Trial Run for Pauper
I wish I could say I was more excited by Amonkhet. This is not the fault of the set itself but rather where it falls on the release calendar. Coming to Magic Online only five weeks after Modern Masters 2017, it has to contend with one of the most impactful Pauper sets of all time. Burning-Tree Emissary, Dinrova Horror, and Augur of Bolas have all made waves in the format and the surface is only just now being scratched. These cards have made waves and Pauper is just now starting to settle. The end results of this is that Amonkhet is likely to have a smaller immediate presence.
That is not to say that Amonkhet will not matter. It is full of cards that should see play in Pauper but are not likely to shake things up too much. The commons of Amonkhet replicate effects that already exist in some way, shape, or form. Instead the newest set provides plenty of options to round out decklists. Amonkhet is a set designed for playing for edges, not blow outs.
We can see this immediately in Anointer Priest. Soul Warden and Soul’s Attendant regularly see play in go-wide token strategies that feature Raise the Alarm and Battle Screech. Anointer Priest gives these decks another option that can also block reasonably well. A 1/3 body is just the right size to absorb a few hits before going to the graveyard and the nice thing about Anointer Priest’s Embalm cost is that it comes on a turn where token decks could easily Convoke out Triplicate Spirits regardless. The option of an extra card out of this 2-drop gives it a chance of seeing play if Guardians’ Pledge decks ever come back into vogue.
Cartouche of Solidarity has a natural home in Hexproof decks. These decks tend to go all in on a singular threat and the ability to not only pump up Ancestral Mask and Ethereal Armor but provide a natural defense to cards like Chainer’s Edict and Geth’s Verdict. First Strike is a powerful ability that gives smaller creatures a chance in combat and making a token with Vigilance is nothing to sneeze at. While it flies in the face of conventional wisdom, loading Auras up onto the Warrior so you can have a two-way player will win some games. In a mirror match having a big enough blocker will matter.
Forsake the Worldly deserves a look as it handles Rancor. Cycling is a powerful ability as it allows you to include matchup dependent cards in your maindeck at a reduced opportunity cost. Forsake the Worldly will not be the best card in your deck the vast majority of the time but it will be the best card in your deck when you do need it. Yet three-mana is still a massive cost and if it sees play anywhere it is going to be in the sideboard of midrange White decks if Auramancer based decks ever start to matter.
Sometimes a creature is just good because of its power and toughness. Gust Walker may be one such card. A 2/2 for two mana is very close to a full card of value in Pauper and Gust Walker comes with the upside of connecting as a 3/3 flier every other turn. While the format may not have Always Watching it does have Quirion Ranger in Green (which increases the value of those that fight for Rhonas) and Mobile Garrison in every color. With these cards the Exert cost is not as severe, so we should examine Gust Walker as a 3/3 flier for two mana on offense. That is well above the curve for the format and warrants consideration. If a non-token White aggressive strategy emerges in the wake of Amonkhet then I know a 2-drop I will be trying. It even plays nicely in the late game with Kor Skyfisher where you can pick it up after Exert to recast it as a new game object.
Strength of Night is one of my all-time favorite cards for Pauper. A four-mana Instant Overrun can win games out of nowhere but it comes in a poor color pairing for a go-wide strategy. In Oketra’s Name costs half as much as Strength of Night but packs two-thirds of the offensive power. White already plays well with tokens and the inevitable onslaught of Embalmed Zombies means that we may see a new shambling swarm emerge. Black has the lion’s share of Zombie tokens in Pauper but cards like Vile Rebirth and Shamble Back are close to playable while Ghoulcaller’s Accomplice provides a decent amount of stats in a 2-drop. Wake Dancer and Undead Servant do a good job of going wide and setting up this new anthem. Dipping into Black also grants access to Harsh Sustenance for a pseudo-anthem that can also go right for the dome.
