Congratulations to Max Forlini! Max is the first person ever to qualify for a Mythic Championship by playing Pauper, taking down an MCQ at MagicFest Los Angles.
Finally! Pauper is getting what the late, great Arethra Franklin would define as “a little r-e-s-p-e-c-t” and all I can say about the news is sock it to me. I’m a huge Motown fan. Please forgive me these indulgences… I’m also a Pauper fan and so learning that its role has increased is music to my ears.
Pauper has been consistently at the top of my short list of favorite formats since I started playing it regularly about two years ago. My LGS has cultivated a vibrant scene that culminates in bi-monthly 1K Pauper events that get fantastic turnouts. I’ve been involved with event coverage for these events (which draw 100+ participants) and I’ve made no secret about wanting to help get the word out about a format that features fantastic gameplay, deck building strategy, and a fun-loving crowd of enthusiastic supporters.
Right now, Pauper reminds me of Vintage back in the day. It’s got a great fan base that genuinely loves and embraces the format and gameplay, but has been largely overlooked in terms of formal support over the years. It’s also a format that tends to be misunderstood by players who haven’t indulged yet.
As much as I love to play Vintage and Legacy when I get a chance, it occurs to me that Pauper is the one Eternal format that isn’t doomed from the start by the existence of the reserve list and high cost of entry. It’s the exact opposite—it’s cheaper to play than Standard and never rotates!
While the cost is low compared to other Constructed options, Pauper does share a theme in common with other Eternal formats when it comes to perception. The card pool and gameplay are unique and the way the format is perceived isn’t always accurate. There are two primary stereotypes I’d like to immediately dispel and it’s actually funny because both assumptions are binary.
The first is that the format is a bunch of terrible decks playing weak cards, a.k.a. a nonsense “durdlefest.” Not an unreasonable assumption based on the fact that only commons are allowed. But on average, a Pauper deck is more powerful than a Standard deck.
The second, similar to Vintage, is that the format is too broken. The second assumption has a strong historical basis in truth. In fact, that kept me away from Pauper for many years. I tried the format several years ago and was having a great time playing my Grixis Teachings brew, until I ran up against Storm. It was clear from the first game that Storm was completely busted in half and nothing I could do would ever be better than playing a broken Storm deck. I wasn’t interested in a format where Storm vs. Storm hate was the entire viable metagame and so I stopped playing. Storm has long since been banned, and what remains is a fun and dynamic metagame and play experience.
It’s interesting that people can misjudge the format both ways: The porridge is too hot and too cold. The current Pauper metagame actually reminds me a lot of the type of metagame we saw back when Splinter Twin was legal in Modern.
The point of today’s article is to lay down the baseline of what the format is and how it works, so that if you are interested in learning about or trying out Pauper you’ll have some sense of what you’re jumping into!
What Kind of Decks Can I Play?
Pauper has a large and dynamic metagame and there are many, many options to choose from. But the shape of the metagame has a distinct shape and distribution. There are several known “best decks” that you should know about and plan for going in, because they are strategies you are very likely to face off against.
While the format may have banned away the broken storm combo cards, the blue card filtering is absurdly potent in Pauper. I mean, two of these cards are too busted for Modern, and the other is banned in Legacy and restricted to one copy in Vintage. These are some cards to build around!
The various Gush decks, (mostly aggro control), fill a metagame role that reminds me a lot of Splinter Twin decks in Modern. I use this example because it’s one of the most famous and hotly debated metagames in the history of Magic and it’s a good touchstone.
Obviously, Pauper doesn’t have a two-card “win the game combo” quite like Twin. It’s less about what the deck does and more about how the metagame works. Both decks have fantastic interaction and consistency thanks to blue library manipulation and are effective at closing the door on an opponent once the window of opportunity has been opened.
Pauper has an established and top-heavy metagame. What I mean by that is there are several known “best decks” and those decks make up a large portion of the expected field:
|MTGGOLDFISH META %||MTGTOP8 WINNER’S META %|
This display of information tells a compelling story about the format. Both Delver and Monarch are big chunks of the meta that are extremely effective at transitioning from the overall meta into the winner’s Top 8 meta.
When a deck is 10% of the field and makes up 17% of Top 8s, it’s clear that deck is good. The distribution of the field reminds me of the Splinter Twin meta with two powerful strategies (Twin and Rock/Pod) warping the field. You know going in that these are two decks you’ll absolutely need to have a plan for because they are extremely good and popular with players. It doesn’t mean you can’t do other things, but you can’t be caught without a plan.
Let’s take a look at some of the actual decks and the role they fill.
U/B Delver has quietly been slow-burning a trail into the “best deck” category over the past several months since Foil was reprinted as a common.
