Sunday January 12th Wrap

Sunday, January 12th was a big day in the world of Magic Online Pauper. The final Challenge of the Throne of Eldraine season took place almost concurrently with the Pauper Champs, the latter of which qualified the winner for the Magic Online Championship Series and a shot at the Players Tour. While Flicker Tron did not win either of these events, it took down 9 of the 16 Top 8 slots. Out of the remaining 7 decks, 3 were Mystic Sanctuary decks. The winning decks, however, were something completely different.

You cannot count Bogles out. The archetype has a number of big wins to its credit, including two Mythic Championship Qualifier wins. Kirblinxy put Essence Harvest in the Fling/Soul’s Fire slot. This makes a ton of sense considering that Prismatic Strands is a heavily played card in the metagame but it also happens to get around Dispel and Hydroblast. They also skimped on Rancor and Cartouche of Solidarity, predicting a decline in Edict style removal and decks that could block. It is fitting that rather than stepping over Tron, Kirblinxy had to beat three different decks – Flicker Tron, Mono Green Land Destruction, and Bant Familiars. For their effort they now have a shot at the MOCS.

Mikamimtg beat three Flicker Tron decks in their Top 8. Slivers got a shot in the singular talon-tipped arm from Modern Horizons. Bladeback Sliver gives the hive mind a way to win around Moment’s Peace and Stonehorn Dignitary. Running red means Hunter Sliver is a reasonable inclusion, picking off blockers with impunity. It also helps that Slivers can easily amass an army that can dwarf Myr Enforcers without running fragile lands. Slivers does have to dip into a third color to work but Gemhide Sliver helps to mitigate that in the long run while doing a poor impression of Priest of Titiania.

The metagame is absolutely diverse. At the same time, the top tier is a completely different animal. Flicker Tron decks were a full quarter of the Challenge Top 32, with nearly 43% of the Win+ score. The archetype also dominated the Champs Top 8.

Theros Beyond Death is right around the corner. At the onset of the season it is clear that Flicker Tron is public enemy number one. While it may have lagged some, it started and ended Throne of Eldraine season as the best deck in the Challenge metgame.

Win+ measures a deck against an X-3 record. A Win+ score of 1 usually equates to a Top 8. Out of all these decks – those that had 2% of the total metagame volume, only Flicker Tron had a Win+ average greater than 1. It took down 29% of all Top 8 slots and won a full third of the Challenges.

That’s dominance.

The deck also warped the metagame around it. The next 4 most popular archetypes all had access to red, meaning they could run Pyroblast/Red Elemental Blast. The ability to counter Flicker Tron’s key spells or kill key creatures, all in one card, makes running red not only a must, but means that outside of Burn it isn’t out of line to dedicate almost half your sideboard for a single matchup. While the Blasts may help against Delver style decks, they hardly need the level of overloading that Tron requires. If you’re running red against Tron and don’t have a blast in your opener game two, are you even in the game?

That’s dominance.

Commander Corner: Hakim Lore Weaver

These days when I play paper Magic it tends to be Commander.

It’s not that I don’t love draft or Pauper or whatever else you throw my way. It’s just that, given the realities of my existence – work, family, all of this I mean seriously if you’re not worried you’re not paying attention vote vote vote – I want to spend my downtime doing absurd stuff and generally having a good time. And when I play Commander it tends to be with friends, which makes the games all the more enjoyable. 

Commander also lets me flex my deckbuilding muscles a bit in a way that the more competitive formats do not allow. While I always want to win, I also want to do it in a way I enjoy. After playing Commander for years, I have come to understand a few animating elements to my gameplay.

  1. I like Aristocrats style decks where I can sacrifice permanents for value
  2. I like using the graveyard as a resource
  3. I lean heavily on enchantments as they are an under-targeted card type
  4. Having played Magic since 1994, I get a real kick out of using old cards
  5. I also love using underplayed cards and leveraging them to my advantage

With Theros Beyond Death coming out soon I wanted to take a look at one of my decks that stands to improve from the set – Hakim, Loreweaver.

