The First Four Weeks of Commander Legends

December 12-13 Pauper Weekend in Review

The December 12 and December 13 Challenges close out the first four weeks of Commander Legends season. Won by WonderWalls and Dimir Delver, these two events put a cap on an interesting month of Pauper.

The big story of the last month is Fall from Favor and its massive impact on the Pauper metagame. I’m on the record as saying I think that the Monarch promotes poor play patterns while incentivizing defense to the point that going on the offense is a strategic error. But it goes deeper than that – Fall from Favor has fundamentally changed the way Pauper games play out.

Before we get to that, I want to discuss what I mean about poor play patterns. The Monarch is zero sum – if one player has it the other cannot. This means that keeping the emblem is incredibly important and once online, relatively easy. The Monarch represents one free card every turn and if your opponent is only able to present one new threat per turn then you are coming out ahead (one spell to deal with the threat, one fresh draw). Monarch encourages you to sit back and let the cards roll in while also making it challenging for your opponent to enact their own plan if it involves attacking.

Leading up to Commander Legends you could make the argument that Pauper revolved around Burning-Tree Emissary. Stompy was the so-called clock of the format – its consistent turn four kill gave Pauper a fundamental turn, a focal point around which the game needed to be built. Before Fiery Cannonade decks had to lean on Moment’s Peace and similar effect to survive which in many ways is responsible for how we got to the point we were at the end of Zendikar Rising season. In my opinion the addition of Fall from Favor has changed the fundamental turn – the turn on which and entire game can pivot – to the third turn.

A Fall from Favor on turn three usually will end the game. The avalanche of card advantage can be challenging to overcome and requires significant effort. As a result we have seen a shift the appearance of aggro and also a replacement of the Clock. In my opinion, the metagame looks something like this:

  • WonderWalls (Cascade) is the Clock – It represents a reliable turn four kill that is difficult to disrupt.
  • Boros Bully is Aggro – It’s ability to go wide while also packing its own Monarch engine gives it the tools to beat down.
  • Spellstutter Sprite/Fall from Favor decks are Midrange – These decks can now pack their own Monarch cards and as a result have a far easier time assuming both aggro and control positions.
  • Flicker Tron remains the Control.

The result is a new metagame that is surprisingly diverse and has a healthy appearance:

The first 8 Challenges of Commander Legends Season

I’m going to say that again: this is a diverse and somewhat healthy metagame, at least according to the numbers. There are 14 decks that represent over 2% of the metagame volume (5 appearances) with another two – WonderWalls and Gruul Ramp – that are sitting at 1.97% of metagame volume. Flicker Tron is at it’s lowest volume in quite some time and it has a relatively reasonable delta between actual volume and weighted volume. Fully half of these decks are outperforming their actual volume with another one – Jeskai Affinity – one good result away from doing the same.

So on hand we have a diverse metagame with a decent spread of archetypes, none of which are dominant to the point of being troublesome. On the other hand we have a large number of decks that lean on the Monarch for their success. Around 53% of decks, by volume, lean on the Monarch (this excludes Tron builds) and Monarch decks account for around 57% of weighted metagame volume.

Now these Monarch decks look drastically different – there are the various Delver/Faerie decks, traditional Boros/Orzhov midrange, and even Gruul Ramp which can cascade into the crown. The question remains – is this healthy?

Putting my cards of the proverbial table, I do not know. On the one hand we are seeing diversity of archetypes and not only that, a diversity of successful archetypes. At the same time many of these decks are leaning on the Monarch which as explained earlier, does promote a back and forth. Instead we are seeing decks like WonderWalls which can deal with one free draw since it wants to vomit out four threats on turn four and win the game on the spot.

I’ve been one of the staunchest supporters of bans in Pauper. I believe the Monarch promotes poor game play. But these results are giving me something to think about. I do think that if these trends continue we are going to see an increase in the polarization of the format between the Clock and the Control. I also am concerned about the increasing homogenization of decks as over 50% Monarch is alarming. I still think action needs to be taken.

