Meet the Pillars of Pauper MTG

Since the release of Modern Horizons, Pauper has been undergoing a relatively steady evolution. During the intervening months, many long-standing strategies have found themselves on the outside of the competitive format. Similarly, new cards have risen up, bolstered through raw efficiency, to reform the backbones of various decks. Today, I want to take a look at what I consider to be the current key pillars of Pauper.


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Pauper Affinity


Affinity has been its own thing for quite a while. As a deck driven by a critical mass of mechanical synergy, Affinity is a pillar unto itself. While the driving force can be seen as the artifact lands, Affinity has leaned heavily on the eponymous mechanic and various artifact build-arounds to cement its place in the Pauper metagame. However the past two years has seen the deck undergo a dramatic shift. The introduction of the Modern Horizons 2 Bridges and the subsequent bans of Atog and Disciple of the Vault have changed the primary strategy of Affinity. Previously, the deck played aggressively, trying to resolve Myr Enforcer and Carapace Forger to pressure life totals until Galvanic Blast or the combination of Atog and Fling could end the game. The bans and intervening releases have prompted a change in the deck’s plan of attack.

While Affinity is still capable of aggressive draws with Myr Enforcer and Galvanic Blast, the deck is far more set up to play a control game. The mana reduction from Affinity is leveraged into resource conversion late, with extraneous lands becoming fodder for Deadly Dispute or Makeshift Munitions. Affinity wants to play a game where it can exhaust the opponent’s resources and be left with enough in the tank to reload and do it all over again. 

Affinity, as mentioned, is a multilayered pillar. It falters without the artifact lands but it also needs cheap threats and card draw. It also leans on late game reload mechanisms, typified these days in Blood Fountain. Affinity, therefore, is a relatively static pillar. As it needs a critical mass of cards that work together to, well, work, it can be a bit of a challenge to get the core to work towards anything beyond the current best execution of the core.

Experimental Synthesizer

Pauper Kuldotha Red


Pauper Boros Synthesizer


In Pauper’s past, Burn was very much a pillar unto itself like Affinity. While it did the majority of its work on the back of Lightning Bolt, it leaned hard on redundancy to get the job done. Experimental Synthesizer is not Lightning Bolt but it does a lot to open up space in the kinds of decks it can support. Synthesizer pushes towards low curve aggressive strategies that can make the most of its impulsive draw ability. Ideally you want to get the full card off of the front half of Experimental Synthesizer, which means running a deck full of one and two-drops. Experimental Synthesizer also has a tendency to stick in play so decks that can make use of extra material, specifically artifacts, benefit from this card. Experimental Synthesizer decks want to be aggressive in order to best leverage the “draw” ability on the artifact. They also want to have cheap ways to extract extra value from Synthesizer. Other cards that could potentially fit this mold are Deadly Dispute and Annihilating Glare. 

The two decks that make the best use of Synthesizer today are Kuldotha Red and Boros Synthesizer. Kuldotha Red is your prototypical low to the ground red deck that pairs Monastery Swiftspear with Lightning Bolt and has the backing support of a light metalcraft engine with Kuldotha Rebirth to replenish draws with Chromatic Star, Implement of Combustion or Experimental Synthesizer. Boros Synthesizer takes this strategy and slows it down a hair, leaning harder on reusing Synthesizer with cards like Glint Hawk and Kor Skyfisher. Boros Synthesizer sometimes includes Seeker of the Way as another way to push damage and gain life, Foundry Helix to close out games or Makeshift Munitions as a spout for material in the late game. 


Pauper Dimir Terror


Pauper Faeries


The old standby is still supporting decks in Pauper. Despite the fact that some of the best spells in the format cost one or effectively zero mana, Counterspell is still a powerful option. Counterspell, however, is not a tool of the hard control decks of a decade ago. Instead, it’s best used as a way to protect a more active game plan. The two best iterations of Counterspell decks today are Dimir Terror and Faeries.

In Dimir Terror, Counterspell is used as a way to protect its game plan. Dimir Terror wants to resolve Gurmag Angler and Tolarian Terror – both of which are fairly hard to remove given the current suite of heavily played kill spells. Here, Counterspell is used to either provide the time needed to turn the corner or to prevent the wheels from coming off. Due to the fact that these threats have some natural resilience, it eases the lift that could otherwise be placed on Counterspell.