When I was putting together this deck, it wasn’t about Hakim. It was supposed to be Aboshan, Cephalid Emperor Flying Tribal. I had tons of cards lined up – Spirited Away, Favorable Winds, Stratus Walk, Magewight Stone, Illusionist’s Bracers, Gravity Well – when I noticed how many cards I had pulled were Auras, including Flight of Fancy. I remembered Hakim and decided to pull him for the build. And then I read this ruling:

“You only check if he has no Auras when activating the ability. You can use the ability multiple times in response to each other to get multiple Auras on him this way.”

All my plans changed. Here was an old Commander – clearly underpowered – that let me use the graveyard as a resource and use enchantments. And do you know what blue auras tend to do? They make your creatures harder to kill. So I was building a Voltron Commander. Blue auras also draw you a ton of cards. Flight of Fancy is the hallmark here, but Ordeal of Thassa also fits the bill (and lets you draw the cards each time you recur it). 

I want to take a moment to talk about the inclusion of Eldrazi Conscription and Corrupted Conscience. These are two cards that end games in short order and toe the line of what is fun. To that end they are balanced by the fact that I am playing what is clearly an underpowered Commander in a format where trying to untap on turn six is a big ask. Just let me poison you with an eldritch wizard who rides a dragon apparently?

From there I went about finding as many cards that could manipulate auras. Crown of Ages and Skull of Orm do the job, and Arcanum Wings is just an odd one. Rootwater Matriarch is another old card that gives my auras other utility – I’m still trying to pick up a copy of Willbreaker to go with Shimmering Wings because why not? Illusory Gains was a fun find that I can get back with Hakim and then go ham on my opponent’s things. Because what’s wrong with a little chaos? 

Vanishing. Oh boy when I remembered this card I realized it was perfect. You know that feeling when you’re about to knock out everyone but that one player casts Teferi’s Protection and you know all your plans are for naught? You get to do that with your Commander over and over and keep all the auras around. Thanks weird rules interactions!

There’s so many other things I like about this deck. Puting Control Magic effects on Hakim and then moving them around; killing people with Tricks of the Trade; running Forbid. 

And that’s why, despite my love of all things Golgari, I think Hakim, Loreweaver is my favorite Commander deck. It certainly isn’t the best and it doesn’t always put up a good fight. What it does do, better than just about any other deck, is allow me to go exploring. So many other Commanders and strategies are well researched these days. Putting a card like Hakim in charge lets me revel in the joy of discovery over and over again. 

Also it’s just fun to smash face with a wizard wearing five pairs of pants. 

January 5th Pauper Challenge Breakdown

Theros Beyond Death is right around the corner; the Throne of Eldraine season is over. Next week the Pauper Format Championship will determine which player makes it to the MOCS and then a bevy of new options will enter the card pool.

But on January 5th it was more of the same. Flicker Tron took down half of the Top 8 and technically won as the finals were split. Flicker Tron was 25% of the field and took home 26% of the Win+ awarded in the Challenge. After a few weeks of being sidelined, the deck was back in force.

So how can we interpret this? Tron was clearly a dominant archetype over the 10 Challenges, 1 PTQ, and 1 Playoff that took place since Arcum’s Astrolabe was banned. Flicker Tron decks took home 26% of all Top 8 slots and the archetype made Top 8 in nearly 44% of its Top 32 appearances. Out of the other decks with at least 20 appearances – Boros Bully, Boros Monarch, Burn, Elves, Izzet Faeries, Stompy -the best conversion comes from Izzet Faeries at just over 31%.

Minimum 7 appearance

So why was Flicker Tron able to come back so strong? My guess is that it was never any worse than it was before. The strategy had about a month of being underrepresented but still managed to put up solid numbers in the span. Considering that next week is going to feature some of the most dedicated Pauper players, I would wager we are going to see quite a few Tron decks come out to battle with a few brave souls trying to game the system by going under. Of course one of the new Dimir Delver or Izzet Faeries decks, leaning on Mystic Sanctuary, could easily win.