But what do you think?

December 5-6 Pauper Weekend In Review

Fall from Favor tempo decks went undefeated in the Swiss on both days before sweeping the Top 8 on Saturday and Sunday. Twitter is awash with discussion about how the format is dominated by the Monarch.

I wish there was more to say about Pauper at this time…and there is…sorta.

This chart tracks every archetype that has at least 2% of the total metagame volume (approximately 4 appearances) or a Top 8 finish. Six events into Commander Legends season and already Tron is pulling away from the pack in Top 8s. Looking at these top decks, however, the number that are running the Monarch is nothing short of astounding as it now includes almost every Spellstutter Sprite deck. Decks that are not Tron or Monarch (or some combination) account for just over 22% of all wins above X-2. This number might not seem so bad until you break down that remaining 78%.

Tron, with and without Monarch, accounts for 23% of all wins above X-2. That means decks packing the Monarch account for around 55% of all wins at X-2 or better.

There’s a Pauper PTQ on January 23rd. There is a very real cost to not fixing the format before that event. Magic Online PTQs attract a wide swath of players – not just dedicated Pauper grinders. If this is their first exposure to Pauper and they see “Monarch: The Format” are they really going to come back? Like it or not, Pauper can’t survive on die-hards alone.

The choice to me is either to kick off the new year right or the first foot of the format six feet under.

November 28-29 Pauper Weekend in Review

What makes up a healthy metagame in a non-rotating Magic format? I think that depends on a number of factors. One of the big critiques of Modern, from a professional player standpoint, was that it was so wide open that it was difficult to feel prepared for a major event. This was a boon to both the casually competitive and aspirant player base. The wide open nature of Modern meant that it was possible to have “your deck” and have a shot. Something similar can be said for Legacy. It is tough to balance having a format with a plethora of options and one that can stand up to being played ad infinitum. This is why that, for competitive play, Wizards will often introduce new, smaller formats. Extended begat Modern which begat Pioneer which, in ten years will beget something new. For a format like Pauper, I think there is merit in having something of an unbalanced metagame provided it is relatively open.

Here is where the top of the Pauper metagame stands after the November 28 and November 29 Challenges (taking into account any deck with at least 3 appearances or a Top 8 finish):

In these four challenges there have been 68 decks that have finished with a 4-2 or better record. 45 of them are running at least one Monarch card in their 75 (66%). The decks break down like this:

  • Monarch decks: 24 copies
  • Spellstutter Sprite + Monarch: 14
  • Jeskai Affinity w/Fall from Favor: 2
  • Tron: 15 (including 5 with access to the Monarch)

All told these decks account for 81% of the top of the Winner’s metagame over four challenges. Now there is some variety in these archetypes – Boros Bully and Boros Monarch; Pestilence Control and Dimir Control options; Mono-Blue, Dimir, and Izzet Spellstutter Sprite builds; Tron with Staunch Throneguard main and Tron with Fall from Favor in the sideboard.

Is this healthy? It all depends on your point of view. On one hand there are options of what to play but at the same time the decks are slowly trending towards homogenizing. There were several images going around this weekend involving five copies of Fall from Favor on a battlefield, sometimes representing the Monarch changing hands half a dozen times.

Right now there are no real checks on the Monarch. More than that, aggressive decks outside of Boros Bully and Jeskai Affinity (the latter of which is soft to Gorilla Shaman) are non-existent. Playing out creatures is a massive risk since that opens you up to having it Fall from Favor and start giving your opponent more resources.

Gavin Verhey has said that Wizards is closely monitoring Pauper and that we can expect action if things are out of whack. I think my opinion is well known at this point – what do you think?

In the interim, if you are going to play Pauper I would advise against exposing yourself to Fall from Favor. Whether this means running Yavimaya Barbarian or just not running creatures, that last thing you want to do is make it easy for your opponent to draw cards. Gut Shot, Snapback, Snuff Out – these are going to be your friends moving forward. If you decide to run creatures, you better be sure to be packing enough ways to gain the crown back should your opponent be trying to win.

