Prior to the pandemic, Pauper was having a bit of a moment. It had a series of large side events at MagicFests and was starting to get more attention in design. The format was poised to break out in a big way in 2020, but the momentum hit the brick wall that is Covid. Pauper in 2020 was largely defined by Tron until Commander Legends hit the scene and released Fall from Favor into the world. The two month reign of terror of the monarch Aura ended in early 2021 and for a moment, the metagame was vibrant. That was until Modern Horizons 2 unleashed a flurry of Squirrels from Chatterstorm. That more or less brings us to today, with a dominant Affinity deck and plenty of other potent strategies vying for a slice of the competitive pie.
So you might be asking: why I would be suggesting now as a time to get into Pauper? There’s something to be said for getting into a format at a time when the metagame is largely stable as it allows players to survey the landscape without the fear of an immediate shift. It’s also because if history is any indication, a ban will be coming early in 2022 which could provide an opportunity for other strategies to emerge and let people flex their deck building muscles. At its best, Pauper can be strategically dense while allowing for a variety of decks to flourish and the format is remarkably close to that state.
Pauper is a competitive format played with only cards printed at common. While there’s a vibrant tabletop scene, currently the majority of games get played on Magic Online. Both Brazil and Italy have robust in-person events with the United States and Japan trailing by a decent clip, but online is where these various scenes intersect. While micro-metagames may shift from store to store, the competitive metagame is largely defined by the Magic Online Challenge scene.
These tournaments take place every weekend and are usually six rounds with a cut to a Top 8. Pauper is a non-rotating format and as such deck’s can stay relevant for quite some time. While the pillars supporting these strategies might shift over the years, the decks built on the foundations can remain remarkably similar.
Affinity is a catch-all pillar for decks that want to leverage the Affinity mechanic and artifact synergies like metalcraft. These decks have existed in Pauper since its inception but thanks to abundant artifact hate, were mostly kept out of the top tier.
The indestructible artifact lands from Modern Horizons 2 changed that as it shored up a key weakness – a vulnerable mana base. Now Affinity is the current best deck, combining cheap threats like Myr Enforcer with card draw in Thoughtcast and Deadly Dispute and a combo kill of Atog and Fling with Disciple of the Vault. The deck runs efficient removal in Galvanic Blast and can access cheap countermagic and disruption.
Because Affinity has multiple angles of attack and a strong support structure, it can be difficult to disrupt. The best card against Affinity currently is Dust to Dust but that comes with a significant cost in deck construction. The other ways to attack Affinity are to either disrupt its combo elements with countermagic or try to gain enough life that the aggression will not matter.
There are other decks that lean on elements of the Affinity shell without pushing entirely in that direction. Several decks use the metalcraft shell of artifact lands and cantrip artifacts – such as Prophetic Prism – to power up Galvanic Blast or Bleak Coven Vampires. These decks tend to fall into a midrange camp and lack the raw power of Affinity while still having some similar vulnerabilities.
Spellstutter Sprite defines blue tempo and control decks in Pauper and has since it was released. The ability to counter opposing spells while adding to your board presence is a huge game in Pauper. These decks also feature Ninja of the Deep Hours as a way to rebuy Sprite, which conveniently has evasion. These decks round out their core with countermagic, card filtering and cheap interaction.
Spellstutter Sprite decks come in two main varieties. The first is a mono-blue take that skews more aggressive and tempo-based. It tends to run Delver of Secrets as a clock and backs up the Spellstutter/Ninja package with cards like Snap and Spire Golem. More recently, these decks have added Mutagenic Growth as a way to increase their clock while also saving creatures from toughness-based removal.
The other version adds a second color – usually red or black – mostly for removal. Lightning Bolt, Skred and Snuff Out are all fantastic ways to keep a board clear. These decks tend to eschew Delver of Secrets and instead trend towards the control end of the spectrum. More often than not these decks employ the monarch mechanic, using the defensive Augur of Bolas and point removal to keep the cards flowing.
These decks are vulnerable to strategies that can put a lot of bodies on the board early. While one-for-one removal can do some work, these decks can struggle against decks that go-wide. They can also falter in the face of decks that can also go in on two-for-ones. A card like Pestilence can disrupt well laid plans by keeping the board clear and preventing the snowball of card advantage.
Now is as good a time as any to discuss the monarch mechanic and the issues it creates in the format. Monarch can be used to both refer to the mechanic from Conspiracy: Take the Crown and various decks built to maximize the monarch mechanic. The decks seek to resolve one of the creatures that make you the monarch and then, quite literally, protect the crown. These decks can either overload on removal or on defensive effects – the signature Boros Monarch interaction was Palace Sentinels and Prismatic Strands – to bury the opponent under card advantage.
In the current metagame dedicated monarch decks have taken a backseat to Spellstutter Sprite decks that also run copies of monarch cards. This allows the Sprite decks to accrue more raw cards and overwhelm their opponents. While dedicated Monarch decks do exist they can struggle to play defense long enough in the face of Affinity and as such have taken a step back.
Boros Bully is an offshoot of the monarch pillar and currently the best execution of the archetype. The deck uses Faithless Looting to filter its draws, often putting Prismatic Strands (or main deck Dust to Dust) into the graveyard for later use. Using Squadron Hawk and Battle Screech, the deck will set up its air force before going for the kill with Rally the Peasants.
Bully can struggle against anything that attacks its smaller creatures. Fiery Cannonade or Suffocating Fumes can go a long way to grounding the birds. It also has to take the first several turns to put 1/1s onto the battlefield meaning that if you can apply enough pressure it can be hard for Bully to turn the team sideways. If at all possible, keep them off of three creatures to prevent Battle Screech from being flashed back.
For several years Tron was the de facto best deck in the format. Instead of being a big-mana deck like Tron in Modern, the deck is more akin to a Mystical Teachings control deck that leans on the ability to generate excess mana with Tron. The deck also makes use of Prophetic Prism and Bonder’s Ornament to filter mana (and draw cards), giving Tron the ability to run the best spells regardless of color. Finally, the deck runs Ephemerate and Ghostly Flicker with Mnemonic Wall to cherry-pick its best spells over and over again. Tron has fallen on some hard times as of late but that has less to do with the deck’s power.
Tron is vulnerable to decks that can get on the board quickly. It tends to set up its mana engine around turn three or four but are largely prone before then. While Moment’s Peace and Weather the Storm can blunt some assaults Tron has to find these pieces first. Now sometimes Tron will have these cards early and the beatdown just will not matter. Today, however, it is just as likely for a deck to have Atog and Fling to go directly at Tron’s life total.
These are the biggest players in Pauper at the moment. While there are other viable decks, the decks listed here are the heavy hitters. For people just getting into Pauper, the pillars listed here represent a good starting point. There are other strategies that can work and they play second fiddle for the time being. Non-Tron decks based around Ephemerate have thrived recently thanks in part to their ability to ramp with the Modern Horizons 2 lands and Cleansing Wildfire and Ethereal Armor decks – both Bogles and Heroic – have carved out a niche. All that being said, if you want to get a start, learn a deck based around one of the pillars to get your bearings.