August 15-16 Pauper Weekend in Review

We have hit the third week of Double Masters season and the metagame is rounding into shape. To the shock of almost no one, it looks a lot like the metagame before the bans of Expedition Map and Mystic Sanctuary. The best decks remain Tron, Monarch, and Spellstutter Sprite variants. Let’s take a look.

Saturday’s Challenge was not very diverse. Stompy and Flicker Tron were the two most popular strategies; Flicker Tron performed extremely well, Stompy not so much. But the deck of the weekend was Boros Monarch. In four appearances on Saturday, it placed three decks in the Top 8 (including an undefeated Swiss run).

Before the bans, Boros Monarch had been struggling to keep pace with the other major players. As of late, it has seen a resurgence due in no small part to the Thriving lands. These cards give Boros easier access to splash colors – specifically black. We have seen more copies of Terminate, Chainer’s Edict, and Unearth show up in Boros as of late. We have also seen more copies of Bonder’s Ornament which can help to turn off Tron’s card flow. Boros also can now run Abrade as another way to pressure some of Tron’s mana rocks.

Another challenge and another undefeated run by Boros Monarch. While it made it to the Top 8, it fell in the quarterfinals. The deck of the day was Jeskai Ephemerate, with three copies in the Top 8. Jeskai Ephemerate plays a similar game plan to Tron except it eschews the benefits of Tron – namely Mystical Teachings – for running Ponder and Preordain.

Here are the best decks with at least 2% of metagame volume (approximately 4 appearances). Left off this chart are Azorius Familiars and Izzet Delver, who each have a challenge win.

Looking at this chart we can see that both Flicker Tron and Boros/Mardu Monarch are pulling away from the field. While it is still early in the season, it appears that those two are the decks to beat. The different Spellstutter Sprite decks are putting up a good fight but are definitely better situated to do well in the Top 8 than the Swiss. Meanwhile, there’s Stompy – a deck which needs to adjust to the shifting landscape.

What deck do you think is poised to breakout next weekend?

Center Stage: Sire of Stagnation

You thought I was going to talk about a common today? Think again!

I hate this card in Commander. I have trouble articulating why when this hits the table I seethe, but I have less of a problem with the extremely similar Consecrated Sphinx. I think a not so small part of it is that I loathe having cards exiled from my library (probably because I love graveyard shenanigans). But I think what gets me is that this card tries to punish players for advancing their own game state by playing lands. This just doesn’t sit right with me, and the fact that it doesn’t sit right gives me pause.

Let’s be real: this card is fragile. It’s a six drop creature that can be handled easily. Running any interaction at all can render this permanent null and void.

And there are plenty of other cards I don’t have a problem with that are far more oppressive on game states. Like this one:

Another six drop creature with a massive impact on the game. But it affects everyone – not just opponents. The same can be said for cards like Winter Orb (which I don’t currently play) and Smokestack (one of my favorite cards). But Sire of Stagnation only impacts opponents. Is that what offends me?

Probably not since I adore Grave Pact.

The cards I’ve talked about actively encourage you to play out resources to counteract their effects. Winter Orb? You can get around that with more mana rocks and lands. Smokestack? Well, you can play more permanents. Grave Pact? I’ve been on the receiving end of Edgar Markov greatest hits with Pact on the board before.

When punisher effects are asymmetrical they create a game state I don’t enjoy. But that’s me. I may hate Sire of Stagnation and may never play it in my decks, but if you play it, I’m just going to make you my enemy until it’s gone.

August 1-2 Pauper Weekend in Review

The results from the August 1 and August 2 Challenges were published this week after a backend issue was resolved. Rather than look back at these events and try to predict what they mean for the format moving forward, I want to use this as an opportunity to take a look at the best decks from this very early Double Masters seasons. But first, Challenge breakdowns!

Mardu Monarch is an off shoot of Boros Monarch. While the latter had often adopted the occasional copy of Reaping the Graves or Okiba-Gang Shinobi, the newer build adopts more black cards, including (but not limited to) Chainer’s Edict, Terminate, and Unearth. I am not sure if this is better or worse than a two-color build, but if the mana base can support the splash, so be it.

Two weeks into this season and none of this should be surprising. The winning deck left off this chart is Azorius Familairs which is probably the best deck more people aren’t playing right now. If I did an overrated/underrated segment, it would firmly be in the latter camp.