November 21-23 Pauper Weekend In Review: Enter Commander Legends

Commander Legends has finally made its way to Magic Online. And the bugs that plagued the latest set’s release have (hopefully) been put out to pasture. While there were a few notable bugs that could have potentially impacted Pauper last weekend, the results of the November 21 and November 22 Challenges are no less informative. Despite an influx of new cards, the metagame looks rather similar at the surface.

None of this should be a shock. Nothing in the latest set looked like it could dethrone Flicker Tron from its perch at the top of the metagame. The Boros brothers – Bully and Monarch – both had a solid Zendikar Rising season and thanks to Prismatic Strands are well positioned to adapt to Fiery Cannonade’s pressence in the metagame. After these the most popular decks are various Spellstutter Sprite decks which adopted a bevy of new Monarch options, although Fall from Favor seems to be the most popular way to take the crown.

It is far too early to draw firm conclusions, but there are a few indications of shifts in the metagame. First, Stompy has taken another hit. Burning-Tree Emissary decks are going to have to adjust to a world with Fiery Cannonade. Going tall with Bogles or Heroic could work in theory, but if you want to pressure a life total your best bet may just be Boros Bully.

Black based midrange looks to have an uphill climb. One of the best reasons to run black was the ability to play Thorn of the Black Rose and Pestilence. Now that more colors have access to the Monarch, Pestilence is going to have to do a heavier lift and may struggle to find a foothold.

Finally, free spells are going to get better. If the metagame shifts to revolve around a turn three Fall from Favor, being able to remove the target at no cost seems paramount. Snuff Out and Gut Shot are known quantities at this point, but I am interested in trying out Snapback to see if it can get the job done.

How are you looking to approach this new metagame? What cards have been all-stars for you and which ones have underperformed?

Svogthir’s Study: Savra, Queen of the Golgari

Hello and welcome to Svogthir’s Study: a place to appreciate Golgari in Commander.

When I saw which Commander was up next in my own arbitrary order I felt a pit of dread rise in my gut. It wasn’t that I was worried about writing about this card. Rather I was concerned with confronting my own failure before my queen.

Savra, Queen of the Golgari is one of my all-time favorite Commanders. She enables so many things I love about Magic. She plays well with token strategies while also leaning into a stax game. She helps to keep you alive while also converting your life total into a weapon. While not cheap, Savra is far from an expensive Commander and she can be used as soon as she enters the battlefield. Heck, she doesn’t even enable her ability which means you have to build around her – something I love about Commander. Savra is a perfect example of an open ended legend that provides a myriad of possibilities.

And that is where I failed. Savra is my Commander White Whale. I love the card but every time I try to build around her I get pulled in a million different directions. Compare that to some of the more recently released options. So many Commanders from the past three years shout from the rooftops of Markov Manor what you should be doing. Savra, by contrast, is a utility player. You can play up the sacrifice theme with cards like Smothering Abomination or Priest of Forgotten Gods or go huge with Living Death or Krav, the Unredeemed. While she isn’t Meren (thank Pharika), she helm a Birthing Pod deck and heck, she plays great with Fiend Artisan. Or maybe you want to focus on that life payment and you run Font of Agonies and Vilis, Broker of Blood. Perhaps you want to play with the fact she looks for black and green creatures and load up on Creakwood Liege, Izoni, Thousand-Eyed and Pharika, God of Affliction. I’ve tried all of these and none of them seemed to work. I wanted to do everything and as a result I did nothing. And so I took apart my Savra deck, trying to figure out exactly what I wanted to do in service of the Undercity crown.

