Mapping the Pauper Metagame

Today’s article is going to be both fun and informative because I’m going to show you how to map the metagame of your favorite format. Since Pauper is the format I enjoy playing the most, I’ll be mapping the Pauper metagame as an example, but you could go through the same process for any format to gain a better understanding of how various popular deck archetypes within will tend to match up (favorably or unfavorably) against one another. 

If you’re a Pauper fan, I think the graphic I’ve created will be a quick way to sort of conceptualize what the format looks like in the abstract to reference how popular decks tend to square off against one another. 

The first thing that I’d like to stress about “favorable” or “unfavorable” matchups is that they don’t equate directly to wins and losses. We’re not playing Rock-Paper-Scissors – we’re playing Magic! There are a ton of factors that ultimately decide matches: matchups, cards drawn, lines of play taken and even specific card choices and how they can impact tactics. 

The key here is that certain types of strategies tend to be inherently favorable against other types of strategies.  By grouping decks that are strategically similar, we can begin to get a precursory understanding of how they are likely to stack up against the rest of the field.



Header - The Pauper Meta Map

Here’s the map of Pauper that I drew up. Take a glimpse and I’ll explain how it works: 



The “pointing arrows” indicate which strategies tend to be favored against other groupings of decks.

The primary way that I grouped the strategies are based upon super-archetype and also sub-archetype, as they fall along a spectrum that measures a deck’s emphasis on “racing” against “attrition.” 


Header - The Spectrum


Burn falls on the far left side of the spectrum because it’s all about racing and putting an opponent’s life total to zero as quickly as possible. Tron, on the other hand, falls on the far right because it wins via running an opponent’s strategy completely out of viable options, aka attrition, and coming over the top with power. Midrange decks, like Boros, tend to fall somewhere in between (hence the name midrange) and incorporate elements of racing and attrition to be utilized differently in different matchups. 


Header - The Superarchetypes


Combo and Aggro

Lava Spike (Timeshifted)Llanowar ElvesAtogAxebane Guardian

In Pauper, combo and aggro decks tend to occupy a similar space in the metagame. They emphasize on racing to kill an opponent with pressure rather than winning via attrition and running an opponent out of cards. 

In fact, there’s a ton of overlap between these two superarchetypes. For instance, Burn tends to be thought of as an aggro deck, but in Pauper, it tends to function more like a redundant, damage-based combo deck. The hope is to simply kill an opponent with direct damage as quickly as possible and hoping an opponent can’t interact with repeated Lava Spikes to the dome. 

Aggro decks, such as Affinity, Elves and Hexproof also have “combo” kills built right into their strategy. I’ve delineated these archetypes as “synergy aggro” because they have a two-tiered beatdown/combo pillar of attack that’s run through creatures. The key difference between the “combo” and “synergy aggro” decks tends to be that synergy aggro runs it’s offense through creatures that can apply pressure, but also fosters a combo sequence (Fling Atog in Affinity is a great example of an aggro deck with a built in “win the game” combo). 

The greater the emphasis on “racing,” the better the aggro or combo deck will tend to fare against the “big mana” attrition decks. The more the aggro or combo decks gravitate toward the middle of the spectrum (and the more time they give big mana decks to hit critical mass), the more equity they tend to give up in the match up. 

The opposite tends to be true with regard to how aggro and combo match up against midrange decks (blue and not blue). The midrange decks use lots of cheap interaction with the intent of matching up favorably against cheap creatures (which make up the largest pillar of the metagame). Thus, they’re able to transition into an attrition role more easily against strategies that can’t come over the top of their defenses. 

The combo/aggro pillar of the Pauper metagame is always a balance between being fast enough to pressure big mana effectively, but not so “all-in” as to be easily subdued by midrange decks like Boros, Mono-Black, and/or blue Counterspell decks. 

One of the deciding factors that tends to inform how combo decks will match up against a deck in a given match up pertains to how removal interacts with creatures. Most of the combo decks run through creature synergies such as Fling Atog, Elf Synergy, Aura Hexproof, Goblin Combo, Walls Combo and Cycling Combo. 

Different interaction and removal matters relatively more or less depending upon how the combo functions. Can you break up the combo with a Lightning Bolt? Do you need an Edict? Do you need a Counterspell or Relic of Progenitus? Basically, how likely is an opponent to have a card that can break up a combo (or how fragile is the combo) plays a huge role in determining advantage as well as wins and losses. 

Aggressive decks (primarily aggro) tend to be the default most popular choices in the metagame and so positioning your aggressive deck relative to the field is important. Also, understanding how your aggressive deck stacks up against other decks and what’s important from one match up to another is key. 


Midrange Decks (Blue and Non-Blue)

CounterspellGoblin Wizardry

There are a ton of midrange options in Pauper. These are decks that can apply pressure with damage (racing) but also have the option to leverage attrition (running an opponent out of threats) as well. 