The top of the metagame should not shock anyone. There’s Flicker Tron, there are Spellstutter Sprite decks, and there are Monarch decks. Despite the fact that Dimir Delver – that is Delver of Secrets and Gurmag Angler builds – has more Top 8 appearances, I believe Dimir Faeries – playing far more like a traditional Delver deck – is the superior option. It is much better at playing a Ninja game plan and relies less on protecting a few key threats. And Spellstutter Sprite is quite a card.

If I had to pick one overrated deck from this Top 10 it would be Stompy. It is not that the deck is bad, but rather it needs to evolve. The nature of the metagame means that trying to simply steamroll your opponent with damage is going to be a high variance route. Clearly it can succeed – Stompy is one of three archetypes with 3 Top 8s – but it also has the worst conversion rate of the bunch. The solution may be opting to play for a slightly longer game against the field, cutting copies of Elephant Guide for another Vines of Vastwood and perhaps Mutagenic Growth, while skewing its sideboard towards racing Stonehorn Dignitary.

Here are some things to consider about the format current:

  • Cast Down makes singular large threats a risky play.
  • Abrade seems to be everywhere (as it should be) and punishes an over-reliance on Artifacts.
  • What races Tron?
  • Best home for Bone Picker – we’ve seen it in MBC and Dimir Delver, but where can this card shine?

What are the interesting Pauper questions the format is currently asking, in your mind?

Looking at Lists: Azorius Metalcraft

Deluxeicoff is a long time Pauper player and deck brewer. This past weekend they put up a Top 8 and followed it up with a 5-0 league run with one of their builds. Let’s take a gander:

There’s a lot going on in this list, all in the service for resolving 3/3s. This deck runs a minimal land count, but needs to hit one land and likely a Springleaf Drum to operate. It has no cantrips but plenty of cheap draw two effects that, ideally, can be resolved turn two. The deck can get off to some explosive starts for sure but relies on Ardent Recruit and Auriok Sunchaser to seal the deal. Still, there are only three cards in the maindeck that effectively cost more than one mana – the removal spells – and they exist to clear out the final few blockers.

Here’s my biggest concern with a deck like this: removal. A card like Gorilla Shaman or Ancient Grudge can really put a damped on your plans. This says nothing about Abrade which handles every threat and more than half the lands in this deck.

Clearly this deck can win and there is a good core here for sure. But there are a lot of pinch points here where the entire house of cards can come crumbling down. What would I do? I’d find slots for more land and swap some of the removal for Vedalken Certarchs. I would also try to find a way to leverage the Ornithopters – like Ninjas.

August 8-9 Pauper Weekend In Review

It’s good to be back! While the weekend of August 2 and 3 have seemingly been lost to gremlins in the code, we have our first look at the impact of Double Masters and the downshifts it brings – Abrade and Cast Down being chief amongst them. Before diving into the “start” of this season, let’s take a look at how the post-ban world of Core 2021 shook out.

There is not a ton of data to work with, but this is what the top of the metagame looked like in the four challenges post the ban of Expedition Map and Mystic Sanctuary. As discussed previously Tron remained a major player. Old standbys were solid if unexciting in the short span of time between the bans and the latest set. Simply put, there is not a lot to pull from this suite of information since it draws from a small sample size. That being said, Tron decks looked to be just fine and Stompy appeared to be a serious force.

Now what happens when you add two fantastic removal spells?

Despite not winning an event, Flicker Tron variants took down four Top 8 slots across the two tournaments. Seven total decks across both Top 8s ran either Cast Down or Abrade. Stompy managedd two Top 8 finishes. Hobble made an appearance, as did Bone Picker. There were also four Spellstutter Sprite decks across both sets of elimination rounds.

I do not want to do too much divining from one weekend, but it seems clear that more than before, aggressive decks are going to struggle. It isn’t just the new removal spells or the adopting of old ones, it’s also Bone Picker. Bone Picker is a removal spell that has the advantage of coming in for extra damage later in the game. While fragile, Bone Picker also promotes players trying to double spell in the early game, helping them to get ahead on board.

Normally the best way to fight this would be to go slightly slower and play more resilient threats – Mother Bear anyone? – but that runs the risk of letting the window of opportunity against Tron slam shut. I think the best course of action might be to look for supplemental damage engines a la deluxeicoff in Sunday’s Top 8. Sideboard Harsh Sustenance is something we first saw out of Elves but it could be key to closing games in the next few weeks.

Center Stage: Ixalli’s Diviner

I’m going to let you in on a secret: as a content creator, I love and loathe spoiler season. I love it because who doesn’t love new cards? Who doesn’t enjoy trying to figure out where the new pieces fit or what entirely new puzzles have been crafted? And yes, as a content creator, I’m overjoyed when a topic is thrown into my lap.