I am not sure why but as of late, I have looked more and more at stax style decks. I think this blossoms from a desire to force interaction while also seeking to take full advantage of said interaction. Before we went on lockdown, I would frequent a Commander game where folks had relatively high powered casual decks. These decks were often optimized to some degree but aside from countermagic and board wipes, there was not a ton of interaction (in my view). In order to keep up I started bringing decks that had universal interaction – cards like Grave Pact. I would seek to break the symmetry of universally painful effects in an attempt to come out ahead. Now that I am playing with a different group of folks via webcam, I have toned down the stax in some decks. I think Savra was a victim of this shift in that I didn’t want to have so many decks focused on locking my opponents out of playing the game. That being said I believe Savra makes an excellent stax Commander. You have a pseudo-Grave Pact in the Command Zone and there are plenty of ways to sacrifice creatures for minimal cost. Throw in an Ogre Slumlord and now you are coming out ahead in the exchange. You could go even harder and add Darkest Hour to turn cards like Awakening Zone into the best Innocent Blood of all time. 

Savra Stax suffers from many of the problems inherent in making yourself the archenemy, namely that everyone is going to be coming for you. While it is possible to effectively protect your life total you’re lacking the power of a card like Meren of Clan Nel-Toth to make up for the resources you are investing to keep the table clear. Meren, for example, will keep your board populated while Savra requires some more work to really break that parity.

So where am I going with Savra next? Well, I used to have a Seton, Krosan Protector deck that was both Elf and Druid tribal. And considering that I have tried to make Nath of the Gilt-Leaf (and yes, Sadistic Hypnotist) work for years and have a newfound crush on Miara, Thorn of the Glade, I’m going to build Savra Elves. This is forcing me to look at my old flame in an entirely new light. Now I’ll have the opportunity to bolster my life total sky high thanks to a bevy of Elf tokens flying around. I can lean harder on some other ways to sacrifice creatures including an old favorite in Death Pit Offering. Abomination of Llanowar seems like a stellar fit in this deck since yes, creatures are going to be dying left and right. I also get to play a small Aristocrats theme with Poison-Tip Archer and Nadier’s Nightblade. I also get to try out using Skyshroud Poacher to fetch out Izoni. Finally if I am being realistic this finally provides me a chance to pair Cryptolith Rite with Death Cloud.

Long live the Queen!

Treasured Find: Deathless Knight

Zendikar Rising Season – The Second Check In

There were two Challenges this past weekend, bringing the grand total of results in Zendikar Rising season to 9. In order to examine trends I divide long seasons into four week chunks and wouldn’t you know it, we just hit the end of the eight week.

Normally this would give a strong indication of where the format is at large but we are mere weeks away from a massive upheaval. Commander Legends, with a bevy of Monarch cards and two new sweepers, is poised to shake things up. For a short answer as to what is going to happen I’ll say that Tron is going to get better and blue is likely to put in a claim as one of the best colors for Monarch. Because it needed help.

But that’s just speculation. I want to use this time to talk about something more concrete: the past. For those of you unfamiliar with how I track the metagame, here is a quick guide.

When I discussed the first four weeks of the season I talked about the relative strength of Tron and its outsized impact on the format. Here is what the top of the metagame looked like after 4 weeks (taking into account decks that accounted for at least 2% of the Winner’s Metagame).

September 19-October 11

Preview(opens in a new tab)

Keep this chart in mind as we look at the next one, which is the past four weeks of the challenge metagame with the same 2% threshold.

October 17 – November 8

There are some very important things to note. First, more decks out performed their volume this time around – 7 in the second chunk as opposed to 5. That being said, there were only 11 archetypes to clear the threshold in the second half of the season as opposed to 12 in the first four weeks.

Let’s talk about Tron first. The deck maintained around 16% of the metagame volume and even if it did slightly worse in the past four weeks, it’s still significantly better than every other archetype. Nothing about Tron has changed and it still eats a lion’s share of the wins.

Dimir Faeries was less popular in the second month but did marginally better. The decline in popularity may be due to the rise of Dimir Delver as a choice but that’s just speculation. The complete drop off in Izzet variants leads me to believe that the option to run Cast Down and Snuff out is a pretty significant improvement over Skred, which is saying something.

