March 31st was the first of four Pauper playoffs to be held feeding into the next Magic Online Championship. Players qualify by performing well in the Competitive League and weekly Pauper challenges. There were under 50 competitors this time around and unlike the challenges, only the Top 16 decks were released. The image painted by these decks is one of a metagame dominated by a few key interactions.
These results must be taken with a grain of salt. The tournament had a barrier to entry that other challenges lacked. The closed system nature of the playoff had the potential to artificially limit the number of viable decks. With relatively high stakes as well as an entrenched player base, the participants were more likely to pick established entities than the wide array of fringe options we saw at the MagicFest LA MCQ.
The Top 16 largely conformed to the rest of the Magic Online metagame. The big players—Gush and Monarch—came out to play. In fact, out of the published lists only two didn’t feature Gush, Monarch, or Tron—one copy of Burn and one copy of Elves. Burn had the best Swiss record, going 6-0, while Elves snuck into the Top 8 on 4-2.
The Tron Decks
Hampuse1, Top 4 at Q1 Pauper Playoff
1 Island 2 Remote Isle 2 Shimmering Grotto 1 Thornwood Falls 1 Tranquil Cove 4 Unknown Shores 4 Urza's Mine 4 Urza's Power Plant 4 Urza's Tower 1 Dinrova Horror 3 Mnemonic Wall 4 Mulldrifter 4 Sea Gate Oracle 4 Stonehorn Dignitary 1 Compulsive Research 1 Capsize 1 Forbidden Alchemy 2 Ghostly Flicker 2 Moment's Peace 2 Mystical Teachings 2 Prohibit 2 Pulse of Murasa 4 Expedition Map 4 Prophetic Prism Sideboard 1 Moment's Peace 1 Ancient Grudge 2 Circle of Protection: Blue 1 Circle of Protection: Red 4 Hydroblast 4 Pyroblast 1 Serrated Arrows 1 Ulamog's Crusher
There were two Flicker Tron decks in the Top 16 and they both made Top 8. They were both eliminated in the semifinals. Sometimes called Fog Tron or Stonehorn Tron, these builds try to race towards a prison lock with Stonehorn Dignitary, Mnemonic Wall, and Ghostly Flicker. Outside of Burn and some fringe strategies, Pauper games are won through combat. Ask anyone who has played against Ensnaring Bridge and they’ll tell you that preventing attack steps is powerful and these Tron decks are built to enact that combo as quickly as possible.
Out of the three pillars—Gush, Monarch, and Tron—Tron is by far the weakest. It is not that the mana abundance provided by the three Urza lands is weak, but rather that by themselves they do nothing. Gush draws cards and can generate mana, Monarch draws cards, and Tron taps for mana. Unlike Modern there is no Karn Liberated, Ugin, the Spirit Dragon, or Wurmcoil Engine coming down to make people call for a ban on Ancient Stirrings. Where the other cards are ends to themselves, Tron is a means to an undefined end.
The best Tron deck on a given day is going to be metagame dependent. At the playoff these Tron decks were well positioned. Out of the other 14 decks reported, 11 could only win through attacks and two others, Orzhov Monarch and Mono-Black Control, like using creatures to soften the blow before Pestilence or Gray Merchant of Asphodel go to work.
