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“What Beats What?” In the Pauper Metagame

I’ve made no secret MTG Pauper has become my favorite constructed format to play and explore over the past few years. I enjoy the wide array of viable strategies and have a growing appreciation for how the significantly lower cost to acquire decks and format staples fosters an environment where a greater number of players can actively participate in “metagaming,” as switching decks isn’t nearly as cost prohibitive as in other formats.

Today’s article will lay out the fundamental building blocks of the Pauper metagame and how they match up against one another. If you’ve been considering breaking into the format, or have been getting the itch to jump back in after a hiatus, you’ve come to the right place! 

A GUIDE TO BUILD UPON

It’s important to keep in mind that MTG metagames are not a concrete rule, but rather a fluid set of guidelines that inform how we choose and position or strategy. 

Just because a matchup is “favorable” doesn’t guarantee a win, it merely suggests that before hands are drawn, mulligans are resolved, choices are made, sideboarding is performed, and games are played to their conclusions that one deck has the advantage. Magic, unlike say, Rock-Paper-Scissors, has significant variance and nuance that determine the outcome of games after the initial archetypes are selected and thrown into the ring. 

There’s also significant variation within archetypes that can swing a matchup positively or negatively, as well as high impact sideboard cards that can dramatically swing games when drawn from the deck. 

A great example of a single card that can wildly swing a Pauper game in a bad match up: 

Weather the Storm

In the abstract, Burn has a lot of inherently positive matchups but a single Weather the Storm drawn at the right time can essentially nullify between 3 and 5 of a Red Mages’ cards! There are countless examples of silver bullet spells that can put specific decks in a pickle, and learning those dynamics is one of the ways player’s are able to improve their footing in unfavorable matchups. 

THE PAUPER METAGAME

For today’s article I compiled data from several MTG sources (Mtgtop8, MtgGoldfish, and MTGdecks) to paint a broad picture of what the Pauper metagame looks like here in April 2020. 

For every result that gets published and added to the observable data, there’s likely hundreds of results that go unreported and thus, margin of error. Metagaming isn’t an exact science, but rather looking for trends and patterns in the observable results and deciphering the relationships between decks to make adjustments. 

TIER 1: (Accounts for roughly ½ of the field):

~20% VARIOUS COUNTERSPELL DECKS (8% Izzet (Delver or Control), 7% Dimir (Delver or Control, & 4% Mono U) 

~15% BOROS MIDRANGE DECKS (10% Tokens, 5% Metalcraft)

~12% TRON DECKS

CounterspellThraben InspectorStonehorn Dignitary

The Tier 1 decks are the most popular choices you are likely to face and have a rock-paper-scissors relationship:

Counterspell is favored against Urza Tron.

Urza Tron is favored against Boros.

Boros is favored against Counterspell.

Another thing you’ll surely note is that I’ve lumped a lot of Blue decks playing Counterspell together and each provides unique and significant variety with regard to potential card choices and how it matches up against the field. We could certainly unpack these relationships further, but that would potentially be another article or two to fully break down! 

As a general rule, I’ve observed the various Blue decks don’t tend to have different “favorable” or “unfavorable” matchups against key archetypes, but rather these strategic hedges impact “how favorable or unfavorable” a matchup is on a spectrum. 


U/B Delver has been an archetype on the rise in the meta in recent months and certainly an archetype that capitalizes on many favorable matchups with some nice hedges against unfavorable ones (for instance, Echoing Decay against Boros’ Spirit Tokens). 

One of the biggest inherent strengths of playing a Blue Counterspell is they are highly customizable with regard to how they position themselves against the field. As a rule of thumb, hedges don’t tend to outright swing matchups from unfavorable to favorable, but rather determine on a spectrum the severity of how favorable or unfavorable a match up is. 

It’s also worth noting that these three archetypes combined (Counterspell + Boros + Tron) account for roughly half of the field! So, it’s important to keep these matchups firmly in mind because they are what you are most likely to face each time you are paired. 

