Ixalan, Iconic Masters, and Pauper

Unlike other formats, Pauper gets new cards added to the pool whenever a rarity is shifted to common. That means the various Masters sets create additional excitement for the community. With Iconic Masters dropped last Monday and Ixalan fully revealed last Friday, hopes were soaring high that Pauper would get a bounty of goods. And while the highest highs are fantastic the valleys run deep.

Maybe the expectations set forward by Modern Masters 2017 ruined new sets for me. That release upended the status quo in the format by providing three new staples: Augur of Bolas, Burning-Tree Emissary, and Dinrova Horror. There are other cards from the set that see play, but Pauper has been forever altered by the presence of those three pieces. While I never believed Ixalan would rise to that occasion, I was somewhat hopeful as Amonkhet supplied Pauper with a slew of role-players; cards that do not hold up an archetype but instead provide a bolstering effect in an otherwise weak area. Iconic Masters, however, made me believe that my format of choice might finally get access to some much needed effects.

That expectation was based upon my reading of the name. I, as others believed, that Iconic Masters was going to be a set chock full of Angels, Sphinxes, Demons, Dragons, and Hydras. I do not doubt that a portion of my disappointment with the set stems from the fact that there was almost no context provided before the entire spoiler hit the internet. While old-school prereleases are a novel throwback, the combination of Iconic Masters and the Ixalan leak have demonstrated to me the strength in Wizards traditional spoiler season.

But you are not here to hear me rant about what I did not like. You came to find out what commons may matter in the future. As I previously said, the crests of the commons are going to make waves. Those peaks are not numerous but they are easy to spot.

Starting with Ixalan, the set is absolutely gorgeous. The feel of the set is reminiscent of Zendikar, and that helped to draw me to the flavor. Perhaps Magic is at its very best when it turns into the skid of unknown. So much of the game is about discovery that maybe when sets tap into the idea of exploration they are better for it.

Without the benefit of having touched the cards, Ixalan appears to be a set about amassing resources. Treasure tokens can be hoarded until they are spent on a large threat while the Explore mechanic helps to find you the land you need to . . .  cast your big threats. If you whiff on a land no worries — you have a slightly larger threat to hold the ground. The best tribal payoffs come at uncommon and rare so Pauper, as always, has to work with the support structure.

The problem with the scaffolding is that it is trying to hold up archetypes that do not exist at the highest level of competitive Pauper. Games in the format tend to hinge on turns three, four, and five. Trying to delay action until the sixth turn, when these Treasure tokens could start mattering in an appreciable way, is simply too late.

That leads me to another issue with Ixalan in the context of Pauper: everything is expensive. When one of your main mechanics generates mana it is good design to make them cost more. Take Prosperous Pirates for example.

Five mana for a 3/4 is below rate, even in Blue. Yet this card comes with two copies of Lotus Petal once it resolves, making its net cost three. This is different from Cloud of Faeries since it creates a bound amount of mana. Only eliminating the generic cost entirely will make it so the Pirates make more mana than they cost to cast. This appears intentional as a way to encourage players to hoard Treasure for a latter game payoff. While the net cost for many staple effects in Ixalan are the same as their borderline counterparts, the upfront cost is greater to accommodate Treasure.

Compare Paladin of the Bloodstained to Attended Knight. While the Paladin comes with an extra point of power and makes an ostensibly better token, it still costs more mana. The jump between three and four in Pauper is fairly significant and likely will prevent the Paladin from seeing play. In the context of Ixalan Limited however the cost will be largely similar due to the presence of cards like Depths of Desire and Pirate’s Prize. The ability to tack on a Treasure makes later investments cheaper but does little for trying to hit the curve in competitive Pauper.

All that being said Prosperous Pirates will be played. There is a contingent in the format that absolutely adores looping cards with Ghostly Flicker and Mnemonic Wall in the hope of achieving an infinite combo. With a single copy of Sunscape Familiar, Nightscape Familiar, or Goblin Electromancer, one can cycle these cards indefinitely and attempt victory with Sage’s Row Denizen, provided they can act fast enough to beat the clock. Unlike Cloud of Faeries or Peregrine Drake, the fact that Prosperous Pirates cannot generate mana through Ravnica Bouncelands like Izzet Boilerworks likely makes it safe for the format.

