Modern, Legacy, and Standard are all formats everyone is well acquainted with even if they don’t play them regularly. I could ask a Standard player about Modern Jund and they could probably rattle off a rough list. I could ask a Legacy player about Standard Temur Energy and they could probably figure out an approximation of it.
The format you don’t hear about, however is Pauper. Not many non-Pauper players could name five or six decks, let alone talk about the nuances of Boros Monarch, Dinrova Tron, or Inside Out combo. That’s why I’m here today, to review the pillars of Pauper and how to best attack the metagame you expect. Why me? Well, not to brag, but I did win the Pauper Challenge on Magic Online last month.
Here’s a breakdown of some of the top decks in Pauper. I’m not including sideboards because there are a ton of options based on the meta you expect and what you like to do.
The first pillar of Pauper is Delver of Secrets decks. These decks typically thrive by sticking a cheap threat and backing it up with cheap answers for your more clunky cards. Let’s take a look at the most popular Delver deck, Izzet Delver:
If you’ve played Legacy, or even if you were playing Modern a few years ago, you’re familiar with this style of deck. Slam Delver and continue drawing cards and keeping your opponent off balance with cards like Counterspell, Lightning Bolt, Skred, and Spellstutter Sprite until you’ve dealt 20 with some innocuous creatures and burn spells.
Something that you may not have seen in other formats is the inclusion of four Faerie Miscreant to supplement your four Spellstutter Sprites. Faerie Miscreant is certainly one of the weaker cards in the deck on a raw power level, but it combines with Spellstutter Sprite to create one of the best counterspells ever printed. It also gives you a cheap evasive threat to ninjutsu a Ninja of the Deep Hours and begin snowballing an advantage that way.
Speaking of Ninja of the Deep Hours, this is one of the single most powerful cards in the deck. It will often draw you 2-3 cards, deal 4-6 damage, and skew your opponents’ play into tapping out for a big blocker on their main phase, which conveniently plays right into your Skreds and Counterspells.
Another variant of Delver is Mono U Delver:
This is a deck that is very similar to U/R Delver and operates on a lot of the same principles of tempoing out your opponents, but it sacrifices Skred (which is the single best removal spell in the format) for cleaner mana and the ability to support Spire Golem. Skred is replaced with Snap, which fills the same role. Spire Golem might seem kind of lackluster, but it is one of the best-positioned cards in the format. Some of the other top decks include cards like Glint Hawk, Nettle Sentinel, and opposing Delvers. Having a cheap threat that locks all of those cards down on the battlefield is invaluable.
When playing against Delver decks, the most common mistake is tapping out on your main phase. If you can do *anything* that impacts the board at instant speed, it is almost certainly better to do that than running a threat into their counter magic. The exception to this is of course if they don’t have mana available, in which case you should be doing the exact opposite of this and running out as much as you can during your main phase in an attempt to strand countermagic in their hand.
The next pillar: Tron decks
Any avid Modern player will be able to tell you about the Urza lands and their ability to absolutely annihilate any midrange deck, and Pauper is no different. In Pauper, however, we lose the core threats that you’ll be able to find in modern Tron, as Karn Liberated, Wurmcoil Engine, and Ugin, the Spirit Dragon are all big flashy mythics that you won’t find in the all-commons format. That said, these cards can be replaced with a ton of other powerful late game threats that can be found in Pauper. The current most popular build of Tron is Murasa Tron, which looks like this:
The first thing that stands out is a lot of one- and two-ofs. This deck is very good at looking at a ton of cards each turn between cycle lands, Prophetic Prisms, Ghostly Flickering some Prophetic Prisms, Mulldrifter and more. When you’re seeing so many cards in a given turn having a lot of flexibility in what your cards do is extremely powerful, and allows the deck to adapt to any given situation.
The biggest weakness of this deck is its ability to compete in the early game. You won’t see many cards that play to the board early, and so it is definitely susceptible to being run over by decks with cheap aggressive threats. With that said, if you’re able to survive until about turns 5-7 your engine will start taking over. Getting off a Pulse of Murasa on a Mnemonic Wall is usually good enough to put away any game.
If they’re trying to pressure your life total, you can Pulse your wall and return Pulse with your Wall. Twelve life is usually good enough. If they’re trying to out-grind you, playing a Mulldrifter, getting an 0/4, and gaining 12 is usually enough to make your opponent right click-concede. If this somehow isn’t good enough, this deck runs three copies of Moment’s Peace, which will often buy you more than enough time against decks like mono-green Stompy to get your engine online and let the sheer power level of all of your cards take over the game and convert to a win.
