Pauper is currently awash in copies of Arcum’s Astrolabe. The seemingly innocuous artifact has supplemented Prophetic Prism as a way for both midrange and Tron decks to fix their mana while drawing more cards. With a huge portion of the metagame taking the first few turns of the game off, it would follow that aggressive decks would see a surge.
To some extent, that’s what has happened. Affinity had a few strong finishes and various red aggro decks have cropped up. Even Stompy, the old green standby, has put up solid results. Yet looking at the Magic Online Challenges, the number of these decks pales in comparison to the prevalence of midrange and Tron. Today I want to look at some reasons why.
How Can Aggro Compete in Pauper?
I am going to be using the terms “Beatdown” and “Control” a lot, and while these may apply to the macro archetypes being discussed, they take on a slightly different meaning in the context of a singular game of Magic (as opposed to the metagame). As Michael Flores described in his seminal article, in any game one deck is the Beatdown and one is the Control. The Beatdown deck is trying to win before the Control deck–the one with inevitability–comes online.
The standard of creature aggression in Pauper is two power. Most creatures that see play in traditional beatdown decks fit this mold, usually at the one or two-mana spot on the curve. Affinity breaks this by being able to produce multiple 4/4s, but by also having a combo kill in the form of Atog and Fling or Temur Battle Rage.
Still, Stompy, Goblins, Red Deck Wins, and other decks live and die by their two-power creatures and how well their can get through or around defenses. Two-power creatures are only so good at dealing those last points of damage.
This brings us to reach. Reach is how aggressive decks close out games. Traditionally, this takes the form of burn spells, but in Stompy pump spells fit the bill. While Lightning Bolt is the baseline for direct damage, reach is usually meted out in chunks of four thanks to Fireblast, Galvanic Blast, Groundswell, and Vines of Vastwood. The addition of the paper card pool has gifted the format Goblin Grenade as well, which can deal with 25% of a starting life total. The next best five-damage spell is Tribal Flames, and that one comes with a much larger set up cost.
There are other modifiers that exist. Treetop Ambusher can deal an extra point of damage here and there and Hunger of the Howlpack can provide a permanent three-power boost. Foundry Street Denizen can get quite large in the right situation and Goblin Sledder can mess with combat math. On balance, however, we can look at beatdown in 2s and 4s.
So let’s take our prototypical aggro deck and set it up against Tron. Tron, as it exists today, represents the far end of control in Pauper. It has a dominant endgame strategy that is supported by mana abundance.
Pascal3000’s Astro Tron
Winner, July 14 Pauper Challenge
Hellsau’s Flicker Tron
Top 4, July 14 Pauper Challenge
3 Ash Barrens 5 Snow-Covered Island 1 Snow-Covered Plains 4 Urza's Mine 4 Urza's Power Plant 4 Urza's Tower 2 Dinrova Horror 3 Mnemonic Wall 4 Mulldrifter 2 Sea Gate Oracle 4 Stonehorn Dignitary 2 Trinket Mage 1 Compulsive Research 1 Dispel 2 Ephemerate 4 Ghostly Flicker 1 Moment's Peace 1 Mystical Teachings 1 Prohibit 1 Pulse of Murasa 4 Arcum's Astrolabe 2 Expedition Map 4 Prophetic Prism Sideboard 1 Dinrova Horror 2 Moment's Peace 4 Hydroblast 3 Lone Missionary 4 Pyroblast 1 Shattering Pulse
Looking at these, the Beatdown player has a lot to overcome. On the play they may have only until their fourth turn before a Stonehorn Dignitary starts to eat combat phases. Given turn-three Tron, it is possible for the Rhino to come down on the Control’s third turn. For the sake of argument we can discount that scenario, and that means turn four is the pinch point where the game turns.
Beatdown decks can win on turn four if left unchecked–if only it were that easy. Tron decks have access to a wide array of defensive measures in game one. Moment’s Peace might be the best of these as it can buy two turns against combat on its own. Later in the game it becomes part of a delaying engine as a pair of Mnemonic Walls and Ghostly Flicker, or a single Wall and Ephemerate, can draw Moment’s Peace every turn until the endgame is found.
