The Pauper Week in Review – March 29-April 3

Is anyone else feeling the effects of cabin fever?

I know I am.

I’m having these incredibly vivid dreams that are directly influence by the current events. Not to share too much, but I had a dream that someone came to my apartment to let me know my mother’s mother had died of COVID-19 and then went to shake my hand in condolences. Right after I shot the suit a nasty glare I woke up and worried about my father’s mother, who is currently in a nursing home in Long Island.

My mother’s mother died in 2008.

It’s okay to feel things right now, and it’s important to be distracted by the things that interest us as we try to find a new center in an ever changing world. The bounty of Pauper results from this past week has been a much need opiate to take my mind off of the search a suitable face covering (thank you runner’s balaclava) and worrying about my two-year old son and the long lasting impact of him not being around his friends for the foreseeable future.

I’m sharing this as catharsis but also to let you know that it’s okay to feel so many things all at once.

The March 29th Challenge gave us Flicker Tron’s first victory since January 19th. Despite racking up more Top 8 finishes than any other archetype this season the deck has regressed to the mean. While a top contender and a format defining archetype, it is not the unassailable titan it was during Throne of Eldraine season.

Let’s get into the numbers for a bit. I assign every deck that goes X-2 or better a score based on performance. An X-2 record is one point, X-1 is two, and X-0 is three. I then take the sum of this score (labeled as Win+ in my documents) and figure out each archetype’s weighted volume as it relates to actual volume. During Throne of Eldraine season, Flicker Tron lapped the field with a delta of 6.99%. Only two other decks with more than 10 appearances had a positive delta (1.21% and 0.11%). This season Flicker Tron’s delta currently sits at 2.5%. There are five decks with positive deltas and at least 10 appearances (inclusive of the April 1st Super Qualifier, which we’ll get to in a minute).

March 29th Challenge

That’s eight different archetypes in the Top 8. The two rising stars in this group are Dimir Delver and Azorius Familairs. Neither of these decks are new but they have been performing well this season. Both are Mystic Sanctuary decks but go about using that card rather differently. Dimir Delver uses Sanctuary in combination with Deprive and Tragic Lesson to put a lock on the end-game card advantage war. Familiars loops Ghostly Flicker through the land to get enough Sage’s Row Denizen triggers to end the game.

In advance of the April 1st Super Qualifier I tweeted that I would play either Heroic or a Boros Monarch with access to Standard Bearer. The top two spots – and the Players Tour qualifications – went to Boros decks with Palace Sentinels but they were both the aggressive Bully variant. And nary a Flagbearer to be found.

April 1st Super Qualifier

Again we see a variety of decks in the Top 8 – 7 archetypes this time – but there were three Mystic Sanctuary decks. Affinity continued to have an solid if unremarkable season, while Burn keeps putting up Top 8s despite having a high fail rate for finishing outside the elimination rounds.

So where does this leave the format as we move towards the release of Ikoria: Lair of Behemoths? Ghostly Flicker continues to be a format defining card but it is hardly the limiting factor it had been in the past. Mystic Sanctuary decks are picking up steam but the best build varies from week to week. The next set looks poised to shake things up if only because the new keyword – Mutate – looks to give Pauper access to slightly different go-tall strategies.

This is the top of the Pauper metagame at the current moment. The threshold for making it here is around 2% of total volume, or 8 appearances. Even if you lump these into macro archetypes, there still appears to be diversity.

  • Mystic Sanctuary tempo – 25.79% of the winner’s metagame
  • Flicker Tron – 16.04%
  • Boros – 13.52%
  • Affinity – 10.38%
  • Stompy – 8.18%
  • Burn – 5.97%
  • Elves – 5.35%
  • Azorius Familiars – 2.52%
  • Bogles – 2.52%

If you want to come for the top of the metagame, you need a plan for the following:

  • Graveyard based engines
  • A large army of small flyers
  • A smaller army of bigger threats

That doesn’t take into account the explosive starts of Affinity and Elves. But this is a good start.

