After four cards with initiative were banned from Pauper, three remained. Of those three, only one had seen any appreciable play before its brethren had been removed – Avenging Hunter. This card was deliberately left legal in an effort to provide green midrange strategies a shot in the arm. It didn’t take much time for this card to establish itself as fellow Pauper Format Panel member Alexandre Weber (_against_ on Magic Online) made the finals of the September 24 Challenge with Gruul Ramp.
Pauper Gruul Ramp by _against_
Arbor Elf and Utopia Sprawl have been in the format for years and historically have supported green land destruction decks. Using Arbor Elf to accelerate out cards like Mwonvuli Acid-Moss and Reap and Sow was not uncommon and the decks would often top their curve with Aurochs Herd or Ulamog’s Crusher. Every so often, the strategy would crop up, but was hampered by the restriction on both Arbor Elf and Utopia Sprawl that forced them to target a Forest. The introduction of the snow duals in Kaldheim opened up the possibilities, with cards like Highland Forest serving as a way to reliably access a second color while also providing a ripe target for both of the key cards in this strategy. These lands just so happened to come on the heels of Annoyed Altisaur and Boarding Party entering the format via Commander Legends, which gave ramp decks a much stronger top end threat.
One of the biggest hurdles any Pauper deck needs to overcome to make waves in the format is countermagic. Not only is Counterspell legal, but Spellstutter Sprite reigns supreme in the early and midgame. While Arbor Elf decks can subvert Sprite somewhat, they struggled in the late game where haymaker after haymaker would be met with a counter. Wretched Gryff provided little relief as the card barely mattered. Cascade, however, can get around counterspells by putting a second spell on the stack. These two cascade creatures can hit rather beefy cards, meaning that a blue deck needs two answers – or more – to play defense against these threats.
Historically, these decks have bridged the gap from the early game to their top end threats with mana denial. Thermokarst and Mwonvuli Acid-Moss not only come down as early as turn two, but can set the opponent back quite a bit. While this line of attack is less reliable in a world with indestructible artifact lands, it’s still great against a significant portion of the metagame. That being said, it can often be correct to remove some of these cards in post-board games, which can lead to some awkwardness since they can be such a large portion of the deck.
Since these decks like to get ahead and stay there, initiative is a perfect fit. Avenging Hunter can come down as early as turn three and start applying pressure. The fact that it can spread counters around to an otherwise lowly Arbor Elf or beef up Jewel Thief to a massive 5/5 vigilance trample is a huge get for the deck, giving ramp strategies a real midgame option if it cannot immediately achieve the victory formation.
So what does this deck want to do? As mentioned it wants to get ahead and stay there. It thrives on hands with early acceleration and while a one-mana Aura and Arbor Elf is ideal, it can get by with either one if there are sufficient early plays like Thermokarst, Jewel Thief or Sarulf’s Packmate. The goal of the early turns is to set up your mana with Arbor Elf and the Auras, and potentially Jewel Thief. You should take every opportunity to set your opponent’s back with mana denial. As there are nine of these spells in the deck, they compound rather well and having Thermokarst into Acid-Moss can leave your opponents in terrible shape.
The midgame should come and go quickly and get you right to the late game. But what does this actually look like for Gruul Ramp? The midgame can come as early as turn three and involves resolving Mwonvuli Acid-Moss or Avenging Hunter. The late game can come by turn four if your approach is uncontested and leads with Boarding Party. However, an ideal draw can accelerate you to the endgame on the third turn. Remember, the goal is to get ahead of your opponent and stay there by continuing to apply pressure. Falling behind is quite possible, especially if your opening hand doesn’t pan out, but the cascade creatures can put you right back in the game if variance is on your side.
What about the initiative? This is a perfect get-ahead-stay-ahead mechanic. Unless you’re struggling to maintain parity, you want to take the Forge-Trap! path. This will give you the opportunity to pile on damage and lets you see more cards if the game lasts that long. The Lost Well-Stash path is better if you’re a little behind as it gives you more early card selection in exchange for raw card advantage. Regardless, it’s often correct to play Avenging Hunter if you can retake and defend it after your opponent’s first crack back. The Secret Entrance is not worth all that much in the long run and letting your opponent gain access to that room rarely matters as long as you never pass the emblem back.
Gruul Ramp as it is currently constructed is a high variance deck that takes steps to mitigate the inherent chaos. Land destruction is only so effective, but it gets better the more you pack. In order to make up for this, the deck has to run Annoyed Altisaur and Boarding Party which, in the average case, are fantastic, but have almost as much a chance of flipping over a useless Wild Growth. While the initiative can make up for the lack of raw card draw the deck still has to hit the right sequence of cards early.
The reward, however, is high. Arbor Elf into Utopia Sprawl on turn two, with another Forest ready to go, is a ton of mana. If you’re willing to take the risk of hitting the wrong spell off of Boarding Party for the opportunity to leave your opponent with no way to cast their spells, Gruul Ramp might just be the Pauper deck for you.