There has recently been lots of talk about the Pauper format. Originally played mostly on Magic Online, the format that allows players only commons picked up popularity after the people of Twitter, Reddit and other social media asked for more events.
CFB Events received the message and together with ‘’The Professor’’, they announced a Pauper side event at Grand Prix London this last January. 302 players showed up to play that event … Let that sink in.
On my end, I had never played a game of the format until one of my friend challenged me to 5-0 a Pauper Magic Online league. He said, “It's harder than people give it credit for, I’ll give you 10 tries and you won’t succeed.” Well, I bargained for 12 tries and got started.
Choosing a Deck I find myself very often on the MTGGoldfish website whenever I want to scour decklists, but I had never clicked the Pauper tab. Kuldotha Boros? FIVE COLOR TRON!? Inside Out Combo!?
After approximately an hour of studying this new world: I decided that the most played deck, Izzet Delver, was going to be my first weapon.
I would see where this took me, but my agenda was going to be: experiment with the first six leagues and then settle and learn a deck with the last six.
This looked pretty good on paper; it was no surprise to me that Delver of Secrets would be very good in a format where you can play Ponder, Preordain and Brainstorm. Combining that with Lightning Bolt, is this Legacy? Sign me up.
4 Delver of Secrets 4 Faerie Miscreant 4 Spellstutter Sprite 4 Augur of Bolas 4 Ninja of the Deep Hours
4 Skred 4 Ponder 4 Lightning Bolt 2 Gush 3 Brainstorm 3 Counterspell 2 Preordain
I ran into some trouble during my first league … Turns out Evolving Wilds and Ash Barrens are nothing like Scalding Tarn and Volcanic Island, who would’ve thought?! I was seriously disappointed by the manabase here, you lose lots of tempo by not being able to cast Counterspell or Lightning Bolt on curve and by lacking the mana to chain cantrips.
The power level is quite high however and whenever my hand was Snow-Covered Island, Snow-Covered Island, Snow-Covered Mountain and a curve, it felt amazing. Unfortunately that didn't happen often, which made me think Mono Blue Delver might just be a better deck. It was going to be on my list, but first ...
Affinity I’ve played Affinity in every format, why not Pauper. Getting to play artifact lands sounded like I would at least be doing broken things from time to time.
4 Atog 4 Carapace Forger 4 Frogmite 4 Myr Enforcer 2 Gearseeker Serpent
4 Tree of Tales 4 Seat of the Synod 4 Great Furnace 4 Darksteel Citadel
3 Ancient Grudge 2 Relic of Progenitus 1 Natural State 1 Electrostatic Bolt 3 Electrickery 3 Dispel 2 Feed the Clan
Besides the number of Fling and Temur Battle Rage, most lists were very similar to this one. Fling seemed better to me as you can combo with Atog the same turn you play it, without being burdened by the combat step.
My first two matches were lackluster; I kept getting one landers, and unlike in other formats, we don’t have Mox Opal, Memnite or Ornithopter to go with Springleaf Drum. We only have one creature that costs one and it’s Flayer Husk, hardly the same as in Modern.
I quickly learned that the deck does not function with just one land. Eventually I did get to open games with 7 cards in hand, two of which were lands, and at that point we were onto something, but outside of some draws that produced multiple Frogmite and Myr Enforcer on turn 2-3, it still felt underwhelming. This may be bias on my part, owed to the fact that I played Affinity back in Mirrodin Standard and am used to much higher standards of Affinity starts, but I found Atog and Fling to be the only impressive part of the deck. Combining those cards produced the only instances in which I felt that this deck was operating properly (and getting to kill out of nowhere is pretty cool).
I might come back to it, but for now I think I can do better than Affinity.
Burn The burn spells available are not that far off from the Legacy-legal Burn deck, so what could go wrong...
4 Firebrand Archer 4 Thermo-Alchemist
3 Curse of the Pierced Heart 4 Searing Blaze 4 Needle Drop 2 Magma Jet 4 Lightning Bolt 4 Fireblast 4 Rift Bolt 4 Lava Spike 4 Chain Lightning
16 Mountain 3 Forgotten Cave
1 Curse of the Pierced Heart 4 Smash to Smithereens 3 Pyroblast 3 Molten Rain 2 Electrickery 2 Martyr of Ashes
My first impression was that having to play Thermo-Alchemist and Firebrand Archer instead of Goblin Guide and Eidolon of the Great Revels was a huge drawback. Have you ever gotten your Thermo-Alchemist Snapped back to your hand? It doesn't feel good.