W/B Tokens — Pauper | Alex Ullman
When Sacred Cat was spoiled, the Pauper Reddit started to compare it to Hopeful Eidolon. As someone who has played quite a bit with Hopeful Eidolon I think this is a poor analogy. The Eidolon’s primary use was to come down late and boost a creature, giving an already imposing threat a power boost and Lifelink. Once that threat was handled the Eidolon stuck around or was picked up by Kor Skyfisher. Sacred Cat, on the other hand, wants to come down early and pick up a Bonesplitter all by its lonesome. In this way it is far more similar to Doomed Traveler except you have to invest in the second half (which does not fly). I like Sacred Cat as half of it cannot be countered and creates a more relevant creature type. If an In Oketra’s Name deck catches on it will be in part due to the presence of Sacred Cat.
Tah-Crop Elite is underwhelming on its face. A 2/2 flyer for four may be cheaper than Mulldrifter but does not come with the extra cards. The ability to be an anthem every other turn is interesting but even then I do not think it will see play. Dawnfeather Eagle is already in the format and sees almost no play while Cliffside Lookout provides a similar effect (albeit for a repeating investment). Tah-Crop Elite is another in a long line of interesting options for token decks but I do not think it has a home.
As I said before with Gust Walker sometimes stats just matter. Those Who Serve is not a new set of stats in Pauper as Pillarfield Ox, Seraph of Dawn, and Harvest Gwyllion are all White creatures that have the same power and toughness. Those Who Serve costs a full mana less than these creatures. The only comparable creature right now is Acridian which needs to be paid for twice. Those Who Serve could see play as a way to absorb some hits while trading off in the early stages of the game. It is the right size to take some punishment and cheap enough to do the job.
Moving on to Blue, we start in with Hekma Sentinels. A 2/3 on their own, the Sentinels get better when paired with a discard outlet. Next to a Wild Mongrel each discarded card gives us half a Symbiosis. Cathartic Reunion and Tormenting Voice both turn into aggressive options while Careful Study and Faithless Looting help you to increase card quality while maximizing damage output. This all seems incredibly cool until you realize that you need a second card to make Hekma Sentinels worthwhile. After that revelation you wake up and see that a good Hekma Sentinels deck was just a fever dream.
Hieroglyphic Illumination is interesting if far from inspiring. The ability to Cycle it early makes it so it is never a completely dead card. Instead, it can always replace itself early and then late it can be cashed in for two new options. In counter heavy matchups it can be traded in for a potentially stronger card, helping to increase the potential overall card quality of a hand. Hieroglyphic Illumination has some steep competition with Think Twice and Accumulated Knowledge but despite costing four I believe the ability to trade this in for a single mana is a huge point in its favor. It allows more hands to be kept early while not being worthless late.
Archaeomancer has established itself as a staple but Scribe of the Mindful is no Archaeomancer. it comes with better stats and costs one mana less, but it needs to be activated to retrieve a spell. While this does open up lines of playing involving Undying Evil and Supernatural Stamina, the inability to combo with Ghostly Flicker means the Scribe will not be appearing in any existing archetypes. The two power means this can go on offense with twice the efficiency of Archaeomancer, which does provide some opportunity for different strategies. If it sees play it probably will not be doing much attacking, instead choosing to sit back and eat a removal spell before cashing itself in for a key spell in the graveyard.
Seeker of Insight is a conditional Merfolk Looter, albeit one that comes with three toughness. As discussed with Anointer Priest, three toughness is important. The condition on Seeker is hefty, and it is not likely to be active early in the game. Seeker is designed to be used after you cast a Counterspell, not to help you dig for one. Because of this I cannot see it getting heavy play despite its blocking prowess.
Slither Blade and Tah-Crop Skirmisher are both reasonable offensive threats. A 1/2 for a single mana is quite good at picking up Bonesplitter and enabling Ninja of the Deep Hours and can Evolve a Cloudfin Raptor. Skirmisher, on the other hand, can Evolve Raptor twice while also playing a decent attrition game. Neither of these are locks to see play but I would not be surprised in the least if they show up in some second tier Blue deck late in Amonkhet season.