It’s clear just by looking at the numbers and posted finishes that Dimir is a top strategy:
Condescended, 1st place at MTGO Pauper Challenge
1 Ash Barrens 2 Evolving Wilds 9 Snow-Covered Island 2 Snow-Covered Swamp 4 Terramorphic Expanse 4 Augur of Bolas 4 Delver of Secrets/Insectile Aberration 4 Gurmag Angler 4 Brainstorm 2 Counterspell 4 Daze 1 Disfigure 3 Echoing Decay 3 Foil 4 Gitaxian Probe 3 Gush 4 Preordain 2 Snuff Out Sideboard 2 Annul 3 Dispel 2 Hydroblast 1 Narcolepsy 1 Nausea 2 Relic of Progenitus 1 Shrivel 3 Stormbound Geist
It’s no secret why this deck is great. High-quality threats, great removal, fantastic card draw and filtering, and counterspells.
Gurmag Angler is difficult to kill in Pauper. While cards like Terminate and Journey to Nowhere answer it, many of the commonly played removal spells like red Bolts and Doom Blade don’t line up well. Also, the deck has bodies in the form of Augur and Delver to insulate the big Fish from Chainer’s Edicts.
Dimir can also counter the few removal spells that trade cleanly once it gets ahead, which is ideal since the Angler closes out games in a few turns.
Tier 1 is Boros and Dimir? Are we playing Pauper or Guilds of Ravnica Draft!?
I’ve already told you how great I think Dimir is, but strictly by the numbers, Boros Metalcraft is the “best deck.” The deck is also sometimes called Boros Monarch because of the Palace Sentinels.
3 Ancient Den 1 Bojuka Bog 4 Boros Garrison 1 Forgotten Cave 3 Great Furnace 2 Radiant Fountain 1 Secluded Steppe 3 Wind-Scarred Crag 1 Mountain 2 Plains 4 Glint Hawk 1 Guardian of the Guildpact 4 Kor Skyfisher 2 Palace Sentinels 4 Thraben Inspector 1 Battle Screech 1 Cenn's Enlistment 1 Electrickery 4 Galvanic Blast 4 Lightning Bolt 3 Prismatic Strands 3 Alchemist's Vial 3 Journey to Nowhere 4 Prophetic Prism Sideboard 1 Circle of Protection: Red 2 Electrickery 2 Gorilla Shaman 1 Kor Sanctifiers 2 Leave No Trace 1 Lone Missionary 3 Pyroblast 1 Relic of Progenitus 2 Standard Bearer
The deck is super grindy. It’s not traditionally what I think about when I imagine “midrange,” but it’s The Rock of the format despite breaking from expectation.
It has lots of great, efficient removal and is extremely effective at grinding down opposing threats. In that sense, it does feel like a Midrange Rock deck. Its threats are not large green monsters that deter attacks by threatening to block. Instead, you’ve got a bunch of flying tokens and gating flyers to generate card advantage.
We are clearly trying to win the game by killing our opponent’s things and making their removal spells ineffective. Essentially, since the deck is able to upgrade its creature suite into cantrips, the opponent’s removal can never trade for more than 1/2 of your cards (either a token or a creature that drew a card). You are essentially forcing people to counter your spells to even trade 1-for-1.
Unlike The Rock in the Twin metagame, Boros Monarch has a favorable matchup against U/B Delver. What a difference a two-card win-the-game combo can have on a matchup. In Modern the whole matchup was about whether or not B/G could stop the combo, but here Boros doesn’t have to protect against anything—it can just tap out and spin its wheels without worrying about losing from out of left field to infinite damage.
[Prophetic Prism] = [Birthing Pod]
Prism is the new Pod.
Even when you play without busted rares, cards still have a way of willing particular roles. Everything scales down. Prism obviously isn’t nearly as busted as Birthing Pod, but the role is similar, in the sense that it creates an engine through which you grind an opponent into submission. It’s a way of gaining traction and repeatedly running an opponent out of resources.
It’s kind of weird to think about decks full of commons filling a metagame role similar to banned combo cards like Pod and Twin, but I do think it’s useful for understanding the distribution of the metagame and why the successful decks perform so well.
The bronze medal goes to UrzaTron. It makes up a slightly smaller portion of the field than Burn, but its transition rate into the winner’s metagame is significantly better.
The archetype is too large and nuanced to do justice in just a blurb, but the basic premise is that once you’ve got Tron, you can find some way to use a ton of mana to win the game. There are versions that can spam Fog locks with Mnemonic Wall + Ghostly Flicker, Ulamog’s Crusher, Rolling Thunder, and Fangren Firstborn + Chromatic baubles. One of the constraints on the format is that there are not a lot of great bombs in the format, since those types of cards are usually reserved for mythic or rare rarity.
