Growing up in Brooklyn I would often see commercials for Astroland. An iconic amusement park (home of the Cyclone) located in Coney Island, it had fallen on hard times during my youth. While I took many trips to Coney Island as a kid, most of the time it was to go to the aquarium. The beach wasn’t exactly safe and you were just as likely to find some less-than-savory detritus as you were to see sea shells by the sea shore.
Time has been kind to Coney Island, but not to Astroland. The park closed and then reopened under the new moniker Luna Park. Coney Island, like so much of my hometown, has rebounded. The beach is vibrant and still a little weird, although it’s the sanitized version of weird that is safe for consumption. For the past three years I’ve finished a half-marathon on the boardwalk and gotten a customary Nathan’s Hot Dog.
I swear I have a point.
Part of the allure of the Coney Island of my youth is that you never quite knew what you were going to get. Were you going to get the beach destination of Depression Era New York, the place from 80s movies, or just the sound of the ocean with your high school friends. The area surrounding Astroland was known but unknowable. And it’s how I feel about Pauper these days.
The August 26th Banned and Restricted List upended Modern and impacted Vintage, but did nothing to Pauper. While I did not believe anything was going to happen, I was hopeful that Arcum’s Astrolabe would get the axe. Astrolabe has completely changed how Pauper is played and I do not think it is for the better.
The Pauper Ban List is laden with cards that subvert the mana system in the sense of quantity. Invigorate, Treasure Cruise, Grapeshot, Cloudpost, Cloud of Faeries–all of these allow you to break the nature of converted mana cost in some way. What these cards do not do is make it easy to cast multiple spells of different colors. Arcum’s Astrolabe does this and does it at an incredibly low opportunity cost.
Astrolabe costs a single Snow mana. The opportunity cost there is running enough Snow-Covered basic lands to cast the first one. Costing a single mana is a massive advantage over Prophetic Prism in that there are so few high impact Pauper plays on the first turn. Astrolabe also replaces itself, so it has turned itself into the best turn-one play in the format. If you pack your deck with other good cards, then the cost of including it is minimal since it helps you find those cards faster.
If that was all it did, it wouldn’t be so ubiquitous. It just so happens Astrolabe also makes it easy to cast these spells. The result is a huge number of Jeskai decks that can cast high-impact spells for 1W, UU, while also having the ability to pay for both sides of Ancient Grudge.
Patrick50’s Jeskai Trinket
Finalist, August 24th MTGO Pauper MCQ
2 Ash Barrens 2 Evolving Wilds 10 Snow-Covered Island 2 Snow-Covered Mountain 3 Snow-Covered Plains 2 Archaeomancer 4 Glint Hawk 4 Kor Skyfisher 3 Mulldrifter 4 Seeker of the Way 2 Trinket Mage 4 Preordain 4 Counterspell 2 Ephemerate 2 Lightning Bolt 4 Skred 4 Arcum’s Astrolabe 2 Prophetic Prism Sideboard 1 Ancient Grudge 1 Dispel 2 Electrickery 1 Gorilla Shaman 1 Hydroblast 2 Leave No Trace 2 Lone Missionary 3 Pyroblast 1 Relic of Progenitus 2 Standard Bearer
Part of attacking any metagame is knowing what is coming your way. Decklists are popular not only because they provide one avenue of attack, but also because they can help you determine your defense. The presence of Arcum’s Astrolabe opens decks up to the ability to cast any spell and many have done just that–splashing the fourth and fifth color for high impact cards.
In Astroland, you never know what is around the corner.
Told you I had a point.
The result is a metagame that consists of nearly every playable card in Pauper. While that is awesome and can create fantastic moments, it also makes attempting to interact with the metagame a challenge. While the various stripes of Jeskai play interactive cards like Skred, they mostly just accumulate cards until they have more resources. Ephemerate and Archaeomancer makes it so that Jeskai will draw one extra spell per turn and eventually just get there with superior card quality. And when the meta adjusts around Jeskai, the deck can easily adapt and adjust to include the right bullets thanks to Astrolabe.
The result is a cadre of top decks that are trying to enact their game plan faster than the opponent. The “control” decks of the moment are Tron lists that care less about containing threats than racing to their Mnemonic Wall-powered endgame. Again, this is what the metagame dictates–why bother interacting when I could just stop your strategy from mattering.
Hellsau’s Flicker Tron
Top 8, August 24th MTGO Pauper MCQ
4 Ash Barrens 4 Snow-Covered Island 1 Snow-Covered Plains 4 Urza’s Mine 4 Urza’s Power Plant 4 Urza’s Tower 2 Dinrova Horror 3 Mnemonic Wall 4 Mulldrifter 3 Stonehorn Dignitary 2 Trinket Mage 1 Compulsive Research 1 Condescend 1 Dispel 2 Ephemerate 4 Ghostly Flicker 2 Moment’s Peace 2 Mystical Teachings 1 Prohibit 1 Pulse of Murasa 4 Arcum’s Astrolabe 2 Expedition Map 4 Prophetic Prism Sideboard 2 Blue Elemental Blast 1 Gut Shot 3 Hydroblast 2 Lone Missionary 1 Moment’s Peace 4 Pyroblast 1 Shattering Pulse 1 Stonehorn Dignitary
Once more we see Arcum’s Astrolabe. These decks would absolutely exist without the artifact–in fact they have for quite some time–but the ability to have Prophetic Prism redundancy at half the cost gave the deck increased early game velocity. When only a few cards in your deck actually matter, you want to give yourself as many looks as possible.
Aggro decks have risen in this metagame to race against the clock. Red Deck Wins and Stompy both try to end the game before the Ephemerate engine comes online. Both decks can stumble in the face of removal. When Jeskai Astrolabe decks adjust to these and include removal spells best suited at protecting their life total, I could see these strategies take a downturn.
Luckily, there’s a hero in waiting.
Winner, August 24th MTGO Pauper MCQ
15 Snow-Covered Forest 1 Snow-Covered Plains 3 Gladecover Scout 4 Kor Skyfisher 4 Slipery Bogle 4 Silhana Ledgewalker 2 Fling 4 Arcum’s Astrolabe 4 Abundant Growth 4 Ancestral Mask 4 Armadillo Cloak 1 Cartouche of Solidarity 4 Ethereal Armor 4 Rancor 4 Utopia Sprawl Sideboard 1 Crimson Acolyte 3 Dispel 3 Electrickery 1 Fling 1 Gorilla Shaman 1 Lifelink 3 Standard Bearer 2 Young Wolf
Bogles won the Magic Online Pauper Mythic Championship Qualifier on August 24th. It did this by going through two of the five Jeskai decks in the Top 8. Bogles has also adopted a light Arcum’s Astrolabe package to churn through cards. Like I said, when a deck runs a few high-impact cards, Astrolabe is an attractive option.
Bogles does have some flexibility in the different aura packages it can run. Thanks to Kor Skyfisher, the Astrolabe version also has some resilience to the deck’s natural foil: Chainer’s Edict. Still, the window for Bogles will not last forever. There’s a lockdown sideboard card in the form of Circle of Protection: Green. Thanks to the wording on the enchantment it can hold down any green creature, regardless of shroud or hexproof. And it just so happens to put in work against Stompy.
Arcum’s Astrolabe has changed the nature of mana in Pauper. What appeared to be an interesting piece has instead helped to subvert the cost of colored mana symbols in a deck. Access to Astrolabe means you must play around everything.
Known but unknowable.
When you can’t predict what you have to play around, there best path is to just race. Like the Cyclone, Pauper decks these days are going as fast as they can.