Pauper is in a weird place during spoiler season. When Standard-legal releases are previewed, players like me wait for the whole spoiler drop in order to have a better idea of what commons will quickly disappoint us. 25th Anniversary Masters, like other Masters sets, will be massively important. These reprint-specific sets are opportunities for Pauper to get tools that normally would not appear in the correct rarity slot.
A few years ago,1 Wizards introduced New World Order—a concept designed to keep down board complexity at common. In many ways, Pauper is defined by cards that violate this principle. One only needs to look at Quirion Ranger—a staple in Stompy and Elves—to see New World Order completely ignored. A Quirion Ranger on the table adds difficulty to every attack step. Despite having nearly a decade of sets from the post-New-World-Order era, Pauper still relies on effects in this vein to power up their strategies. So when a reprint release is being spoiled, my eyes are peeled for cards that are changing rarity in the hope they will shake things up.
In the past this has held true. Looking at the competitive landscape, we can see how it has been shaped by the Masters releases of 2017—both Modern Masters 2017 and Iconic Masters. Seeker of the Way may be the newest addition to the pile, but Augur of Bolas, Burning-Tree Emissary, and Dinrova Horror are key cards to understanding the current metagame. The release of 25th Anniversary Masters is about a fortnight. Hence, it seems like a good time to go over the basics of the competitive Pauper metagame.
Before I go any further I want to say that Pauper is incredibly diverse, especially in League play. The Magic Online Pauper League is “friendly,” which means that a record of 3-2 will earn back your entry fee and reward a Treasure Chest. The lower stakes means that there is less risk in trying something new or different. The Pauper Challenge, a larger tournament held on Sunday, has consistently run seven rounds plus a Top 8. The decks I am talking about today sit on top of the Challenge metagame. This means they are likely good for the Leagues as well, but may have trouble with some of the more roguish elements. With that out of the way, let’s get to the good stuff.
Gush is a supremely powerful card and Pauper is the only tournament format where you can play the full 4 copies. Unlike Vintage, picking up Islands means actual Islands and not lands like Underground Sea or Volcanic Island. In turn this biases Gush decks toward blue. There are two main types of decks that play Gush: Delver and combo.
The best deck for my money is Izzet Delver. Relatively new to the scene—it only came into vogue after the release of Modern Masters 2017—Izzet Delver leverages the strength of Gush alongside the power of Ponder, Preordain, and Brainstorm. The key cards released last year that made the archetype sing were Augur of Bolas and Ash Barrens. Augur provided a reasonable roadblock that found key cards (Gush, Skred), while Ash Barrens made it easier to find the correct untapped color of mana while also increasing the potency of Brainstorm.
Brainstorm, another card you can play the full 4 copies of, is weaker in Pauper than it is in other formats due to the lack of Flooded Strand-style fetchlands. There were ways to mimic the effect—Thought Scour and Preordain both work—but Ash Barrens gives these decks the best way to filter away the top of the deck after a Brainstorm.
Izzet Delver added removal to the traditional mono-blue build. Last year, mono-green Stompy decks powered by Burning-Tree Emissary were running roughshod over Pauper. The green deck was able to deploy threats around Delver’s counter suite of Spellstutter Sprite and Counterspell, and the blue deck would fall behind. Adding Lightning Bolt and Skred gave Delver the opportunity to address resolved threats and maintain board parity until it could pull ahead with Ninja of the Deep Hours. Both Izzet Delver and Delver are strong options. I think Izzet Delver is better at the moment, since it can has the tools to deal with creatures that have hit the battlefield.
mw_94gA, 1st place at 2/25/18 Pauper Challenge
Mezzel, Top 4 at February 11 Pauper Challenge
Pauper Gush combo decks are creature-based. They use the same powerful blue cards to sculpt their hand and try to win in a single attack. There are two distinct strategies here: Izzet Blitz and Tribe Combo.
- Izzet Blitz uses its spells to power up Nivix Cyclops and Kiln Fiend, often dealing a lethal blow thanks to Temur Battle Rage.
- Tribe Combo adds white to the Gush engine for Tireless Tribe, which goes lethal thanks to Inside Out and Shadow Rift.
Both of these decks use their abundance of cards in different ways. Blitz wants to cast spells, using Gush to make mana, while Tribe wants to pitch the excess cards, which makes a single Gush nearly lethal. Neither of these decks are as popular as Izzet Delver thanks in part to their vulnerability to removal. That being said, they deserve mention in this top tier of decks thanks to their raw power.
nekotora, Finalist at February 11 Pauper Challenge
HELLutek, 1st place at February 18 Pauper Challenge
The monarch mechanic comes to Pauper from Conspiracy: Take the Crown. There are three cards that allow you to become the monarch in Pauper: Entourage of Trest, Palace Sentinels, and Thorn of the Black Rose. Once a player is the monarch, they draw a card at the beginning of their end step. The only ways to lose the benefit? Someone else plays a card that makes them the monarch or they are dealt combat damage.
The monarch represents the only reliable way to build a Phyrexian Arena. Recurring sources of card advantage are tough to come by in Pauper and the monarch is worth building around. The very best monarch deck runs white and red. Boros Monarch uses cards like Thraben Inspector and Kor Skyfisher to hold the fort until Palace Sentinels comes online to draw more cards. Once in play, the crown is defended with Alchemist’s Vial and Prismatic Strands until flying creatures combine with copies of Lightning Bolt and Galvanic Blast to end the game.
There is another monarch deck—Orzhov Monarch—that uses Pestilence to control the board. While Pestilence is a powerful card, it forces the deck to be slower, giving up the efficiency of red removal. Palace Sentinels gets the nod here as well due to its native resistance to Lightning Bolt, unlike Thorn of the Black Rose. The black creature does see occasional play in other midrange decks, notably Mono-Black Control (which you can read about in this Brian DeMars article) but when people talk about monarch in Pauper, they almost always mean Plains.
billster47, 1st place at February 11 Pauper Challenge
A_AdeptoTerra, 5-0 in a Pauper League
Elves and Tron
Elves and Tron are a presence in Pauper, but are not nearly as powerful as Gush and Monarch decks. That being said, they are still decks you should be aware of if you are dipping your toe into the format. Both of these decks use an abundance of mana to generate threats and overwhelm their adversary.
Elves, covered by Brian DeMars here, is another creature-based combo deck. It uses creatures like Quirion Ranger and Priest of Titania to generate obscene amounts of mana. It can then draw a ton of cards with Distant Melody or Lead the Stampede and spit out more Elves thanks to Nettle Sentinel and Birchlore Rangers. Elves is explosive, but vulnerable to sweepers like Electrickery, Shrivel, and Crypt Rats.
Tron, in its many forms, wants to resolve the biggest possible threat. Some decks want to accelerate to Tron to stick and early Ulamog’s Crusher or start chaining together Dinrova Horror triggers with Mnemonic Wall and Ghostly Flicker. Other Tron decks, like the one I covered last week, want to take a more controlling route. No matter what, the Tron deck wins by consistently going over the top. Fighting Tron means picking an axis and going hard. Whether it’s sniping their graveyard engine or constraining their mana with Stone Rain, the goal should be to attack one of their main resources.
These are, in my estimation, the best decks in Pauper. Gush, Monarch, and Big Mana represent three poles. The cards in 25th Anniversary Masters might change things. In order to do so, they will need to give green some non-Elven options and black, well, something great. Ideally a real 2-for-1 removal spell, but I’m not holding out hope.