Pauper Pet Peeves

In the past month I have started to write about a single 5-0 deck every day. This all started years ago where, on my Facebook page, I was trying to track exactly what was good in Pauper. Tracking the data (then from Daily Events) helped to show off the dominance of Cloudpost decks and Temporal Fissure decks; of Treasure Cruise and Cloud of Faeries. These days, Pauper is in a good place, format health wise, but I wanted to take a chance to highlight some builds that may not be world beaters. I also took the opportunity to share the lists to Twitter to help foster discussion in another medium.

After doing this for a few weeks, I started to notice I was making the same points over and over. It wasn’t that trends started to emerge, more that I found similar issues spread across multiple postings. To be clear, when I say issues, I mean elements of deck construction that I found interesting or confusing. I am hardly an expert when it comes to deck building but I’ve built enough over the years to understand flaws when I see them. I also am willing to wager that I have pored over more Pauper decklists than just about anyone else on the planet, so I am uniquely qualified to discuss these builds at length.

Before I get too deep into this exploration ,I want to talk about the underlying problem. To me, everything else is a symptom of this illness. I’m talking about the presentation of deck data. Leagues will only display 5 undefeated decks each day and recently, due to an edict from Wizards, these decks have to be ten cards unique from any other deck presented. This has led to some Pauper players making interesting decisions in an effort to be seen. Because there are so few slots available for this modicum of fame, many of the decks seen in the rundown are optimized for League play.

Herein is a linked, but distinct issue. Outside of the weekend challenges, the most press Pauper gets is in the league results. Success breeds repetition and information cascades exist. The structure of leagues reward going undefeated which makes for some interesting deckbuilding choices. In the past, the issue was not nearly as pronounced, as Pauper had access to Daily Events which published both 4-0 and 3-1 decklists.

If Pauper ever grows popular beyond the bounds of Magic Online the bounty of decklists would be a blessing. Unlike most other formats, there just aren’t other tournaments held offline en masse. This means that the online metagame is the metagame. Because league data comes out early and often, it is the most abundant source of information. Unlike Standard, Modern, and Legacy, there is no paper analog for Pauper. League play is the most readily available outlet to duel with commons so it tends to act as the end toward which testing trends. Going undefeated for five rounds is very different from trying to make the Top 8 of a 50 person event and an even further distance from making it to the end of a Grand Prix. Because the desired result is different, the process can often take a turn.

I find this problematic. While the goal of a 5-0 is important, it can lead to some poor construction in the hope of meeting that objective. Rather than being constructed for sustained success on a solid foundation, these decklists are held together with duct tape on stilts. They may succeed, but without more data we will never know for sure if they are optimal. Instead, we have to look at theoretical bases to better understand areas for improvement.

First up, I am going to get back on my high horse and talk about Brainstorm. Brainstorm has a reputation earned by being absurdly above the curve in other formats. Brainstorm by itself is only so strong. When paired with a shuffle effect, like Scalding Tarn and friends, it gets immeasurably better. Being able to put away two less useful cards and then banish them to another point in the library, replacing them with fresh draws, takes Brainstorm from good to great.

Terramorphic Expanse
The problem in Pauper is that we do not have access to Scalding Tarn. Our fetchlands are Evolving Wilds and Terramorphic Expanse. Ash Barrens exists but it costs a mana to shuffle, unlike Flooded Strand et al. In the past, I would call Brainstorm an actively bad card in Pauper, but that is no longer the case. Now it is a fine option but comes with a significant cost. Any deck with Brainstorm needs to pack enough ways to get rid of dead cards. Ponder and Thought Scour work but despite being high power come at the cost of a card slot.

Pauper is a format where a card has to earn its spot in a deck. The amount of work needed to optimize a card like Brainstorm may well be worth it but it cannot just go into any deck running Islands. The deck will want to have natural access to shuffle effects and not force them in. At the same time Brainstorm cannot be used as the same style of cantrip as Ponder and Preordain as it does not actively dig you to a land when needed.

Why does this myth persist? The interaction is powerful when it works and can wallpaper over other cracks in deck construction. If you are able to hide bad cards when they aren’t needed, then the chances of victory will increase. Whether or not that happens consistently is another matter entirely.

Card slots are important but sometimes people want to cheat on the number of actual spells in their deck. Pauper has access to Street Wraith, Gitaxian Probe, and Manamorphose. These cards let to see a new option for “free” and there is discussion around running these to shrink the virtual size of their weapon of choice. The problem with this is that it often leads to a deck lacking action. One card that people use in this scenario is Land Grant.

Land Grant
Land Grant can take the role of a Forest in the right deck. While it comes with a pretty hefty cost — that of giving away information — Land Grant can provide the benefit of a land drop while also removing a card from the deck. Over the course of a single game the benefit of removing a card, whether by draw or fetch, is negligible. As the game counter increases so too does the impact, but then the question is “At what cost?” Running Land Grant in the deck above has some benefits, namely untapping Nettle Sentinel equipped with Viridian Longbow (as was pointed out to me by the deck’s pilot), but information given up can be costly. In Elves specifically, knowing which creatures need to be dealt with can be the line between success and failure, and showing off lines of play can be fatal.

These cards often come into play as a way to fit more spells into a deck. When placed alongside a Thermo-Alchemist, they can represent more potential damage but do so at the cost of a card that does something. Every so often, a Burn deck will pop up that features Gitaxian Probe or Manamorphose on the logic that they lend the deck consistency. In reality, they are just taking the place of a card that would act in line with the core strategy. The Elves deck above may improve its draws in the late game but gives up the opportunity to hide its lines.

The idea of running fewer cards in a deck is appealing. It means that you are likely to see your best cards more often. Yet it is a rare occurrence where you find yourself with too few cards you want to include.

Both of the decks listed here today also touch on one of my biggest gripes with decks in Pauper — they run too few lands. Pauper decks, by and large, will always err on running fewer lands than is ideal. This is because games end quickly and being stuck with extra lands early can be the line between a fighting chance and getting steamrolled. Let’s face it: flood sucks. At the same time not having enough cards to regularly cost your spells is not fun either, but I never see decks running too many lands.

To me, this is the most egregious example of the league results holding back good information. League play rewards going undefeated and running too few lands may matter less if you are running a deck with a high enough power level to overcome slow starts. The Dimir Delver deck and the Elves list presented today both went 5-0 and have some merit yet both also skimp on land for the sake of fitting in more spells. The missing lands mean that the decks are more likely to mulligan over a statistically significant number of games and may suffer as a result.

Pauper is like every other format in that people build decks. The science behind construction is flawed on some level. They are built to succeed in short tournaments, but over a long enough time span the elements that are less sound are likely to cost the pilot a game. I hope that one day we will have a chance to see more Pauper decks in order to have a better understanding of what success looks like at every strata of the metagame.

Unstable is available for Preorder!