The Shifting Nature of Pauper’s Card Advantage

Pauper is undergoing a radical change in the way card advantage flows and for the first time it is not clear what color is number one.

In order to understand what is going on it is important to first know that for the vast majority of Pauper’s history the best way to gain card advantage was to play blue. Deep Analysis, Compulsive Research, Mulldrifter, Ninja of the Deep Hours and even cards like Foresee and Probe were the ways to pull ahead. Other decks had to rely on creature based card advantage like Chittering Rats or Skirk Marauder to try and eke out value. And while blue continued to add powerful options to Magic Online like Gush and Accumulated Knowledge, other decks could “go under” blue and win before the cards they accumulated could be converted into game winning pieces.

While some non-blue decks tried their hand at the card advantage game – namely Kuldotha Boros/Boros Kitty with Kor Skyfisher and Glint Hawk working with Ichor Wellspring and Prophetic Prism – it wasn’t until Modern Masters 2017 hit Magic Online that we saw our first major shift in the card advantage paradigm with the introduction of the Monarch mechanic and Palace Sentinels. Now white-based midrange decks had a reliable way to accrue resources but with one major advantage: they did not have to expend mana to get the cards.

Let’s compare these two strategies. Blue decks had relied on both instant speed methods of card accumulation, like Mystical Teachings chains or Think Twice, or the “tap out” method of cards like Compulsive Research or Mulldrifter paired with Undying Evil or Momentary Blink. In order to facilitate this, blue decks either played a Flash or Skies game or were paired with cheap interaction to buy time until their card draw engine could come online and dominate the game with hard to remove threats like Spire Golem or Shimmering Glasskite. Now the best tap out way to accumulate cards was by pairing the Monarch with cheap removal since it would generate cards turn after turn.

This was a seismic shift. Blue decks were no longer the only game in town and while “tap out” decks persisted, the most successful decks in this era (that went unbanned, we don’t talk about Treasure Cruise or Gush) were Delver or Faeries decks – the ones that evolved from Skies. Mulldrifter decks also persisted but they cheated on mana in some way, whether that was with Tron or in the Familiars shell. In order to effectively leverage the tap out nature, blue decks needed access to excess mana.

The Monarch changed all of that. Blue tap out decks had to expend early interaction in the hope of drawing two or three cards which meant that strategies designed to “go under” their wall could apply pressure. Monarch decks could spend the early turns trading off removal spells and blockers knowing that their engine, once online, would recoup most of their losses. Monarch decks excel at converting cards in hand into game actions starting on turn four or five. The nature of these play patterns made it difficult to beat Monarch decks with creatures until Savage Swipe came along but that’s another story.

The Monarch remains a hugely influential part of the Pauper environment and recently was adopted by the various Faerie decks. The newer breed of Faeries had access to it all: great card selection early, cheap interaction, and snowballing card advantage with Ninja of the Deep Hours and their Monarch of choice.

All of this changed in 2021.

Deadly Dispute and Galvanic Relay (alongside Reckless Impulse and Experimental Synthesizer) changed the nature of card advantage in Pauper. Deadly Dispute hearkens back to the days of Kuldotha Rebirth sacrificing Ichor Wellspring. Now Dispute does the same job while also leaving behind a Treasure token acting as a black pastiche of Ancestral Recall. The red impulsive draw spells can store cards in exile, protecting them from already ineffective discard spells.

The shift might seem minor at first but the reality of the situation is that it has shaken the way card advantage works in Pauper. First with Deadly Dispute and similar (if less powerful) effects black now has the ability to play at a “flash” game, cashing in resources at the opponent’s end step or in response to removal for a burst of cards. This gives other decks access to the ability to untap with a fresh grip and deploy threats in a way it could not before. Storing cards in exile, specifically with Galvanic Relay, means a deck can accumulate an absurd number of cards and then deploy them on the next turn. This gives Storm decks an advantage in that they can keep their win hidden from interaction for a turn cycle and preventing counterplay. Compare this to blue card draw which is bound at the time of casting, or Monarch which generates value turn over turn. Relay is akin to having the Monarch for ten turns but the cards only accessible for a single turn.

None of this is inherently good or inherently bad; rather they represent a shift in the way Pauper has to approach fights over card advantage. It is Carlos Romao’s Fact or Fiction innovation but in reverse – rather than fighting over the cards drawn it is correct, even more than before, to fight over the draw itself. Duress was already a card that had a narrow window of opportunity before becoming nigh useless and now it has less time to matter.

