One Month of Zendikar Rising

I am not going to waste words discussing the October 10 and October 11 Challenges. Flicker Tron took down 10 of the 16 Top 8 slots. I want to take a look at the first four weeks of this season: 8 Challenges and one PTQ. What does the winner’s metagame look like and why did some jabroni tweet this?

Before diving any deeper I am going to recommend you take a few moments to review this post. In it I go over my methodology for looking at the winner’s metagame. Needless to say, Tron is killing it on every metric.

Let’s start by looking at the most played decks in the Top 32. In order to qualify for a discrete section and not be sequestered in “Other”, a deck needed to comprise at least 2% of the Top 32 metagame (roughly equal to 6 appearances). This means decks like traditional Affinity, Azorius Familiars, and Mono Black Control did not make the cut.

On raw volume the metagame looks fairly diverse. There are a dozen archetypes that make up at least 2% of the metagame. If you group the two Boros Palace Sentinel decks together, you have four archetypes at over 10% of the Top 32 metagame. If you’re wondering why these are not listen in descending order, just you wait. There is one thing that gives me pause. 17.8% of the Top 32 metagame is made up of hyper linear decks (Bogles, Burn, Elves, WonderWalls). These are all decks that try to attack on a non-traditional axis and, in all likelihood, are aimed at Tron. This is important when we take a look at the next breakdown.

This chart takes a look at the accumulated Win+ of each archetype and takes it as a percentage of the sum of all Win+ scores.

It’s neat that Dimir Faeries and Boros Bully improve on their performance when it comes to Weighted Volume. And the hyper linear decks perform almost exactly the same in this chart. But that’s burying the lede because Tron chewing the scenery. Almost a quarter of all Wins above X-3. That’s a fantastic rate. While this is absolutely bolstered by last weekend’s dominant performance, Tron’s Weighted Volume is an 8.44% increase over it’s actual volume. By comparison, the cumulative increase of the other four decks with a positive delta (Dimir Faeries, Boros Bully, Bogles, Elves) is 2.39%. Tron is over three times as successful as those four decks, combined.

In 9 events, Flicker Tron won three (and was in line for a fourth according to anecdotes, if not for clock issues). Flicker Tron has 23 Top 8s (nearly a third of all the Top 8 slots) and the next best decks (Dimir Faeries, Boros Bully, Boros Monarch) have 6 each. Add in Stompy (5 Top 8s) and those four decks have as many Top 8s as Flicker Tron in the same 9 week span.

Clearly something needs to be done. If Pauper was Standard, action would be a foregone conclusion. Last week I gave my suggestions for changes:

  • Ban Tron: At this point there is no reason these cards should continue to be legal as they’ve proven time and time again to be too good. Go ahead an unban Expedition Map while you’re at it.
  • Ban Monarch: A Monarch is a cool mechanic but in reality a free card every turn is too good in a two player format.
  • Ban Burning-Tree Emissary: If you remove late game incentives, you have to also remove draws that overrun control decks with ease and removing BTE takes some pressure off slower decks.
  • Ban Ephemerate: Ephemerate is basically the Monarch when paired with Mnemonic Wall or Archaeomancer except it’s also a tutor; removing Monarch but leaving this engine will create the same problems.

I do want to take a moment to discuss why I think adding more powerful card via downshifts is a bad idea. Over the past year we have seen what happens when you add more and more powerful cards to a format that is already unbalanced. Standard has been, for lack of a better term, a turbo-charged go-kart on a salt flat. Things are out of control and that has coincided with a conscious effort to raise the power level across the board. Doing this in Pauper is not likely to boost fringe archetypes but rather provide the best decks more tools since they are already set up to adopt new cards. You would have to pump prime Pauper with an entire small set of new options to better balance the scales.

I understand the desire to play with powerful cards and do cool things, but at some point something will need to be done to level the Pauper playing field. The card pool is growing and if the powers that be are not more aggressive with their use of the ban hammer, the format could very easily collapse under its own weight before much longer.

Checking in on Pauper

Alternative Title: Alex Prepares for Hate Mail

I didn’t write a weekend check in for this week. I wanted to, I even completed the spreadsheet entry for the Challenges that took place on October 3 and October 4. But I didn’t feel like writing a summary, mostly because I have been playing a lot of Pauper. And to be honest: I’m not enjoying it a ton right now.