At the same time, it can be exhausting. New sets seem to come out all the time and, especially with Pauper, reprint sets can cause all sorts of headaches. People who focus on other formats don’t have to worry when extra copies of Sword of Feast and Famine are made, but I have to pore over the spoiler trying to figure out what former uncommon is going to wreck havoc.

What I don’t worry about, though, is mis-evaluating a new card. Like this one:

When I saw this card I tried so hard to make it work. I’m a sucker for micro-graveyard synergies and Ixalli’s Diviner has that and more. It is either a 0/3 that draws you a land or a 1/4 that filters away a dead card. I tried this deck for months in Green Tron builds, trying to leverage the extra velocity. I saw the body and thought it could absorb blows from Stompy until Evincar’s Justice or Swirling Sandstorm could come online. I saw the opportunity to bin a Firebolt for later or get me to that Urza’s Tower one turn sooner.

I was blinded by what I wanted to work. Even before Flicker Tron caught on, this deck was trying too hard to make one card work instead of finding cards that made the deck better.

Look at Elvish Visionary. Is this a card Tron would run? Almost certainly not. Yet for all intents and purposes, Ixalli’s Diviner was worse than Visionary. I was absolutely wrong about Diviner. Yet I was happy I tried it out. I tend to focus on the top of the metagame and figuring out what is best, but sometimes it is still fun to play cards you like in an effort to find a path to victory. You just have to keep in mind that ever loss (and victory) can teach you something. You just can’t be blinded by your feelings about a single card.

Look at Lists: Dimir Flicker

Pairing Archaeomancer and Ghostly Flicker in a Dismal Backwater deck is nothing new. One of the first decks to attempt to leverage the combo in a meaningful way did so with Chittering Rats, attempting to lock an opponent out of the draw step. USPDudes did something slightly different with their take on Dimir Flicker from the weekly 5-0 league lists.

So a few things. First off, the single Darkness caught me off guard but it makes a ton of sense. If Moment’s Peace is good enough, Darkness isn’t that far behind. My guess is they got a lot of mileage out of the Fog by virtue of it being such an uncommon inclusion. I also love the pair of Recoil here. Recoil is a powerful card that has been overshadowed by Dinrova Horror, but being able to get it back with Archaeomancer (while not loading your deck with six drops) is sweet. Cast Down makes an appearance and it does a lot of work here, picking off key threats for a pittance.

If you’re looking to play a blue-black control deck and don’t feel like suiting up the Tron, this looks like a solid place to start. It could stand to benefit from a Thorn of the Black Rose

What is Commander?

I love Commander. Before the Covid-19 pandemic it was my preferred way to play Magic in paper. The last social event I did before the shutdown was attend a Commander night at a friend’s place. At one point I had 20 Commander decks in a fully constructed and ready to play state. And if there’s one thing I like almost as much as playing Commander, it’s talking about it with my friends. The time of social distancing has given me plenty of time to do just that.

Over the past four and a half months I have seen a ton of discussion about the format. These were the same conversations I had witnessed before, but it seemed that time spent forcing ourselves to not see each other had exacerbated the underlying issues. These were chats in my circles but they are ones I have seen repeated in the wider Magic community. Some cards and strategies are too powerful; games tend to steamroll when someone has an advantage; all these new cards take away the fun of Commander.

None of this is new to me. I remember having the very same conversations with friends over beers in 2012. Personally, I think that while the past few years of Commander specific designs have largely been too pushed, I understand the need to do this so that newer players do not feel completely outmatched at tables with folks like me and their 25 year collections.

But back to the conversations. They all stem from the same place: when people sit down to play Commander they want to know what they are going to experience. A good game of Commander should start like any good relationship: with clear communication.

I tend to drill down my philosophy in Commander with trying to balance playing the game with winning the game. When I sit down, I want to be actively engaged in the game. I want to do things that will provoke reactions and honestly, I want to make those reactions meaningless. I tend to like attrition and value strategies that will accumulate resources over time, but I’ve had to adjust to give my decks a little more explosive power.

I’ve also pared down my decks to eight. Still far too many to play in one sitting, but enough that I don’t feel like I’m going to get bored of doing the same thing over and over again.

After years of talking about it, I have finally built a Teshar, Ancestor’s Apostle deck. I knew I wanted to build Teshar from the moment the card was spoiled. I got sidetracked along the way but a list was always percolating in the back of my mind. These conversations with friends, as well as some games on Magic Online, finally encouraged me to get off my butt and put a deck together.