Still, there are ways to disrupt the new normal. The first, as mentioned previously, is early interaction. Duress might not be perfect but a well timed copy can still be devastating. Spell Pierce is also stronger now as it can either counter a spell outright or tax mana in a way that prevents the utilizing impulsive resources. All of this only matters if paired with a quick clock to pressure the opponent and so cards like Gurmag Angler and other options that can dodge Galvanic Blast and Snap are paramount. But it should be noted that given how much card draw is out there right now you do need to have a plan for what happens when your opponent stabilizes.

February 26-27 Pauper Weekend Recap

The February 26 and February 27 Pauper Challenges helped to clarify the current state of the format. While there is valid concern about the current Galvanic Relay Storm deck running around the format, the results are telling another cautionary tale.

Rakdos decks – both Affinity and Storm – are helping to shape the format three weeks into Neon Dynasty season. But that’s only part of the story. Pulling back further we can see that one deck is currently driving the Pauper metagame like two go-karts going pedal to the metal.

All decks with at least 4 Top 32 finishes OR a Top 8 finish

Rakdos Affinity is the most popular deck and one of the most successful. It is taking down Top 8s at an impressive rate and shows no real signs of slowing down. The deck, like several others, is making use of the powerful Experimental Synthesizer as a way to see more cards and power out fast starts. Affinity may lack the quick combo kill of Atog-Fling but it can still end games by turning lands into damage with Makeshift Munitions and Disciple of the Vault.

Affinity is at least a deck that can potentially be mitigated. Rakdos Storm has the advantage of copious fast mana and Galvanic Relay, which is much closer to Mind’s Desire than I gave it credit for last summer. The ability to store spells and lands, including rituals, gives Storm the resiliency and consistency needed to overcome hate.

Taking a step back, the nature of card advantage engines in Pauper has shifted numerous times over the past five years. Before the advent of Monarch it was hard to beat blue decks for the ability to draw cards, either through Ninja of the Deep Hours, Mulldrifter, Gush (at the time), Thoughtcast, or many other lesser engines. Boros was able to keep up thanks to stitching together draws with Prophetic Prism and Ichor Wellspring, but it was an uphill fight. Black was clearly a step behind even with Sign in Blood.

The Monarch spread card advantage to other colors but once Dimir and Izzet Faeries adopted the mechanic, card advantage once again became the domain of blue decks. However the addition of Reckless Impulse, Galvanic Relay, Deadly Dispute and now Experimental Synthesizer have given other colors a solid foothold in the way cards are accrued.

None of this is to absolve Affinity and Storm of the problems they may or may not be causing. Instead Pauper is now entering an era where the old rules of card advantage battles are being rewritten. Where once cards in hand were the most important thing it seems that being able to “store” your cards on board (or in exile) is now the way to go. And fighting these methods requires different tactics, if they even exist.

Attacking cards like Experimental Synthesizer are easier in that if you time it properly you can leave the card stranded in exile. But even then you are trading down a card as the egg already “drew” one card. Deadly Dispute is much harder to stop since it can chew up various bits of material. And Galvanic Relay sidesteps all of this since the cards are unassailable.

Previously at this point I would talk about action Wizards could take. However given my role on the Pauper Format Panel I am not going to make suggestions lest they be taken as a way the wind will blow. What I will say is that this new era of card advantage presents an interesting puzzle and one that, if handled judiciously, could lead to a more robust and diverse format moving forward.

February 19-20 Pauper Weekend Recap

The post-Neon Dynasty metagame is starting to take shape and would you believe a one mana artifact is once again setting the Pauper world ablaze? Saturday’s Challenge saw Rakdos Affinity split the finals with Stompy while Sunday’s Challenge was taken down by Rakdos Storm. But when we look at the top of the metagame we see a format that is more and more defined by Experimental Synthesizer.

The best decks in the format right now are Rakdos Affinity, Rakdos Storm, and Boros decks. While not every Boros deck runs Experimental Synthesizer, many do and try to extract extra value from the egg through Glint Hawk and Kor Skyfisher. The Rakdos decks do something similar with Deadly Dispute and other sacrifice outlets. Experimental Synthesizer provides so much material for these decks while also keeping the cards flowing. It is also cheap enough that it can sneak under counter magic and removing it does not stop it from generating another card.

Over the weekend there were 29 copies of Experimental Synthesizer in both Top 8s; there were 28 copies of Deadly Dispute.

All of these factors, in conjunction with a ton of aggressive shells, has pushed Pauper to be a much faster format than it was a few weeks ago. This in it of itself is not a bad thing (for example, complaints about the Monarch have dwindled recently), but it is still concerning. While Synthesizer does not break the mana system like Arcum’s Astrolabe, a resolved Synthesizer represents at least three cards in the average case.

