Center Stage: Tin-Street Hooligan

I want to start exploring cards that have potential (or are just neat) but have yet to find a good home in Pauper. Today I want to talk about Tin-Street Hooligan.

When I first started playing Pauper (back when it was a player run format 15 years ago), Tin-Street Hooligan was an incredibly important card upon release. Affinity was a powerhouse. It lacked significant checks like Ancient Grudge and Gorilla Shaman, both of which had yet to be released. Instead, decks relied on slower options like Nantuko Vigilante, Overload, or Echoing Ruin to try and contain the machine. When Tin-Street Hooligan came along, everything changed. Gruul decks now had access to an on curve two-drop that could set their opponent’s board development back.

As Pauper saw its card pool grow, the format got faster. Running a two-color aggressive strategy stopped being a popular option as these decks took too long to develop their board. Taking turns off to set up mana meant a good two-color two drop like Hooligan was no longer a viable option.

So why am I bringing this card up today? Pauper has fantastic artifact removal already and the mana, while better than before, still has trouble supporting two-color aggro. The answer is Burning-Tree Emissary. In base red decks, Burning-Tree Emissary can produce the green mana needed to resolve a “kicked” Tin-Street Hooligan. Red Deck Wins, the second best Emissary deck, already wants red two drops and this one has decent upside against artifact lands at the very least. But Tin-Street can also hit Frogmite and Myr Enforcer, as well as Prophetic Prism and Bonder’s Ornament.

I am not saying that Tin-Street Hooligan is a game breaking card – far from it – but the barrier for it to see play is about as low as it has ever been. It might be time to break some stuff.

Looking at Lists: New Tron

I want to try some new things with this here blog. My plan is to look at a decklist that catches my interest once a week. The deck can be from either Challenge or the League results. Today’s deck is from the 5-0 deck dump.

I wanted to talk about Oscar_Franco’s deck for a few reasons. First up, this is not anything new. If you adjust the mana base and cut Crop Rotation/Preordain for Expedition Map you get the same old Flicker Tron deck that had been at the top of Pauper for months. Trading Map for Preordain makes the deck less likely to know it will have Tron in its opening hand but gives Tron ample opportunity to dig towards the correct pieces. This is aided by Prophetic Prism (still really good!) and Bonder’s Ornament (a card that left Matt Nass dumbstruck).

Is this version of Tron slower than previous iterations? Yes, by about a turn. While it is capable of getting a powerful draw on par with the Expedition Map versions, the new models take more time, on average. I have had the chance to play against similar builds with an aggressive Goblin deck and came within one misplay of winning the match (I missed my chance to Fireblast a Stonehorn Dignitary with Ephemerate on the stack). That being said, Tron is still very powerful and will remain a check on the format’s long game.

That brings me to my second point. When the bans were announced, many Pauper players felt that taking Expedition Map away from Tron was not enough. Rather it would just force the deck to run cards that are better in the mid-to-late game (like Preordain), trading early game consistency for more late game power. On top of that, the ban did nothing to break up some of the more repetitive elements of playing against Tron – namely rebuying Stonehorn Dignitary.

I talk more about my views of the ban here but the general consensus is that banning Map is a half measure. Rather than taking out the problematic elements of the deck (whether that is the Tron mana engine itself or Stonehorn Dignitary or the various Blink elements), the ban was designed to give the rest of the format in-game time to win. The question remains whether or not this goes far enough. While my early results indicate that this is the case, I want to see if this is borne out over the coming weeks.

July 11th and 12th Pauper Weekend in Review

The two Pauper Challenges this weekend took place under a dangling sword. A Banned List update was announced for July 13th and the prevailing wisdom was that some part of the Tron deck was going to be excised from the format and that Mystic Sanctuary was a goner.

The announcement came and went. Expedition Map and Mystic Sanctuary are banned. The decks they propped up aren’t going anywhere but I doubt they will remain the same. Tron decks will need to rework their configuration to allow for the inclusion of Ancient Stirrings, Crop Rotation, Impulse, or Preordain, as well as run enough of the proper lands to ensure they can cast the cards in question. Mystic Sanctuary decks lose their potent end game, but these decks have been put on the chopping block time and time again (they are Delver decks, after all) and have never fully gone away.

This weekend’s challenges tell us a story parallel to the one that unfolded on Monday. It told us what to expect, outside of Tron, in the coming weeks.

