The introduction of The Brothers’ War closes the book on one of the more lopsided seasons in Pauper’s history. After the early initiative ban, four decks separated themselves from the field. Out of the 43 decks to make a Top 32 over the past two months, 11 had double digit appearances, and of those 11, only four had more than 20 appearances in the Top 32. That might not sound so impressive until you see that the fourth most popular deck had 83 such finishes while the fifth most popular clocked in at 17.
How did this happen? I think there are a few contributing factors. First, the first four weeks of the season – before the ban – were dominated by the initiative. These decks forced the format to be faster than ever and establish a foothold in the game as early as turn one. Just because these decks vanished from the metagame did not mean the advantages of hitting the ground running also vanished. Instead, decks such as Kuldotha Red or Dimir Terror were able to leverage this aspect of their game. While not as utterly dominant in the first turns as the initiative decks, they still apply pressure in the early stages and can leverage that into a meaningful advantage.
But that only explains two of the decks. The others – CawGate and Grixis Affinity – are both rawly powerful strategies. They tend to both play a longer game and have the ability to grind out victories with their overlapping engines. If Dimir Terror and Kuldotha Red try to win before their opponent can establish a foothold, CawGate and Grixis Affinity have no problem dragging out the game with their inevitability.
I think there is one final element at play. Each of these decks uses a different engine to fuel their plan. Until Dominaria United season, multiple decks could run similar cores and experience strong results. For the past eight weeks, these four decks were the best possible expression of their various cores and excelled in challenges in part thanks to this phenomena. I’m not sure if this optimization is a byproduct of the pre-ban fight against initiative, nor if this expression of strategies is here to stay. That being said, let’s get to the meat of the season.
In looking at the Challenges, I use a few different metrics. The first metric I use is called Win+. This measures the Swiss record of all top 32 decks against the field, with the baseline being the break even point (3-3 in a six-round Challenge, 4-3 in a seven-round). Each Swiss win above X-3 gives a deck a Win+ score of 1, so X-2 means 1 point, X-1 is 2, and X-0 is 3. Over the years, this measure has proved useful in helping to understand an archetype’s relative strength in attempting to make the Top 8, while also identifying consistently solid decks. When a deck’s Win+ to Volume ratio approaches 1, it means the strategy is averaging a Top 16 finish; as it trends above 1 so too does a trend towards the Top 8.
The other metric I leaned on this season was derived from Frank Karsten’s work in looking at the recent major tournament metagames. Called K-Wins (original, I know), it takes all wins and subtracts all losses, Top 8 inclusive. Over the course of several events, it helps to provide an impression of what is doing well at the top tier of the metagame. Given the stratification that took place this season, it should come as little shock that the top archetypes ate up nearly 70 percent of all available K-Wins.
Given that, after this process I end up with an actual volume of Top 32 appearances as well as volumetric measures for both percentage of Win+ and K-Wins, I started calculating an adjusted volume. Far from scientific, it takes the three volumes and averages them to give us an idea of a deck’s actual performance given its presence in the Top 32, performance in the Swiss, and overall performance.
With that out of the way, let’s get to the decks.
Folero’s Dimir Terror
Pauper Dimir Terror by Folero
First up is Dimir Terror. This deck burst onto the scene thanks to Tolarian Terror. It takes cheap blue cantrips that fill the graveyard and pairs it with countermagic and black disruption. It ends the game with Terror and Gurmag Angler, occasionally running Augur of Bolas or Thorn of the Black Rose in an effort to improve its card advantage plan. It leans heavily on filling the graveyard with cards like Consider and Thought Scour. Dimir Terror was the least popular of our Top 4 decks with 83 Top 32 appearances going back to September 24. It was fairly evenly split between the two halves, with 45 finishes in the first four weeks and 38 in the back half. However, it appears that the metagame adapted to it more easily in the second four weeks as it had 14 Top 8 finishes in the first segment, followed by seven in the second.
Diving deeper, Dimir Terror took down a total of 14.81 percent of the Win+ volume and 15.92 percent of the K-Win volume. Again, these numbers were two to three percentage points higher in the first four weeks of the season. All told, Dimir Terror ended Dominaria United season with an adjusted volume of 15.18 percent – about 0.38 percent above its actual Top 32 volume.
All told, this means Dimir Terror was a great deck that performed about as well as expected. It drew high praise from players due to its Legacy like game plan but in the end I think it suffered from a relatively low threat count. The deck, while potent, relied heavily on committing its threats early. It traded reliable card advantage for velocity, meaning that if things got into the midgame, it could be outpaced. The deck is well positioned as we move into The Brothers’ War thanks to the addition of Fallaji Archaeologist, a card that has already made inroads in the archetype.
