I’ve been enjoying Pauper a lot over the past few months. While it’s been fun to try out new strategies and learn about how the format and metagame work, there are certain strategies I’ve grown to appreciate and find myself returning to time and again.

I’m a fan of mono-black midrange. It was the first deck I started with, and it’s the deck I have the most experience with. I’m sure I’ll rekindle my love affair with Mulldrifter soon, but for the time being, I’m all about that basic Swamp. Today, I’ll be taking you on a tour of several black-based Pauper decks, all of which I think are viable for competitive play. Black is both deep and consistent, and provides not only a fantastic midrange shell, but tons of options with regard to how you can build and position yourself in a dynamic and changing metagame.

Traditional Black Midrange

Mono-Black is also the pet deck of RIW’s Pauper organizer Jon Wilkerson. Jon always has a nice version of the deck sleeved up and ready to be loaned out. You may even be familiar with his spin on the archetype:

The Jono Special

Cameron Summer, 7th place at RIW Hobbies’ Pauper 1K

20 Swamp
3 Barren Moor
1 Bojuka Bog
4 Chittering Rats
4 Gray Merchant of Asphodel
4 Phyrexian Rager
4 Thorn of the Black Rose
4 Chainer's Edict
4 Disfigure
2 Duress
4 Sign in Blood
1 Snuff Out
1 Tendrils of Corruption
1 Unearth
1 Victim of Night
2 Oubliette (Dark)

Sideboard
1 Bojuka Bog
4 Choking Sands
2 Crypt Rats
2 Cuombajj Witches
1 Duress
1 Geth's Verdict
4 Wrench Mind

This is a good, solid build of a traditional archetype that Jon himself has helped to innovate over the past year. But it’s also important to remember that in Magic, nothing lasts forever…

Don’t get me wrong—you could still sleeve up a traditional midrange build and crush a tournament with it if you get the right matchups and fluid draws. But the last few times I’ve played the deck, I’ve gotten medium results. Not bad, but not impressive. I still felt like the overall archetype was powerful, but with the way the meta has been changing, some of the card choices had become a little awkward.

My impression of Pauper is that the format has sped up and the quality of opposing decks has improved as players continue to learn more about the format, and how to build and play better Pauper decks.

The biggest takeaway for me is that aggressive decks have improved in quality and quantity, and are better focused on beating one-for-one removal via either undying or token generation, which is not ideal for Mono-Black Midrange.

Zombie Aggro

One way to adapt to a faster, more aggro-centric meta is to simply become more aggressive.

John Poglodzinski, 5-8th at L.A. Pauper MCQ

19 Swamp
2 Barren Moor
1 Bojuka Bog
4 Carrion Feeder
4 Festering Mummy
3 Gempalm Polluter
4 Ghoulraiser
4 Gray Merchant of Asphodel
1 Shambling Goblin
4 Sultai Emissary
2 Nameless Inversion
3 Sign in Blood
2 Vicious Offering
1 Pestilence
3 Chainer's Edict
3 Ghoulcaller's Chant

Sideboard
4 Choking Sands
2 Crypt Creeper
3 Duress
1 Pestilence
4 Shepherd of Rot
1 Chainer's Edict

Mono-Black Zombie Aggro has a lot of overlap with Mono-Black Midrange, but a greater focus on deploying and extracting value from its cheap threats:

Carrion FeederFestering MummySultai Emissary

While these are not my definition of high-powered Magic cards, they succeed at being cheap and synergistic with value engines such as:

GhoulraiserGhoulcaller's Chant

The ability to loop Ghoulraiser is money. Ghoulcaller’s Chant functioning as a 1-mana Divination is also pretty spicy. Also, the Zombie Aristocrats deck has some considerable options coming down the pipeline in War of the Spark:

Herald of the DreadhordeLazotep ReaverVizier of the Scorpion

They’re all Zombies that leave a body behind, which is a useful effect in this style of deck. While I think these look more like role-players than starters, the set also features a card that will make a big impact in the format:

Ob Nixilis's Cruelty

This is an important card for the format. In particular, it deals with Gurmag Angler (which is a premium threat that randomly dodges a lot of removal). It’s also a great answer to the undying and persist creatures that are seeing a lot of play.

