An Introduction To Pauper
It is a format that has captured the attention of quite a few Magic players, utilizing a large card pool and providing an opportunity to play in regular sanctioned events while simultaneously allowing older players to relive the glory days with some of their favorite old cards. It has a large community of devoted players that wax poetic on the format in the nooks and crannies of the internet.
And it is not Legacy.
Pauper is an Eternal format, played mostly in the realm of Magic Online, using only cards printed at common (for Magic Online printings). This means cards that are common offline, such as Hymn to Tourach and High Tide, are off limits to the digital Pauper. While some playgroups in the cardboard-and-sleeve world use paper printings as a guide, this article will concern itself with Online Pauper.
Why play Pauper? Pauper is fun! It is a chance to play with some Limited All-Stars from years past that may not be strong enough for play in other, more powerful formats (I mean who doesn't like attacking with Wild Mongrel)? Some of the better rogue decks are actually similar to “gimmick” Limited decks of formats gone by.
Pauper is a deep format. While there are clearly best decks (which will be addressed later), there is a large enough card pool to give deck designers the tools they need to craft a variety of competitive decks. More often than not, these decks do well, lending to a diverse format.
Pauper is easy to access. Unlike other Eternal formats, the cost threshold is low. While decks can no longer be made up of draft castoffs (unless your draft group has an abundance of old cards), the best decks in Pauper cost a fraction of the best decks in Standard. Since the cards never rotate, investing in a copy of Frantic Storm (currently one of the most expensive decks in Pauper) will allow you to play the deck‑—and win events—for as long as Pauper has official support.
Finally, Pauper has some strict restrictions and provides a challenge for deckbuilders and pilots. Pauper, to me, is Magic distilled. There are no over-the-top effects, no planeswalkers, no board sweepers—each game is about resource management and looking for openings in the defensive armor.
Pauper has only one card on the banned list—Cranial Plating. With full access to the artifact lands, Disciple of the Vault, and Atog, Affinity is strong enough without a card that ends the game in one hit. Whether or not Plating stays on the bench in the future remains to be seen, as the format has sped up significantly since the player-run group that maintained Pauper (before official recognition) placed the Equipment in the no-play zone.
There are some fundamental truths about Pauper that one might not expect from a format made up of commons. Misunderstanding the format is a good way to be on the wrong end of an 0-2 match slip (virtually speaking).
1) Pauper is an Eternal format. This must sound redundant at this point, but this point merits repetition. Eternal formats have a few hallmarks of their own. First, they house mistakes. The color pie was not always so clearly defined, and neither were power levels. This means that it is quite possible to find cards that break modern design rules. This lends itself to strong sideboard options in one-color decks. Additionally, there are some old cards out there that are probably too good to be common, if printed nowadays (Frantic Search, I am looking at you).
Drawing on nearly the entire history of Magic, and specifically commons, has created a level of redundancy that makes certain decks incredibly consistent and the majority of decks fast. Due to Limited considerations, commons, in all sets, have to fill certain holes. This means that there is going to be a large number of cards that are similar, but not the same. Common red burn and black removal are going to appear in every set. So are cheap green creatures and evasive blue small creatures. Stack up nearly two decades of cards and sometimes, a deck will appear. This goes hand in hand with the next point:
2) Pauper is fast. Being Eternal means that Pauper decks get to pick the best of the best. The best burn, the best counters, the best removal—how many of them are common? (Quite a few.) Many great, cheap creatures are common, as well as many one-mana cantrips and ritual effects. Pauper curves are low (for the most part), and games can end in a flash. Cheap creatures and burn make beatdown an option, and the abundance of cantrips and rituals allows Storm Combo decks to prosper.
Back when Pauper was PDC, a player-run format, I was fond of saying the Fundamental Turn of Pauper was turn 4: This was the turn that a blue deck could set up a Spire Golem with Counterspell backup, the turn a black player could cast Tendrils of Corruption, and the turn that Grapeshot/Empty the Warrens Storm would consistently go off for the win. That was two years ago, and the format has gotten faster (although not to a point that the Fundamental Turn has truly shifted).