I played two leagues with this deck because it looked promising, but in both leagues I faced multiple Mono Blue Delver decks and that matchup felt awful. They have Snap and Vapor Snag for our creatures, and Spellstutter Sprite, Counterspell, Dispel and Hydroblast are all way too good against us.
With these leagues I was starting to gain valuable knowledge on the format; playing decks that are bad against Mono Blue Delver was a losing proposition, as I kept playing against it over and over. I would not be surprised if it was the most played deck in leagues and honestly, I was starting to believe that it was probably the best deck.
Inside Out Combo
This deck choice made very little sense when I was just telling myself Mono Blue Delver is great. I choose it for two reasons; one of the most successful pauper players on Magic Online 5-0’d a league with it, and there was a chance most of his success was with that deck. Further, the friend who challenged me into this Pauper adventure said he thought Izzet Blitz (Kiln Fiend and company) was the best deck. The two decks are very similar, so I figured I’d try both, beginning with the Inside Out list.
4 Tireless Tribe 2 Augur of Bolas
2 Ash Barrens 4 Evolving Wilds 2 Plains10 Island Sideboard:
2 Standard Bearer 3 Gut Shot 4 Hydroblast 2 Journey to Nowhere 1 Dispel 2 Apostle's Blessing 1 Echoing Truth
You’re going to hear me say this often, so imagine my Quebecois accent on this next part… “You can’t beat Spellstutter Sprite, no, literally you can’t, you have to Gut Shot and hope they don’t have a Faerie Miscreant in play.”
The deck felt powerful, but as predicted, Mono Blue Delver was likely one of the worst matchups, so I couldn't imagine going all the way with it.
I built the following list from picking my friend’s thoughts on the deck. It’s fairly straightforward, with some of the numbers looking unusual when compared to other formats but actually being appropriate for Pauper. Brainstorm, for example - it rarely should be a 4-of in Pauper because most decks lack sufficient shuffle effects. Lightning Bolt is unnecessary in this deck, Daze is worth it as a lucky copy (that'll also throw off the opponent when it comes up) and Dispel is better than the 4th Apostle’s Blessing.
4 Delver of Secrets 4 Kiln Fiend 4 Nivix Cyclops
3 Evolving Wilds 2 Swiftwater Cliffs 8 Island 5 Mountain
1 Temur Battle Rage 2 Stormbound Geist 2 Electrickery 3 Pyroblast 3 Hydroblast 2 Flaring Pain 1 Dispel 1 Deep Analysis
Without spoiling my top 2, I’m going to say I believe this is the 3rd best deck in Pauper. It was quite good at punishing clunky draws and furthermore was quite consistent. It still has the Evolving Wilds and tap land issues, but it isn't as dramatic as with other decks because playing a one drop is not as important here.
Still, after two leagues, to the surprise of no one I felt unfavored against Mono Blue Delver, so it was time to join in.
Mono Blue Delver
Journal entry for March 9th, 2018. Insectile Aberrations have taken over the planet.
I’m finally picking up the devil on my 8th attempt. At this point I’m just hoping I can learn the deck as well as possible and hopefully go undefeated in a league.
4 Delver of Secrets 4 Faerie Miscreant 4 Spellstutter Sprite 4 Ninja of the Deep Hours 2 Spire Golem
2 Dispel 2 Gut Shot 4 Hydroblast 2 Stormbound Geist 3 Annul 2 Piracy Charm
All the lists I found were quite similar, I preferred Spire Golem over Augur of Bolas and I decided to include some Gut Shots in the main as a way to fight the mirror.
First set of matches … I’m 3-0 and I lose to Mono Black. I had never faced that deck before, but they had Cuombajj Witches on the play for two games and that was it. The card is definitely beatable with the help of Snap, Vapor Snag or any Counterspell, but unanswered it wrecks our deck. Still feeling confident, I enter the 9th league, 2nd with the deck. I’m up against Kuldotha Boros, or whatever it should be called by now - it actually doesn’t play Kuldotha Rebirth currently, so I like to call it Red/White Value.