The Monarch Decks
Lampalot, Top 8 at Q1 Pauper Playoff
1 Ash Barrens 2 Barren Moor 2 Bojuka Bog 1 Mortuary Mire 4 Orzhov Basilica 3 Plains 4 Scoured Barrens 2 Secluded Steppe 4 Swamp 3 Arashin Cleric 4 Thraben Inspector 3 Aven Riftwatcher 1 Crypt Rats 3 Guardian of the Guildpact 4 Kor Skyfisher 2 Palace Sentinels 4 Castigate 2 Chainer's Edict 1 Doom Blade 2 Prismatic Strands 2 Tragic Slip 1 Dead Weight 2 Journey to Nowhere 3 Pestilence Sideboard 1 Guardian of the Guildpact 1 Pestilence 1 Prismatic Strands 3 Duress 2 Kor Sanctifiers 2 Okiba-Gang Shinobi 1 Patrician's Scorn 2 Relic of Progenitus 2 Standard Bearer
Kazaner3000, Top 16 at Q1 Pauper Playoff
4 Boros Garrison 2 Evolving Wilds 6 Mountain 6 Plains 3 Wind-Scarred Crag 1 Guardian of the Guildpact 2 Palace Sentinels 2 Sacred Cat 4 Seeker of the Way 4 Thraben Inspector 4 Squadron Hawk 4 Battle Screech 4 Faithless Looting 1 Electrickery 3 Lightning Bolt 4 Prismatic Strands 2 Rally the Peasants 4 Journey to Nowhere Sideboard 1 Electrickery 1 Aura Fracture 1 Circle of Protection: Blue 1 Flaring Pain 1 Gorilla Shaman 1 Lone Missionary 2 Lumithread Field 4 Pyroblast 1 Standard Bearer 2 Stone Rain
Pokerswizard, Top 16 at Q1 Pauper Playoff
3 Ancient Den 1 Ash Barrens 2 Bojuka Bog 3 Boros Garrison 1 Forgotten Cave 2 Great Furnace 1 Mountain 2 Plains 1 Radiant Fountain 1 Secluded Steppe 4 Wind-Scarred Crag 4 Glint Hawk 4 Kor Skyfisher 3 Palace Sentinels 4 Thraben Inspector 2 Battle Screech 1 Faithless Looting 1 Electrickery 4 Galvanic Blast 4 Lightning Bolt 1 Prismatic Strands 3 Alchemist's Vial 4 Prophetic Prism 4 Journey to Nowhere Sideboard 2 Electrickery 1 Prismatic Strands 1 Aura Fracture 4 Pyroblast 1 Relic of Progenitus 4 Seeker of the Way 2 Standard Bearer
PR0boszcz, Top 16 at Q1 Pauper Playoff
4 Barren Moor 2 Bojuka Bog 17 Swamp 4 Chittering Rats 4 Cuombajj Witches 4 Gray Merchant of Asphodel 4 Phyrexian Rager 4 Thorn of the Black Rose 4 Chainer's Edict 4 Sign in Blood 3 Disfigure 2 Echoing Decay 2 Oubliette (Dark) 2 Pestilence Sideboard 1 Echoing Decay 1 Pestilence 3 Choking Sands 4 Duress 2 Relic of Progenitus 1 Syphon Life 3 Wrench Mind
These decks fall into two categories: Boros and Pestilence. Boros Monarch decks, both traditional and the token build, are well established archetypes. Boros Bully wants to go wide with Squadron Hawk and Battle Screech for a lethal Rally the Peasants whereas Boros Monarch uses the combination of Glint Hawk and Kor Skyfisher to rebuy cantrip artifacts and rip through a library. Bully plinks in for damage before winning in a flurry while Monarch moves slower until it can point burn at the face.
Mono-Black Control is a tried and true strategy that struggles to put up consistent results. The cards are all fine but at the end of the day the strength of the deck relies on how well its cards match up against the metagame at large. In a field full of Spellstutter Sprite, Cuombajj Witches is great. Against decks without persistent card advantage, Chittering Rats can be a game changer. Yet these decks were absent from the Top 16, which makes Pr0boszcz’s deck that much more impressive.
Then we come to Lampalot—a.k.a. Michael Bonde—and his Orzhov Monarch deck. These builds are sometimes called Orzhov Pestilence since they lean so hard on the eponymous enchantment. Bonde was prepared for an aggressive metagame with main deck Arashin Cleric and Aven Riftwatcher, and packed the solid removal tandem of Chainer’s Edict with Tragic Slip. The key to this deck’s victory, however, is its ability to pair Pestilence with Guardian of the Guildpact. Now the Orzhov player can wipe the board with impunity and, given a high enough life total, end the game quickly.
