The Pauper Bans Have Made the Format Better Than Ever

Before I get started let’s all observe a moment of silence for the Pauper staples that we lost in May.

GushGitaxian ProbeDaze

“I will remember you… Will you remember me?”

Fade to black…. and let’s roll to a commercial break. I won’t spend much time on the bans because I’ve covered the topic at length already, but I cannot overstate the impact that extracting these three cards had on the format. The “Free Triforce” was a dominant cog of the format that in its prime soaked up more than 30% of the winner’s metagame. It was, for the longest time, the defining characteristic of the format.

Star Wars Brian Image

Even oppressed by free blue spells, I found Pauper to be the most fun and interesting Constructed format and it’s gotten even better now that blue’s dominance has been diminished. I did some homework and research for today’s article and have compiled post-ban Pauper results from winning decklists in May, courtesy of MTGTop8. The fruits of these labors is a glimpse into the future of the metagame and the format.

The One-Month Metagame after the Pauper Bans

The data I collected accounted for nearly two dozen tournaments and 125 individual decklists (not all tournaments report 8 decks). While this is a relatively small sample, it still allows us a point of reference about what decks are winning in the biggest and most competitive Pauper events. Also, keep in mind these results are based on Top 8s and are indicative of a “winner’s metagame,” rather than the totality of the field. Personally, I prefer information about the winner’s metagame as a predictor of future events, since most players are unlikely to copy strategies that don’t win.

Post-ban Metagame Breakdown

Archetype Metagame % Variations among lists
Boros 14%
Izzet 13% Delver 7%, Kiln Fiend 2%, Other 4%
Tron 10%
Swamps 10% Mono-Black 5%, Orzhov 5%
Affinity 9%
Burn 8%
Elves 8%
Dimir Control 8% 5% Control, 3% Flicker
Stompy 6%
White Heroic 3% Mono W 2%, UW 1%
Flicker 3%
Mono-U Delver 2%
Hexproof Auras 2%
Inside Out Combo 2%
Bant Walls 1%
Simic Land Destruction 1%
Reanimator 1%

It’s worth noting there is not only diversity of archetypes, but also within archetypes. I tried to lump together decks that are similar, like Orzhov Pestilence and Mono-Black, but also noted anything that stood out as unique. That dynamic speaks to the quality of options afforded to players since there are many competing ideas on building each deck.

Simply put, there were roughly 20 different strategies, and all had a degree of specialization to choose between–I would describe the current metagame as about as good as it gets. Not only do you have options, but you also have multiple options within options!

Tiers in Heaven

It’s great to know there are options, but the key is to narrow those options down and make a choice you feel comfortable and confident with. The key to picking the right deck is almost always rooted in the relationships between decks. For instance, if you don’t like playing control mirrors, then it doesn’t make a ton of sense to play a control deck in a format where control decks are popular. So how do the top tiers of popular decks break down? Tiers don’t necessarily predict what is better or worse, but rather the role a deck plays within a metagame. Each random opponent could be playing anything, but we can play the odds to predict what we are more likely to face each round.

In the tournaments I looked at, Boros Aggro decks made Top 8 the most and comprised 14% of the decks I counted. The archetype with the seventh-most entries, Elves, comprised only 8% of Top 8s. This means a player is less than half as likely to play against Elves than Boros at the top tables, and there are still five more decks hanging around in the gap between them. It’s a little confusing to describe, but the gist is that there is only a relatively small difference between the most popular and seventh-most popular deck. For comparison, when Gush, Probe, and Daze were legal, you were about 10 times as likely to play against the most popular archetype than the seventh.

I don’t want to discourage anyone from playing a deck because it is not tier 1. In fact, I typically play “non-tier” decks in Pauper (Slivers, Reanimator, Tortured Existence, and Hexproof) and find they typically outperform the Tier 1 decks.