I want to use this list as a way to talk about interaction. I tried to include several interactive elements, including the staples Path to Exile and Swords to Plowshares. I put in a few board wipes – Cataclysmic Gearhulk, Dusk // Dawn, Elspeth, Sun’s Champion, Fell the Mighty, and Mageta, the Lion – in an effort to directly impact the board instead of just building up my own.

I also found slots for cards to limit my opponent’s interaction with me. Fanatical Devotion and Martyr’s Cause help to keep me and my stuff alive, while the various tax elements slow down their development. Finally, I put in Smokestack, which is a card I think can create a lot of interesting decision points during a game.

Of course Smokestack is a hated card and I understand why. It can be distinctly unfun when you are locked out by it and creates an effect that is never quite symmetrical. At the same time it is a card that interacts with the opponents.

This is one reason why framing Commander discussion around a vague notion of “interaction” can only go so far. Just like so many things in Magic the word will mean different things to different players.

So how would I describe this deck? Mono White value, based around Teshar, with some like tax and stax effects.

How does this deck win? I amass a giant board and win with creatures, pumped by Anafenza, Kin-Tree Spirit or Cathar’s Crusade.

But here’s what I want to know from you: is that a fair elevator pitch of my Teshar deck?

More Tron Talk

While we wait for the weekend Challenge results to post I wanted to take some time to talk about the loxodon in the room. Early reports from Double Masters season indicates that Tron has gotten stronger. Despite the fact there was a ban that specifically targeted the deck, Tron continues to be a dominant force. Today I want to discuss why these three lands cause so many problems and why, in the long run, they will need to be banned.

Pauper, like any Magic format, has cards of varying power levels. That being said the very best Pauper cards and not that much better than the worst ones. I am speaking here about cards that see play or have the potential to see play; I am not talking about Chimney Imp. This is baked into Pauper since the format restricted by rarity. Because of this, one of the best ways to get ahead is to do multiple things in a single turn cycle. Blue cantrip decks can set up their draws while leaving up mana for a counter. Stompy decks can commit multiple threats thanks to their low cost and the presence of Burning-Tree Emissary. Kor Skyfisher decks try to do this with cheap burn and recasting Prophetic Prism over and over.

Tron laughs at all of these. Thanks to the mana abundance made available by its mana engine, Tron can do far more in a single turn than any other deck. The entire point of the Expedition Map ban was to provide other decks time to beat Tron before the three lands were assembled. Regardless of whether or not the ban achieved this goal, it is vital to understand that one of the root causes was to try and level the field between decks that do things in the early game against decks that do things in the late game.

Switching Crop Rotation in for Map has largely been seen as an improvement. Crop Rotation has a real cost associated with it in that a counter is rather punishing. However the banning of Mystic Sanctuary has pushed decks that can leverage Counterspell lower in the metagame. The result is that one of Tron’s natural predators is neutered, giving the deck more room to breathe and do its thing.

I want to switch gears for a moment and talk about Arcum’s Astrolabe. Part of the problem with Arcum’s Astrolabe is that it enabled decks to ignore discrete mana costs. Astrolabe decks in Pauper (and other formats) became “good card soup” where they simply ran the most powerful options.

Tron decks are Arcum’s Astrolabe decks with access to more mana.

Between the new Thriving Lands, Prophetic Prism, Cave of Temptation, and others, Tron will always have access to the color it needs. The result is that when Tron wants to use a tool it has to sacrifice very little to do just that. Double Masters gave Pauper access to two amazing removal spells in Abrade and Cast Down. These are powerful cards and both help out Tron by giving them more early interaction. Now Tron has less to fear from early aggressive decks and Abrade has the upside of randomly wrecking Affinity.

To summarize my points so far, Tron is able to do more than other decks in the format and has access to all the best spells due to the nature of its mana base.

A common refrain about Tron bans is to hit the flicker effects: Ephemerate, Ghostly Flicker, and Displace. These would absolutely hinder the current iteration of Tron by making it harder for them to lock folks out of the combat step. Hitting these cards would leave Tron as a viable inclusion for control decks.

I think this change would be a half measure. As more cards are printed and new spells appear to take the place of older, more expensive versions, the problem with Tron’s ability to simply overwhelm every other deck thanks to an abundance of mana will persist.

I may be wrong about this. Perhaps Tron is safe or perhaps the flickers are the correct hit. I think that at some point down the road, something is going to break Tron again. I think it’s time to stop this train.