Black has what may be the best card in the set for Pauper but it is not Cartouche of Ambition. The Cartouche is an interesting option for Black decks for aggressive matchups. The ability to pick off a small creature while giving a value creature a power boost and Lifelink may not win the game on its own but it could help turn the tide. Cartouche of Ambition is emblematic of Amonkhet’s potential impact in Pauper — a potential niche sideboard card that may help in certain matchups.
Doomed Dissenter and Festering Mummy both mimic existing cards in Butcher Ghoul and Fume Spitter. The Dissenter has the upside of turning on Anointer Priest while the Mummy can trade with a 2 toughness creature all on its own. Both of these are niche cards which could see play in a sacrifice based deck with Carrion Feeder or Bloodthrone Vampire but there may just be better options.
I feel compelled to mention Final Reward as it is a removal spell that exiles its target. While more expensive than both Complete Disregard and Unmake it hits larger creatures than the former while being easier to cast than the latter. It can be fetched with Mystical Teachings which could give it a home in both control Tron decks and Dimir Teachings.
Horror of the Broken Lands is my pick for the best Pauper card in the set. I know this seems absurd as it is a Durkwood Boars, but the upside on this card is massive when paired with Tortured Existence. Tortured Existence decks have always struggled to close the game out quickly and convert their abundance of resources into a way to win the game. Horror of the Broken Lands turns every Black mana into a temporary Unholy Strength and with enough mana available one swing could end the game. The fact that it Cycles early means that it will almost never be a completely dead card.
Tortured Existence — Pauper | Alex Ullman
Consider this hypothetical list. Krosan Tusker is not only more cards, but it comes with a “Prowess” trigger. Having access to two copies of Golgari Brownscale means each iteration of Tortured Existence is two life and two extra damage. And if they happen to kill your Horror you can simply get it back with the deck’s eponymous Enchantment.
If Horror of the Broken Lands is not the best card in Amonkhet then Supernatural Stamina will be. Undying Evil is already a heavily played card due to its ability to double up Mulldrifter or counteract a removal spell. Supernatural Stamina may not have the bonus of a +1/+1 counter but it does make it so that you can use the same spell on multiple creatures. One of the downsides of Undying Evil is that you cannot cast it twice on the same creature without some serious effort. Supernatural Stamina has not such restriction. On top of that you can chain it together with Undying Evil to keep bringing back a creature regardless of whether or not it has a +1/+1 counter. The replication of this effect gives decks that rely on Undying Evil another tool. Whether or not it is enough to push sacrifice heavy Aristocrats style decks to the next level remains to be seen.
B/G Aristocrats — Pauper | Alex Ullman
Trespasser’s Curse is a hard to interact with way to counteract swarm strategies. At two mana it can help to put a crimp in the plans of a Burning-Tree Emissary draw and can do work against Battle Screech. However it still involves taking a turn off in the hope of gaining a few life while also dealing a few points of damage. The card is a unique enough effect that it should see play — Suture Priest has after all — but the fact that it requires your opponent to play a specific strategy means it is sideboard fodder at best.
Blazing Volley is another in a long line of one damage sweepers. Sadly it is not going to supplant Electrickery or Shrivel. It does highlight the need, however, for a two- or three-mana spell that can help to deal with the number of decks that currently vomit out a horde of Runeclaw Bears on the second turn. I long for a Pyroclasm, but that seems well beyond the realm of possibility. But, if you’re listening Adam Prosak, maybe in the next Masters edition . . . please?
Nef-Crop Entangler falls in the same camp as Gust Walker in the “pure stats” category but the winner from Amonkhet is Thresher Lizard by far. Most aggressive decks these days barely keep cards in their hands as is, so the drawback is anything but. At four power it is the right size to activate Temur Battle Rage. The ability to pair the Lizard with both Wild Mongrel and Gathan Raiders gives the hypothetical Gruul deck a real force.