All of these powerful things match up well against different types of strategies, which creates a cool customizable element to the archetype. A lot of players who play Tron switch back and forth between options depending on perceptible shifts in the local or larger meta.
ctrlZed, 2nd in a Pauper League
3 Haunted Fengraf 3 Unknown Shores 4 Urza's Mine 4 Urza's Power Plant 4 Urza's Tower 4 Fangren Marauder 4 Mulldrifter 3 Ulamog's Crusher 4 Ancient Stirrings 2 Firebolt 1 Pulse of Murasa 2 Rolling Thunder 4 Chromatic Sphere 4 Chromatic Star 4 Expedition Map 3 Journey to Nowhere 1 Oblivion Ring 4 Prophetic Prism 2 Simic Signet Sideboard 3 Circle of Protection: Green 3 Circle of Protection: Red 3 Electrickery 2 Leave No Trace 2 Relic of Progenitus 2 Standard Bearer
I like this version based around the Marauder. The basic idea is to use the Marauder to gain an excessive amount of life to stay out of reach of aggro decks. The deck can actually win with uber powerful threats like Ulamog’s Crusher or a lethal Rolling Thunder.
There are a lot of things to do with a glut of colorless mana, and Tron is notorious for finding great ways of leveraging its advantage.
You might be a Pauper fan if you’ve ever complained about UrzaTron for longer than ten minutes without saying the word “Karn.”
While grindy, controlling decks may have carved out a nice little spot for themselves at the top of the metagame, it still pays to get aggressive.
Red Deck Wins is alive and well in Pauper:
Shatun, 1st in a Pauper Challenge
16 Mountain 4 Ghitu Lavarunner 4 Thermo-Alchemist 4 Chain Lightning 4 Fireblast 4 Gitaxian Probe 4 Lava Spike 4 Lightning Bolt 4 Needle Drop 4 Rift Bolt 4 Searing Blaze 3 Curse of the Pierced Heart 1 Skewer the Critics Sideboard 3 Electrickery 3 Keldon Marauders 3 Martyr of Ashes 2 Molten Rain 4 Smash to Smithereens
It doesn’t get more straightforward than this! Bolt… face… While Delver and Boros have a clear lead on the metagame (19% and 24%), Burn makes up a chunk that is comparable to all Tron variants at 8%.
These four decks, U/B Delver, Boros Monarch, UrzaTron, and Burn account for 60% of the winner’s metagame. Where have I seen that type of a configuration before? Twin, Pod/Black-Green Midrange, Tron, and Burn as the key players in a metagame…
The power level of the cards is different but the type of metagame configuration has some clear parallels. It’s a metagame full of actively great decks that have dynamic interplay between them.
Either that observation has sold you on the format because you enjoy a metagame that has a well defined tier of best decks, or you don’t. But I would also argue that there is a lot going on in the other 40% of the field, which was also at play in the Splinter Twin Modern days.
One reason these top decks start to cannibalize the field is because it’s easy to do. These decks exist. We know they are great. And learning them inside and out gives a player a great chance to win a ton of matches. With that being said, we still continue to see new archetypes emerge to prey upon large chunks of a predictable field.
Orzhov Pestilence is basically the most Orzhov deck ever. It is the epitome of a slow grind.
Amoras27, 1st in an MTGO Pauper League
2 Bojuka Bog 2 Kabira Crossroads 4 Orzhov Basilica 2 Radiant Fountain 4 Scoured Barrens 1 Plains 8 Swamp 4 Guardian of the Guildpact 2 Palace Sentinels 2 Castigate 4 Chainer's Edict 2 Disfigure 1 Divest 2 Duress 1 Echoing Decay 2 Evincar's Justice 4 Night's Whisper 2 Read the Bones 2 Dead Weight 1 Journey to Nowhere 4 Pestilence 4 Pristine Talisman Sideboard 2 Castigate 2 Circle of Protection: Blue 1 Circle of Protection: Green 2 Circle of Protection: Red 4 Fragmentize 1 Gut Shot 1 Journey to Nowhere 2 Nihil Spellbomb
We know that Boros Monarch is the most played archetype, and this seems like a nightmare matchup for them. The plan of making removal bad with tokens is ineffective against sweepers like Pestilence and Evincar’s Justice. Chainer’s Edict is a great answer to Gurmag Angler. It’s sort of positioned to have a bunch of things that matter against the most popular decks.
Also, don’t underestimate the power of Guardian of the Guildpact plus Evincar’s Justice and Pestilence. The creature closes quickly once you are able to clear away potential blockers. It also dodges commonly played removal such as Lightning Bolt, Echoing Decay, and Journey to Nowhere.
In typical Orzhov fashion, the deck also has a hand disruption suite to pick apart combo decks and make sure that cards that do interact favorably with our draw will never get cast. For instance, Counterspell.
It’s cool to see a relatively novel deck rise up and put up big numbers in a format that has been looking more and more solved over the past six months.
If these decks don’t strike your fancy, there are always other solid choices like Affinity, Tireless Tribe, Hexproof Auras, Mill, U/R Delver, Mono-Blue Delver, and my personal favorite pet deck, Mono-Black Devotion.
If none of these arguments, observations, or deck lists have tweaked your interest, I have one last closing argument for why you should give it a try.
If that image doesn’t excite you, well, I’m out of ideas.