3) Tempo matters. Every turn matters in Pauper, and time cannot be wasted. Unlike other formats, there are very few spells you can cast that will recoup lost tempo. This is one reason that Daze sees extremely little play. Unlike other formats where a mage could stick a cheap threat and protect it with the “free” counter (often with other free help), Pauper has no such threat (at least in blue), and the cost of having to replay a land is far too great. This is one reason why Tendrils of Corruption is an elite spell—not only does it take out a troublesome creature, but it also allows you to nullify at least one attack (this is part of why Goblins became popular: Mogg Raider and Goblin Sledder effectively counter Tendrils).
As turns are precious, wasting one is anathema, which leads most aggressive decks to be one color (including Affinity, which is effectively one color). The best two aggressive lands that fix colors are Terramorphic Expanse and Evolving Wilds, which both waste a turn in that the land enters the battlefield tapped. Wasting a turn to access mana is a great way to put a smile on the opponent's face. Most decks that utilize two colors are midrange or control strategies, and they tend to feature blue, as the ability to draw cards helps to offset the tempo loss from fixing mana.
4) The decks are defined by their mana. While this is true of any format, the mana in Pauper is extremely limiting. With a variety of spells from the history of Magic and in a format in which tempo matters, fixing mana comes at a high cost. The Borderposts from Alara Reborn and the common fetchlands are too slow to enable aggressive strategies; the Borderposts are too fragile to see heavy play in more controlling strategies. Instead, aggressive decks run basics (almost exclusively); combo decks run the appropriate specialty lands (Invasion fetchlands, artifact lands, Karoos); and control gets the best of all worlds, running whatever they darn well please, thanks to ability to draw the game out (as will be seen later with decks using the Cloudpost engine). If a Pauper deck is in more than one color, it better have a good reason. Consequentially, gold cards are rarely played, as the payoff for manipulating land drops is rarely worth the benefit of a multicolored card.
5) All decks exist in Pauper. Is Patrick Sullivan your hero? Do you worship at the altar of red cards? Pauper has a deck for you. Do you like the feeling of leaving your opponent helpless as you go through the motions, drawing your deck and comboing out? There's a deck for that? Draw-Go? Pauper has you covered. As mentioned, Pauper is a deckbuilder's playground, where any strategy can flourish. Additionally, it is a format where being prepared counts, as the meta shifts frequently, allowing those with the best builds to succeed.
These are some of the basic rules for Pauper. Finding games is easy—practice matches can be found in the Tournament Practice room of Magic Online, 2-man queues can be found in the 8-Player Room (strange, I know), Daily Events in the aptly named Daily Events area, and the monthly Premier Events can be found with the other Premier Events. Additionally, check www.PDCMagic.com, a fan forum, for information on player-run events (that include alternate formats, such as Standard or Extended Pauper).
Now for the decks. These decks do not reflect the meta with the full incorporation of New Phyrexia because as of the writing of this piece, the cards are just now making their way onto Magic Online (although their presence is felt, as you will see). What follows is a list of “Tier 1” decks and commonly played “Tier 2” decks, as well as rising stars.
- 4 Cloud of Faeries
- 1 Mnemonic Wall
- 4 Mulldrifter
- 4 Nightscape Familiar
- 2 Sea Gate Oracle
- 4 Sunscape Familiar
Frantic Storm is arguably the best deck in Pauper. It wins by following a few easy steps. First, it gets a number of Ravnica Karoos and Planeshift Familiars into play. Then, it casts Urza's Legacy “free spells.” The reduction in cost of these spells from the Familiars and the additional mana netted from the Karoos lets Frantic cast a large number of draw spells for reduced cost. Eventually, the deck will generate a large storm count, and it will cast Temporal Fissure, returning nearly every permanent on the opponent's side of the board to his or her hand. Once this is accomplished, turn all attackers sideways until victory is achieved.
Have you ever had Obliterate cast against you? It is not pretty.
