Common Struggles

Sometimes I struggle with what to write about when it comes to Pauper. I have been playing this format for over a dozen years and writing regularly about it since Scars of Mirrodin. But sometimes I feel as if there is nothing to say.

A writer? Suffering from writer’s block? Stop the presses.

While far from solved, at times there is only so much to say about Pauper. The release of Hour of Devastation has not really shaken up the format. The Challenges are still well attended and providing a bounty of information. But the regular data haul is not telling us anything new — Stompy and {U}{R} Delver sit on top of the heap while everything is is vying for the bronze — and is leaving me wanting for the next batch of cards from Iconic Masters and Ixalan. As Tom Petty said and Homer Simpson well knew, the waiting is the hardest part.

Instead of having a cohesive story to tell this week I am going to talk about what’s been on my mind with regards to Pauper. Instead of rehashing the same old metagame tale or presenting you with a deck that has not been tested enough, I want to give you a tour of my thoughts.

In case the previous paragraphs did provide you with enough prognostication, I’m sorry for what will be presented.

On Draw Spells

Compulsive Research
There are very few raw card advantage spells that see play in Pauper. The most common may be Thoughtcast and that sees play in precisely one of the top decks. Gush also sees heavy play; and, although it is rarely of four-of, it may soon surpass Thoughtcast due to the abundance of Izzet Delver and the Mono-Blue variety. Both of these cards make some serious demands during deck construction. And yet these two still far outstrip other options in the current metagame.

Accumulated Knowledge can crop up but it has its own issues. Until the fourth Accumulated Knowledge is cast, the Nemesis standout generates the same amount of card advantage as Think Twice. It most often appears in Dimir Delver where Thought Scour and Mental Note help to get Gurmag Angler into play early, but considering the amount of graveyard hate in the format I find it hard to justify relying on this former all-star to go up on cards.

I think part of the dearth of card draw has to do with the strength of card selection. Ponder, Preordain, Forbidden Alchemy, and Mystical Teachings may not generate cards, but they can do wonders to increase card quality. The fact that two of these cost a single mana and the other two are instants lower their opportunity cost. Why use a sledgehammer when you can find your scalpel?

Mulldrifter used to be the gold standard when it comes to going up on cards but the five mana in the upper right hand corner has pushed its metagame share down. As Pauper has gotten faster, expensive card draw has gotten worse. If five is too much, what is the sweet spot of mass draw?

I have become fascinated with Compulsive Research. Once a Standard staple, the sorcery had a home in Pauper but has fallen off recently. I find that odd since it gives you three looks and helps to get a potentially dead land out of your hand.

I think Compulsive Research does have two big strikes against it in the current landscape. First is that players have be regularly shaving lands even in midrange and control decks. When every land drop is vital, the chance of ending up even on cards at the expense of a land drop appears too high. The other issue is that due to the format’s skewing left on the axis of speed, taking off turn three or waiting until turn four to cast the spell, and then potentially not have a follow up, could be too much to bear.

All of this is why I have my eye on Tragic Lesson. Lesson is a Catalog with upside if you can return a land to your hand. Being able to draw two at instant speed is valuable — Artificer’s Epiphany is a similar card with a slightly more onerous rider — but the fact that Tragic Lesson has synergy with the Cycling lands from Onslaught is what piqued my interest. The ability to play one of these lands in the first few turns and then pick it up later, cycling it for a new card, turns it into a virtual draw three (albeit at a decent hit to your board). Tragic Lesson is not a card you can run four of, but it can fit into some decks as a way to refuel in the midgame. Of course when we are talking about 3-drops we also need to be looking at ways to accelerate.

On Ramp and Signets

Izzet Signet
One of the reasons cards like Compulsive Research are struggling to make the playable pile is because, if cast on turn three, it is impossible to follow up with any meaningful sequence. This is where Signets and other ramp can factor into the equation. Setting up a Signet (or a Rampant Growth or a Mind Stone) on turn two will give you access to (ideally) 4 mana on turn three. Since most valuable interaction in Pauper costs a single mana, a Compulsive Research is less about taking a turn off and more about increasing overall card quality while also taking something off the board.

Acceleration also has the advantage of making it easier to make two plays in early turns. Burning-Tree Emissary has changed the speed of Pauper, and making a single play on early turns does not always cut it anymore. A Signet means taking a turn off but potentially makes it easier to recoup some tempo on the next turn. The ability to cast an Augur of Bolas and find a 1-mana removal spell does not undo a Burning-Tree Emissary Turn but it does help to mitigate the damage.

The problem with a ramp strategy is that it doesn’t really go anywhere. The best ramp targets are things like Dinrova Horror and Ulamog’s Crusher, but those are both better suited for decks packing the UrzaTron. Because of this, there has been little exploration of basic acceleration that does not result in a game ending amount of mana. Given the current pace of play in Pauper, I do not know if there is merit to Signets. If there is, they may be best suited to turn three where you can play one and still have two mana up, a la Mana Leak in old Ravnica Standard.

Catching Up

Whiplash Trap
Pauper lacks a catch up feature. This is a reality of a format based around commons but it is perhaps the thing that frustrates me most about the actual game play. The aforementioned Burning-Tree Emissary makes it so, a decent amount of the time, a Green or Red aggressive deck can get significantly ahead. The lack of a solid sweeper makes it a challenge for slower strategies to compete. Evincar’s Justice is excellent, but by turn four it is often too little, too late. Signets and other similar cards should help in these situations but taking a full turn off can be fatal in it of itself.

Here I am not sure what the answer might. A card like Whiplash Trap is appealing on some level but in the best case scenario it simply buys time. Ideally a Masters style set will provide a cheap sweeper that does not negatively impact the associated Limited format, but that is a pipe dream. Our best bet is Iconic Masters with its focus on Angels, Demons, Sphinxes, Hydras, and Dragons. And even then I am not very hopeful.

These are three things that have been bugging me recently. Pauper is a format of extremes with fast aggro decks and big mana control decks working to keep the middle ground down. Despite the power of cards like Compulsive Research and Evincar’s Justice, a true midrange strategy that has staying power has yet to emerge. That is not to say such a deck cannot win — Boros Monarch has done just that and is one of the more successful decks in Pauper — but personally I wish there was more space to explore what to do on turns three through five.

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