Zendikar Rising season through 7 events; only decks with a Top 8 finish featured

The incentives in Pauper are out of whack and right now the majority of games come down to a slog of card economy. The power of Monarch and Tron mean that prolonging the game and simply exhausting your opponent’s resources (and potentially their will to play). The other option is to be as aggressive as possible and try to end the game in the first five turns. There is a scrum in the middle, but those skirmishes tend to take place between decks that are trying to fight for long game advantages. None of this is new and Pauper has been trending this way since the release of Modern Masters 2017. (Note: I originally got the release wrong, these cards came in 2017, not 2015)

Modern Masters 2017 saw a number of key additions to Pauper. It gave the format Augur of Bolas, Burning-Tree Emissary, and Dinrova Horror. It’s release also coincided with the addition of Palace Sentinels and Thorn of the Black Rose to the Magic Online pool of available cards. You will be hard pressed to find a Pauper regular who can point to a more impactful release than that one. Shortly after the set hit, Stompy rose to prominence on the back of Burning-Tree Emissary turns only to be unseated by Boros Monarch leveraging free cards and Prismatic Strands. Not too long after, Dinrova Horror endgame Tron decks came into being. Along the way a bevy of blue cards got banned (Cloud of Faeries, Daze, Gitaxian Probe, Gush, and Mystic Sanctuary). These bans were needed to keep blue in check (and blue is doing just fine), but now Pauper is locked in a battle between an early knock out and a 12-round slog.

The incentives in Pauper are broken. The addition of Burning-Tree Emissary to the format made one-for-one removal a risky proposition. Your Lightning Bolt is very good at handling one threat but doesn’t do nearly as well when it trades with half of your opponent’s second turn. Stompy was dominant early in the Modern Masters 2017 on the back of incredibly strong BTE turns. That is until Boros players figured out how Palace Sentinels worked with Prismatic Strands. Now midrange decks had a way to stay alive when faced with pressure while also drawing into more removal. It is a lot easier to clear a board when you’re drawing two cards a turn.

This was a major inflection point. As running answers became less important and more decks were relying on damage prevention effects (and as these effects became better) it became easier to survive until simply drew enough answers or ended the game. (Note: the next section is edited to update for the correct timeline of events)Pulse of Murasa came in 2016 and made pushed for a major shift in Tron decks.. Until that point, Tron decks were largely focused on resolving large threats early and ending the game with Rolling Thunder or Ulamog’s Crusher. In order to survive, the deck ran Expedition Map, Chromatic Star, and Chromatic Sphere in concert with Fangren Marauder. Pulse of Murasa gave Tron a way to buyback dead Mulldrifters while also bolstering a life total. Mnemonic Wall getting back Pulse was backbreaking and bought tons of time. These Tron decks eventually gave way to builds that added Ghostly Flicker and the modern Flicker Tron decks were born. They only got better with the addition of Ephemerate and basically, every set since.

Pauper games currently trend in one of two directions: you’re dead before you can do anything or games drag on for several turns and the individual who drew more cards wins. While there are fun and interesting moments in these games, the games themselves (at least to me and surprisingly, several other regular players) are not fun. I suppose it’s a testament to how much we all love the format that we all continue to play it despite things being kinda meh.

If I had to look at a root cause, it would have to be things that are too good on rate. Current card design (January 2019-September 2020) seems to be pushing how much a single card can be worth. We are seeing this in other formats but the philosophy has trickled down to Pauper. Burning-Tree Emissary is “free”; Monarch provides free cards; Tron makes mana trivial. I am not sure the best way to make Pauper more enjoyable for more people, but here is where I would start:

  • Ban Tron: At this point there is no reason these cards should continue to be legal as they’ve proven time and time again to be too good. Go ahead an unban Expedition Map while you’re at it.
  • Ban Monarch: A Monarch is a cool mechanic but in reality a free card every turn is too good in a two player format.
  • Ban Burning-Tree Emissary: If you remove late game incentives, you have to also remove draws that overrun control decks with ease and removing BTE takes some pressure off slower decks.
  • Ban Ephemerate: Ephemerate is basically the Monarch when paired with Mnemonic Wall or Archaeomancer except it’s also a tutor; removing Monarch but leaving this engine will create the same problems.

These are drastic steps and will cause a massive change in the format. More than that, these will render several cards unplayable and for players who play tabletop, that is a real cost. That being said I think these changes can open up Pauper. I do not think these change the incentives but rather unlock additional things to play towards.

I don’t think unbanning cards (aside from Expedition Map) is the way to go. Adding powerful options back to the format don’t open up new pillars but rather rebuild old ones. The changes proposed above are just one set of options and I’d like to hear what other regulars have to say.

September 26-27 Pauper Weekend in Review

It feels weird to write about Magic today without talking about the Elemental in the room but I’m going to give it a shot. This past weekend there were two more Pauper Challenges (no PTQs this time) and, well, not a lot has changed. Zendikar Rising has yet to make a massive impact, instead offering only a boost to existing strategies. Instead, the status quo largely remains.