Part of this speed is due in no small part to the format being new again. Midrange and Control decks take time to adjust in the wake of new threats. Old answers are not nearly as good against the new triumvirate. The metagame was also skewed week one to beating Moon-Circuit hacker and we are only now seeing a course correction.

All decks with at least 3 appearances OR a Top 8 finish

So where does the format go from here? Trying to fight these decks on the Synthesizer axis is a losing battle as outside of Spell Pierce and Duress there are not a ton of proactive elements that are reasonable to run. That being said out of these two, Duress has more utility as a way to also delay Storm. Abrade also has utility as it not only hits every creature in Boros and many problem cards in Affinity, but it also can kill a Kessig Flamebreather.

Here is part of the puzzle: to fight these three decks requires an shift in the way people think about Pauper as a format. You cannot just hope to answer these decks once they are on the board because they play to the board better than just about anything else. Instead it is about disrupting their game plan at every step of the way in order to buy enough time to win. Here is where a deck like Death & Taxes could put in work but the closest thing Pauper has is Orzhov Rats which is fringe at best.

February 12-13 Pauper Weekend Recap

This past weekend saw the first Pauper Challenges where Neon Dynasty was legal. The set is jam packed with power and over the Saturday and Sunday Challenges seven new cards made the Top 32 cut.

In a surprise to almost no one, Moon-Circuit Hacker was the most popular Neon Dynasty card last weekend. Various Faerie decks – Delver, Dimir Faeries, Faeries, and Izzet Faeries – all ran the new ninja. Despite being obviously powerful, Faeries as a macro strategy struggled possibly in part because everyone knew it would show up.

When a card as clearly good as Hacker gets printed, it makes sense to either have a deck that beats Hacker or the best Hacker deck that beats Hacker and its predators. Last weekend it was the former that excelled.

Faerie decks were the most popular option on the weekend with 20 Top 32 finishes across the two challenges. However they only had 8 total wins above an X-3 record and two total Top 8 finishes. So what did well?

It should come as no surprise that both Affinity and Boros variants excelled in the world of Hacker. Boros is traditionally strong against Faerie strategies and Affinity, in its Rakdos variety, is perhaps the single most assertive deck in the format. Affinity saw 13 Top 32 finishes with 9 wins above an X-3 record (across two different builds) and had an impressive five Top 8s.

But Boros came out swinging. In 10 total appearances across four strategies – Boros Bully, Boros Metalcraft, Boros Monarch, and Kuldotha Boros – Boros had 13 wins above and X-3 record, six Top 8 finishes, and won both challenges. Part of this speaks to the versatility of the color pair but out of these 9 decks, 8 were aggressive. While it does not have Moon-Circuit Hacker it still has Kor Skyfisher which continues to do a great job of blocking Ninjas. Combine the veteran powerhouse with rookie sensation Experimental Synthesizer and you have a recipe for a ton of card flow in a shell that can also leverage Galvanic Blast. If I had to iterate on a deck for next weekend’s Challenges it would be Boros Metalcraft:

That being said I believe there is merit to exploring more controlling decks at the moment. While this first weekend featured a ton of assertive decks – that is decks trying to dictate the field of battle as early as turn one – so many of the best decks relied on one toughness creatures. A deck that can both resolve Eyeblight Massacre and handle Myr Enforcer (and friends) could make waves this weekend. That is a pretty big ask so it might be more reasonable to adapt one of the black based midrange decks to be stronger against Affinity.

That, of course, is a task in its own right.

Wrapping Up Crimson Vow Season

Let’s cut right to the chase. The following chart tracks the top decks from the post-ban Challenges except for one from late January that did not post. Decks in blue met the 2% threshold of at least 4 Top 32 appearances in that span. Decks in red have a Top 8 finish but failed to meet that same appearance threshold.

Affinity had a great stretch leading some to wonder aloud if the bans had any impact. Looking at Affinity’s combined volume here, it is below 20%. In the Crimson Vow Challenges before the ban Affinity combined to take down nearly 30% of the metagame. When it came to Weighted meta, Affinity topped 32% whereas here it is still under 20%. In other words, the bans did work in weakening Affinity without killing it outright.

With that out of the way, we can extrapolate from the top decks moving into Neon Dynasty season might be: Affinity clearly will remain a force in the format, as will Faeries and Boros Bully. Beyond that, things get murky.