What would I play into this weekend? Something like this:

Pestilence is a very good card at the moment and this deck is a solid shell for the enchantment. While I would want access to some number of Monarch in the 75, having access to the Grim Harvest engine is a decent approximation that also gets around having your crown stolen. HeWhoisintheWater has been playing this style of deck for quite some time and I trust them when it comes to Orzhov Pestilence builds.

March 22nd Pauper Challenge Breakdown

As America joins many other countries to practice social distancing, the online options for Magic are booming. There were over 90 players in the March 22nd Pauper Challenge. While plenty of regulars showed up on Sunday there was also an influx of new blood. As has been the case many times this season, new blood provides a fresh look at the metagame.

March 22 Pauper Challenge

There was one 7-0 player – the lone Top 8 for Flicker Tron – this week. Despite a recent run of tough luck, Flicker Tron still had three players in the finish with an X-2 or better record. Stompy had a breakout event with three Top 8 appearances. There were a dearth of black based control decks – no Mono-Black Control; no Pestilence decks – and a distinct lack of Izzet Mystic Sanctuary decks. Instead we see an abundance of Dimir decks including this take on Dimir Control:

Unlike Dimir Delver, this deck is all in on the Gurmag Angler plan. It isn’t trying to play a Legacy style tempo game and instead wants to trade early to fuel Angler, only to establish the late game advantage engine of Mystic Sanctuary and Tragic Lesson. Merchant Scroll is a card that appeared in recent Italian builds of Tribe Combo and finds a home here in the Italian version of Dimir Control, acting as an additional copy of every blue spell in the deck.

What about the metgame at large? Here is every deck with at least 6 appearances -around 2% of the metagame by volume.

There are some top performing decks missing from this list. Two decks with wins – Heroic and Azorius Familiars – only have four appearances overall. On top of that there are four other decks with Top 8 appearances – Jeskai AtogShift, Mardu Monarch (think Boros Monarch but with Terminate and Chainer’s Edict), Corrupt Control, and Pestilence Control. That being said, the metagame presented above represents 83.75% of all Top 32 lists and 93% of all Top 8s. For those of you just getting into Pauper, this is a decent approximation of your gauntlet.

The surge of Stompy means that next week you’re likely to see an uptick in Boros Monarch and other decks that can support Standard Bearer. Tron decks could also have a resurgence since they can beat Boros and Fog out Stompy. So if I were looking at beating those, I would look at a Mystic Sanctuary deck that ran an abundance of cheap removal. I’d likely look at red over black since Lightning Bolt is better at getting people dead than Agony Warp.

March 15th Pauper Challenge Breakdown

The March 15th Pauper Challenge continued to showcase the slow decline of Flicker Tron. The titan of the format has been in a controlled fall for the past few weeks and while it is still a major player in the format it isn’t the behemoth that it was during Throne of Eldraine season.

March 15th Challenge Breakdown

There is a lot to take away from the Top 32. While two Flicker Tron decks did make the Top 8 they did not dominate the Top 16. And there were seven different archetypes in the Top 8, putting the format’s diversity in the spotlight.

The Top 8 also has some stories to tell. Delver went 7-0, but it was the only Delver deck to place in the Top 16. Burn made it to the Top 8 again, despite underperforming in aggregate. Dimir Delver has emerged as the new top dog, despite not winning a challenge this season. And Heroic won the dang thing.

The biggest thing about this list is the lack of Karametra’s Blessing. Heralded as a staple in the post-Theros Beyond Death world, the card is completely absent from Oscar_Franco’s winning build. Instead we see two copies of Mana Tithe and the addition of multiple Auras. Oscar_Franco also dropped down to 16 lands, leaning entirely on Defiant Strike to see more cards. This build looks less like Heroic and more like Mono-White Bogles considering the low threat count.