I was unable to generate meaningful data about the metagame outside of my Top 8 sample, which is unfortunate because I typically find a deck’s Top 8 conversion rate is the best indicator of how good a deck is. I always want to play a deck that makes up 3% of the field and represents 6% of the Top 8 metagame and never a deck that makes up 22% of the field and represents 16% of Top 8s.

I encourage you to think of tiers as a way to anticipate what other players will do, rather than what you should feel compelled to do.

Tier 1: Boros, Izzet and Tron

No surprises here. Boros and Tron were the best non-Gush decks pre-ban and are now the default “decks to beat.” It’s interesting to me that Boros’ 14% and Tron’s 10% claim to the winner’s meta is basically identical to that of the pre-ban metagame. I would have expected both decks to increase their share since they are the obvious candidates to capitalize and cannibalize on the spots Gush decks occupied. It’s certainly possible that given more data and a larger sample size, this will be the case.

The data I have still suggests these are the decks to beat because they are the decks people are playing, but be wary of fool’s gold. It’s also possible these decks were better-positioned before because they indirectly benefited from Gush’s format-defining impact.


“All my friends are banned?! Hold my beer…”

Izzet, on the other hand, is likely “The Truth.” If blue-red decks can subtract three of their six best spells and remain at the top of the heap, it seems like territory worth further exploration and innovation.

Tier 2: Affinity, Burn, Elves, Stompy, Dimir, Orzhov and Mono-Black

These decks are unlikely to see as much play as the Tier 1, but are most likely to overperform with some fine-tuning, and they’re where I’m putting my stock.

Burn may be the exception to that rule. While a consistent performer, it’s a deck I’ve always observed to have a poor conversion rate, meaning it makes up a larger percentage of the field than its Top 8 results would suggest. On the other hand, because the deck is so popular it’s never a matchup I take lightly or come unprepared to defeat.

Dimir has carved out a nice place for itself as the hardcore control deck. Izzet has better tools for being a tempo-based control deck because it has cards like Lightning Bolt, but never underestimate good old Chainer’s Edict against a Bogle.

Chainer's Edict

“I was surprised I didn’t see more Bogles results, and then I noticed a lot more Chainer’s Edict play!”

The biggest problem that holds Dimir back is its terrible positioning in the control matchup against Tron. The strength of the deck is going long, as opposed to Izzet’s tempo approach, which is ineffectual against a deck that makes so much more mana, more quickly. If Tron decks start getting pushed out of tier 1 status by fast aggro, I 100% advocate a pivot toward Dimir Control.

The next crop of decks in this category, Affinity, Elves, Stompy, and Mono-Black Variants, are the Tier 2 decks I see with a ton of potential upside. These four were the decks that dramatically increased their Top 8 share in the sample I observed. To compare, I also looked at their share before the Gush ban.

Deck Pre-Gush Ban WM% Post-Gush WM%
Affinity 4% 9%
Elves 5% 8%
Mono-Black 3% 5%
Stompy 1% 6%

Izzet and Dimir predictably filled much of the space the Gush decks left behind, but these four decks made the most headway in the metagame. In the flavor of going from “zero to hero,” here’s a list from Rags to Riches XXIV:

Hunter Garrett – Mono-Green Stompy

3rd, Rags to Riches XXIV

16 Forest
4 Burning-Tree Emissary
4 Nest Invader
4 Nettle Sentinel
4 Quirion Ranger
4 Skarrgan Pit-Skulk
3 Vault Skirge
3 Wild Mongrel
3 Hunger of the Howlpack
4 Savage Swipe
4 Vines of Vastwood
3 Moldervine Cloak
4 Rancor

4 Gut Shot
3 Life Goes On
3 Relic of Progenitus
4 Scattershot Archer
1 Viridian Longbow

I’ve played against the deck multiple times, and while it looks like a hot pile of nonsense it’s also extremely effective. It’s mana-efficient and applies a ton of pressure faster than most decks can react. The thing I like most about the deck is that it’s not particularly vulnerable to the most-played sideboard cards (Electrickery or Nausea) that typically constrain go-wide decks. Affinity benefits from a similar dynamic, although there is a similar subset of artifact hate (Gorilla Shaman, Shattering Pulse, Ancient Grudge) directed at them. Stompy doesn’t care about those, either!