A six round tournament on Saturday saw Flicker Tron come out on top. Dimir Faeries was tied with Tron for the most popular deck in the Top 32 but ended up with more Win+ points – Tron had one player with a Win+ of -1 thanks to a 2-4 finish in the Top 32.

Sunday’s seven round Challenge had five players finish with a 3-4 record, which knocks Dimir Faeries down a peg. Even with these results we are getting a fairly clear view of the metgame. And, well, it looks familiar.

We are five events into this season and Flicker Tron has 27.5% of all Top 8s (or a clean 30% if you want to include Skyfisher Tron). The next two best decks (measured by Top 8 appearances) are Boros Bully and Dimir Faeries with 4 a piece. Simply put, Flicker Tron is a lap or two ahead of the field.

What is most alarming, this early in the season, is how much better Tron is in the Winner’s metagame than every other archetype. When taking the weighted volume of its Win+ score, Tron has 22% of wins over X-3 as opposed to only about 15% of total Winner’s volume. The delta of 7% is nearly five times greater than the next best delta (1.46%, Bogles). Now this is early in the season but it should give the format something to watch. Maybe this is just an early spike, fueled by a larger than normal number of negative finishes.

One can only hope.

The bigger thing to take away from this weekend is the rise of Boros Bully. While never actually dead, the deck has taken a backseat as of late to its more midrange cousin. Perhaps the ability to go wide and get around Dimir Faeries largely point removal has proven to be a turning point, giving Battle Screech a chance to shine once again.

Next week, I would be sure to come with extra copies of Suffocating Fumes and Shrivel at the ready, not to mention a way to take out a Lumithread Field.

But that’s just me.

September 19-20 Weekend in Review…Again

So yesterday when I released my breakdown of last weekend, I missed an event. I had completely forgotten there was a Pauper PTQ on Magic Online and as such I did not factor the results into my spreadsheet. Well, we’re going to remedy that today. To refresh our collective memory, let’s look at the results of just the two Challenges.

There really wasn’t much of a surprise with any of this. Rather, the decks that did well last season were well represented and – shock of shocks – Dimir Faeries and Flicker Tron were the best decks in the Challenges. But what happens when you add the PTQ into the mix?

Not much? Even thought Jeskai Affinity won, the rest of the metagame looked remarkably similar to the one from the Challenges. How does this affect my assessment from yesterday about what decks to expect?

Surprise, it doesn’t. If anything I would anticipate a rise in Izzet Faeries since it is solid against Dimir, but other than that I don’t expect a massive metagame shift.

September 19-20 Pauper Weekend in Review

Zendikar Rising is here and thus a new season of data tracking can begin. The latest set has some powerful options and three different cards (Cleansing Wildfire, Spare Supplies, Tuktuk Rubblefort) have already found their way into Top 8 lists. I do not expect these to be the last cards from Zendikar Rising to have an impact in Pauper.

All that being said, none of these new cards are format warping. Rather they present useful tools and solid upgrades for existing lists and archetypes. The end result is that the metagame should look largely the same as it did going into this season. In fact, let’s compare this past weekend’s results to my most recent Power Rankings. The data below pulls from the September 19 and September 20 Pauper Challenges.

I’m going to ignore Flicker Tron because, come on, that’s a gimme. It was the best deck before the latest set and that isn’t likely to change any time soon. If there is an opening it is that many pilots are switching away from Stonehorn Dignitary and instead leaning on Moment’s Peace as an answer to creatures turning sideways. This could create an opening for Flaring Pain or decks that can turbo out an Ulamog’s Crusher.

Number two on my list was Boros Monarch and, well, the deck did fairly well. Two Top 8s in 6 appearances is on pace with last season (although let’s not infer too much, given the small sample size and all). Dimir Faeries won a Challenge and was the second most popular archetype. The archetype is continuing its climb (and be on thelook out for an introduction to the deck from yours truly) proving again the combination of Ninja of the Deep Hours and Spellstutter Sprite is really good.

Next up on my Power Rankings: Stompy. Two Top 8s might look good but the Win+ of 2 looks positively abysmal. Part of this is due to the fact that these small challenges had several Stompy pilots finish in the Top 32 with a 2-4 record. If we remove them from the equation, the deck has a Win+ of 6 in 8 appearances. That represents a bit of resurgence for the Green Machine, one I would expect to continue as the rest of the metagame continues to evolve.

The last deck in my Top 5 was Izzet Faeries, which was the fifth most popular deck this past weekend (with a Top 8 to boot). So while my rankings were perfect, they were in the ball park.

