If you ran into me the Pauper league during the past few weeks then you would have seen me playing Tranquil Cove and trying to win games with Seraph of Dawn. To be sure, I did win a few matches with Blue-White Control but more often than not I was a draw step away from a 3-2 record.
How did I get here? Shortly after the release of Core Set 2019 I was testing the heck out of Elvish Rejuvenator in Tron decks. Rather than trying to lock the game up with a Ghostly Flicker loop I was simply trying to cash the biggest possible threat and invalidate my opponent’s game plan. Elvish Rejuvenator never got Tron online early but it did help in the Tron mirror where having mana advantage is key. But I put the deck down because I saw so much Burn. Dead before Fangren Marauder came online, I was looking for anything else to play.
It was around this time that my friend Jason Sirichoke—one of the big innovators behind Murasa Tron and Blue-White Prowess in Pauper—talked about how well positioned Prohibit was in the metagame at the time. Prohibit is a powerful counter in a format where, outside of Tron, almost everything costs under 4 mana. A cheap answer early that scales with the game, Prohibit also has merit for its ability to effectively deal with Dispel, Counterspell, and Spellstutter Sprite on the stack. Toss in the fact that it has half the color commitment of actual factual Counterspell and you get a card that is a solid inclusion.
Here’s where I went off the rails and became obsessed with the idea of using a Signet to help cast Prohibit on turn 3. I remembered a line about Osyp Lebedowicz’s Blue-Red Tron deck from the Pro Tour Honolulu Top 8 in 2006. After some Googling I found the tale, apocryphal or not, in this article from Mike Flores. The idea is that you can leave up blue mana (and anything else) on turn 2 and then hit your land drop on turn 3, play a Signet, and still have mana open for Prohibit!
I spent far too much time in testing trying to get this to work. Even after moving off Azorius Signet and on to Mind Stone, this play was simply not good enough. See, I had forgotten a key part of the tale: the counter in question was Remand. Remand may not have been a hard counter but it replaced itself. Prohibit trades the ability to replace itself for the opportunity to answer something permanently. Context is everything and I ignored it. Osyp’s deck was a Tron deck and delaying the opponent even for a turn was a huge advantage. Blue-White Control is a midrange deck that needs to trade one-for-one early and has no over-the-top play. Sure, I was gaining an advantage on mana but I was wasting slots in my deck. Everything felt better once I moved off of mana rocks.
That isn’t to say the deck was great. It still faced plenty of problems. The removal suite of Sunlance, Journey to Nowhere, and Oblivion Ring was fine. Sunlance was a concession to needing an answer on turn 1. Ask anyone who plays lots of Pauper and they’ll tell you that Sunlance is serviceable but far from great. The ability to pick off early threats is important but in the later game it fails to handle much of anything. It also has the problem of being dead against the popular Boros Monarch.
Journey to Nowhere and Oblivion Ring are better but they are slow. Seraph of Dawn was supposed to mitigate the lack of removal through lifelink. Seraph also proved to be too slow against swarm decks. In games were I was able to curve reaction into Seraph I easily took over but given how little creature kill, the deck ran the common Angel could not do all of the heavy lifting.
My experience with removal reinforced a notion I have long held in Pauper: control lacks a good catch up mechanism. When you ask a Magic player for a defining aspect of Blue-White Control, regardless of the format, there is something that always comes up. While the answer may be different depending on how long the queried has been playing, the answer is Wrath of God or Day of Judgment or Terminus or Supreme Verdict or Settle the Wreckage. Pauper has no true analogue. Yes, it has Evincar’s Justice and Swirling Sandstorm, as well as Fade Away, Holy Light, and Electrickery. None of these is a true sweeper. None of them let the control player tap out and feel that sweet satisfaction of knowing that you just bought yourself a turn.
Control decks are playing from behind from the get go and unlike other formats there is no good way to catch up. You can load up your deck with two-for-one removal but they are expensive or slow. Chainer’s Edict costs 9 mana across two turns while Firebolt costs 6 but can’t hit anything larger than a Nettle Sentinel. Arc Lightning is 3 mana to maybe kill a Kor Skyfisher. The paucity of these cards has led to a reliance on Fog effects. These cards do not win the game on their own but instead prolong it so that the game ending combination can be found: either a Ghostly Flicker loop or overwhelming card advantage garnered from being the Monarch.