All decks with either ~2% of the meta (6%) or at least 1 Top 8

Flicker Tron is holding just over one-fifth of all Top 8 slots, but it’s underperforming compared to last season. The Delta of Weighted Volume to Actual was closer to 7% in Throne of Eldraine. Here – it’s less than half that. In fact, the skew for all decks has decreased. The flattened power level bodes well for the long term health of Pauper. At the same time, it puts decks that have a lot of decent matchups (but few great ones) in a position to succeed provided the pilot finds the correct build on the current week.

I want to leave you with two different takes on midrange decks that both performed well on Sunday. First is a Monarch/Reality Acid mash up, the second a Mardu Tortured Existence deck that leans on Kami of False Hope for a Spore Frog lock.

March 8th Pauper Challenge Breakdown

A lot has happened since the March 8th Pauper Challenge. Boros Monarch won the tournament and no one deck stood head and shoulders above the rest in performance.

If I am a little more somber than usual, well, you just need to look at what’s going on in the world around us. The Coronavirus Pandemic has affected the way we live our lives. Professional Magic is taking a hiatus, as are other distractions like professional sports. All of this is aimed at flattening the curve – putting distance between people to slow the rate of infection and allow the health care system to absorb critical patients of both Coronavirus and other health needs.

Personally, this is tough. I am immunocompromised – although not as severely as others – and I have had to cancel plans. I worry every cough is evidence of something more. I worry I bought enough of the correct supplies, that my toddler son will be able to get the activity and socializing he needs; that at some point I’ll be able to yell at my screen about the bad decisions the Mets are making.

It’s times like these that I am happy to have Magic Online in my life. I’ve not been on the platform as much as of late – real life Commander has taken precedence. But despite the sun being out as I write this, I am looking forward to hopping back in the queues with gusto. I am excited to draft a Pauper Cube online for a change.

I’m lucky. I have a full time job. Writing about Magic is something I do to help with the bills but it is by no means my only source of income. Other content creators are not that lucky. So here’s what I am going to do: any money I make on my Patreon for March and April (at least), I will disperse to content creatores who are more heavily impacted by the reduction in Magic events. What I want you to do is tell me who you think deserves the money.

I’ll keep the content coming, but think of the casters, cosplayers, judges, vendors, artists, and more. Let me know who needs help and I’ll do what I can.

The March 1st Pauper Showcase

What happens when something broken gets fixed? We’re starting to see the answer. The March 1st Pauper Showcase put Pauper on a larger stage. Showcases are intended to attract a larger segment of the Magic Online player pool. March 1st saw Hall of Famer Paul Rietzl make Top 8 and Players Tour Top 8 competitor Tommy Ashton finish in the money.

More importantly, these slightly higher profile events help to test the hypothesis that there exists two Pauper formats: those of the die hard players and one that exists when the format opens up. On Sunday, as has been the case in the past when the player pool expands, the format looked far from solved.

There are a few things that jump out from Sunday. First is the pedestrian performance by Flicker Tron. Yes, one deck made Top 8 and yes, it averaged a Top 16 finish. At the same time it was out-performed by both variants of Boros as the average Boros finish was better than the average Tron finish. Mystic Sanctuary decks took a hit, which makes sense in a world of Boros. Stompy was nowhere to be found and Azorius Familiars won the day.

Let’s posit, then that Flicker Tron is the best deck. It makes sense – it has a combo-prison end game that can lock out almost every deck in the format. Mystic Sanctuary tempo decks, whether they be Delver or another variety, are able to pack a ton of countermagic to disrupt Tron’s plan. And it isn’t any one Mystic Sanctuary deck but rather the weight of multiple that could help keep the behemoth down.

At the same time this can help to explain the surge in Boros decks. Boros has a traditionally good matchup against Mystic Sanctuary decks. As such is appears that the metagame cycle has righted itself. Yet where is Stompy? The metagame stalwart also has a good matchup against Delver but was nowhere to be found on Sunday. It will be interesting to see if that trend continues.