Frantic Storm is incredibly redundant. Every card is either a draw spell, a card that nets mana, or a Temporal Fissure. Most of the decks feature a loop, casting Mnemonic Wall with a Fissure in the bin, only to bounce the same Wall with Fissure, creating a "bang your head against the wall" loop. This makes the deck difficult to fight. Discard is only so good, as the Wall and Deep Analysis allow Frantic to fill the hand with ease.
The best way to attack Frantic is by attacking the Karoos. Without these lands, the deck is far slower (but still has potential). This is one reason that decks featuring Stone Rain (and its ilk) are popular—they attack the best deck.
Another way to fight Frantic is to overwhelm early and disrupt on key turns. Sunscape Familiar is a fine blocker, but if it has to block, there's a good chance it's going to die. Cheap removal works well before sideboard, as key combo pieces are creatures.
If you have ever played Storm combo, you understand this deck. Cycle through your deck using Rituals to generate mana and cantrips to draw cards, eventually finding a kill card (or two) and, once the desired Storm count has been met, win target game. This deck is far more fragile than Frantic Storm but has the upside of being able to win (instead of just ruining an opposing board and attacking with Mulldrifter and pals). Unlike its Frantic cousin, this deck is far more susceptible to pinpoint and aggressive discard, as yanking a key spell will often buy enough time to win. Similarly, the Empty the Warrens kill is far easier to combat with spells like Echoing Truth and Decay, Holy Light, Sandstorm, Fog effects, and Crypt Rats (to name a few). Grapeshot is harder to stop but also provides a larger challenge for the pilot, as they need to either draw two copies or storm for twenty.
While not a newcomer to the scene, this deck is starting to make more appearances at 4-0 and 3-1. A hybrid between the Burn deck and Storm, Mono-Red attacks from two angles: Kiln Fiend and Empty the Warrens. Like traditional Storm, it is vulnerable to sweepers, and like Frantic Storm, it is vulnerable to removal. However, because it can come at you from multiple angles, it can be more difficult to set up a defense.
Goblins is a very strong option. It's incredibly consistent and rarely suffers from mana woes, as it does not require many lands to function. Mogg Raider and Goblin Sledder make blocking difficult, as they can turn any one-drop into a serious threat. Goblins has eight two-power one-drops with nominal drawbacks and has a card advantage/pump spell combination in Mogg War Marshal. This deck can control the board with Sparksmith and burn and has the ability to go for a big turn with Goblin Bushwhacker. The list above features a secondary combo in Hissing Iguanar, which fades in and out of top decks.
Goblins is soft to removal-heavy decks as well as decks with better creatures—1/1s look awfully silly bouncing off of Spire Golems. Life gain has merits as well. The bad news for other aggro is that Goblins is fast and has the ability to win from absolutely nowhere. With enough lands, the Red Menace can vomit up a hasty army thanks to Bushwhacker and make quick work of any life total.
Affinity has gotten a huge shot in the arm thanks to Scars block. Thanks to metalcraft, the Machine's big threats are no longer vulnerable to cheap artifact removal. The printing of Atog in Master's Edition 4 has given the deck a third way to kill. Now, death by 4/4, death by Disciple, and death by Atog are all viable options. Galvanic Blast provides a significant amount of reach.
Affinity is explosive, but there is hope. Recall the dregs of draft, the 13th- and 14th-pick spells that destroy artifacts? They are all invited to the Pauper party. The best way to neuter Affinity is to attack the lands, and the Mox Monkey itself, Gorilla Shaman, is available to Pauper. The presence of this card helps to keep Affinity in check, as turning on a one-sided Armageddon is a gamble.
A fairly straightforward deck that has a strong backup plan thanks to Kiln Fiend. There has been some discussion of incorporating Immolating Souleater into these decks, as it can help end the game fast. This deck is the purest example of the Philosophy of Fire in Pauper and is made possible due to the abundance of cheap, awesome mistakes... I mean spells... like Fireblast.
