In the first week it was legal, a deck featuring Foil won the Pauper Challenge. There were five decks with the new counterspell and all five featured Gush while six decks featured Gush and no copy of the most recent downshift. Fast forward seven days and you have a Pauper Challenge with fifteen decks that feature Foil and Gush with only four that eschew the counter and keep the draw spell.
Nasty, 1st place at the December 9th Pauper Challenge
Foil is the game-changer many expected it to be. The cost is high. Two cards, even if one is an Island, can matter. Yet the card is well worth the price tag as it allows you to commit a threat to put yourself ahead while also representing the fact that you can protect it. Gurmag Angler has become the go-to threat for Foil decks since it works so well with the alternate cost. In Angler builds, Foil represents a combination Dark Ritual – Counterspell. That’s pretty darn good.
Foil is no Force of Will, however. It is much harder to use when you are behind as the cost in cards becomes exacerbated. In Pauper, if you are behind, the best way to pull back is to have more options and being forced to pitch potential business means you have fewer chances to equalize the game state.
Here is where Gush comes in. Gush is already a problem card in Pauper. It is one of the few cards that can pull you ahead when you are losing while also putting you in the driver’s seat if you are ahead. Gush also conveniently adds an Island and other cards to your hand. Gush and Foil make sense together. It’s almost like they were from the same block.
In practice, Delver of Secrets decks are the perfect fit for Foil. They run enough Islands to make Gush and Foil viable inclusions. More importantly, these decks have access to turn on major threats in the eponymous 1-drop and the aforementioned big fish. In turn they can commit the sort of threats Foil excels at protecting. Dimir Delver and its ilk can get ahead early and use these two cards to hold on to the advantage.
Writing these words, I am reminded of Cloud of Faeries. For years, I talked about the unique pressure the combination of Cloud of Faeries and Spellstutter Sprite exerted on Pauper. A turn-1 Delver of Secrets followed up by a Cloud meant that Sprite was online to stunt the opponent’s board development or chance to answer. It was a lock-down opening. Gush and Foil do not represent a similar stranglehold on the early game but rather a critical element in dictating the field of battle when both decks should be at parity.
If a player is able to commit a Delver of Secrets early, it is their incentive to protect that threat. This involves trading resources to keep Delver alive while also keeping the skies clear of threatening blockers. In Dimir Delver this can often convert into an early Gurmag Angler. Already those two cards represent threats that punch above their mana cost. Provided the opponent is playing a deck that is similarly above the curve, the ability to then Gush into Foil protection means that the Dimir Delver player is up cards and interaction. None of this takes into account that Gush is also quite good at generating mana. One Gush can turn two Islands into 3 mana.
The result of all this is that right now, Dimir Delver is one of the best decks in the early stages and middle stages of most games of Pauper. Foil has given these decks some armor at a point where they had been weaker. In greater context, this creates tension with the other pillars in Monarch and Tron.
Monarch decks operate on long-term card advantage. Unlike Gush decks, they are not set up to pull ahead early. Instead, they want to keep parity during development and start accruing advantage around the fifth or sixth turn. At that point their steady flow of cards and interaction should allow them to win. Gush-Foil helps to delay this plan. An early Angler with Foil backup means that without a very specific answer, Monarch decks are going to be trying to reach a balanced game state facing down a 5/5 while they have 2/3s and 1/2s.
Tron, on the other hand, wants to bypass the early game entirely and jump immediately to mana abundance. Leveraging this advantage they want to be casting multiple spells per turn, often setting up a Ghostly Flicker lock that will end the game in short order. The problem with many Ghostly Flicker builds is that they have been cutting stack interaction in favor of increasing the speed of their combo. While cards like Daze and Spell Pierce are rather terrible when facing down Tron, Foil is not. None of this is to say that Tron decks cannot adapt and slow down their endgame in favor of defense, but diluting their greatest strength to keep up may not be a recipe for success.
So where does this leave Pauper? For the time being, Gush and Foil are far and away the best things you can be doing in the format. As the metagame shifts towards Challenges, Competitive Leagues, and the Format Championship, I would expect Gush to become the focal point. The best way to fight Gush decks without running Gush yourself is to figure out how to accrue cards at a similar rate. Affinity may see an uptick thanks to the strength of Thoughtcast and I fully expect Faithless Looting decks (like Boros Tokens) to get more play as well.
In the long term, however, the presence of these two cards is likely not healthy for the format. Gush is just so much better than every other strategy and that reality is coming into focus. With more eyes on Pauper than ever before— and more riding on the format of commons this year than in any that preceded it—it is going to be interesting to see what, if anything, is done on January 21st when the banned list is next updated.