And being in the ballpark is sometimes good enough. Without comprehensive metagame data it is a struggle to get a complete view of the metagame. However seeing what consistently rises to the top can help inform deckbuilding choices moving forward. So here’s how I see things moving into next week:

  • Be prepared for Flicker Tron but don’t expect the Rhino to show up game one.
  • Dimir Faeries struggles against two-for-one removal. Firebolt is great but don’t overlook Strangling Soot.
  • Cleansing Wildfire is probably at its best against Boros, so run enough basic lands to function.
  • Have a plan for Affinity – between the traditional and the Jeskai variant, the archetype put up 3 Top 8s in 4 Top 32 finishes.

Breaking Down the Break Downs

Hello again everyone. I’m back after a week to recuperate and reflect. Seeing as my Double Masters Power Rankings will be live today on ChannelFireball, I wanted to do something a little different today. I want to talk about the metrics I use to examine Pauper metagame health.

My metagame analysis focuses on the Top 32 decklists from each Challenge. I work from this set for a few reasons. First, it is the only officially published data from Wizards of the Coast for these Challenges. Second, I want to see what consistently rises to the top. While crowdsourced matchup data is useful, I feel that looking at the decks that finish outside the Top 32 does little to inform what wins. Instead, it does a great job of telling me what the best decks are beating…but I can glean that information from the Top 32 results as well.

Does this approach cut me off from seeing part of the metagame? Absolutely! But when I look at Pauper I want to explore what’s doing well and doing so consistently. With that out of the way, let’s look at the headers.

A sample from the Double Masters season

Let’s get the self explanatory columns out of the way. Archetype is just that – the archetype for a specific deck. Sometimes I adjust these midseason but usually between seasons. For example, the Boros Monarch decks that ran a heavier black component (Unearth, Chainer’s Edict) are found under a different header – Mardu Monarch. Moving forward, this is not likely to be the case.

Volume measures the number of times a deck appears in the Top 32, while Top 8s and Wins measure exactly what they describe.

Win+: This metric is used to measure how well a deck does against the field in a given tournament. The metric is set to measure wins against the lowest finishing “positive” record deck (for the purposes of this measure, a .500 record is positive). In a 6 round event, a 3-3 record nets 0 points, a 4-2 nets 1, and so on to 6-0. In a 7 round event, 4-3 is the baseline (0). Win+ has proven to be a relatively accurate measure in the gross sense with decks that accumulate more over the course of a season being the decks that are seen as “top tier”. But where it really comes in handy is looking at Win+:Vol.

The ratio of Win+ score to the number of times a deck appears in the Top 32 is informative. The closer this ratio is to 1, the closer it is to averaging a Top 16 finish. If an archetype consistently is above one, season after season, you can infer the deck is either dominant or has very few entrants in the Top 32, all of which have done well. For example, Flicker Tron’s ratio is 0.92 for Double Masters season. Azorius Familiars has a 1.2 ratio. Yet Flicker Tron was over 10 times as popular as Familiars. Which deck is better? Which would you place higher on your Power Rankings?

Expected Top 8/%: This is one of my more controversial metrics. It takes the ratio and multiplies it by .3125. Why this number? On average, 2.5 decks with a Win+ of 1 will make the Top 8 of a given Pauper Challenge. Multiplying the ratio by this coefficient gives us the number of times we could expect a deck to make Top 8. This is measured against Real Top 8/% to determine if a deck is over or under performing in terms of Top 8 appearances (Delta %, Delta Top 8). What do these numbers tell us? They help to correct for when decks fall prey to variance. Sometimes a deck is quote unquote good and fails to make Top 8 in a given season. That doesn’t mean the deck is bad but maybe just fell on the wrong side of the coin for a given stretch. Over a long enough stretch, however, it helps to indicate trends in relative strength.

Let’s use Izzet Faeries as an example. In the post-ban Core 2021 season, the archetype performed 1.13 Top 8s above expectation. That number was nearly quartered in Ikoria season to 0.31 Top 8s above expectation (18.75% above to 0.63% above). Isolated, this could just be a bad run. Taken in context of Double Masters season (1.42% below expectations, 0.31 Top 8s below) let’s us know that something else is going on and warrants further exploration.

Volume % is also self explanatory, telling us how much space an archetype takes up in the metagame. Weighted Volume looks at the space occupied by that archetype’s Win+ score. The Delta (Volume) looks at the discrepancy between how popular a deck is and how well it performs. A positive delta indicates a deck is outperforming expectations, negative the converse. Let’s take Stompy for example. It was the second most popular archetype during Double Masters with 44 appearances – 11.46% of all Top 32 decks. It took down 9.39% of the total Win+ for the season (-2.07%). Again, as alone datum it means nothing. Looking at Ikoria, it had a positive skew of 0.13%. Is this enough to tell us anything? Not yet, but if this skid continues with Zendikar Rising then we can start to draw conclusions.