Normally this is where reach would come into play. The Beatdown can spend the first few turns whittling down a life total so that the Control must deploy their shields, only for that to provide the opening for Fireblast or Fling to do their job. That is where the addition of Weather the Storm can prove problematic. Each copy of Weather the Storm undoes one and a half base attacks. There are ways around this, such as waiting for all copies to go on the stack before unleashing additional burn spells, but that is not such a common occurrence. The fact that these decks also run Pulse of Murasa to “tutor” up a card from the graveyard also makes the long-term prospects of burning them out a longshot.
Post-board, there’s Flaring Pain. While this is a potent option, it can only go so far against a deck that can gain life in chunks of 1.5 attacks or simply blank the combat phase. Going under remains an option but given the curve of Pauper aggro decks it is hard to go much lower.
What about when midrange decks assume the Control position? Midrange typically wins by being the Beatdown against slower decks and playing assuming the Control role against more dedicated aggressive strategies. In the current state of Pauper, when midrange is Control then the Beatdown barely stands a chance.
sakkra’s Jeskai Ephemerate
Top 8, July 14 Pauper Challenge
4 Ash Barrens 1 Evolving Wilds 11 Snow-Covered Island 1 Snow-Covered Mountain 2 Snow-Covered Plains 2 Archaeomancer 4 Augur of Bolas 3 Aven Riftwatcher 4 Mulldrifter 4 Ponder 4 Preordain 4 Counterspell 1 Dispel 1 Echoing Truth 4 Ephemerate 2 Lightning Bolt 4 Skred 4 Arcum's Astrolabe Sideboard 2 Dispel 3 Electrickery 3 Hydroblast 3 Leave No Trace 2 Lone Missionary 2 Pyroblast
Gabelsman’s Boros Midrange
Top 32, July 14 Pauper Challenge
2 Ancient Den 4 Evolving Wilds 4 Great Furnace 5 Snow-Covered Mountain 5 Snow-Covered Plains 4 Glint Hawk 4 Kor Skyfisher 4 Seeker of the Way 4 Thraben Inspector 2 Faithless Looting 2 Firebolt 4 Galvanic Blast 4 Lightning Bolt 4 Searing Blaze 4 Arcum's Astrolabe 4 Prophetic Prism Sideboard 1 Ancient Grudge 2 Electrickery 2 Gorilla Shaman 1 Leave No Trace 3 Lone Missionary 3 Molten Rain 3 Pyroblast
Midrange these days are base-white Arcum’s Astrolabe decks. Even if they take a turn off to draw a card, it’s often followed up by either a Glint Hawk or a Kor Skyfisher. As mentioned before, the base unit of Beatdown is two power and these two creatures conveniently trade off or outright win combats. That says nothing about the interaction between Seeker of the Way and Prismatic Strands. Even Thraben Inspector puts in work here to pick off one-toughness creatures or stack block a 2/2.
None of this considers that these decks also run a copious amount of removal. Access to Lightning Bolt, Galvanic Blast, Skred, and Journey to Nowhere can make it a challenge for aggro to establish a board presence. The inclusion of Prismatic Strands in these decks also makes it harder for the Beatdown to use their reach to end games.
Why are we not seeing more aggressive decks at the top of the metagame? Not to put too fine a point on it, but their window is incredibly narrow. While these decks can pile on quite a bit of damage, they simply match up poorly with how decks in the Control role can defend themselves. It makes sense that Affinity, Hexproof, and Elves–all decks that have a beatdown and a combo element–have found footholds in the metagame.
Aggro Moving Forward
Despite the uphill climb, I believe that aggressive strategies can muster an offense in the current field. The burn available is so powerful right now that running a red-based creature deck is the correct call in a field rife with Tron. These decks can struggle against white-based midrange. If creature decks can find a way to go slightly larger with their threats, however, they might be able to win in the red zone.
Orcish Hellraiser is a new addition to the format and seems perfectly positioned to tussle with Kor Skyfisher. Nimble Mongoose has been around since Eternal Masters and if a deck can find a way to keep the graveyard sufficiently stocked then it can dodge removal while also being just a little too big to block efficiently. Razor Golem was the backbone of various mono-white aggro decks back in the day and also happens to have decent stats in the current metagame, just like Phyrexian War Beast. And those latter two just so happen to get around Prismatic Strands.
Is Beatdown dead? No. While the landscape is hostile it isn’t impossible to navigate. You just need to look for the shortcuts.