Breaking Down the Engines of Pauper

If you take a look at the current state of things in Pauper, it’s hard to ignore the fact that the format is currently dominated by three macro-strategies – Affinity, Boros and Faeries. While there are different variants of these decks, it’s hard to find a set of weekend challenges where one of these decks is not a major player. A lot of this deals with the raw power of the strategies but there is something else going on; something that has been shaking the foundation of Pauper over the past few years and is just not coming to the surface. Where in the past a Pauper deck could compete on the back of raw efficiency or an engine, the current state of things almost necessitates decks run overlapping engines for maximum efficacy. The change has been a long time coming but since it is being observed in the wake of some high power sets, it has created a pervading sense of dissatisfaction. Today I want to look at how Pauper got to this point, what the prevailing engines are and where things might be heading.

But first, what is an engine? In Magic, engine is shorthand for any set of cards that can convert one set of resources into another. For example, Phyrexian Arena is a card accrual engine that can convert one point of life into a fresh card each turn; Grim Lavamancer is a damage engine that can convert expended resources into fresh Shocks; Dragon’s Rage Channeler turns spells into card selection, and so on.

The release of Modern Masters 2017 on Magic Online was one of the major inflection points for Pauper’s development as a format. A lot of the decks that are bound heavily to a nostalgic view of the format come from that era. Stompy is often held up as an archetypical aggressive deck while Mono-Black Control might be the deck responsible for most spoiler scouring in hopes of finding a card or two that brings it back to the top tier. 




Pauper Stompy (2017)


Stompy was a deck based around efficiency. It could present threats that were above rate for their mana cost and back them up with pump spells that were similarly above rate – one mana for four damage out of Groundswell was a fantastic deal. Modern Masters 17 gave the deck Burning-Tree Emissary and Modern Horizons provided Savage Swipe, but the core conceit of the deck remains the same today as it did half a decade ago: present efficient threats, keep them alive, power them up and attack.



Pauper Mono-Black Control (2017)


Mono-Black Control made its name on the back of being a pile of good, if uninspiring, cards. It packed solid removal into a deck with two-for-one creatures and was able to stitch the plan together with Sign in Blood and had haymakers in Gray Merchant of Asphodel and Corrupt. The deck wanted to draw its cards, play them out on curve, answer threats and then end the game. Like Stompy, it has added some powerful tools in the intervening years – Thorn of the Black Rose comes to mind – but not much else has changed. 

Both of these decks operated on very basic engines – Stompy on a damage engine while Mono-Black used a rudimentary card advantage engine that was tied to resolving multiple spells. The reason I see Modern Masters 2017 as an important point in time in the format’s history is that it represents the introduction of the monarch mechanic to Magic Online and sanctioned Pauper. The monarchy provided  the format one its first true persistent card accrual engine that required almost no additional investment. Once the monarch was established, it would simply draw a player additional cards provided you could defend the crown. This precipitated a shift towards midrange decks adopting the single card engine and ushered in a new era.



Pauper Boros Monarch (2017)


The monarch is just that – a single card engine that will allow you to accrue resources provided you could prevent the opponent from mounting an offensive. It took the Mono-Black Control formula up another level as decks no longer had, to borrow a phrase, spend money to make money. Instead, they could just invest and watch their capital gains grow in the form of cheap interaction to protect their investment. From there, it was only a matter of exhausting their adversary’s defenses before coming in for the kill.

There were two other important additions in Modern Masters 2017: Augur of Bolas and Dinrova Horror. Dinrova Horror helped to push Flicker Tron towards being a real metagame force. To that point, Tron had always had a fantastic mana engine but relied on haymaker spells like Ulamog’s Crusher or Rolling Thunder to end the game. Dinrova Horror worked with another Pauper engine – Mnemonic Wall and Ghostly Flicker – to turn that surplus of mana into a way to control the board. Given the perspective of history, Flicker Tron was the first Pauper deck to fully embrace multiple engines, heralding the current era.



Pauper Flicker Tron (2017)


Flicker Tron took the powerful Tron mana engine and layered control elements on top of that structure. The Ghostly Flicker engine has long been a part of the format but to that point, tended to be part of unbound mana combos. The year before Modern Masters 2017 saw a format dominated by Izzet Drake, which used Peregrine Drake and the Flicker engine to generate an arbitrarily large amount of mana which could then be used to cast Rolling Thunder or recur Lightning Bolt enough times to end the game.

After Peregrine Drake was banned, the ability to go big in this way was limited to Tron, which took advantage. Tron was able to use its mana advantage to turn the Flicker engine into a way to draw cards (Mulldrifter, Sea Gate Oracle, Prophetic Prism), rebuy key cards (with two copies of Mnemonic Wall), lock the opponent out of combat (Stonehorn Dignitary) or cast a one-sided Upheaval (Dinrova Horror). 