Despite all my issues with Treasure it still provides a card that I think could make a massive impact in the form of Prying Blade. One deck Pauper players keep trying to pilot is an adaptation of Caw Blade. The logic follows that given we have Squadron Hawk, we can substitute Trinket Mage for Stoneforge Mystic and Brainstorm for Jace, the Mind Sculptor. Whether or not that logic is sound, it persists with every new release. Part of the issue with making the port work is that Pauper is not as powerful as Standard with Zendikar and Scars of Mirrodin block. One card that was key to making Caw Blade a beast of its time was Sword of Feast and Famine. In case you hadn’t noticed, Pauper doesn’t have a Sword. Prying Blade, however, may fit the bill.

The Sword of Midnight Snack does not come with protection nor two abilities. What it does do is make mana. A single Treasure token each turn may not seem like a lot; but, in the context of a Trinket Mage deck it becomes an additional resource. Over the years, there have been multiple mechanics that look for Artifacts. Affinity and Improvise are two and both could work in a deck where Squadron Hawks want to pick up Prying Blade. The idea is that the evasive creature will generate mana over time and allow you to cast multiple threats each turn. Thoughtcast starts to look attractive considering the Mirrodin standout would cost the same as Divination after a single Treasure token is created. Artificer’s Epiphany also gains value as it turns into an instant speed draw two. Tying this all together is Metallic Rebuke. Once again, a single hit with Prying Blade will let you cast Mana Leak for a single Blue mana by tapping the Equipment. Not too shabby.

Speaking of Squadron Hawk, their vampiric kindred in Legion Conquistador are less impressive. While a 2/2 is clearly superior to a 1/1, the lack of evasion is disturbing. Llanowar Sentinel exists; and, while it does not draw extra copies it can put them right into play for an additional cost. I bring this up because, for five mana, the Sentinels comes out ahead of the Conquistador. They do not fly and the lack of evasion and a stream of 2 power creatures is hardly impressive in Pauper. Finally, drawing three of these on turn three is not as exciting as drawing three Hawks on turn two. It would not shock me if these saw some play if people try some sort of vampire tribal deck.

On first pass I didn’t think much of Dive Down. Then Jon (he of Tortured Existence fame) noted how well this card slots into Tribe Combo. The ability to protect Tireless Tribe from targeted removal while also buffing its effective power could help to improve the deck’s competitive prospects. There is not much else to say since the card does everything Tribe wants to do.

At first I underrated Costly Plunder because I thought it was just a re-skinned Altar’s Reap. I was wrong. The opportunity to sacrifice an artifact in addition to a creature is a huge bonus. Entire strategies have been built around sacrificing cards like Ichor Wellspring. Perilous Research is a similar card and has been found in Affinity builds from time to time. Costly Plunder makes it easier to run this strategy in Black. Considering Fortuitous Find and Resourceful Return from Kaladesh Block, it may be time for a Black Metalcraft strategy to emerge. It already has a powerful finisher in Bleak Coven Vampires.

One place I do not see this card taking off is in sacrifice based decks. These decks do not want to spend an entire card to kill one of their own permanents, even if it does net a card or two. Costly Plunder could be a sideboard card if the format ever trends toward trading removal.

I wish I had more to say about Ixalan but at the moment I do not. The set looks interesting but the fact that it has a Limited format looking to take advantage of Treasure tokens, everything seems to be a touch too expensive. I could be wrong, and once I get my grubby fingers on the card my opinion may very well change. But there is an entire separate set to look at.

Iconic Masters is a set where I am not quite sure what it is trying to do. I think a lot of my questions would be answered if this set had a traditional spoiler season. Lacking that I feel let down by the title.

Draconic Roar
Foul-Tongue Invocation

The set does give Pauper some interesting options. Draconic Roar and Foul-Tongue Invocation are both strong effects, but the current Pauper cardpool does not have sufficient Dragons to support these cards. Maybe if one runs Nameless Inversion these two become viable. Given the presence of Searing Blaze and Diabolic Edict, these two represent a stretch.