TIER 1.5: (Accounts for roughly 30% of the field): 

~7% AFFINITY 

~7% BURN

~6% ELVES

~5% STOMPY 

~5% WHITE HEROIC 

Lava SpikeTimberwatch ElfSavage SwipeEthereal ArmorAtog

The second Tier of decks represent the next most likely grouping of possible opponents. The variable that most informs and characterizes these strategies is that they tend to have more polarizing “favorable” and “unfavorable” matchups against key players in the metagame, which makes them slightly less consistent choices. However, choosing one of these strategies can yield high dividends when a player is able to dodge those pesky rough matchups and spike the good ones! 

So, these tend to be choices that greatly reward paying close attention to which way other player’s choices are trending.  

TIER 2: (Accounts for the remaining 20% of the field):

Mono Black, Auras Hexproof, Slivers, Goblins, Golgari Sacrifice, Orzhova Pestilence, Flicker Combo, and Tireless Tribe. 

None of these decks represent more than 2% of the metagame, but combine to account for ⅕ of the field. These are the Rogue Decks. While these decks tend to have even more polarizing match ups, they also benefit from not having a bullseye on their back (due to small meta representation). Overall, I would not describe these decks as being well positioned against the majority of decks in the Top Tier in the abstract, which likely accounts for their individually small piece of the metagame pie. 

The numbers 

The numbers that reflect tiers have more to do with the likelihood of facing an opponent on a certain type of strategy rather than a direct assessment of how good it is. With that said, there is certainly some correlation between a deck’s popularity and ability to win in the metagame! 

WHAT BEATS WHAT? 

DECK NAMEGOOD AGAINSTTOO CLOSE TO CALLWEAK AGAINST
COUNTERSPELL DECKS (20%)TRON, BURN, ELVESAFFINITY, STOMPYBOROS, WHITE HEROIC
BOROS (15%)COUNTERSPELL, STOMPY, BURN, ELVES, WHITE HEROICAFFINITY, TRON
TRON (12%)BOROS, AFFINITY, STOMPY, ELVES, WHITE HEROICCOUNTERSPELL, BURN
AFFINITY (7%)BOROS, STOMPYCOUNTERSPELL, ELVES, WHITE HEROICTRON, BURN
BURN (7%)TRON, AFFINITYSTOMPY, COUNTERSPELLBOROS, ELVES, WHITE HEROIC
ELVES (6%)STOMPY, AFFINITY, BURN, WHITE HEROICCOUNTERSPELLTRON, BOROS
STOMPY (5%)COUNTERSPELLBURN, AFFINITY,ELVES, TRON, BOROS, WHITE HEROIC
WHITE HEROIC (5%)COUNTERSPELL, STOMPY, BURNAFFINITY,TRON, BOROS, ELVES

Most Pauper matchups tend to be fairly close and have a high degree of play and decision making (deck construction, choices, and sideboarding) that inform victory or defeat. With that said, not all “favorable” or “unfavorable” matchups are created equally! I’ve underscore a few key matchups that I believe are notably great or poor. 

TRENDS TO KEEP IN MIND

Since 99% of MTG Pauper likely to be played and reported during the #Covid19 pandemic is MTGO based, it is useful to keep that in mind when interpreting the data. 

My grouping of “what beats what?” is informed by how I have observed match ups to work in the abstract when played well on both sides and to completion. 

I do believe many Counterspell decks have the edge against Tron, but that edge is exaggerated in a meaningful way when “clocking out” comes into the equation, which is a real dynamic in MTGO. Other decks, such as Elves and Boros, can also steal wins against Tron via the clock, despite having horrendous matchups in the abstract. So, while on Paper (and IN paper!) Tron looks like an absurdly good choice, the result on MTGO is closely linked to speed and skill of interface execution. 

Another emergent trend in the Pauper meta has been the recent success of White Heroic. The deck essentially functions like a hybrid of Stompy and Hexproof. The key to the deck’s success is that while similarly positioned to Green Aggro against the meta, it trends more positively against key Meta players such as Stompy, Counterspells, and Burn. It basically improves some of its close and good match ups, at the expense of % against its worst match ups. 

Dimir has also trended upward, likely because it’s the best positioned Counterspell variant against White Heroic. 

There you have it, the basic underlying current that shapes the ebb and flow of the Pauper Metagame! I’m obviously a big fan of the format and if today’s article sparked your interest, I highly encourage you to jump in and give it a try. 

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