A Bleak Existence

Last week, my interview with Eric Froehlich contained a rather succinct nugget of deck-building wisdom for Pauper. When I asked the Hall of Famer about deck construction this is what he had to say:

“The decks in Pauper follow the same principles as decks in Pro Tour formats. Looking for high synergy at the expense of power can work, and just jamming raw power can also work. If you choose to not play powerful cards like Brainstorm or Lightning Bolt, you need to have good reasons to do so, and getting too cute with combos are likely going to fall apart to streamlined dedicated decks”

So, of course, I spent the last week or so ruminating on these sentences. Looking at the top Pauper decks puts this in perspective as they almost all focus on doing incredibly powerful things. Izzet Delver leans hard on a suite of above-the-curve card filtering spells to add consistency and run a higher threat density, while Stompy uses the free mana from Burning-Tree Emissary to create an army and then punch through with Rancor. The various Tron decks use the strength of the eponymous mana engine to do things appropriate for the cost of the card, just several turns ahead of schedule. Affinity also cheats on mana cost, but does so in a way that takes advantage of synergy. If I had to pick another powerful strategy that sees heavy play, I would settle on Palace Sentinels decks, since drawing an extra card every turn is a sure fire way to pull ahead.

That’s a lot of power for a format made up entirely of commons. And yet, this sample only scratches the surface of the list of potent Pauper playables. There is one card which is sits at the top of the heap when it comes to untapped potential.

Tortured Existence

Tortured Existence is unique amongst Pauper playables. It is a relic of a bygone era of card design and represents a challenging puzzle for brewers. Decks based around the card have found some success over the years, but it has yet to break through in the Challenges. Today, I want to explore exactly what this card does and how we can try to get to break through the ranks.

While I make a big ruckus over Pauper’s lack of a solid sweeper, the format also is missing persistent forms of card advantage. While other formats have been the recipient of Planeswalkers over the past ten years and have long had cards like Howling Mine and Phyrexian Arena, Pauper has only recently benefitted from Palace Sentinels and Thorn of the Black Rose. The Monarch, while a powerful ability, is hardly the same as being able to use Liliana, the Last Hope on a regular basis.

Instead, Pauper has had to make do with enchantments for a permanent with a repeatable effect. Recently, Curse of the Bloody Tome and Curse of the Pierced Heart have seen play but they pale in comparison to Tortured Existence. Unlike The Monarch and the Curses, Tortured Existence is a true engine that is capable of turning one resource into another. In this instance, it is trading one creature for a different creature but that does not make it any less powerful. In many ways, it is a Pauper version of Survival of the Fittest.

Survival of the Fittest

Like most exaggerations, this one is for effect. But there is some truth behind the hyperbole. It has to do with the nature of tutors in Pauper, specifically those that are capable of finding threats. The best cards that search for something specific are rather limited: Mystical Teachings can get any instant or creature with Flash, Goblin Matron can get any Goblin, and Trinket Mage can get any artifact with a converted mana cost of one or less. These cards are not ideal for finding spells that end the game in short order. Of course, these are just the cards that search the library. In Pauper, it makes more sense to use the graveyard as the target of tutoring spells.
Cards that retrieve spent resources show up often at common. Gravedigger, Auramancer, and Archaeomancer style cards are workhorses in Limited and as such can often be found at a low rarity in order to facilitate themes in small deck formats. On top of this, there are plenty of cards that can easily stock the graveyard, from Cathartic Reunion to Forbidden Alchemy to Stinkweed Imp (to name a few).

Once we start to think of the graveyard as a second library, comparing Tortured Existence to Survival of the Fittest starts to make sense. There is one massive exception: Tortured Existence can get back a creature previously discarded. In essence, a spent resources is never actually gone forever (barring graveyard removal).

Stinkweed Imp
The best way to fuel Tortured Existence is to have access to Stinkweed Imp. The ability to open up to five options per turn is nothing to laugh at and Stinkweed Imp is a formidable defensive card on its own. Golgari Brownscale also sees play in these decks (even if they are not running Forests) as a way to gain enough life to stay alive. Brownscale will gain two life every time it returns from a graveyard to a hand, regardless of the cause. Bringing it back with Tortured Existence works just fine and having access to two Brownscales turns each Black mana into two life.

In preparing for this article, I spoke with EightSixEightSix (also known as Jon). Jon has spent a lot of time tuning various Tortured Existence decks and is something of an authority on the deck. He described the core as four copies of the namesake enchantment, at least two (and usually three) copies of Stinkweed Imp, and three copies of Grave Scrabbler. According to Jon, Grave Scrabbler makes the deck work. The ability to pitch it to Tortured Existence and then go up two cards (the card from Tortured Existence and the card from Scrabbler’s Madness ability) while having a 2/2 on the board, all at instant speed, makes it a key element of the engine.

Beyond this core however, the deck is highly malleable. While many pilots choose to run a wide variety of threats, Jon likes to keep his under 4 mana. The reasoning behind this is that, in the late game, Tortured Existence decks want to be casting multiple creatures per turn and having too many expensive cards makes it hard to get ahead on the board. Jon also prefers to add White to his builds, allowing him greater redundancy with Auramancer or Monk Idealist, as well as getting extra uses out of cards like Seal of Fire and Dead Weight. Check out Jon’s build here:

However, the most common color pairing is {B}{G}. Not only does Green provide cards like Commune with the Gods and Vessel of Nascency to help find Tortured Existence, but these same cards help to fill the graveyard. Golgari versions of the deck will feature a wide variety of threats, ranging from Arrogant Wurm (to turn Tortured Existence into an offensive weapon) to Wild Mongrel to Putrid Leech. More often than not, these builds take a toolbox approach and run a wide array of utility creatures and will attempt to stay alive by looping Spore Frog. Much like this deck:

The biggest thing holding Tortured Existence decks back, in my opinion, is not their power but rather their ability to close out the game. Often these decks take a long time to set up the victory formation. They also require a lot of clicks on Magic Online, which add up over time.

The end result is a deck that cannot start winning until low on time and high on turns. Playing it at a high level over the six or seven rounds of a Challenge can be a daunting task. Yet I think this is poised to change if Tortured Existence decks adopt Falkenrath Noble.

Pairing the Noble with Carrion Feeder makes it so that Tortured Existence decks can attempt to start winning as early as turn five. Compared to the twelfth turn (to pick a double digit number at random), this makes winning on time a less arduous task. Once I am fully unpacked (news flash: I recently moved), I am eager to see exactly what Falkenrath Noble can do when paired with the best common enchantment from Stronghold.

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