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Rediscovering Pauper: Card Advantage and Deck Construction in Ikoria Pauper

Written by Zach Cramer on . Posted in Competitive Magic, Pauper

Rediscovering Pauper: Card Advantage and Deck Construction in Ikoria Pauper

Zach Cramer

Zach is a Northeastern Magic grinder who specializes in eternal formats. When building decks, he has a strong preference to Blue cards, toolboxes and combo decks. With a recent RPTQ finish just short of an invitation, Zach hopes to take his skills to the next level and play on the Pro Tour.

Greetings all! After a long hiatus, I’m back with another article. This week, I wanted to break down the pauper format. Last week my governor announced that our stay-at-home order would last for another month. I’m incredibly privileged to be in a position where this order improves my safety and does not impair my financial situation. However, I wanted to come up with a project in lieu of going to my local game store or going out to eat so I decided to reexamine pauper. I am planning to commit this month to building new pauper decks and refining old pauper decks in order to gain some mastery over the format before the next set changes the game. I hope you’ll follow along with me!

Pauper was a format that is perfect for brewing in a lot of ways. In current formats, the marquise mythic often define the set. The power that emerges from limited themes and cross-set combinations can sometimes provide a potent deck of high synergy commons and uncommons, but often the decks in Standard, Modern and Legacy are held up by Mythic Rare powerhouses. Mostly often: Planeswalkers. If you have read any of my previous articles, you may recall an article I wrote about card advantage being dead. This claim generally eludes pauper for one main reason: Pauper does not have these planeswalkers and because of that, the old tenants of “card advantage” are much more applicable. Because there are not many cards that continue to provide value over and over again, being able to build a deck with lots of card-drawing themes is incredibly potent. Case in point: the most dominate deck in the format right now is a cantrip-dense Delver of Secrets deck that leans into Ninja of the Deep Hours and the Mystic Sanctuary engine along with high velocity cantrips like Preordain and Brainstorm plus “fetchlands” to see tons of their deck and continue to recur powerful cards like Counterspell.

In order to learn the format, I prepared a couple different tools. Firstly, I took a look at the main archetypes in the format and looked at their aggregate card pools. This is to say that I didn’t look at each deck as a standalone but the 90 or 100 cards that composed the multitude of lists. From there, I wrote out a SWOT analysis of each deck. What it was trying to do, what it couldn’t beat, and where its weak points were. Michael Flores and his Cephalid Breakfast SWOT article is a really great tool if you’re interested in learning more about the concept of a Magic SWOT analysis. If people are interested, I can include this analysis in a future article.

Anyway, after compose SWOT analysis for UR Delver, UB Delver, Burn, RW Monarch, Mono Black Control, and BW Pestilience, GW Bogles, Affinity, Tron, Familiars, and Storm I came to a couple serious conclusions:

#1: Red has the most potent sideboard and removal in the format. Red Elemental Blast and Pyroblast are incredibly versatile and cheap. Gorilla Shaman and Electrickery are absolute hosers in their own rights. Additionally, cards like Lightning Bolt, Galvanic Blast and Fire/Ice are incredibly potent and cheap removal spells.

#2: Black is the least versatile color. It has no real way to address artifacts nor enchantments. It almost absolutely needs a splash color to address non-Delver matchups. The Delver decks largely rely on bounce spells and counterspells to address Artifacts and Enchantments. UR Delver, in my opinion, a large leg up on UB Delver because of its ability to address Artifacts out of the sideboard.

#3: Artifacts and, to a lesser extent, Enchantments play an enormous role in the Pauper metagame. This is most predominantly seen by the mana fixing that Prophetic Prism offers to many staples in the format and the use of Artifact lands to power up the Affinity decks.

#4: Pauper features relatively low cost spells, much like Modern and Legacy, putting cards like Spellstutter Sprite and Prohibit at a premium. However, the efficiency of these decks also leads to very low land counts which can mean that soft counters like Force Spike or Condescend can sometimes be too much to handle in the face of pressure.

#5: Manabase value is a recent boon to Pauper. Manabases offer immense benefits to people who properly construct them. Delver is able to utilize the Mystic Sanctuary recursion engine. Grindy midrange decks can use Bouncelands, Mortuary Mire, gain lands or Bojuka Bog (or simply rarely miss a land drop). Meanwhile, at the cost of fixing, you can use the Tron lands for huge mana generation or the insane advantage of Affinity’s 6(!) unique artifact lands to power up Thoughtcast and the affinity creatures, the manabases of Pauper are a huge avenue of consideration in the current metagame.