R/G Rage — Pauper | Alex Ullman
4/4s are tough to handle mid-combat and the presence of Burning-Tree Emissary provides explosive potential. The ability to commit multiple small threats in one turn and follow it up with a sizeable beater is intriguing. Whether this supplants the current mono-colored versions remains to be seen.
Benefaction of Rhonas follows in the line of Commune with the Gods, Vessel of Nascency, and Grapple with the Past. The ability to fetch a Creature and an Enchantment makes it ideal for Utopia Sprawl — Wild Growth ramp decks (which also get the benefit of Gift of Paradise from this set). As seen in the discussion of Horror of the Broken Lands the Sorcery is right at home in Tortured Existence decks.
Bitterblade Warrior and Hooded Brawler both have a chance of seeing play alongside Quirion Ranger. The Brawler seems better to me as it hits harder. Deathtouch is nice on offense but the inability of Bitterblade to be lethal as a blocker. An Exerted Brawler does turn on Ferocious which does matter for cards like Feed the Clan — a sideboard standard in Stompy to fight some Red decks.
The Green entry in the Cartouche cycle, Cartouche of Strength, may just replace Journey to Nowhere in certain Hexproof decks. The ability to gain twice as much life from an Armadillo Cloak is nothing to laugh at; and, when it is cast the chances are good that the Slippery Bogle or Gladecover Scout will be large enough to win any fight. The fact that this Cartouche provides Trample as well gives the Hexproof deck another way to fight through remaining blockers, especially when paired with Ethereal Armor.
Dissenter’s Deliverance, Naga Vitalist, and Stinging Shot all provide new takes on staple effects. The two Instants cycle, which makes them slightly better than other iterations. That being said Deliverance is slower than Natural State while not being as flexible as Gleeful Sabotage, while the Shot is actively worse than other options in the face of Stormbound Geist. Naga Vitalist deserves a mention simply because it is a new effect for a 1/2. Harvester Druid exists, but the extra point of toughness matters. Will it matter enough to have the Naga see play? I’m less than optimistic but I would not be surprised.
Ornery Kudu has one purpose: giving you extra uses out of Young Wolf. As a 3/4 for three, it is already larger than its cost normally allows in Pauper. The ability to get an extra use out of Young Wolf may matter against decks that lean heavily on Chainer’s Edict. A 3/4 is a fine body on its own as well and carries a Rancor quite nicely.
Pouncing Cheetah is no Simian Grunts but Quarry Hauler is interesting. Hunger of the Howlpack is already a potential blowout but the ability to add another counter could be enough to push this card into some decks. Playing it after a Skarrgan Pit-Skulk hits the battlefield could make the 1-drop even tougher to block. 4 mana is a lot but the payoff is there.
Cradle of the Accursed has generated plenty of discussion. It is the first creature land available to Pauper. Sadly it is no Treetop Village. Heck, it isn’t even a Ghitu Encampment. It also pales in comparison to Gargoyle Castle. But it is an uncounterable 2/2 and that allow demands a closer look.
Cradle of the Accursed appears, on the surface, to be at its best in a deck designed to go long. Using removal to pick off threats turn after turn the hypothetical build wants to wait to start attacking. Tilling Treefolk is a good match for this Desert as it can help generate multiple Zombies late. I do not think a Blue deck will want this Land as it requires you to activate it on your own turn. Rather, the Cradle will likely find its home alongside removal like Chainer’s Edict and Lightning Bolt and value plays like Pulse of Murasa and the aforementioned Treefolk. Whether or not such a deck will be good enough to drag a game out remains to be seen but I am sure people will try.
Amonkhet is driven by synergy. The cards are not designed to stand on their own and when they work in concert with similar effects they sing. Pauper, however, is a few voices short of this chorus. That is not the fault of Amonkhet but rather the fact that in the history of Magic +1/+1 counters far outweigh their -1/-1 brethren. Amonkhet cards will see play but I do not expect them to upset the current order.