Compare this to Faeries, which is a far more aggressive deck. Here, Counterspell is all about protecting the decks board state. Faeries wants to hit early and then keep the cards flowing with Moon-Circuit Hacker or Ninja of the Deep Hours. Faeries can also use Spellstutter Sprite as an additional defensive measure. Unlike Dimir Terror, Faeries lacks a robust suite of creatures and has to trade its resources to maintain its position on the battlefield.

While not as popular these days, both Dimir and Izzet Faeries tend to play a game that resides somewhere between these two. Rather than the flurry of cantrips used by Dimir Terror to set up their game, these builds rely on similar creatures to Faeries. Then once the corner is turned it uses its countermagic to lock down their advantage. 


Pauper Flicker Tron


Pauper Azorius Familiars


Pauper Orzhov Ephemerate


This single spell pillar might be the most robust in the current format. All Ephemerate asks is that you run creatures with useful enters-the-battlefield abilities. From there, the sky’s the proverbial limit and we have seen creature-based midrange decks and more traditional control decks powered by this instant. 

Ephemerate, in conjunction with Archaeomancer or Mnemonic Wall, creates one of the best card selection engines in Pauper. Both Flicker Tron and Azorius Familiars use this engine to dominate the late game. These decks both seek to leverage a mana advantage into a way to rebuy several spells a turn and then bury the opponent under the heel of those rebought spells. Here, Ephemerate is used as part of the endgame and not used to actively advance a game state.

The other main camp of Ephemerate decks are those like Orzhov Ephemerate which use the creatures to slowly accrue card advantage. Ephemerate here is used to retrigger key abilities like Vampire Sovereign or Goliath Paladin while also having the advantage of potentially saving a threat. Using Ephemerate to keep the cards flowing with Spirited Companion or Inspiring Overseer is often the correct move and helps Orzhov Ephemerate and its ilk keep up with the more robust card draw out of other popular archetypes. 

Basilisk Gate

Pauper CawGate


Pauper Naya Gates


I consider Baslisk Gate decks to be a pillar unto themselves. These decks try to play a midrange control plan, either using removal or countermagic to help stay alive until they can establish a large enough board presence to turn the corner with Basilisk Gate and whatever threats they have left. These decks sacrifice the early game for mana development and often have to make concessions to stay alive, running cards like Prismatic Strands or Saruli Gatekeepers as a way to stay alive. Basilisk Gate decks can often overlap with other pillars, with Counterspell and Ephemerate being the most common co-pillar.

CawGate was the first successful Basilisk Gate deck and it put resilient creatures like Sacred Cat and Guardian of the Guildpact in a light control shell with Counterspell and Preordain. The deck had a chance to see a ton of cards with The Modern Age and the interaction of Brainstorm and Squadron Hawk. The deck remains a threat but tends to need the correct suite of answers for a given tournament or league run to find success.

Compare this to Naya or Four-Color Gates. These decks touch green for Gatecreeper Vine to find the key Gates and Saruli Gatekeepers to stay alive. They also tend to run Ephemerate as a way to rebuy these key effects and some have moved to the Kor Skyfisher-Omen of the Dead package as a way to grind out the long game. Gate decks are similar to the Boros Monarch decks of old except that instead of trying to win via card advantage, they do so by trying to put the opponent in a position where they run out of blockers. 

Arbor Elf

Pauper Gruul Cascade


Rounding out the minor pillars we have Arbor Elf ramp decks. The most decorated of these are Gruul but Selesnya builds have also put up solid results recently. The decks lean on the interaction of Arbor Elf, Utopia Sprawl and the dual lands that count as Forests to power out game-ending threats. These decks often buy time with Mwonvuli Acid-Moss and try to top out on Avenging Hunter, Boarding Party or Annoyed Altisaur. Arbor Elf decks are somewhat flexible in that any color, when paired with green, will have access to some top-end threats that are better than anything the opposition can muster, but Arbor Elf decks do a great job of getting these down faster. 

These are, in my opinion, the current pillars of Pauper. This is not to say decks outside of these pillars do not exist, because they do. However, if you’re looking to try and dip your toe back into the format, it’s important to see how things may have shifted since your last visit. 

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