This chart includes every list with ~2% or above (4 appearances) or a Top 8. I want to draw attention to the Win+:Volume column. A score of 1 indicates the deck averages a Top 16 finish. With at least 2% of the entire volume, the best decks by this metric are Flicker Tron, Delver, Boros Bully, and Boros Monarch; Stompy is not that far behind. Yet the sheer volume of Flicker Tron could skew the numbers. While its metagame volume is steadily declining week over week, it still sets the tone for the format.

Going into this weekend I would be prepared for a resurgence of Tron as the metagame is ripe for a return.

Tier deck I’d play: Delver. I think loading up on counterspells is a solid plan to beat Tron. I would considered sideboard copies of Vulshok Morningstar and Neurok Stealthsuit as a way to fight Boros decks.

Rogue deck I’d play: Mono-White Tokens. I think Battle Screech is well positioned at the moment and the ability to win on turn four with Guardians’ Pledge should not be discounted.

Two Weeks of Pauper Data

It’s good to be back.

I want to start this off with an apology to you, the reader, and especially to my Patrons. I try to put this recap out every week but sometimes life takes precedence. Last week was one of those weeks. We had a health scare in my family that involved a lengthy ER visit. While everything is back to normal and we are recovering, the time I would have spent writing was focused on my family. And I don’t regret a second of it.

But here we are. It’s been two weeks since I’ve said anything and the format has shifted quite a bit. It all started on the February 16th Pauper Challenge. After weeks of sustained excellence, Flicker Tron took a hit. And an old friend emerged at the top of the heap.

February 16th Pauper Challenge

Delver decks are back. While these decks all had some different flourishes they skewed aggressive in their creature suite. They all also packed four copies of Counterspell and two copies of Deprive, backed up with Mystic Sanctuary. One of the best ways to stop Flicker Tron from doing its thing is to simply stop it from doing its thing. While these cards are a significant sacrifice for the sake of board development, it can be worth eschewing board position to set up a solid defense.

Some of the Delver decks opted to run Force Spike, but almost always one or two copies. This seems suspect as Force Spike is at its best in the early game, meaning you want at least three copies. The spell does retain some utility later on in games when mana is tight and counterwars abound, but two still doesn’t sit right.

Top decks after February 16

I want to draw attention to the column labeled Win+:Vol.. This ratio approximates an average finish, and a ratio of 1 here means a deck finishes X-2 on average. For the first time in a long time, Flicker Tron dropped below 1. Meanwhile, Delver and Stompy (the deck that won the Challenge) are the two archetypes (with above 2% of the metagame volume) that are above that line.

So of course the most recent weekend saw the aftershocks of Delver day. Let’s start with the February 22nd PTQ.

February 22nd PTQ

We only received Top 16 data for the PTQ. And Boros Monarch came out on top. Fun fact: this was Boros Monarch’s first finish of note in the Theros Beyond Death season. The deck had been sidelined by Flicker Tron but when Delver and Stompy come out, Boros Monarch can shine. The Bully version of Boros also put up solid numbers and Burn shined, compared to its usual results. While there is not a lot to glean from this result, it does reinforce the hypothesis that Pauper Challenge regulars approach the metagame differently than the wider MTGO ecosystem.

Now what about yesterday’s Challenge?

February 23rd Pauper Challenge

February 23rd saw the return of Flicker Tron, but not at the expense of Boros. Monarch won back to back events, reaffirming its role in the metagame. We also see a decent number of Mystic Sanctuary decks as well as a decline in more traditional aggressive strategies: Stompy, Red Deck Wins, etc.

The trend over the past two weeks has pushed the metagame towards midrange. Delver and Monarch operate in the scrum – the portion of the metagame where interactive elements are of high value. If I were preparing to play in next week’s Challenge and I did not want to play Tron, I would try to find a Clock. That is, a deck that could beat Boros and Tron before defensive measures come online. I would also want a deck that could go toe-to-toe with Delver.