I see midrange in Pauper as falling into two distinct camps: blue and Non-blue. 

The blue decks have access to counterspells, which gives them a distinct advantage when playing against decks with “combo kills.” Counterspell provides the option to say “no” to a game winning sequence from an opponent. 

The non-blue decks tend to pack more threats and removal in place of counterspells. They’re better equipped to race in certain scenarios and have a tendency to line up better against specific types of synergy aggro.

The non-blue midrange decks also tend to have a much more difficult time against big mana decks since they lack counterspells and will often be forced into racing situations (since attrition will not be an option). With that said, non-blue midrange also tends to match up better against the synergy aggro decks like Hexproof, Affinity and Elves because those decks have stronger and more focused removal and a higher threat density. 

I left the head-to-head between midrange decks blank because it ultimately boils down to how individual decks are built, which cards are used and who hedges and in which way. Non-blue tends to be favored against counterspells, but counterspell decks can certainly be tuned to match up favorably against non-blue midrange. The UR Goblin Wizardry deck I designed and wrote about a few months ago is a great example of a blue midrange deck that flips the script on other midrange decks. 


Big Mana (Control)

Ghostly FlickerBoarding PartyMystical TeachingsStonehorn Dignitary (Timeshifted)

Both of the premier “big mana control” strategies in Pauper (Flicker Tron and Cascade) tend to be attrition based. They make a lot of mana, generate card and board advantage and take over the late game by running an opponent out of viable ways to win. 

These decks tend to be good against midrange decks because they simply go bigger and play more powerful threats. Since midrange decks dedicate a large chunk of their deck to interacting with aggressive creatures, this removal tends to line up poorly against the attrition-based cards played by big mana. In the same vein, the threats that midrange decks play also tend to line up poorly against Big Mana Control’s larger and more robust threats. 

The best way to defeat big mana decks is to put them down before they reach critical mass to deploy their endgame. Therefore, fast, focused lines of attack tend to be advantaged. Flicker Tron tends to throw a monkey wrench into conventional ways of thinking about the Rock-Paper-Scissors hierarchy of racing, midrange and attrition because it can “shut off” lots of aggressive decks with a Stonehorn Dignitary soft lock to remove combat as a viable damage dealing option for beatdown decks. It also has access to tutors (Mystical Teachings) and high impact silver bullets such as Weather the Storm against focused racing decks like Burn. 

Tron also benefits from mulliganing well and having very smooth and consistent lines of play. It has a lower “fail rate” than most other archetypes in terms of having viable draws. So, with that said, because Tron does these micro things well and has the ability to flip the script in matchups that would tend to be unfavorable, I tend to see the archetype as the de facto “best deck” in Pauper. It’s also quite good against the other “big mana” deck, Cascade. 

The big mana decks all fuel their endgame with ramp in one way or another, and so attacking their mana with land destruction tends to be one way for any deck forced to race (most decks) to generate tempo to push damage across. For instance, I play four Stone Rain in my UR Goblin Wizardry sideboard as a way to pressure the mana of these big mana attrition decks early and often. 


Deviations to the Norm


The coolest thing about Magic is that while understanding how the basic archetypes tend to line up against one another, there’s a lot of play in the middle that determines wins and losses. It’s not as simple as one deck beats another – it’s more like archetypes tend to be favored or unfavored in the abstract. 

In reality, it boils down to specifics! The plays, the lines, deck construction and sideboard plans. 

Once you understand how the basic map tends to inform basic matchups, it’s a lot to start tinkering with card choices and sideboard plans to try and flip bad matchups into neutral or positive ones. 

For instance, I tend to find that my blue midrange decks are quite bad against big mana decks before sideboarding, but I’m able to shift the emphasis of what my deck does post-sideboard by adding more permission and land destruction to line up much more favorably. Am I favored to win the match? No, probably not – but, it’s very close and I give myself opportunities to win matches by making these hedges. 


Header - Making Your Own Format Map

My map reflects how I tend to group the decks in Pauper and how I tend to see the types of decks matching up against one another in the abstract to indicate favorable or unfavorable matchups. 

The key is establishing along a spectrum which decks emphasize racing as opposed to attrition, and grouping similar decks together. Different formats have different configurations of decks based on the available card pool to build from. 

Formats tend to work in Rock-Paper-Scissors alignment. The defining features tend to be “what are the best racing decks?” (typically decks that beat attrition decks) and “which attrition decks beat the midrange decks?” (typically big mana or control). 

Once you’re able to plot out some of the key players in the format, it’s pretty easy to start filling in the rest of the blanks and placing strategies near similar decks on a spectrum of archetypes. 

I also think it’s a lot easier to conceptualize what a format looks like by making a map such as the one I made for Pauper. It’s a great way to understand how the various decks are likely to match up against one another as well as a great tool for thinking about how and where to use hedge cards in the main deck or sideboard. 

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