This is how I examine the Pauper winner’s metagame. It is far from comprehensive but it does provide a look at the relative strength of the top decks. It also is pretty good at spotting problematic decks, say ones that take up nearly a third of all available Top 8 slots.

If you like this sort of analysis, please consider signing up for my Patreon. If you have suggestions on ways to make my data more complete (using the officially published data), please let me know; I’m always looking for more ways to share the information that is out there

Center Stage: Cleansing Wildfire

Before I go any further I want to give you a heads up: here there be spoilers for Zendikar Rising. If you don’t want to learn any cards in the set ahead of time, just click out of this page and you’ll be none the wiser.

Is the coast clear?

Good.

It’s not a secret that Tron is a borderline oppressive force in Pauper. The abundance of mana provided by the trio gives Tron decks the ability to do more things in a given turn cycle. Given the relatively flat power level of Pauper, this allows Tron decks to pull ahead to a nigh insurmountable lead in the game.

One thing that always comes up in discussions about Tron is the concept of land destruction. Despite Pauper having access to some very power land destruction options, the strategy fails against Tron. This is due to a few elements.

  1. Tron does not need the Tron to operate early, which is when land destruction is at its best.
  2. Tron can protect lands with Ghostly Flicker or Pulse of Murasa, or render land destruction moot with Crop Rotation.
  3. Taking a turn off of pressuring Tron to attack their mana is not a winning trade off.

I want to talk about this last point a little more. Land destruction and mana denial has worked as a strategy when you can attack a deck’s resources and life total concurrently. A classic example of this is Red Deck Wins from Onslaught era Extended. Here’s a list from Hall of Famer Zvi:

Jackal Pup and Slith Firewalker could apply pressure like few other cards in that era and following them up with a Stone Rain or Pillage could buy enough time until a Blistering Firecat could deal the final few points. But look at all those lock pieces. Red Deck Wins could use both Wasteland and Rishadan Port to deny the opponent a chance to do, well, anything. Since Red Deck Wins had suck a low curve this was hardly a problem.

Pauper has a ton of good aggressive one and two drops. What it lacks is the supplemental ways to tax resources. This means that in order for land destruction to be viable it cannot be tempo negative.

For the regulars out there: how many times have you played against Black Ponza and not really cared about them blowing up your land since you had a threat?

That is where today’s card comes in: Cleansing Wildfire.

One of the best cards in Pauper is Burning-Tree Emissary and now you can lead Goblin Cohort into Burning-Tree Emissary into this two mana spell. The not-Sinkhole is at its best against bounceland heavy strategies (namely Boros) as it can take away a land drop. But what about Tron – how does it fare there?

Here’s a short answer: I don’t think Tron is going anywhere. I do think Cleansing Wildfire does good work buying red decks another turn. I do not think that this is even the first nail in the deck’s coffin. Why? Because Tron can just adjust its play style and not expose a Tron land until after the ideal Wildfire turn. At that point this just becomes another annoyance rather than a roadblock.

Looking at Lists: Retriever Affinity

So maybe I got this one wrong.

In the month since I wrote that article, Myr Retriever has done little in the way of Pauper results. It isn’t that players haven’t tried to make it work or that the combo is bad. Rather, the format is hostile to a dedicated combo deck that relies on the graveyard. Today’s league results showcased a way to use the downshift in an existing shell.

This is a dedicated comb-Affinity deck. While it is not “all-in” on Fling, it does lean harder on non-combat damage to end the game. That being said, it will see a ton of cards and while it may not have free Retrievers, it has the ability to chip in damage with Orcish Vandal.

The question remains – is this better than traditional Affinity or the Jeskai builds with Of One Mind? I don’t have a clear answer, but I think it might be the best of the bunch right now.

Being realistic, Pauper is currently hostile to attacking. While every week we see a few combat based decks getting a 5-0 the truth of the matter is that between Stonehorn Dignitary, Moment’s Peace, and Prismatic Strands, attacking is for losers. Fling doesn’t fare much better but getting around damage with Disciple of the Vault may do enough chip damage to get the opponent within Vandal or Galvanic Blast range. Retriever Affinity wants to pressure the opponent’s life total in several ways, forcing them to choose how to defend themselves. Being base Izzet gives the deck access to amazing counter play out of the sideboard.

Is Retriever Affinity the next big thing? Probably not, but it’s always cool to see new cards make a splash.