The big tension with this card is that it doesn’t provide devotion for Gary and can’t answer Ulamaog’s Crusher like Oubliette can. The upside is that it can’t be destroyed by various enchantment removal like Disenchant or Tranquility.

Mono-Black Rebuild

So, with all of these little insights about the direction of the format, here’s the version of Mono-Black Midrange I’ve been working on:

16 Swamp
4 Barren Moor
2 Bojuka Bog
3 Cuombajj Witches
2 Crypt Rats
4 Chittering Rats
4 Gray Merchant of Asphodel
1 Gurmag Angler
1 Caligo Skin-Witch
3 Disfigure
2 Tragic Slip
2 Duress
1 Mindstab
1 Unearth
1 Nihil Spellbomb
4 Sign in Blood
3 Oubliette (Dark)
1 Evincar's Justice
4 Chainer's Edict

Sideboard
2 Rancid Earth
3 Choking Sands
2 Mindstab
1 Arcane Spyglass
1 Nihil Spellbomb
2 Perilous Myr
1 Pestilence
2 Moment of Craving

The basic concept and style of attack remains largely unchanged. The deck is extremely mana efficient and is composed of a cast of individually “good cards,” which is exemplary of the type of decks I enjoy. I’ve always liked the concept behind black midrange (a bunch of great cards and Gray Merchant synergy), but the more games I played the more I realized the format had changed in ways that the more traditional builds struggled to match up against.

In particular:

Phyrexian RagerThorn of the Black Rose

So it’s weird to say this because these are such great creatures in the abstract, but neither matched up well against the field. In fact, one of the biggest strengths of a deck like Mono-Black is that it is very good at “winning the turn.”

The two biggest draws to play Mono-Black are that it has terrific mana (16 Swamps!) and all of its spells are pound-for-pound extremely efficient. It’s very easy, and likely, to have a smoother first three turns than most other decks, especially those that play lots of ETB tapped lands.

The smooth mana and efficiency of spells allows you to simply win many of turns of Magic in a row and bully your way into the driver’s seat. The thing I noticed after playing a bunch of games against a bunch of different decks was that the turns I most frequently lost involved being priced into casting a Thorn of the Black Rose or a Phyrexian Rager.

Phyrexian Rager and Thorn of the Black Rose were the two cards, that if forced to play out early, left me most vulnerable to the types of decks that presented the most challenging matchups, for different but similar reasons.

Let’s start with Thorn of the Black Rose because it is likely the most controversial. Mono-Black Midrange is not great at attacking, especially the more traditional builds that don’t feature 2-drop creatures. I’m pretty sure that across the board, Thorn has cost me more games than it has saved me by a significant margin. I felt there were too many game states, across too many matchups, where I simply couldn’t play my 4-drop or was forced to gamble on making a risky play or no play. An amazing card, but much better suited for a more aggressive deck than mine.

Phyrexian Rager is always solid, which makes questioning his usefulness counter-intuitive. He’s a two-for-one in a can. The problem is that he actually isn’t most of the time across too many matchups. He doesn’t block flying tokens. He gets walled up by Augur of Bolas. In my estimation, a 2/2 body isn’t worth the investment of mana.

In fact, I felt the deck was glutted on 3- and 4-drops, which presented more tactical problems than the potential card advantage could account for, which is why I decided to re-envision the deck with some different role-players to solve the problems I was coming up against.

Cuombajj Witches

It must be the season of the witch, because Cuombajj has gotten much better in the current metagame. Witches are adept at blocking opposing creatures on the ground, as well as picking off the plethora of Battle Screech tokens that are floating around. The “second Witch” is also quite devastating, as it allows you to pick off larger prey.