The Gush Decks
Blaze66, Top 16 at Q1 Pauper Playoff
17 Island 2 Augur of Bolas 4 Delver of Secrets/Insectile Aberration 4 Faerie Miscreant 1 Jhessian Thief 4 Ninja of the Deep Hours 4 Spellstutter Sprite 3 Gitaxian Probe 3 Ponder 4 Preordain 4 Counterspell 2 Daze 2 Gush 2 Mutagenic Growth 4 Snap Sideboard 3 Annul 3 Dispel 2 Echoing Truth 3 Hydroblast 2 Serrated Arrows 2 Stormbound Geist
Entropy263, Top 8 at Q1 Pauper Playoff
2 Ash Barrens 4 Evolving Wilds 8 Island 2 Plains 4 Augur of Bolas 4 Seeker of the Way 2 Tethmos High Priest 4 Tireless Tribe 4 Gitaxian Probe 2 Ponder 3 Preordain 3 Brainstorm 3 Dispel 4 Gush 4 Inside Out 3 Shadow Rift 2 Journey to Nowhere 1 Shimmering Wings Sideboard 1 Shimmering Wings 3 Gut Shot 2 Hydroblast 3 Kirtar's Desire 2 Obsidian Acolyte 2 Prismatic Strands 2 Ronom Unicorn
Billster47, 1st place at Q1 Pauper Playoff
1 Ash Barrens 4 Evolving Wilds 9 Snow-Covered Island 2 Snow-Covered Swamp 2 Terramorphic Expanse 4 Augur of Bolas 4 Delver of Secrets/Insectile Aberration 1 Elusive Spellfist 4 Gurmag Angler 3 Gitaxian Probe 4 Preordain 4 Brainstorm 2 Counterspell 4 Daze 1 Disfigure 1 Dispel 3 Echoing Decay 2 Foil 3 Gush 2 Snuff Out Sideboard 2 Dispel 2 Annul 1 Curse of Chains 2 Hydroblast 2 Relic of Progenitus 1 Shrivel 2 Soul Reap 3 Stormbound Geist
When I talk about Gush decks, I’m using the term to group a certain stripe of blue decks together. These decks all tend to run Gush, powerful cantrips, and Augur of Bolas in the same shell. Gush decks therefore have access to some of the best hand sculpting available in the history of Magic as well as one of the best draw spells ever printed.
Needless to say, they have a leg up.
There were three Gush decks that cracked the Top 16: Dimir Delver, Priest Tribe, and Mono-Blue Delver. The monochromatic version is well known at this point so let’s shift our attention to the other two.
First up is Priest Tribe. Tireless Tribe combo was a major player in the months after Augur of Bolas was downshifted. Using Inside Out and Shadow Rift, the deck wins in a single attack of Tireless Tribe. It also ran Circular Logic as a synergistic piece of defense. Priest Tribe forgoes defensive countermagic for Tethmos High Priest. The Ultimate Masters downshift increases the deck’s resilience to removal. Entropy263 made Top 8 of the playoff and is the largest proponent of these changes. They also have moved to Seeker of the Way main and added Shimmering Wings as well. Working with Tethmos High Priest, this can turn a surplus of blue mana into multiple fresh creatures, as well as a hard-to-block attack. The new angle of attack gives Tribe decks some reach in the current metagame.
Billster47 won the playoff with Dimir Delver. The list is fairly stock with the exception of Elusive Spellfist. A 1-of, the Spellfist allows you to push through damage on an otherwise stalled board. Billster also did not run any anti-Gurmag Angler removal (such as Curse of Chains or Soul Reap) in their main. In fact, all five of the Dimir Delver decks that made the Top 16 were positioned to beat the field, not the mirror.
Normally I would close this out by talking about the exciting cards we can expect in Modern Horizons. Not this time. If the early spoilers (and this tweet from Andrew Brown) are any indication, War of the Spark heralds a new era when it comes to the design and power level of commons. Already we are seeing cards, like Vivien’s Grizzly, that can completely change the landscape of Pauper. With three more playoffs this year and four more sets coming this year, I cannot wait to see what happens.