Jace's Phantasm
Wight of Precinct Six

Jace’s Phantasm and Wight of Precinct Six are two creatures that can grow to proportions well above their mana cost. However, they rely heavily on the opponent’s deck cooperating. In a format as fast as Pauper, waiting for your adversary to have enough resources for your own threats to matter is not a winning proposition.

Dissolve
Thrill-Kill Assassin
Jaddi Offshoot

Iconic Masters also downshifted a few cards to fill specific roles. Dissolve could be a fifth Counterspell with a reasonable upside. Thrill-Kill Assassin as a solid blocker that when Unleashed poses a threat that can dominate combat in a world full of Kor Skyfishers and Spire Golems. Jaddi Offshoot can come down early and boost a life total, allowing slower decks an opportunity to survive if they can hit their land drops.

Jaddi Offshoot is one reason why, once Iconic Masters hits the scene, aggressive decks could take a hit. Seeker of the Way is the other. Seeker of the Way may single handedly change the way combat works in Pauper. Prismatic Strands is already a heavily played card; and, in concert with the Seeker, it can mean that a game ending attack is nothing more than three more life points for the White player. Seeker of the Way also goes on offense rather well. Casting both halves of Battle Screech means that Seeker attacks for four while leaving behind a rather impressive army of blockers. Playing a Bonesplitter and giving it to the Seeker could lead to a ten point swing.

Seeker of the Way
Guardian Idol
Lead the Stampede

Given that the current metagame largely revolves around Stompy and its army of 2/2 creatures, Seeker of the Way looks to be an absolute game changer come November. Given enough cheap spells, it can not only pick off the Green deck’s threats in combat but it will also help to undo the damage of each attack. It will be interesting to see what sort of format the Khans of Tarkir card will enter, but it will leave something different in its wake.

Guardian Idol gives the format something unique. A mana rock that can go on offense is not something seen previously in Pauper. While we do not have a true board clearing effect, the presence of Evincar’s Justice and Swirling Sandstorm means that it is now possible to completely wipe the board and be left with the last creature standing. Even better — Guardian Idol makes it possible to cast these high impact spells a turn ahead of schedule. While Guardian Idol is not strong enough to spawn an entirely new archetype it may help to bolster some more traditional control style decks in Pauper.

The last card I want to talk about today is Lead the Stampede. Pauper is a format where drawing three creatures off of one spell could be a backbreaking play in the midgame. Yet the creatures you want to draw — things like Shriekmaw — do not really exist in the format. I have seen players talk about running Lead the Stampede in Elves and Slivers. While these both make sense I am not sure either is necessarily correct.

First up is Slivers. The deck has long existed at the fringes of the format but its problem is not about running out of gas. Rather it has a problem when a key creature gets removed and weakens the entire team. The third turn is key as the Sliver player will try to play a lord — either a Muscle Sliver, a Sinew Sliver, or a Predatory Sliver, and another 1-drop. Postponing that until turn four in order to play Lead on turn three might make it so there are two buffs on turn four, but it means that the third turn is spent not adding to the board. Casting it after turn four is better but it does not solve the issue that Slivers is still a bit too slow.

Elves already runs Distant Melody, but that spell requires an Island or copies of Birchlore Ranger. While this is hardly a big ask in Elves, it still can backfire if the opponent has access to Electrickery or something similar. Lead the Stampede allows Elves to cut back on Sylvan Ranger but caps the outcome at five cards. Lead appears to be better on turns three and four, but beyond that the overwhelming card advantage provided by Distant Melody is more important. What does this mean for future builds? I’m not sure. I think shifting to Mono-Green may be more consistent but Distant Melody is clearly powerful. A lot will depend on whether or not sweepers return to the format.

So there you have it. Two sets released two months apart. Ixalan feels like the cocktail hour since we know that Iconic Masters is coming and bringing some heavy hitters. Yet all of these words could be for naught if the metagame shifts drastically by the time November rolls around. But for now I am anticipating a drastically different metagame once Pauper gets a bit iconic.


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