Undying 1-toughness creatures are extremely good against Mono-Black, since they create a buffer between Chainer’s Edict and threats that matter. Witch is fantastic at picking off those buffer creatures and allowing Edict to do its thing. Obviously, the Witch is also outstanding at suppressing Faeries and Elves, which are both strong options.

Lastly, Cuombajj Witches is a big game in the devotion department when it comes to Gray Merchant of Asphodel, which is an ability I wanted to maximize. I have 14 BB devotion permanents in the starting 60:

Oubliette (Dark)Cuombajj WitchesChittering RatsGray Merchant of Asphodel

A large Gary into a Crypt Rats explosion is often enough to get you to 20 damage. Gray Merchant is the bread and butter of this deck, and I really want to make sure that each time I cast the card, it is as high impact as possible.

Caligo Skin-Witch

Another card I’ve been trying out and have been impressed with. I’ve always been a fan of the role this card played in Limited. 1/3s are surprisingly good blockers in Pauper and give you options early while providing card advantage later on in the game. It’s also decent synergy with Crypt Rats or Pestilence and not a liability with an active Cuombajj. The previous versions of the deck I played had too much expensive card advantage, which led to some clunky and ineffective draws against focused aggro.

I still wanted card advantage (I’ve moved much of that type of effect to the sideboard for blue decks), but I wanted to play a version of the deck that was a little bit leaner.

Mindstab

I’m a big fan of this 3-for-1 against matchups that are destined to go long, specifically blue Mulldrifter decks. One of the aspects of the black deck I must appreciate is the ability to run an opponent out of cards and options, and win with whatever is left over. Mindstab is basically another must-counter to help overload counterspells.

Orzhov Pestilence Control

Orzhov Pestilence has been making its mark on Pauper. I’m certainly not the first person to notice that sticky “go wide” aggro has become better and more popular, and this archetype has emerged to take advantage:

AMORAS27, 1st place in an MTGO Pauper League

1 Plains
8 Swamp
2 Bojuka Bog
2 Kabira Crossroads
4 Orzhov Basilica
2 Radiant Fountain
4 Scoured Barrens
4 Guardian of the Guildpact
2 Palace Sentinels
2 Castigate
4 Chainer's Edict
2 Disfigure
1 Divest
2 Duress
1 Echoing Decay
2 Evincar's Justice
4 Night's Whisper
2 Read the Bones
2 Dead Weight
1 Journey to Nowhere
4 Pestilence
4 Pristine Talisman

Sideboard
2 Castigate
2 Circle of Protection: Blue
1 Circle of Protection: Green
2 Circle of Protection: Red
4 Fragmentize
1 Gut Shot
1 Journey to Nowhere
2 Nihil Spellbomb

I wanted my mono-black deck to be more controlling like a Pestilence deck, but without sacrificing my consistent mana and individual high card quality. I also wanted to stick with the Gray Merchant angle because I’ve found it to be powerful enough across a wide array of matchups.

My impression of these archetypes is that Orzhov has more polarizing matchups and a similar power level. For instance, Orzhov is going to be much better against the token/undying strategies my mono-black deck has started to hedge against, but if you look at the cards, it’ll likely be much more difficult to combat blue- and Tron-based control. There are not many cards that need to be countered and the deck doesn’t do much if it can’t keep Pestilence on the table outside of gain life to buy more time.

I would say Orzhov is better at punishing “go wide” decks but likely a lot softer to attrition-based strategies than my new mono-black list. It’s also clunkier on the mana since the proactive cards it wants to deploy all cost 4 (the exact dynamic I was trying to eliminate from my midrange deck).