Wild Mongrel

“Protection from everything! Err, some stuff.”

In the abstract, Stompy is sort of a “bad” Elves or Affinity deck that has the upside of dodging sideboard cards while still maintaining an aggressive, linear approach. Keep this deck in mind when you are building your sideboard!

Tier 3: Dark Horses

People tend to play “known commodities” because they have a higher degree of visibility, but according to the data a random “dark horse” (16% of the sample) is a more likely endboss than Boros (the most popular deck at 14%).

There are simply too many of these decks to address individually, but there are a couple of lists I wanted to share:

DHALSM2 – Simic Land Loss

9 Forest (347)
5 Island (335)
4 Simic Growth Chamber
4 Thornwood Falls
4 Coiling Oracle
4 Krosan Tusker
2 Mold Shambler
4 Mulldrifter
4 Sakura-Tribe Scout
4 Sylvan Ranger
2 Sylvok Explorer
4 Mwonvuli Acid-Moss
1 Pulse of Murasa
1 Reap and Sow
4 Temporal Spring
4 Thermokarst

4 Dispel
1 Mold Shambler
3 Natural State
4 Penumbra Spider
3 Pulse of Murasa

Temporal Spring

I’ve also been brewing with Temporal Spring and I love the shell Dhalsm2 has put around it that focuses on beating up an opponent’s lands. A fantastic choice if you expect a lot of Tron or Mono-Black Control.

Raptor56 – Bant Walls

4 Ash Barrens
4 Blossoming Sands
1 Golgari Rot Farm
1 Selesnya Guildgate
3 Snow-Covered Forest
7 Snow-Covered Island
1 Snow-Covered Plains
1 Thornwood Falls
4 Axebane Guardian
3 Mnemonic Wall
4 Mulldrifter
4 Overgrown Battlement
4 Sea Gate Oracle
4 Sunscape Familiar
1 Capsize
2 Compulsive Research
1 Condescend
2 Ghostly Flicker
2 Moment's Peace
2 Mystical Teachings
1 Prohibit
2 Pulse of Murasa
2 Freed from the Real

2 Circle of Protection: Red
1 Deep Analysis
2 Dispel
3 Hydroblast
1 Moment's Peace
2 Nature's Claim
2 Serrated Arrows
2 Stonehorn Dignitary

Mystical Teachings

“What can we cut to get more Mystical Teachings into this Wall deck?”

I look at hundreds of sweet decklists every week, but every once and a while I gaze upon a masterpiece…. Raptor56’s list is a thing of beauty. I love the card choices and the sacrifices made to gain greater flexibility. It can do a bunch of things well and in a coherent way. It ramps, draws cards, gains life, has a toolbox, can Fog lock and loop, and it can also just combo off. Very cool list.

Summed Up

I wasn’t sure what I would find when I began this project. The results I examined suggest the format is headed in an extremely positive direction–so much so that if I could wish for some platonic ideal of what a great metagame would look like, I wouldn’t have been so greedy as to ask for this!

I was pleasantly surprised to see that the decks in the middle, not the decks at the top, have made the biggest gains since Gush was banned. While I was impressed to see Mono-Green and Mono-Black make a surge, I was also happy to see that despite losing three powerhouse cards, blue is still hanging tough, which is a strong signal that removing Gush, Daze, and Gitaxian Probe was a net positive for the format.

At a time when most of the other non-rotating formats I’ve long enjoyed have become increasingly alien and unfamiliar to me during an era of substantial power creep, I love the decision to ban the omnipresent “free spells” from Pauper. I appreciate the more balanced diversity of decks the choice appears to have created and applaud the more traditional feel of the gameplay. There isn’t a single thing I find poor about Pauper.

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