July 12th Pauper Challenge

The next result of the ban is that at best, Tron gets one turn slower. At worst, it has the same fundamental turn as before. The aggressive decks in the format – Affinity, Red Deck Wins, Stompy – all get a small bump. Stompy is likely to benefit most from the extra time but only if Tron moves towards blue. Biasing towards green could make it easier to run additional copies of Moment’s Peace and put additional pressure on cards like Ram Through.

One deck getting a boost is WonderWalls. While highly redundant, the deck is somewhat vulnerable to countermagic. As people shift away from Delver strategies (and their ilk), it is likely there will be fewer copies of Counterspell in the format. Since Tron hasn’t taken that large of a hit and WonderWalls is solid against Tron, the defender based combo deck could be a big early winner.

The other big winner is Tron. Mystic Sanctuary decks were important in helping to keep Tron in check. It appears that the bans were designed to give aggro more of a puncher’s chance, in turn boosting midrange strategies as a viable check on aggro. The test will be how much slower Tron is without map. Early hyperbole indicated that this was barely a hit on Tron and considering the options available to the deck, it is easy to believe the deck remains unscathed.

So that’s where we are: the format’s next several months hinge on whether or not the in-game time bought by removing Expedition Map matters enough to give beatdown decks the chance to beat Tron before the game ends.

July 4th and 5th Pauper Weekend in Review

I was all set to write about the most recent Challenges, and I suppose I’ll say a few words about them. But the real story is this announcement:

Yeah. Big news. We’ll get to it in a bit.

July 4th saw Slivers take down the challenge. It beat Boros Monarch and Burn on its way to the finals where it allegedly split with Affinity. The Top 8 featured four Tron decks packing an Ephemerate package.

The next day saw zero Tron decks in the Top 8. Instead, Stompy placed two decks in the Top 8 and won the July 5th Challenge.

Okay, back to the announcement at hand. We know a ban is forthcoming and we also know that both Tron decks (featuring Flicker engines) and Mystic Sanctuary decks (usually in a Delver shell) have been at the top of the format for quite some time. Unlike rotating formats, the only way to create a sea change in Pauper is to engage in some sort of ban. This is because the inertia of existing cards is great and extremely hard to overcome. Both Flicker Tron and Mystic Sanctuary decks create an end game that is incredibly hard to disrupt. Tron is the main offender here.

These days Tron decks can race to their endgame as early as turn four. Stonehorn Dignitary and Ephemerate buys plenty of time and once a Mnemonic Wall comes down it becomes almost impossible to disrupt. If Tron has a backup Ghostly Flicker or Ephemerate in its pocket, even the world’s best safe cracker won’t be able to pick the lock. Tron is also able to run the right answer for any situation due to the nature of its mana engine. Bonder’s Ornamenbt – a card that should be a fringe player in long game decks – has become the centerpiece of Tron thanks to how easy it is to generate the mana needed to draw a card.

Mystic Sanctuary decks are problematic in that they can use either Tragic Lesson or Deprive to create looped game states in the latter stages of a battle. At the same time these cards are constrained by mana in a way Tron is not. That being said, having to play against Forbid and Whispers of the Muse is fairly miserable so it is possible these decks become a target.

Here’s the problem: the Pauper metagame is balanced on a knife point. While Tron is the best deck right now if you pull it entirely something will fill that vacuum. At the same point if you leave Tron alone it will be increasingly hard for something to come along and take it down. If I was going to do anything, I would start by taking a look at the UrzaTron.

That won’t solve Pauper’s problems. Tron is at the apex in part because it is best at blunting the assault of Burning-Tree Emissary aggro decks and going over the top of Monarch strategies. It may be correct to take the lock pieces out of Tron, hitting Ephemerate, Ghostly Flicker, and the likely replacement of Displace.

On balance, I think both UrzaTron and Ephemerate need to go. As long as Tron remains in the format it is going to be able to run any card it wants, regardless of cost. When three lands cast nearly everything in the format regardless of actual mana cost it becomes problematic. At the same time I would take out Ephemerate as it is far too efficient at what it does and invalidates potential counter play.

What about Mystic Sanctuary? I think you need to take a look at the land itself as it creates problems similar to those created by Ephemerate and Mnemonic Wall. Even if it feels like Mystic Sanctuary is second fiddle to Tron the card has been similarly dominant over the past 51 challenges: Tron/Ephemerate decks have 99 Top 8 appearances in 408 Top 8s – around 24.26%; Mystic Sanctuary decks have 103 Top 8 appearances – 25.25%. Tron is more monolithic which helps to explain why it looms larger but make n0 mistake: Mystic Sanctuary is a major player.