Here are some other quick hits:

  • Jeskai Affinity is the most played bad deck. We’ll see in a moment, but the much maligned Burn is outperforming this archetype.
  • Stompy continues to struggle in a Monarch and Tron metagame.
  • More people should be playing Bogles and Elves – they are slightly underrepresented given their relative strength.
  • Boros Bully and Boros Monarch occupy a largely similar spot in the metagame despite being drastically different decks.

I wish this information would be more helpful in the look ahead. Simply put it is hard to determine what is going to change once Commander Legends and any subsequent bans hit. With that in mind, here is what the entire season looks like:

Tron is kinda gross outside of these numbers. It has 36 Top 8 slots out of a possible 136 (around 26.47%) and has taken down 6 of 17 events. If there is anything to take away from this season it’s that you really need to have a plan for Tron if you’re trying to win a Challenge.

A Chat with Gavin Verhey

A few weeks ago in the midst of Commander Legends preview season Senior Magic Designer and the mind behind the set Gavin Verhey Tweeted that he’d love to come into the MTGPauper Discord to chat about the set. After some back and forth with Gavin we settled upon a date and time.

On Wednesday, November 11 at 7:30pm Eastern Time, Gavin will be chatting Commander Legends and Pauper. You can access the Discord via this link. What happens if you can’t make it? Good news! We have a channel in the Discord labeled “question-time” where you can post a question for Gavin ahead of the chat. Then on Wednesday we’ll be opening a channel for the duration of the discussion and then locking it after the fact to keep a record.

I want to thank Gavin for working with me on this and taking the time out of his incredibly busy schedule to speak with the passionate Pauper community.

October 31-November 1 Pauper Weekend in Review

I’m going to skip my regular summary this week. Instead I implore all of you who live in the United States, who have not done so, to vote. And while I’m not one to tell you how to live your life, I am going to encourage you to vote for the Democratic party because they, at the bare minimum, have a plan that will get us out of this pandemic (as opposed to no plan at all from the other side).

October 31 Challenge
Top Decks from Second Check In, at least 2% volume of metagame (4 appearances)

Keep your eye on Elves. The deck had a great weekend and is poised to benefit from Commander Legends.

Svogthir’s Study: Belbe, Corrupted Observer

Hello and welcome to Svogthir’s Study: a place to appreciate Golgari in Commander.

When I first conceived of this series I had intended to go in chronological order. It made sense to follow the progression of a color pair as the game itself evolved. For whatever reason I forgot that we are almost always in spoiler season these days and as such there are going to be opportunities to discuss new Golgari Commanders as they are revealed. I’m seizing that opportunity today.

Belbe, Corrupted Observer does something new in Golgari: it encourages mass aggression. This plays on Belbe’s character in the Magic storyline as the emissary of Phyrexia who tested potential Evincars of Rath before the invasion (from Invasion). She is literally pitting contestants against each other. The secret with Belbe is to not treat her like a two drop but rather as a card that comes down later in the game once you can fully take advantage of her mana generation. This ability also ties into her lore as she is the compleated daughter of Eladarmi and his eponymous Vineyard made mana during the precombat main phase.

Golgari is about the cycle of life and death. Here we see a uniquely Phyrexian take on that cycle: depleting your adversaries health gives you a new resource in mana. The fact that this mana is best used to cast Artifacts (and fine, Eldrazi) is incredibly Phyrexian and rather on the nose. In this way Belbe is similar to Rakdos, Lord of Riots, except she is far easier to resolve and doesn’t paint a giant target on your head. Whereas Rakdos wants other players to lose life for your benefit, Belbe wants everyone but you to lose life for your opponent’s (and your) gain.