I’m high on Battle Screech strategies for March 1st and, somewhat conversely, I’m also bullish on Pestilence strategies. If you are on an aggressive Battle Screech deck, I wouldn’t sideboard to beat Tron – your goal should be to run force multipliers and win before they get a foothold. For Pestilence decks, bring in the disruption to tax the hand and exile the graveyard.

Top decks after February 23

February 9th Pauper Challenge Breakdown

How do you discuss a boulder?

Do you talk about its exterior? Its composition? How much of this depends on where you encounter the mass? Are you intimately familiar with the surroundings or is this boulder entirely new?

What is your perspective? Are you experiencing this boulder as a passing moment in time – racing by on foot? Are you some cosmic being, perceiving the formation and entropy of said boulder in the blink of a human eye?

The February 9th Pauper Challenge presents the Pauper metagame as a boulder as perceived by a human. It is large, stagnant, and tough to move. This may run counter to the end result – Delver coming out on top – but I want to dig a little deeper.

February 2nd Pauper Challenge

These are the results from last week’s challenge. Elves and Izzet Faeries split the finals with Affinity and Flicker Tron putting up strong finishes in the Top 8. The metagame did adjust to three of of these elements. Cards like Electrickery, Ancient Grudge, and Gorilla Shaman saw more play on February 9th. But Flicker Tron is a boulder around which the world of Pauper revolves. The deck is hard to hate out but there are other avenues of attack, like racing.

February 10th Pauper Challenge

There is a distinct lack of aggressive decks in the metagame. And on top of all that, the Top 8 looks nearly identical, with a lone Pestilence Control deck making it over a second copy of Affinity. It is not that the metagame is solved as much as there is just not a ton of space to find success. Yes, decks like WonderWalls will crop up and make waves for a few weeks but the beat of that butterfly wing will not spark the tropical storm to unseat FlickerTron.

I started writing these metagame breakdowns as a way to track the changes in Pauper from week to week. Right now, the amount of change is lacking. Throne of Eldraine season ended with Flicker Tron taking down over 29% of all Top 8s. Four weeks into Theros Beyond Death season that number sits at 31.25%.

Something has to give. At some point the boulder will move or decay. Or maybe the world around it will crumble to dust first.

February 2nd Pauper Challenge Breakdown

On February 2nd, Izzet Faeries and Elves split the finals of the Pauper Challenge. Affinity took down two slots in the Top 8 and Flicker Tron took down three slots in the elimination rounds.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.

I’m not going to dive to deep into these results as there is not a ton to say at this point. The metagame is largely settled and while there is some jostling for position, things are stable.

Stagnant metagames are not inherently bad. The problem arises when one deck in a stagnant metagame has enough good matchups that it throws the balance out of whack.

Looking at Pauper, there is a fairly vibrant metagame beneath the top tier. There are tons of powerful options that all have interplay against other decks in the metagame. The two most potent synergy decks are Affinity and Elves. These two decks have natural checks that can exist in sideboards and maindecks while not diluting a deck against the rest of the field.

And here we come to an issue with Flicker Tron. Not only does it take up a larger portion of the challenge metagame, but it has no checks that are effective and useful against the rest of the field.

Forgive me if this post is shorter than usual and doesn’t get into the weeds. The simple truth is that not much has changed – if anything, the metagame has regressed (there were zero Theros Beyond Death cards in the Top 32). Until something comes along to help keep Tron in check, the deck will continue to dominate the metagame.

January 26th Pauper Showcase Breakdown

The Problem with the Challenge Metagame

Sunday, January 26th was the first Pauper Showcase of 2020. Format Showcases are replacing Format Playoffs. This means that if a player has enough Qualifier Points, regardless of format on Magic Online, they could conceivably participate in the Pauper Showcase.

And they participate they did.