If I were to also be proactive, I would take a look at what this means for both the Monarch and Burning-Tree Emissary. Monarch was a problematic mechanic before the advent of Ephemerate and I don’t think enough has changed to make that any less of the case. Similarly, Burning-Tree Emissary aggressive strategies have access to draws that are hard to contain without a reliable turn three sweeper. That being said, I don’t expect these cards to go next Monday.

I don’t have all the data – Wizards does. I anticipate they’ll take a look at the information they have and do what they think will be best for the format moving forward.

June 27-28 Pauper Weekend in Review

Core Set 2021 has made its way to Magic Online, as has Jumpstart. Some of the new cards – notably the Thriving Lands – are still challenging to acquire. Still, none of the cards released last week should have such a huge impact that they completely upset Pauper’s apple cart. Last week I took a look at some of the top decks from the end of Ikoria. Let’s see how my predictions ended up.

June 27 Pauper Challenge

Stompy: “Stompy is still going to be a popular option so be prepared, but it likely will struggle for the next few weeks after that before finding a groove again.”

There were 7 Stompy decks across both events and two of them had winning records. Stompy is a deck that can succeed when people are preparing for other forms of aggression. After weeks of doing well, Stompy was due for a dip in performance.

Affinity: “Affinity is a sleeper contender. I’d look at Dispersal Shield in the Metallic Rebuke Slot.”

Affinity had a Top 8 appearance and had a Win+ of four in five appearances. While no one ran Dispersal Shield, no one ran Metallic Rebuke either. While I wasn’t wrong, I wasn’t exactly right either.

Dimir Delver: “If you’re dead set on playing Gurmag Angler, consider a Spellstutter Sprite build.”

Nope. Got this one wrong. Dimir Delver had itself a weekend. Two Top 8s, a Win, and a Win+ of 3 in 6 appearances (that’s an average record of X-1 across all these six decks). What did I miss? I think I miscalculated how well this deck was positioned against non-Izzet Faeries decks. As we’ll see later, Izzet had a tough weekend which opened a window for Dimir.

Boros Bully: “Bully is a sleeper contender, but I’d wait until week two before busting it out.”

One appearance and a 3-3 record at that. We’ll see if this prediction pans out.

Izzet Faeries: “Izzet Faeries is still a tier one strategy and if you don’t have a plan for beating it why are you even showing up?”

Two appearances and a Top 8, so it seems that this deck is still a good option. Shocker, I know. Still, when decks come prepared they can help to contain Izzet Faeries. It seems folks had a plan when they showed up.

Flicker Tron: “Just ban something already.”

A win and three Top 8s, and 11 total appearances (12 if you count a Stonehorn-less variant; 14 if you include all Tron variants with Ephemerate), so yeah this deck is still, on balance, the best in the format.

Part of the issue with Flicker Tron is that it can just run all the best cards. It doesn’t much matter what the color or cost restriction is since Tron can spend mana with impunity and has the filtering to do whatever it wants.

Take Bonder’s Ornament. In any “fair” deck this card is quite expensive. Seven mana for one card is fine in long drawn out games when locked in an attrition war. In Tron, this cost is a pittance.

If you ask me, Pauper is coming to a crossroads. There are tons of very cool things you can do in the format but the best engines are hard to disrupt. These engines include the Tron mana engine, Mnemonic Wall (and it’s ilk)/Ephemerate, and Mystic Sanctuary/Tragic Lesson. While these are all very powerful, none are so powerful on their own merits that they present a problem. Rather, it’s how strong they are in relation to everything that they are not that creates issues.

So next week? I’d look at Flicker Tron and failing that, a deck that can pack Journey to Nowhere.

June 13-14 Pauper Weekend in Review

We are in the home stretch of Ikoria: Lair of Behemoths season as there is only one more weekend of Challenges before Core Set 2021 hits the scene. The results from this past weekend are nothing out of the ordinary and largely make sense given the trends in Pauper.

June 13; Win+ represents wins above X-3 record

My latest Power Rankings had Izzet Faeries as the best deck in the format and Saturday did nothing to change my mind. The deck placed two in the Top 8 and won the dang tournament. While Flicker Tron failed to make Top 8 it had a very strong showing overall. Boros Monarch supplanted Bully as the Wind-Scarred Crag deck of the day and Dimir Faeries continued to put up solid numbers.

