It all started with Modern Horizons 2. The printing of Chatterstorm, Galvanic Relay, and the Indestructible Bridges ushered in a foundational shift to Pauper’s underlying structure. Prior to the 2021 release, it could be said that Pauper was a control format. It was not that aggressive strategies would falter out of the gate, but rather that the composition of the card pool pushed towards decks that could turn the corner in the midgame and slam the door late. The cards mentioned above flipped the script and pushed Pauper towards a more assertive metagame.
It was a shock to the system, but the overarching shift was masked by Storm combo. Storm is traditionally untenable in Pauper due to the lack of cards that can reliably disrupt the strategy. So, focus was drawn to Chatterstorm and, after the advent of the Pauper Format Panel, Galvanic Relay drew the attention.
It was then only a short time later that Pauper had to contend with the Initiative, specifically decks that were striving to resolve cards with the eponymous mechanic as early as turn one. Things were settling – if you can call a metagame with Affinity at the top settled – before Monastery Swiftspear, released during the height of Initiative Summer – assumed its spot near the top of the metagame.
None of this is new information, but today I want to look at it from a different lens. What does it mean to move from a control metagame to an assertive one? What can you do to best prepare for it?
Looking Back At Control
It’s first important to establish what I mean by a control metagame. These are periods in a formats history where inevitability can be seen as a win condition. Threats, regardless of their strength, are outpaced by answers. To have a better understanding of what I mean, let’s look at two of the dominant decks from the first quarter of 2021: Dimir Faeries and Flicker Tron.
Dimir Faeries 2021
Dimir Faeries is built on the back of one of the historically best packages in Pauper – Ninja of the Deep Hours and Spellstutter Sprite. On its own, Sprite is one of the best creatures of all time in the format due to its ability to stop an opposing threat while advancing board position. Ninja of the Deep Hours (and later on Moon-Circuit Hacker) is a font of card flow that just needs to connect once to start generating an advantage.
It just so happens that Spellstutter Sprite flies; chocolate in my peanut butter and so on. What this two card package could do, then, is stop an opposing spell and then start to draw more cards— and looking at the composition of Dimir Faeries those cards tended to be answers. Eventually the game would end through damage, but it traditionally came down to Dimir Faeries just being able to see more cards with the likes of Preordain, Ninja, and Thorn of the Black Rose.
Before Ephemerate, Ghostly Flicker and Mnemonic Wall could be used to repeatedly draw cards with Mulldrifter, remove the combat step with Stonehorn Dignitary, or eventually reduce the opponent to zero permanents with Dinrova Horror.
The mana provided by Tron was the perfect chassis for these engines. Because of this, Tron has been a dominant control strategy in Pauper for years. It could deal with taking its lumps in the early turns thanks to cards like Pulse of Murasa and Weather the Storm buying the time needed in the midgame to set up its different locks.
Despite its lands producing colorless mana, Tron was also able to easily adjust its configuration to incorporate whatever spell it needed thanks to the now banned duo of Prophetic Prism and Bonders’ Ornament, or more recent additions like Energy Refractor.
These decks are not just emblematic of control strategies at the time, but were also format defining. If you were trying to compete in Pauper prior to Modern Horizons 2, you had to have a plan to deal with Spellstutter Sprite. If your entire game plan folded in the face of Sprite then you had to go back to the drawing board.
Success here could be as simple as resolving a Kor Skyfisher to accrue more card flow or going around Spellstutter Sprite with cards like Burning-Tree Emissary into Nest Invader. Similarly if you were trying to assume the beatdown role against Tron you had to have a plan to keep up with their card flow and ability to lock you from meaningful action. Some decks did this by trying to slam the Monarch and ride those cards to victory while others tried to disrupt their mana engine and have a top end full of two-for-ones like Boarding Party. Still the decks of the day survived based upon their ability to contend with these powerful answers.
Fast forward to today. In the past 18 months Pauper has seen the quality of threats pushed through the roof. While Storm and Initiative had to be curtailed. Affinity and Monastery Swiftspear continue to be a significant portion of the metagame. Now there is absolutely space for debating whether or not this is healthy for Pauper – and believe you me this debate is happening in many spaces – but today I’m going to focus on what it means in the metagame. Whereas before it was the answers that defined Pauper, today it is the threats.
Kuldotha Red 2023
Kuldotha Red is one of the more assertive decks in the format. It starts its game plan on turn one and can present unrelenting pressure. Nearly every spell in the deck helps to increase the damage output of Monastery Swiftspear but if that is not enough Kuldotha Red can simply go face with Lightning Bolt and Galvanic Blast.