Orzhov Monarch Pestilence

The next Orzhov variant is sort of a hybrid between a traditional Pestilence deck and Boros Monarch. It’s a weird coupling that has proven to be quite effective. I imagine this deck is absurdly good against Boros Monarch, since Pestilence is such a bomb against them

Ezequiel Cruz Avila, 3rd place at Dimagames Pauper

3 Plains
4 Swamp
2 Ash Barrens
1 Barren Moor
1 Bojuka Bog
4 Orzhov Basilica
2 Radiant Fountain
4 Scoured Barrens
1 Secluded Steppe
3 Aven Riftwatcher
2 Guardian of the Guildpact
1 Gurmag Angler
4 Kor Skyfisher
2 Lone Missionary
1 Okiba-Gang Shinobi
2 Palace Sentinels
4 Thraben Inspector
3 Chainer's Edict
1 Disfigure
1 Grim Harvest
4 Night's Whisper
2 Prismatic Strands
1 Snuff Out
2 Unearth
1 Unmake
1 Journey to Nowhere
3 Pestilence

Sideboard
3 Celestial Flare
1 Circle of Protection: Red
2 Disfigure
3 Duress
1 Journey to Nowhere
1 Okiba-Gang Shinobi
1 Prismatic Strands
2 Relic of Progenitus
1 Unmake

Here’s a different take on Orzhov (that has become fairly popular on MTGO) that is more creature based. All of these Orzhov decks are positioning themselves similarly to the mono-black deck but arrive through different sets of cards and matchup dynamics.

Mono-Black Pestilence

All right, I’m splashing white for the Guardian of the Guildpact/Pestilence combo, but this version much more closely resembles Black Devotion. In fact, I included that package!

Pestilence

Brian DeMars

8 Swamp
4 Scoured Barrens
4 Orzhov Basilica
2 Orzhov Guildgate
4 Barren Moor
1 Bojuka Bog
2 Cuombajj Witches
4 Chittering Rats
3 Guardian of the Guildpact
4 Gray Merchant of Asphodel
1 Caligo Skin-Witch
1 Mindstab
1 Duress
2 Tragic Slip
3 Disfigure
1 Nihil Spellbomb
4 Sign in Blood
4 Oubliette (Dark)
3 Pestilence
4 Chainer's Edict

Sideboard
1 Guardian of the Guildpact
1 Circle of Protection: Red
2 Mindstab
1 Nihil Spellbomb
3 Choking Sands
2 Rancid Earth
2 Moment of Craving
1 Grim Harvest
1 Evincar's Justice

I’m partial to believing that Gray Merchant is insanely good and so I’ll continue to use that as the “base” for the deck. I essentially splash white for Guardian of the Guildpact and not much else, since it’s such a mondo combo with Pestilence and a  great card in its own right.

With that being said, I’m not sure the hoops I have to jump through with regard to tapped lands is worth the trouble. On paper, this is the skeleton of the Pestilence deck I would want to play, although I’m not sure I’d favor this over being a more focused Mono-Black Devotion deck. It is nice that Pestilence is another BB Devotion enabler for Merchant. I think that synergy is highly significant, and a direction I’m interested in continuing to explore.

So I’ve been through a slew of black-based strategies today and I hope your takeaway is that there are a ton of options out there with regard to how you can build and position your black decks in Pauper!

  • “Jono Special” traditional midrange – Still a format staple.
  • Zombie Aggro – An aggressive synergy variant.
  • “Season of the Witch” – Get those pingers in there to power up devotion.
  • “Orzhov Pestilence” (threat-light control version) – Solid option for punishing “go wide.”
  • “Orzhov Monarch Pestilence” – Similar to Boros, but with a Pestilence endgame.
  • “Mono-Black Pestilence (splash white for Guardian) – Another potential direction for Pestilence.

One of the things I love so much about Pauper is that there are so many choices to be made and each choice stacks up. The biggest tension to keep in mind as you think about building or tuning a base-black deck is how to position yourself relative to controlling blue decks and “go wide” sticky aggro decks. It’s easy to be hateful toward one or the other, but difficult to make choices that will help against both. But it is certainly possible, as we discussed today, to have focused plans and strategy for addressing both spectrums.