Mamah made Top 8 on back-to-back days with the strategy. The deck takes the creature core of Mono Blue Delver decks but cuts Delver for Gurmag Angler. It runs the blue spell suite all too familiar to Pauper players these days but gets lacks the ability to use its removal to deal with life totals. Still, access to cards like Suffocating Fumes and Echoing Decay is a nice bonus.

June 14; Win+ represents wins above X-3 record

Flicker Tron made the Top 8 on Sunday and won in the extremely capable hands of Hellsau. Izzet Faeries also made the elimination rounds; both decks had four Top 32 finishes and accrued 4 cumulative wins above an X-3 record. When talking about the best deck in Pauper, the conversation starts with these two strategies.

The breakout card for this weekend was Bonder’s Ornament. I will be the first to admit I think the hype around this card is over the top but make no mistake: the card is extremely good (as long as not everyone is running it). This creates an issue since Ornament is only available in Treasure Chests. Ornament’s release follows in the footsteps of some other important Pauper cards – Ash Barrens, Palace Sentinels, and Thorn of the Black Rose. Over time these cards became far easier to access but at the onset they were hard to acquire. Bonder’s Ornament is facing a similar issue while also seeing play in an already established top deck. The problem is only going to be exacerbated if there are Pauper relevant cards in Jump Start – which will only come to Magic Online via Treasure Chests. I don’t have a panacea for this issue but I would like to see more copies of these relevant cards released, in some way, into the Magic Online ecosystem to help keep the barrier of entry for Pauper low.

Whisper, Blood Liturgist

I have an Aristocrats problem in Commander. At one point I had nearly 20 decks built and a third of them had a pretty significant Aristocrats element. While there are many ways to play Aristocrats – shorthand for sacrifice for value – mine all fooled around in similar space. As a result I was never fully happy with any of the decks while enjoying all of them. At the start of quarantine I resolved to reduce the number of decks I had built and parse down my collection. This meant taking a hard look at all my dying friends and figure out which one to keep together.

It surprised me when the solution was Whisper, Blood Liturgist.

Back when this card was first spoiled I exclaimed that I felt it had been designed just for me. It’s a sacrifice engine that has a drawback that you could turn into an advantage. The card I most wanted to pair with Whisper was Thornbite Staff. Taken together each iteration of Whisper would yield two untap Ttriggers from Thornbite, which could then be used, with a little work, to generate an unbound number of “enters the battlefield” and “dies” triggers. I built a fairly resilient deck, focused on protecting Whisper and her Staff and promptly set it aside.

Like I said before, I had a lot of decks that played in similar space. My Elenda deck ran every Grave Pact, my Grenzo deck was where I leveraged Nim Deathmantle combos, and Savra was a generic sacrifice/control deck. When I decided to reduce the number of options I had Whisper wasn’t even an option – I was going to put together a Teysa, Orzhov Scion deck to take over that role.

So what changed? I got obsessed with something old and something new.

I couldn’t get this combination out of my head. But it was bothering me because again, this hypothetical deck would play in the same space as Savra and Teysa. I had an a ha moment and remember another Commander I love that has been left by the wayside in Sek’Kuar, Deathkeeper. Now I had an Abzan and Jund deck taking pieces of three existing builds.

So how does Whisper work? The entire goal is to set up a turn where you can stick Whisper with Staff and go to town. So much of the deck is dedicated to protecting the combo pieces. Black does not have a ton of options for recurring artifacts so I had to get creative and dig into Artifacts and Lands to get the job done. The deck does have a series of backup kills involving Deathmantle tricks and an unbound amount of mana.

And then there’s this polarizing card. Contamination is a card I love playing and often does nothing when there are enough rocks out. Sometimes I’m up against other black decks and it barely hurts them. Other times it buys me the time I need to win the game. I know this card is controversial – part of playing Magic is getting the chance to play Magic. So if I ever play Whisper at a more casual table – something I’m not likely to do – there’s a chance I simply wouldn’t play Contamination, even if I drew it. There are also times I’m going to slam it early and ride it to victory.

Where does Whisper go from here? I’m always on the lookout for more low cost token generators (hello Weaponcraft Enthusiast) and sacrifice outlets. Maybe one day in the future Wizards will print a piece of equipment that serve as redundancy for Thornbite Staff, but I wouldn’t hold my breath.