After the developments of 2017, the intervening years saw other decks adjust their builds to try and keep up with the new normal. While Flicker Tron was the best example of a deck with layered engines, others came into vogue. Faerie decks with Ninja of the Deep Hours adopted Gush en masse once Foil was downshifted in Ultimate Masters until Gush was banned. Modern Horizons saw plenty of midrange and control decks shift to include Arcum’s Astrolabe until it was on the short end of the banhammer. Throne of Eldraine saw blue tempo decks add Deprive and Tragic Lesson to pair with Mystic Sanctuary while the land was legal.

In all these instances, powerful engines were added to decks that already were powered by one. The difference in these cases was that the secondary engine synergized heavily with the primary driver and the other decks in the format lacked the same opportunities. 

The current era of Pauper is one defined by engines that work with one another. The format’s past could not bear the weight of these strategies as, until the printing of Modern Horizons 2, there simply were not enough decks that could run multiple cores effectively. Now it’s common to see decks dipping into several of these packets in order to fuel their strategy. Let’s talk about what these engines are.


Header - Affinity/Metalcraft

Affinity, and to a lesser extent metalcraft, are mana engines. By reaching a certain threshold of artifacts, they can either boost the base effect of a spell (Galvanic Blast) or reduce the cost of key spells (Myr Enforcer, Thoughtcast). Both of these require a heavy density of artifacts to make the engine work and until the advent of the indestructible Bridges, this was a liability.



Pauper Grixis Affinity (2022)


Header - Deadly Dispute/Material

Often found paired with the above engine, this card accrual package is all about converting incidental material generated by more modern designs into fresh cards. Historically, this has been seen in Kor Skyfisher decks rebuying Ichor Wellspring or sacrificing the Wellspring to Kuldotha Rebirth. Deadly Dispute and Experimental Synthesizer sent this engine into overdrive, turning it into one of the driving forces in the metagame. Unlike Affinity it does not ask for many slots and can support a wide array of strategies.


Pauper Goblin Combo (2022)


Header - The Faerie Core

Another card accrual engine, this one pairs cheap blue creatures, headlined by Spellstutter Sprite, with Ninja of the Deep Hours. While it does not require as many slots as Affinity to make work, it does require a far more dedicated deck – you cannot just put these cards into any shell and expect it to work. Instead, you need to support this engine with ways to keep the board clear and let your card advantage to the heavy lifting.



Pauper Dimir Faeries (2022)


Header - The Monarch

Out of all these engines, the monarch requires the fewest dedicated slots. Resolving a card that grants you monarchy is a quick path towards drawing more cards. However in order to keep the crown, you need to keep the board clear – which tends to mean running removal – or prevent yourself from taking damage with cards like Moment’s Peace or Prismatic Strands. While the monarch had been a tentpole mechanic for years, it has lost some luster. Now, it tends to be paired with Faeries as a supplement to the Ninja strategy to keep up card flow as that core already wants to keep the board clear.



Pauper Boros Bully (2022)


Header - Flicker Core

Named after Ghostly Flicker, this engine pairs either the eponymous spell or Ephemerate with Archaeomancer, Mnemonic Wall or more recently Ardent Elementalist. The key parts of this engine take up relatively little space during the deckbuilding portion but bias your deck towards spells. The Flicker Core can be a card advantage engine with Mulldrifter but tends to play out as in the realm of card selection thanks to how cheap it is to cycle through the combo once it is in play.



Pauper Azorius Familiars (2022)


Header - Cleansing Wildfire

At its heart, this is a mana engine using the indestructible Bridges with Cleansing Wildfire to accelerate mana in a card-neutral way. Unlike the other engines listed here, it struggles to stand on its own since it doesn’t really do much. Instead, it provides support for other cores that tend to play for the longer game.



Pauper Jeskai Ephemerate (2022)


There are other engines out there in Pauper, but they have not established themselves to this level. The best of these might just be Faithless Looting, which is coming into its own as a powerhouse. Outside of that, there are damage engines based around Ethereal Armor, card advantage engines using Winding Way and Lead the Stampede and then there’s perennial underdog Tortured Existence.


Header - Wrapping Up

Okay, that’s a lot of words to talk about how decks are built in Pauper, but why does this all matter? There are scarce few cards in Pauper powerful enough to support strategies all on their own, so instead they need to adopt some larger motivating force. Because many of these engines feature overlapping cards, it makes sense for them to be found together to provide not only additional strength, but redundancy.

This has been the trend in Pauper for half a decade – it’s only at this moment that there are multiple decks capable of including more than one of these mechanisms. It matters because it can provide you with a way of identifying exactly what you are up against and what matters; it’s important because it allows deck builders an opportunity to try new strategies supported by these established card packets. 

Pauper is firmly in this new era where decks cannot get by on synergy or curve alone. Rather there needs to be at least one cohesive plan to convert resources. Understanding this as an underlying truth to the format can only serve to help players as they explore Pauper.


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