Unlike previous aggressive strategies which could run out of steam as the game went on, Kuldotha Red can easily reload with Experimental Synthesizer or Reckless Impulse, or filter towards action with the likes of a Blood Token or Implement of Combustion. Kuldotha Red is both fast and resilient, proving that it is a threat that can keep pace with Pauper’s previous control builds.
Grixis Affinity 2023
Affinity is another monster altogether. The machine does not have to be fast but is quite capable of dumping twelve power worth of stats onto the board as early as turn three. More, the current builds of Affinity are built to recur their threats. Blood Fountain makes sure expended copies of Myr Enforcer or Kenku Artificer come back.
Makeshift Munitions turns every piece of material into reach or removal, while Krark-Clan Shaman can keep the ground clear. Affinity does not need to end the game quickly because it can lock down the late game. In this way it is very much a control deck akin to Dimir Faeries.
So how is this assertive? Unlike Dimir Faeries or Flicker Tron, Affinity has a gameplan with fewer weaknesses. Its mana base is not restrictive and it does not have to be reactive since its active gameplan can invalidate other decks trying to assume the beatdown role. The same copies of Young Wolf that may have caused Dimir Faeries some trouble is nothing when facing down Krark-Clan Shaman.
The Right Answers
Before, if one were looking to attack the metagame they had to innovate in going under the control decks. In the current Pauper meta, one path to victory can be found in selecting the proper answers. Let’s look at Kuldotha Red as an example. In the past, red decks could often see their plans thwarted with a few Khans of Tarkir gain lands backed up with a Pulse of Murasa or a well timed copy of Weather the Storm.
This is no longer the case, as Kuldotha Red can often keep its sources of damage around. Instead, decks should be looking not only at persistent methods of life gain like Soul Warden. As this style of red is also focused on combat, figuring out ways to block and absorb damage can go a long way in buying time. Cards like Aven Riftwatcher, Dawnbringer Cleric, or Lone Missionary not only gain life but can also throw their bodies in the way of additional damage. We have already seen decks employing this strategy start to take a hold in the metagame as a way to blunt Kuldotha Red’s assault.
Fighting Kuldotha Red means playing to the board. Banehound may not look like much, but it can add time to the clock. Tendrils of Corruption is too expensive but Moment of Craving could find a home in some builds. Qarsi Sadist is no Dawnbringer Cleric, but it can do the job. Green can try out Essence Warden or Healer of the Glade, or run out Saruli Gatekeepers and back that up with Ephemerate as a way to put the game out of reach.
Affinity presents a different conundrum. Prevailing wisdom is to attack the deck with Dust to Dust, chewing through its lands. As anyone who played against Pauper Tron knows you need an overwhelming amount of land destruction to make a dent.
Rather it makes more sense to attack Affinity where it is weakest – in its threat density. While removal may not be effective in the face of Blood Fountain, graveyard hate is. Removing the opportunity to rebuy threats might not leave you feeling up on cards but not every exchange is guaranteed to be one you want to make.
The removal you do run therefore needs to be effective and flexible as it needs to get things into the yard so they can then be consumed by Relic of Progenitus or Dawnbringer Cleric. The removal has to be flexible in part because Affinity can pivot to a Makeshift Munitions endgame where it can throw lands at your face. Destroy Evil and Debt to the Kami go up in value because they can not only stall Affinity’s advances but they also pick off Munitions.
Flexibility is the name of the game. Hull Breach is a card that has been legal for as long as I have been playing Pauper but has yet to see any serious play that I can recall. Oblivion Ring is a reasonable card if you are not relying on it in isolation thanks to the prevalence of Deadly Dispute. Combatting Affinity is not about constraining their resources, as they are so abundant, but rather about cutting off access to their spouts.
For what feels like years, Pauper was about figuring out the best way to win in the face of dominating control decks. It is safe to say that problem has been solved, but now a new one has emerged. An assertive metagame cannot be attacked the same way but must rather be defended against. Previously the answer to the metagame resided in threats and now, oddly enough, it lives in the potential answers.
2 thoughts on “How to Assert Yourself in Pauper”
Thanks! I’ve always liked reading your thoughts on the format.
And it just so happens that I have a buddy coming over later to play some Pauper and Pauper Commander. 🙂
Amazing article! new to pauper and this really helped me with understanding how to play the format. thanks!