Last time I talked about the current state of affairs in Pauper. Since then things have not changed much. Jeskai decks that lean on the Archaeomancer–Ephemerate engine continue to dominate the Challenge metagame. While these decks have made up under 25% of all Top 32 decks since the introduction of Core Set 2020, they account for almost 33% of wins above an X-3 record. That is a pretty darn good conversion rate.
The Jeskai decks succeed for a few reasons. The first is they have a solid “fair” game plan. Using Kor Skyfisher and Arcum’s Astrolabe to see extra cards, the Jeskai deck is quite good at being just a hair better than aggressive decks in their ability to cast a creature and a removal spell in the same turn, especially since Skyfisher can sit back and block. Jeskai currently has access to one of the better draw engines in the format with Mulldrifter and Ephemerate. Paying the evoke cost on Mulldrifter and then targeting it with Ephemerate yields four fresh cards and a 2/2 flyer, ready to be targeted again. Finally, Jeskai can use Ephemerate with Archaeomancer to rebuy key spells from the graveyard in the long game.
Despite having a target on its back for the better part of three months, Jeskai continues to put up incredibly strong numbers. It has arguably gotten better–a month ago it made up exactly 25% of Top 32 lists but only had a 30% share of wins above X-3. In four weeks, it’s volume shrank but it performed even better, hitting more Top 16 and Top 8 finishes.
The metagame in Pauper is an odd thing. The best decks tend to be soft to some second-tier strategies. Every so often these less potent decks rise to the occasion only to be immediately stricken down by sideboard hate the very next week.
This happened on September 1st where several Bogles and Heroic decks, both leaning on Ethereal Armor and other auras, were all over the Top 16. On September 8th there were plenty of copies of Leave no Trace floating around the Top 32, but no cards so obviously dedicated to fighting Jeskai. The meta adjusted to the second tier without going after the top.
The deck is hard to hate out. It is incredibly redundant and can store a key piece–Ephemerate–in exile if the need arises or by using a backup copy to protect the one in the graveyard by targeting Archaeomancer. Jeskai also can run a suite of cheap counters like Dispel, Pyroblast, Hydroblast, and the dual Elemental Blasts. Once it gets going it can be hard to stop–this has led to the truism that the best way to beat Ephemerate is to go fast. This may be true, but there are some pinch points that exist. While these cards alone may not win you a game, they can help you gain an incremental advantage against the top deck in Pauper without giving up too much against the field.
Magma Spray/Pillar of Flame
So much of the Jeskai gameplan revolves around resolving Ephemerate for value. Some builds of Jeskai have adopted a copy of Pulse of Murasa main to help rebuy a key creature. Magma Spray and Pillar of Flame are both capable of exiling Mulldrifter and Archaeomancer, helping to break up the value engine. At one mana these are both cheap enough to cast on the same turn as other spells and have utility against decks like Stompy. Magma Spray might get the nod here thanks to being an instant, but Pillar of Flame may just do a better job of stranding Ephemerate in exile, rather than having it return to the stack only to fizzle and be retrieved with a later Archaeomancer.
Last Breath should also get consideration on this front. While it may be a problem for decks that are trying to race, it has the upside of also being able to exile Mnemonic Wall, a key card for Tron decks also using the Ephemerate engine.
Claws of Wirewood
Did you know this card was legal? A cycling Hurricane where X will always equal three, Claws cuts down some of Jeskai’s primary win conditions while getting around Ephemerate tricks. Some Stompy decks have taken to running Hidden Spider as a cheap answer to flyers, but why block them when you can rip them out of the sky?
Like Claws of Wirewood, Pestilence is good at keeping threats off the board. The biggest thing holding Pestilence back is that it requires running plenty of Swamps. While Mono-Black Control is a fine strategy, it has its own weaknesses.
Tron is the natural predator of Jeskai. While these decks run a similar Ephemerate engine, they are not as vulnerable to cheap removal since they are able to more easily cast multiple spells in a single turn thanks to their mana engine. Pillage can cut them off colored sources in Arcum’s Astrolabe or stall them by blowing up a Tron land. Pillage and similar cards suffer in Pauper because it can be difficult to follow them up with a reasonable clock. Unlike the Ponza decks of old, Jackal Pup just isn’t cutting it these days.
There are plenty of other cards that could have made this list. Faerie Trickery, Syncopate, and Liquify can exile cards while they are still on the stack. Journey to Nowhere and Complete Disregard can send creatures packing. The key to fighting Jeskai is less about the cards run and more about the plan of attack. They have natural pinch points–moments where if you pull the rug out from under them, everything falls apart. Save your removal for Mulldrifter and Archaeomancer. And no matter what you do, come prepared to fight the decks that fight Jeskai–know how you’re going to be beating Tron and how to defend yourself from the beatdown.