#6: Although Delver relies heavily on cantrips, there are very few Draw 2s in the Pauper format. Mono Black and Affinity are a part of the metagame largely because of cards like Sign in Blood, Night’s Whisper, Read the Bones, Thoughtcast and the newest advent of Witching Well. These cards along with something like Deep Analysis offer a more expensive tool to overpower the cantrips out of the Delver deck. Draw 2s heavily tax the Delver endgame of Mystic Sanctuary and Deprive/Counterspell. Lastly, Mulldrifter and Ninja of the Deep Hours are strongly featured in Pauper for the fact that they accrue card advantage for decks like Flicker, Tron and Delver, respectively.

I wanted to start with Draw 2s as my way to take advantage of the metagame so I mapped out three decks that I wanted to try. The first was a UB Control deck that utilized casts like Thoughtcast, Mental Note and Forbidden Alchemy to fill the graveyard with recursive spells and was able to pseudo tutor with Mystic Sanctuary. Being able to Thought Scour into a Deep Analysis or a Counterspell for Mystic Sanctuary seemed powerful and having a late game that could use Dimir Aqueduct or Tragic Lesson to bounce Mystic Sanctuary or Mortuary Mire proved to be a potent endgame. Combine this with the strength of the Accumulated Knowledge engine and you’re drowning in cards. However, the lack of a reliable way to address the artifacts and enchantments of the format made me a little hesitant to continue this strategy. If this interests you, I’d strongly recommend Annul as a sideboard option.

While Enchantments don’t make up an immense portion of Pauper’s metagame, they are central to several decks. Artifacts, however, are the bread and butter of multicolor decks in Pauper. Moving to Grixis, I was able to gain powerful red sideboard cards and cheap red removal.

Slightly updating a deck that I uncovered from 2016, I utilized the artifact advantage to activate the metalcraft for Galvanic Blast and Bleak Coven Vampires. Witching Well and Thoughtcast serve as cheap draw 2s and you can still utilize the bounceland engine for Mortuary Mire. Apart from being a little weak to enchantments, the only pitfall for this list was the fact that you play so many lands, which makes many of your draw 2s a little too air-y. This list eschews countermagic, but I could see a version that makes good use of Prohibit. That said, I played Storm three times and absolutely mashed it apart with the three pronged attack of discard, counters, and graveyard hate.

Jeskai Affinity with Frogmite and then quickly without Frogmite

After Grixis Metalcraft, I was really enjoying the artifact lands, the draw 2s and the metalcraft theme so I pivoted to Affinity. I loved the idea of playing high velocity artifact decks so that I could quickly get to my Atog and its combo pair. Affinity gets to use the whole gamut of artifact lands because of its huge reliance of Prophetic Prism and Chromatic Star, and sometimes even Navigator’s Compass. However, I’d like to take an opportunity to dunk on Frogmite. That card is barely playable and does not do enough to enable anything so I quickly dumped it in order to play more reactive cards and Gearseeker Serpent. A 2/2 without flying is worth exactly 0 mana and feels like a blank. Affinity felt useful but highly synergy reliant. Getting to Myr Enforcer and building up a board was essential to getting to actually threaten my opponents. This frustrated me because the efficient nature of the Delver decks led me to want to not be so exploited by the tempo game. One strategy I tried to lean into was adopting a more controlling deck that could use the draw 2s to contain my enemy’s plans, which I tried to translate to my next build.

Jeskai Metalcraft Aggro

One theme I carried into my next deck was how cool Of One Mind was as a card. In exchange for constructing an even split between humans and nonhumans, you get a 1 mana Divination that has a fail rate of being an evoked Mulldrifter or…you know…Divination.

This deck combines the value to be gleaned from mana, the efficiency of card advantage, and the new trait of aggressive efficiency. I have a few flexible slots that I’m uncertain where to settle into but most slots are locked in. This deck can outgrind the removal of Mono Black, but, hang with the tempo of the Delver decks and carries a well-manicured sideboard. My favorite thing about this deck is despite its aggression, most cards replace themselves or represent multiple cards in and of themselves. Kor Skyfisher and Glint Hawk build into themselves the ability to replay Prophetic Prism and Witching Well or even a land drop again in order to make their drawback an actual boon.

I plan on tuning this deck and running it through leagues and preliminaries all of this week. Next week, I’ll post any updates as well as a rough matchup analysis. Please let me know if you have questions in the comments below or if there’s anything you’d like me to approach.

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