I haven't mentioned it so far, but I actually faced it a few times, particularly with Izzet Delver. On paper I thought I would have been a favorite in the matchup because they are somewhat clunky and Delver decks usually punish that. The tempo loss that Evolving Wild and Ash Barrens put me through was partly why I was losing to this Red/White deck, so when I picked up Mono Blue, I thought the consistency would solve the issue.
As it turns out - nope! They have 8 one mana removal spells and a bunch of flyers. It was exceptionally hard to put them in a corner and get ahead in any game. I did end up winning my first match against them, but I didn't feel like my opponent played properly nor that they drew how they should.
Second match, same deck. I get destroyed. They were on the play and it just felt unwinnable from there.
You already know what happens next.
I’m thinking that this might not have as many good matchups as Mono Blue Delver does all around, but if it beats Delver and I'm going to continue to play against two of them per league, I’d rather be on the proven winner's side.
4 Glint Hawk 4 Thraben Inspector 4 Kor Skyfisher 2 Seeker of the Way 2 Palace Sentinels
3 Ancient Den 3 Great Furnace 2 Radiant Fountain 2 Secluded Steppe 3 Boros Garrison 2 Wind-Scarred Crag 2 Forgotten Cave 3 Mountain 2 Plains
2 Kor Sanctifiers 2 Lone Missionary 4 Pyroblast 2 Relic of Progenitus 1 Cenn's Enlistment 2 Electrickery 2 Standard Bearer
I made the list by looking at a ton of reference lists and using the knowledge that I have on the format so far to address the variations between them. Prismatic Strands is surprisingly in almost all the lists, but I just don’t fully understand why. I had one spot left in the main deck and that’s seriously the only reason it's there; I’m hoping its inclusion helps me figure out why people play the card.
Fast forwarding a little bit, everything goes according to plan, I’m 3-0 with the above list. Then I lose against Elves because I miss clicked with my removal. I literally missed with my intended click: with 30 tokens in play, cards on Magic Online get smaller, and as I attempted to Journey to Nowhere a Timberwatch Elf, well, I hit a Llanowar Elf. A bit frustrating, but I’m feeling great about the deck. The consistency that the artifact lands, lifegain lands, bounce lands and cycling lands add to the deck is awesome.
11th league. This is my second to last chance. I’m 4-0. My friend is sweating. Mirror match.
I take a good 30 seconds to look at my list and try to figure out what's likely to happen when two of these decks collide. I deduce that neither of us can kill each other quickly, so games likely come down to raw card advantage, particularly who draws the most spells. Unfortunately that’s not something I have much control over, though there are a few things I can do, such as killing Thraben Inspector if they play Kor Skyfisher and don’t have a Prophetic Prism or Alchemist’s Vial in play.
Because most people run Prismatic Strands, I had to be careful with my Galvanic Blasts and Lightning Bolts. In the late game I would not play them until the opponent cast their own, then I would respond to theirs, leaving them to decide if they wanted to Prismatic Strands in a spot where their own Lightning Bolt or Galvanic Blast would also get prevented.
My plans worked well; I admittedly drew a little better than my opponent and got the first game. I saw Bojuka Bog in that game, however, and I remembered seeing a list that played a 1-of Bog with Reaping the Graves in the sideboard.
I felt there was no way I could beat that card when all the decks do is kill each other’s Glint Hawks and Kor Skyfishers, so I brought in my Relic of Progenitus to fight it. It worked just as planned, I grinded them out with my 1-of Cenn’s Enlistment and they weren't able to rebuy their flyers.
I had a lot of fun exploring this format, as I generally do with any formats, but starting from scratch was particularly interesting. My top 3 decks are in order: Red/White Value, Mono Blue Delver and Izzet Blitz. For what it's worth I still don’t really understand why Prismatic Strands is in R/W; I understand the applications against Burn, Inside Out combo and Izzet Blitz, but that sounds very narrow to me, and I’d run them in the sideboard only.
I have a slew of big events in other formats coming, so I'll have to hold off on Pauper for a bit, but I expect I'll find myself joining a match here or there between all of this. Watch out if you find me on another trophy quest