White Weenie is a metagame bullet. The right mix of creatures will propel a pilot past swarms of Goblins and black decks (noticeably absent from the above list: Order of Leitbur). Few other decks are as good at converting excess mana into damage as White Weenie, thanks to Order and Shade of Trokair. The Plains deck also has strong removal options, including the expensive but versatile Oblivion Ring.
The biggest knock against this deck is that it is incredibly soft to combo, with the only solution being “race.” In this story, the underdog stands no chance. Yes, WW can stop a horde of Goblins thanks to Holy Light, but most Storm pilots will be able to blank Prismatic Strands by siding in Flaring Pain. On top of that, the removal available is too slow to be of any use against Frantic Storm, AND White lacks the tools to apply pressure from additional angle.
Playing the best creatures and the best pump spells, Stompy looks to blitz past defenses. With the evasive Skarrgan Pit-Skulk and the Lure-like Shinen of Life's Roar, the green deck is able to push through massive amounts of damage. Rancor allows any measly one-drop to be a true threat while Vines of Vastwood and Groundswell enable wins from nowhere. The weakness of this deck is its inability to answer anything the opponent does. While it can protect threats like no other beatdown strategy, unless every permanent on the other side of the virtual table is an artifact or land, Stompy will be unable take anything off the board. Some versions do side in Hornet Sting, but taking out X/1s is not what Stompy wants to do.
The good news is that green has access to Thermokarst, which gives Stompy an above average chance against Frantic Storm, since it can apply consistent pressure and blow up a key land. That being said, it is still an uphill battle.
Once Glistening Elf was printed, the writing was on the wall. Invigorate is fantastic in that it costs absolutely nothing in this deck and provides a chance to take out 40% of an opponent's health. This deck is designed to protect a threat, with Apostle's Blessing backing up Vines. Still a new kid on the block, this deck does not look like a flash in the pan, as being able to force your enemy to start with 50% of their resources is a good deal. The problem with Infect is the creatures are extremely fragile, and without protection they are sure to wither (oh look, a Magic pun) and die.
Mono-Black is a midrange deck designed to overwhelm with Rat-like creatures. Draws of Ravenous Rats into Chittering Rats into Liliana's Specter or Okiba-Gang Shinobi can decimate a hand and are rather common. Unearth provides the all-important redundancy, and Corrupt provides the opportunity to “just win.” Like White Weenie, however, Mono-Black is a metagame bullet. With access to land destruction and discard, it can beat combo and control; with the best removal available, Mono-Black can trounce aggro. The rub lies within finding the proper balance; otherwise it is going to feel like bringing a knife to a gunfight.
This deck, and others like it, utilizes the Cloudpost/Glimmerpost engine to power out game winners like Rolling Thunder and Ulamog's Crusher. These decks have an ever-changing roster of spells, with Earth Rift and Stone Rain often drifting into the main to help keep other Post decks and Frantic honest. Capsize provides a way for IzzetPost to either stay alive (with replaying Glimmerpost every turn) or slowly pick off threats on the other side. Izzet can survive the hit to colored mana due to cards like Mulldrifter (although it is absent from this build) and the ability to pick off threats with a variety of removal.
IzzetPost takes time to set up, so applying early pressure or picking off a vital land (I swear I am not a broken record) and keeping them on the defense is the key to winning.
Sometimes featuring a Cloudpost engine as well, Teachings plays a toolbox of answers, which is important in the diverse Pauper meta. These decks will often feature a Grim Harvest (main or side) for long-game applications. Like Mono-Black, Teachings must be finely tuned, as the wrong suite of answers would be absolutely useless. In the future, do not be surprised to see the adoption of Spire Monitor as a Teachings target answer or threat. This is a control deck, and as such, vulnerable to the rush of aggro.
There you have it: one dozen decks to get you started in Pauper. One school of thought for the format is to find your favorite weapon and stick with it, mastering the ins and outs, and learning the matchups down to the final detail. This will provide the best edge.
So pick up a deck and join the fun—Pauper is waiting.
Keep slingin' commons.
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