Maher’s Kuldotha Red
Pauper Kuldotha Red by Maher
Next up we have Kuldotha Red. It has been a long time since a red deck was one of the very best in the format but the combination of Experimental Synthesizer and Monastery Swiftspear has done wonders for Mountain mages everywhere. In addition to these powerhouses, the deck also runs the best burn spells like Lightning Bolt and Fireblast, and enough artifacts to support Galvanic Blast. The deck can also go wide with Kuldotha Rebirth, giving it multiple angles of attack. Synthesizer and Ichor Wellspring, as well as Implement of Combustion, means the deck can keep the cards flowing in the mid game. Kuldotha Red had 83 Top 32 appearances in the post-ban season with 24 Top 8s and four wins. The deck really took off in the back half of Dominaria United, with 23 Top 32 finishes and six Top 8s in the first four weeks and a whopping 65 Top 32 finishes and 18 Top 8s in the final four weeks – where it was the most popular archetype in the challenges.
Kuldotha Red was only marginally more popular than Dimir Terror, with 15.71 percent of the Top 32 volume. It outperformed its raw presence in both Win+ (15.97 percent) and K-Win (16.09 percent). Taking this all together, Kuldotha Red was a deck that was not only popular, but performed well in both the Swiss rounds and the Top 8, ending with an adjusted volume of 15.93 percent.
How did a red deck get to this point? Positioning. Not only is Kuldotha Red a fast deck, it is resilient. It can reload its hand with ease and as such does not run out of gas as quickly as some other red decks. This means that traditional life gain countermeasures are not as useful in the matchup. Pauper is somewhat slow to adjust to aggressive strategies, especially when there are other powerful meta decks (which we will get to shortly), meaning that Kuldotha had a lane to victory. Whether this continues remains to be seen as the early returns from The Brothers’ War indicates that red might be on a bit of a decline.
hjc’s Grixis Affinity
Pauper Grixis Affinity by hjc
In the second position, we have Grixis Affinity. This deck was the most “known” coming into this season and its core is largely unchanged. Take the indestructible Bridges and pair them with powerful draw-twos in the form of Thoughtcast and Deadly Dispute. Sprinkle in strong threats in Myr Enforcer and Gurmag Angler, as well as Blood Fountain to get them back, and a mana base that can support Counterspell and Galvanic Blast. Finally, the deck can close out games thanks to Makeshift Munitions. Affinity had 91 top 32 finishes for 16.25 percent of the total, and this was more or less evenly split between the front (49) and back (42) halves of the season.
Affinity was consistent, but more so in the Swiss rounds. It took down 17.36 percent of the Win+ volume but merely 17.24 percent of the K-Win volume. In other words, Affinity had a slightly better time reaching the Top 8 than performing well in it. This is somewhat borne out by the number of finishes, as it has 24 Top 8s but merely three wins. In fact, out of the four best decks, all of them had three wins except Kuldotha Red, which notched four.
Affinity’s adjusted volume was a solid 16.95 percent, 0.7 percent above its actual volume. In other words, the deck performed true to its expectation. The deck remains a powerhouse thanks in part to its hard to disrupt core, but it is not unbeatable. The other major decks in the season had solid game plans against the machine menace and that will remain important as Affinity is not going anywhere anytime soon. The deck has picked up a new tool in Gixian Infiltrator, giving the strategy another threat that synergizes with its various sacrifice engines.
Pauper CawGate by lampalot
This brings us to the best deck of Dominaria United season in CawGate. CawGate is a white-blue midrange control deck that uses Brainstorm and Squadron Hawk to see a ton of cards. It backs this up with a light graveyard engine thanks to The Modern Age binning Prismatic Strands and Deep Analysis. The deck gets the Gate half of its nomenclature from Basilisk Gate, which it pairs with either Squadron Hawk or Guardian of the Guildpact to end the game. With 99 Top 32 finishes and 34 Top 8s, the deck was an absolute monster. CawGate had a stronger back half – perhaps due to its ability to combat Kuldotha Red – taking down 55 of its Top 32 finishes in the final four weeks as well as 22 of its Top 8s, and all three of its wins.
CawGate ended the season with 17.68 percent of the total Top 32 volume but a whopping 21.36 percent of Win+ volume. This number was tempered by a relatively disappointing 19.36% K-Win volume. Roughly this means that CawGate was a fantastic deck for the Swiss rounds but had a harder time once it got to the Top 8. Still, its adjusted volume ended up at 19.45 percent, giving it the largest delta of the Top 4.
CawGate is just a good Magic deck. It has a solid foundation and thanks to its ability to see a ton of cards, it has the opportunity to run high impact options in lower numbers and still reliably see them during a game. The deck is also poised to make use of Fallaji Archaeologist while also adjusting its removal suite to meet the needs of the current metagame. That it has access to white and high ceiling sideboard cards like Dust to Dust and Coalition Honor Guard (to fight the mirror), CawGate looks well positioned in the coming weeks as well.
So that’s a wrap. Dominaria United season was one of the most top heavy in Pauper’s history. That being said these four decks were largely in balance. Moving into The Brothers’ War, I would love to see less concentration at the top and with an influx of new powerful options, that looks like a real possibility.