What deck do you think will win the Championship next week?

December 29th Pauper Challenge Breakdown

The final Pauper Challenge of 2019 was also the 10th event since the Arcum’s Astrolabe ban that reported the Top 32 decks – the December 1st Playoff only provided Top 16 data. While Flicker Tron decks had been on the decline as of late, they came back in force. Four of these decks placed in the Top 32 with three of them making the Top 8.

In many ways this challenge looks like it is going to be representative of the metagame until Theros: Beyond Death hits the scene. A big claim, considering there are only a few weeks between this event and the next release. Still, we see Flicker Tron and Mystic Sanctuary combo decks as a big player, while Mystic Sanctuary tempo decks have carved out a niche for themselves. Boros Bully has taken precedence over Boros Monarch and Burn takes the role of the volume shooter – it takes so many shots one is bound to hit. Bogles has made a return as well, and perhaps it is time to explore green aura based fixing in shells outside of its traditional home.

This chart only tells part of the story. Looking at archetypes that make have at least 6 Top 32 finishes, Boros Bully is the most popular. Flicker Tron decks are the second most popular archetype but they continue to perform at an average record of X-2 or better. If we isolated Flicker Tron – that is decks running both Stonehorn Dignitary and Dinrova Horror in the well established shell, the deck makes up 10% of the metagame while taking home 16% of the weighted metagame. Compare that to Izzet Faeries – the next best deck.

But there are some decks in that list that are more fringe than anything else. A deck like Mono Black Control might be a format staple but it is hardly impressive.

This is not a chart of every deck to make Top 8, bur instead those with at least two appearances in the elimination rounds. A bit of a refresher: Win+ takes a deck and measures it against an X-3 record. A Win+ of 1 is the equivalent of a 5-2 in a 7 round challenge. Expected Top 8 takes the ratio of Win+ to Volume and multiplies it by 0.3125 – that is a Win+1 deck will make Top 8 on average 2.5 times.

For example: Flicker Tron has made Top 8 in half of its Top 32 appearances and, using this metric it is out performing its expected Top 8 appearances by nearly 5 trips.

Moving into 2020 I would say that Flicker Tron remains the best deck, with Boros Bully and Boros Monarch slightly overrated. Izzet Faeries and Stompy are likely underrated while Burn might be properly rated if overplayed. If anything, be prepared for Mystic Sanctuary and other decks that want to use the graveyard for their endgame. And a deck that figures out how to consistently win through a Fog – Soul’s Fire for example – could be the next big thing.

December 22 Pauper Challenge Breakdown

The December 22 Pauper Challenge was a return to form in that it was 7 rounds rather than 6. Flicker Tron continued its downward trend in popularity while two old favorites cemented themselves as players to start 2020.

Boros Bully, Boros Monarch, and Izzet Faeries each took home two slots in the Top 8. The recent run of Bully decks have moved back to at least a pair of Palace Sentinels, giving them a sheen on Monarch. They remain two distinct archetypes, with Bully leveraging more aggressive creatures and Monarch favoring burn-based-reach, but there is definitely overlap. Meanwhile Izzet Faeries has surged in the standings thanks to Mystic Sanctuary. The ability to regrow any instant or sorcery, for free, is huge. Combine this with Deprive or Mystic Sanctuary and you have the backbone of a deck as long as the land remains legal.

Tron was not absent. Two copies made the Top 32 – with one inside the Top 8. Another Flicker based list made Top 8 as well, also leveraging Mystic Sanctuary for Archaeomancer redundancy. The result is that as 2019 closes the Pauper metagame has a clearly defined top tier of what works – Monarch, Sanctuary, and Tron.

Top 10 archetypes by volume, minimum 6 appearances

While Flicker Tron decks may have been largely absent the past two weeks they remain one of the best performing macro-archetypes over the Throne of Eldraine season. To date the second best performing deck is Izzet Faeries, but it still has less than 10% of Top 32 volume.