While there were plenty of format regulars in the running, there were a similar number of names that belonged to non-Pauper die-hards. That’s a good thing for the long term health and growth of the format.

The metagame looks rather similar to that of a regular Challenge with one glaring difference. Flicker Tron under performed against it’s usual placing. While it claimed the lone undefeated spot in the six Swiss rounds, it only had one other deck placing in the Top 16. Now this could be variance but I want to show you all something else.

This is the metagame breakdown from the last major Magic Online tournament that took entrants from a wider pool – the October 26th PTQ. The Top 8 was fairly diverse; the Top 32 was filled with the archetypes that one would expect. Tron was also at the party but didn’t steal the show.

Herein is a potential problem with the Challenge metagame. The Pauper Challenges are at the same time every week and they cater to the Pauper players that can make that time slot work. If in these circles Flicker Tron has a reputation of being the best deck – a ban-worthy deck – then it should follow that people should play the deck. And so people play Tron or a strategy they believe can put up a fight. And the process continues with very little changing from week to week.

Pauper, for whatever reason, is prone to information cascades.

It could be the lack of incentives outside major events. It could be the fact that there is a sentiment the format is forgotten by Wizards. An aside: No it isn’t. Pauper has gotten an immense amount of support – more than it has any right to have received – and remains a vital part of the Magic Online competitive ecosystem. It could just be that Flicker Tron is powerful enough to get free wins.

It may very well be that Flicker Tron in its current iteration is too powerful, that something should be banned. Still, the disconnect between results when format regulars play and when the wider competitive world sets their sights on Pauper give me pause.

At the same time, it could very well be both. Regulars could gravitate to the deck because it really is that good. Non-regulars could get lucky when queued up in Pauper or they could have a skill set that the average Pauper Challenge player lacks. Wizards has all the data and we’ll have to see what they do with it in the future.

January 19th Pauper Challenge Breakdown

Theros Beyond Death is here and with it a new season! January 19th marked the first Pauper Challenge where the new set was legal. Still, Pauper is a non-rotating format and the inertia was on full display in Sunday’s six round affair.

Let’s start at the top: Flicker Tron won the first challenge of the season. The winner – kasa – went with a creature heavy build that featured one copy of Custodi Squire. They also ran a copy of Unwind, a card popularized by the Italian Pauper community. Kasa also upped the cantrip artifact count with one copy each of Guild Globe and Golden Egg. Unlike the other two Tron decks in the Top 8, kasa opted not to run Rain of Revelation.

There were three Mystic Sanctuary decks in the Top 8 as well: two copies of Dimir Delver and one Izzet Delver. Izzet Delver had one of its best showings in several months, with every Izzet tempo deck this week running Delver of Secrets. This is a change from last season, where the prevailing wisdom was to cut the one drop in favor of additional Faeries. These three decks all ran into each other, with the Dimir Delver players in a Top 8 mirror, before the survivor fell to Izzet Delver. Meanwhile, kasa beat two copies of Flicker Tron on their way to the Top 8.

So what does this Challenge tell us? The metagame has not shifted dramatically from the end of Throne of Eldraine season. That’s not great as one of the prevailing refrains when it comes to dominant decks is “let’s wait until the next set”. Now it is still early in the release cycle and cards are relatively hard to come by. At the same point, if a new strategy could emerge to take down the top decks, I am sure someone would have busted it out early to try and spike a tournament.

One player did run Theros Beyond Death cards to a Top 32 finish: Mathonical. Taking the Green Ponza deck, they added the two Escape creatures from the new set to give the deck some late game punch.

A similar deck made the Top 8 of the Pauper Champs and that event was dominated by Tron. The issue with these resource denial decks is that if you draw the pieces too late they are largely useless. The bigger issue with Tron is their mana base tends to be resistant to land destruction thanks to Ghostly Flicker. That being said, I like where Mathonical’s build is and I would try to find a home for some number of Outmuscle just to add a piece of interaction.