There are a few things you can do with Belbe. I think you can use her in an artifact centered deck. You will want to use cards like Staff of Nin and Ticking Gnomes to ensure you have a steady source of damage. Viridian Longbow can ensure that you will, at the very least get two colorless on each of your turns. Angel’s Trumpet could be a sleeper here, encouraging everyone to attack. Load up with cards like Dread to discourage folks from attacking you and then pump your extra mana into a Walking Ballista. You can also take this build in another direction and use Belbe to help cast large threats with significant colorless mana requirements – both Pestilence Demon and Woodland Bellower spring to mind. You could even run Helix Pinnacle for fun. The key here will be bridging to the point in the game where Belbe starts churning out six mana a turn and it might involve using Curses to incentivize attacking players other than you.

That’s now how I would build Belbe because I’m not a nice person and I hate fun. When I saw Belbe I realized I wanted to pit my opponent’s against each other and reap the rewards. My mind immediately went to Elephant Grass. I want all my opponents to feel the pain and that means cards like Vindictive Vampire, Zulaport Cutthroat, Poison-Tip Archer, and Bastion of Remembrance. The real spice here, though, is Slimefoot, the Stowaway. Once you have a sacrifice outlet available, Slimefoot can make sure his lady in waiting is always well tended. I’d lean hard on artifact sacrifice outlets as well – Spawning Pit, Blasting Station, and Smokestack. Your goal should not only be to deter your opponents from attacking you, but slowly strangling them to death while you reap the rewards.

Treasured Find: Plague Spitter

October 24-25 Pauper Weekend in Review

The October 24 and October 25 were nothing new. The best decks rose to the top of the metagame and Tron was a dominant force. This week a new crop of hyper linear decks came to battle, headlined by Bogles, Elves, and Turbo Fog. These decks had a solid Saturday and poor Sunday. I don’t want to get to bogged down in the data this week as it would simply be regurgitating what I’ve been saying for much of this season.

October 24
October 25

Today I want to build on what I discussed in this piece. There I focused on cards to remove from the format to change deckbuilding incentives. With a new set mere weeks away – one where the lead designer on the set had Pauper on his mind – I thought I would talk about what new styles of cards could be used to improve Pauper, separate from bans.

Incentivize Aggro

This is the number one thing that can be done to improve the overall health and diversity of the Pauper metagame. While plenty of decks win via attacking – Bogles and Izzet Blitz come to mind- there is only one traditional “aggro” deck in Stompy and one non-traditional aggro deck in Boros Bully. This is not the fault of the aggressive cards but rather the incredible payoffs that exist for building slower decks. While Stompy can put out a ton of damage the fail rate is far higher than stalling out the game to draw a ton of cards with Monarch or Bonder’s Ornament, or play tool box with Ephemerate.

How do you encourage people to turn creatures sideways? Pauper already has two mana 3/3s. I think the best way to do this would be to print weak hate bears that tax spells and not creatures. This is a tough rope to walk as you do not want to lock people out of games entirely but you want to make the bears good enough to see play.

The goal then is to not create a deck that runs these and uses them to beat down. Rather it is to use these creatures to put a tax on control decks which can then hopefully open up a lane for more aggressive strategies to blossom.

Double Down on Existing Engines

Take away Monarch and Ephemerate for a moment. Pauper has plenty of engines that just aren’t nearly good enough at the current moment. Tortured Existence and Tilling Treefolk come to mind but there are plenty of other cards that could form the backbone of a deck if given the opportunity and additional options. Trinket Mage, for example, is a powerful card that simply doesn’t do enough on its own. Pauper is littered with cards like this that just pale in comparison to what can be done with the current best options.

If we aren’t going to remove the best options, we can provide new tools for existing ones. Give decks better Retrace spells so Tilling Treefolk can be more than just a bad Mulldrifter. Give Tortured Existence a card like Syr Konrad, the Grim to it can close out games.

These are the two things that keep coming to mind as ways to increase diversity at the top of the metagame. That being said I am wary of kicking the can down the road, hoping the next non-Standard release will be the one that fixes Pauper. That being said, I think both of these are attainable goals that could go a long way to shifting the incentives in Pauper.