma Spray while Turbo Fog can just ignore a lot of commonly included interaction. There has also been a decline in Burn decks recently while Kuldotha Goblins has seen more play. To that end it makes sense for Turbo Fog to make gains this weekend. So if I were trying to game the system, I would look for a way to run Pestilence without getting run over by Affinity since it provides a convenient way to end the game through Moment’s Peace.