Considering how good both Bully and Faeries have been as of late, it would follow that cards like Aerial Volley and Scattershot Archer earn more slots in sideboards. Incidental graveyard hate also can come in handy against cards like Sanctuary and Battle Screech, although outside of Faerie Macabre you are hard pressed to find one that works against all the top decks.

Still, the meta does appear to be settling into a healthier spot than a few weeks ago. The lack of an aggressive green deck is concerning but considering Stompy exists, it probably will pop up again soon.

December 15th Pauper Challenge Breakdown

The year is winding down and Theros Beyond Death spoilers have started appear. But there is still Magic to be played in 2019. The December 15th Pauper Challenge may go down as the event that got me to change my tune about Tron. It is not that the deck underperformed but rather the metagame, finally, may be shifting to accommodate the presence of the archetype.

The presence of Boros Bully at the top of the Challenge shouldn’t be a shock – the deck has been a consistently good performer for quite some time. Izzet Faeries, however, has quickly risen in the power rankings. Moving away from Delver of Secrets, the deck now takes on the veneer of a control deck while leveraging powerful card filtering and the strength of Mystic Sanctuary. The deck has evolved to a point where Deprive isn’t necessary thanks to Tragic Lesson replacing Accumulated Knowledge. The ability to keep cards flowing in the mid-to-late game is key in helping to keep endgame decks like Tron and Boros Monarch in check.

I’d go as far as to say that Izzet Faeries is the second best archetype at the moment. Despite making up a relatively small portion of the winner’s metagame, the deck has some impressive stats, accounting for over 10% of weighted volume – that’s better than both Boros Monarch and Stompy with fewer Top 32 finishes under its belt.

If I wanted to succeed next week I would do everything I could to avoid leaning on the graveyard. It is not that the option is bad – far from it – but rather with Mystic Sanctuary joining Ghostly Flicker as a cheap piece that does its best work from the bin. If you absolute have to go grave digging, run Nihil Spellbomb over Relic of Progenitus as a way to pressure your opponent’s resources without damaging your own.

Stompy seems to be a reasonable choice moving forward, but I wouldn’t sleep on Mono Black Control if only because it looks like Cuombajj Witches might be a reasonable card again.

December 9th Pauper Challenge Breakdown

We had to wait a few days for the December 9th Challenge results to be made available. Once they were, it was the second time in the past three weeks that Tron was underrepresented. The week when Tron was present was for the Playoff. So what’s the story?

Tron made a total of four appearances on Sunday, making one Top 8 appearance and finishing just outside the elimination rounds in 9th. The format was relatively hostile to Tron with an abundance of Burn decks. It is not that Burn is a bad matchup for Tron, but rather given enough players hurling Lightning Bolt, it shrinks the collective number of turns for Tron to find their key interactive pieces in the matchup. It’s the Dredge principle – if enough people pack hate, the deck could falter. Looking into the player gathered data of the event, that wasn’t the case. There were 5 total Tron decks in the Challenge and three of theme had a 4-2 record.

Delver won the event on Saturday. In a total of three Top 32 appearances this season, Delver has two Top 8s and a win. The deck has new life thanks to Mystic Sanctuary. The ability to achieve a soft lock with Sanctuary and Deprive, or to loop the land with Tragic Lesson, is a potent tool in the aggro-control decks repertoire. This build is less aggressive than the versions that were popular earlier in the season – gone are the copies of Mutagenic Growth – and so are the copies of Accumulated Knowledge. It seems that Tragic Lesson and Mystic Sanctuary are just that good together. Still, a copy or two of Think Twice couldn’t hurt.

So what is the state of things? Tron is on decline for the moment but it is still the best deck this season by a pretty decent clip. Comparing its Top 32 volume to its percentage of Wins above X-2, Tron is outperforming its weight to the tune of just over 5%.

You’ll notice Delver is absent from this chart. It has failed to make the 2% volume threshold of the season; the cut off is 4 appearances, which Teachings just hits. That 5% mark is important because when asked previously I have stated that the 5% delta between Volume and Weighted Volume is where I would expect the best decks to fall. And considering there are several other decks with a positive delta, this is a good sign.