Despite my lack of success with the deck there were elements that worked better than I expected. Skittering Crustacean may seem like an odd inclusion but it had very specific jobs. First, it was included as a way to fight off Dinrova Horror. Horror is one of the spouts for a Ghostly Flicker loop and being able to have a threat that is impervious to the recurring Recoil is nice. In practice, the immunity barely mattered as the Horror deck had enough other creatures to block. The other place where the crab shined was against Gurmag Angler. The 6/7 stats were enough to turn off opposing undead fish while being large enough to crunch through most Angler decks’ meager defenses. All this points to a card that should be in the sideboard.
The cantrip suite was also fantastic. Brainstorm has emerged as a premier cantrip in Pauper thanks to the presence of Ash Barrens. Before Barrens, Brainstorm was a reasonable spell but lacked the potency it had in formats like Legacy or Vintage where a large amount of its strength comes from its synergy with lands like Polluted Delta. Being able to filter away less useful cards at no cost is a huge draw. Evolving Wilds may not cost mana but it has the disadvantage of being weaker on your turn as it results in a tapped land. Ash Barrens may tap a land as well but it allows you to get whatever you need untapped. Decks like Tribe Combo and Izzet Delver use Brainstorm with Ash Barrens and Gush to put two Islands back into the deck and see five fresh cards. While Gush isn’t present in this deck, Brainstorm and Ash Barrens made it easier to run some narrow cards and tuck them away for later.
The need to shuffle also meant that Ponder was the choice over Preordain. Preordain gets a lot of press in Pauper and is often the go-to cantrip for decks that only have space for four. The argument is that Preordain is better in the early game at digging you to what you need. Ponder, although it can see more cards, has the “downside” of not being able to filter away cards that may not be useful. Still, the ceiling on Ponder is higher (and the floor is also extremely high) and when you can turn the shuffle into an advantage, well, that’s just great.
Spellstutter Sprite over performed. Most often seen in tandem with Faerie Miscreant to become the world’s best Spell Snare, a lone Sprite still does work. There are plenty of high impact spells that cost a single mana in Pauper and Sprite counters them all just fine. I am sure that I garnered some advantage from running the card outside a traditional Spellstutter Sprite deck and as such was able to catch opponents off guard. I also was able to side them out if I anticipated cards like Electrickery as a way to reduce the impact of hate cards. My runs with the deck proved that Spellstutter Sprite was powerful enough on its own and should be seeing play regardless of the presence of other Faeries.
Blue-White taught me a lot. The most important thing is that the idea is not without merit. When I pick the deck up again I would move forward in one of two directions. The first would be to move off of Seraph of Dawn and focus instead on Seeker of the Way. Seeker fills a similar role of bolstering life total while also being easier to cast and a better threat when combined with cantrips. Being able to cast Compulsive Research into cheap spells and then crunch in for three (or more damage) is attractive. Being able to turn on the Seeker every turn with Oona’s Grace or Cenn’s Enlistment is also a reason to move to the Iconic Masters downshift.
mlovbo, Top 8 at July 29 Pauper Challenge
The other option is more fully explored. Magic Online user mlovbo, who has been providing Pauper with off-beat brews for years, has recently taken to White-Blue Tron. The deck eschews counterspells in favor of ignoring the opponent. Coalition Honor Guard eats removal and Prismatic Strands keeps you alive until your fog machine comes online. Rhystic Circle is a mana intense way to shut off all damage. As long as you have the mana advantage, you can prevent your opponent from lowering your life total. While White-Blue Tron is lacking a Ghostly Flicker engine, it does run Custodi Squire and Angelic Renewal, which in itself is a slow loop. Still, this deck runs almost no interactive elements and is completely reliant on racing to a top end and is not how I personally would want to approach the format currently.
So where did I end up? Blue-White Control was fine. It wasn’t a revelation to the format nor was it dead in the water. It is a deck with some weaknesses that are exacerbated by the limitations of Pauper. Still, there is little better in life than casting Mulldrifter and having a Counterspell backup. If you haven’t tried it yet, 10/10—would recommend.