Bogles could get a boost with the latest set thanks to an Enchantment-matters theme. Goblin Combo could add Experimental Synthesizer to the mix as a way to churn through their deck. Mono Black Control has the potential to put up results provided it can keep up with the metagame. And let’s not forget Faerie decks get another Ninja to add to the squad…

The future is far more fluid, however. Neon Dynasty is jam packed with powerful cards that could reshape the format just as easily as enhance existing options. I cannot remember a Standard legal set that had this much Pauper potential. While I am concerned that the rich are going to get richer once the new set hits digital shelves, I am just as optimistic that we are going to see a ton of new decks spring into existence.

January 22-23 Pauper Weekend Recap

The bans are in the books and we have a new format. The January 22 and January 23 Challenges were the first major events to take place since the ban of Atog, Bonder’s Ornament, and Prophetic Prism. Affinity won Saturday’s tournament while Cycling Songs took down Sunday. Here is a breakdown of the Top 32:

It is still too early to draw conclusions and realistically the format is likely to change again in a few weeks once Neon Dynasty hits the digital shelves. That being said there are a few nuggets of data worth exploring.

Affinity is alive and well

The goal of the Atog ban was to bring Affinity back to the rest of the pack. While it is only two tournaments, that seems to be the case at least in the early returns. Affinity is still a powerful deck but definitely lost a step. It will be interesting to see which build reigns supreme – already we’ve seen Glaze Fiend and Resculpt make appearances – but don’t skimp on your artifact hate just yet.

Where is Tron?

One of the critiques of the Bonder’s Ornament and Prophetic Prism ban was that it would hurt other decks more than Tron. However, Tron did not put up any result this weekend while Pestilence Control – one of the decks that was considered collateral damage – put up two strong finishes including a finals appearance. I don’t anticipate this being a regular occurrence. Instead once people figure out how to build Tron for the current metagame I fully expect it to make a return. I also anticipate Pestilence to take a decline as people adjust to fight Boros Bully.

Bullying the Metagame

Boros Bully appears to be the early deck to beat. It had a solid weekend and players are still figuring out the optimal composition of the deck. It is possible that as Affinity sees a decline Thraben Inspector can make a return. However if creatures are running rampant having an extra blocker in Lunarch Veteran might be just what the legion ordered.

The Crown in the Room

On Saturday 12 of the Top 32 decks were running the Monarch. On Sunday 16 of the Top 32 decks featured the mechanic. Overall that’s nearly 44% of the Top 32 metagame. Out of the Top 16 decks, 9 were running at least one Monarch enabling creature. While this is not a cause for alarm – the decks were relatively varied in strategy – it is something that should be noted if the trend continues for the next several weeks.

This is compounded by the fact that one of the strategies that can best leverage the Monarch are those built around Spellstutter Sprite. Dimir and Izzet Faeries combined for a dozen Top 32 finishes and went unscathed in the last round of bans. The question that remains is not whether or not these decks will succeed, but rather their win share. The reemergence of Stompy, at least for a moment, gives me hope that the metagame can apply enough pressure to Faeries to keep them in check.

But time will tell on that one.

January 15-16 Pauper Weekend Recap

Another weekend and another pair of Challenges are in the books. Saturday held largely true to recent history with an impressive showing by Grixis Affinity while on Sunday it was an affair that showed off the power of Spellstutter Sprite. The meta at large remains largely unchanged, with Affinity still lapping the field, so I wanted to take a few moments to talk about some heartening news (outside of my duties with the Pauper Format Panel).

The first thing I want to talk about is the variety in decks that exist outside of Affinity. In the first eight weeks of Crimson Vow season there were 21 different decks that either made top 8 or accounted for 2% of the Top 32 metagame. This weekend we saw another list make top 8 in Izzet Curve. We are also seeing the evolution of long standing archetypes, like Boros Bully.

Bully has been a format staple for years but the addition of Lunarch Veteran and the move away from Thraben Inspector marks one of the first foundational shifts the deck, or really any popular strategy – has undergone in recent memory. If the format ever settles into a healthier place I will be excited to see these decks choose the correct number of one drops each week, trying to figure out if the life matters more than the card.

The second piece that gives me hope is Challenge attendance. For years the Sunday Challenge would routinely hit seven rounds. In the wake of several formats involving cards that would eventually be banned, it was sometimes a struggle to fire a six round challenge. The past two Sundays saw the return of the lucky number seven round tournaments. Whether this is a bug or a feature of Affinity remains to be seen, but if the totality of the format ever becomes as fun the second tier then I think we are in a good spot. There’s a lot of space to explore in Pauper under the surface, as evidenced by the Leagues. I hope that diversity can make it to the Challenges as well.