So then why did some jackass go and write this article?

Simply put, I wrote that article and submitted it in the wake of the Playoff, where a quarter of the Top 16 decks were Tron. It was coming on the heels of several weeks of Tron being a dominant force and one I perceived to be stifling the format’s health. Here is a chart from one month ago.

That’s quite a difference. So if the chart above is correct, Tron could be a problem. If the chart the includes the December 9th Challenge is correct, Tron is likely safe. And that is where Wizards of the Coast matters. They have the matchup data and can look to see if Tron has an unhealthy win rate.

Do I believe the December 9th data is influenced by Tron pilots taking a break? Yes. Do I believe the metagame has adjusted to Tron and is finding ways to fight the deck? Yes. But all of this does not matter because on December 16th we’re going to have a better answer as to what type of format Wizards wants for Pauper.

Explorations in Ramp

Growth Spiral was a card I initially wrote off. I figured that if the effect was good enough that Explore would see more play. Combine this with the lack of powerful utility lands in Pauper, the prevalence of Tron, and the lack of anything good to do at the top end and I set the card on the back burner.

Enter Standard. Specifically Throne of Eldraine Standard after the most recent wave of bans. I watched a number of Simic Flash/Ramp decks perform well and wondered if something similar could work in Pauper. There is a ton of power in leaving up mana in a blue deck, so much so that Pro Tour Champion Mike Hron never cast a creature into 2U for fear of Exclude even though the card didn’t exist in Time Spiral Limited.

So I put together this list and it performed adequately. A 3-2 finish is enough to keep me interested in a concept for a few league runs. The next time through I ran into Stompy twice and quickly entered the three loss bracket. I went back to the drawing board and added Moment’s Peace to the main.

Of course thinking about the deck today I realize that it’s probably just correct to add a Mountain, move to Brainstorm and Ash Barrens, and go in on Swirling Sandstorm. Which, to be honest, sounds sweet.

The goal of this deck is to operate on your opponent’s end-step and exhaust them of resources a la the old Snow-Go deck. Unlike that deck, I do not want to lean too heavily on one-for-one removal. As Tron has shown, trying to remove threats individually is not as good as simply buying time. With endgame threats like Havenwood Wurm, Ulamog’s Crusher, and potentially Skittering Crustacean, I am interested to see how Temur Ramp performs moving forward.

December 1st Pauper Playoff

The final Pauper Playoff for 2019 took place on December 1st and Elves won the day. C_is_fore_cookie is a master of the archetype and went through Izzet Faeries, Azorius Familairs, and Flicker Tron on their way to the winner’s circle.

There are some notable omissions in this list – Nettle Sentinel for one – as well as relying on Viridian Longbow rather than Harsh Sustenance to get the job done against Moment’s Peace and Stonehorn Dignitary. Cookie also upped the land count to a whopping 14 and came prepared to defend their army with Hydroblast for sweepers, Spidersilk Armor for sweepers, and Wrap in Vigor for Sweepers. Cookie also opted to eschew Winding Way in favor of four Lead the Stampede and four Distant Melody, possibly in deference to their creature-less sideboard.

The rest of the Top 16 broke down along fairly standard lines. Tron was the most popular archetype, while it was slightly less successful than Boros Monarch (which had the lone 7-0 record). That Boros Monarch list also omitted Alchemist’s Vial entirely for other artifacts and added a copy of Gurmag Angler as a way to close out games.

After a week with almost no Tron in the Top 32, four copies made it to the Top 16, split between Top 8 and Top 16. Clearly the deck is still good, as when the stakes were higher it came out of hiding. And while Elves did win the day it remains a vulnerable strategy.

Moving into this weekend, I would be looking to beat both Boros Monarch and Tron. Considering that Affinity has a fine matchup with both I would also be looking for a way to combat the machine. No questions asked removal like Doom Blade look good at the moment if and only if you can back it up with a reasonable clock.