When playing this deck, the key is to avoid temptation and not take the greedy line, and instead opt for whatever line leaves you alive for more than enough turns. If you manage to keep yourself alive, the deck will often be able to convert the extra mana generated by tron to start Dinrova Horror-ing your opponent’s entire board.
When playing against this deck, you often need to take the most aggressive line possible, for the same reason they’re taking the line that keeps them alive as long as possible. If the Tron deck is given enough time, it has the most powerful cards in the format. There is no going long against tron.
The next pillar I want to touch on is Boros Monarch, which is the deck I used to win the Challenge:
This deck unfortunately does not leave much room for deckbuilding, as this is the core:
When you are 2-for-1-ing your opponent with Glint Hawk and Kor Skyfisher, one of the best things to be doing is making the game about card advantage, not mana advantage or life total advantage. You do this like any midrange deck does, and that is by adapting how you play the game based on what your opponent is doing.
If your opponent is playing an aggressive deck like Burn or Mono Green Stompy, your goal is to stave off early aggression with your 12 removal spells (nine of which cost one mana, three of which cost two), and avoid getting burned out by flickering your Radiant Fountains and Wind-Scarred Crags with Boros Garrison and Kor Skyfisher. Usually gaining between 4 and 8 life in a game and destroying several of your opponent’s creatures is enough to allow you to race with bounce creatures and burn spells.
Blanking your opponent’s mana advantage is much more difficult than blanking their life total advantage with this deck. When trying to make the mana advantage gathered by your opponent not be important, your goal is to be aggressive. This means saving your burn spells and ignoring their creatures. This means picking up a land with a turn 2 Kor Skyfisher so you can maximize the damage it deals. Obviously these plays aren’t super powerful, but they are plays that you have to make to win games where your opponent is either ramping with Tron, or you are missing your land drops.
Playing this deck is fairly straightforward, but I’ll go over some of the plays that not everyone might make in a given game. Contrary to how it seems at first glance, in most matchups, Journey to Nowhere is the removal spell you use first, saving the Galvanic Blasts and Lightning Bolts for later. This is because the ability to swing a race in your favor with your burn spells is a huge boon for this deck, and oftentimes decks will have no targets for Journey that your burn spells can’t answer. The most notable exception to this rule is Gurmag Angler, which can be found mostly in U/B decks with Thought Scour and Forbidden Alchemy to fill the graveyard, and Angler is usually a must answer threat. Luckily for us, these decks usually don’t play too many creatures that we would want to use our Journey to Nowheres or Lightning Bolts on anyways.
Lastly, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Palace Sentinels. This card singlehandedly wins games. It gives you a defense-oriented body to help you maintain your status as the Monarch, which often times this deck doesn’t need help doing. Boros Monarch is filled with a ton of little creatures that are great at chump blocking, as well as removal spells and Alchemist’s Vials to keep the battlefield clear. If the battlefield is left clear and you are the monarch, it is very hard for your opponent to grind through the advantage you’ve built. That said, it is one of the first cards out against token decks and stompy decks as they can easily steal the Monarch from you, which becomes problematic very quickly.
The final pillar of the format I am going to mention is Mono-Green Stompy.
Stompy has been one of the best decks in Pauper for years, but has recently risen to be one of the most feared decks in the format since the downshifting of Burning-Tree Emissary. Burning-Tree Emissary has unlocked explosive potential for this deck. For example, a common turn 2 for Stompy is Emissary into Nest Invader into Vault Skirge, following up a turn 1 Nettle Sentinel or Young Wolf. The deck can be even more explosive when you draw two or even three Emissaries.
There are two rough schools of thought on Stompy, and they can be roughly summed up as Silhana Ledgewalker versus Vault Skirge.
Vault Skirge Stompy
Vault Skirge and Silhana Ledgewalker are both great targets for your Hunger of the Howl Packs and Rancors. Preference for one deck or the other often comes down to whether you think the hexproof on Ledgewalker will be better than the lifelink on Skirge, although Skirge costing one generic mana is very relevant because you can cast it turn 2 off of a Nest Invader’s Eldrazi spawn.
You’ll also note that the Silhana Ledgewalker lists will usually have a set of Elephant Guides so that you can go on the plan of making a threat that they can neither block nor kill, and hope that your opponent can’t race it. Given the abundance of random 1/1s that serve as chump blockers in Stompy, it shouldn’t be too hard to win the race.
Sixteen lands may seem very low (and you will see some lists that go up to 17), but it becomes much more reasonable when you account for the fact that you have 4 copies of Quirion Ranger in any build of stompy, which gives you a body that is a relevant target for your pump spells, and can produce an extra mana when you’re missing land drops.
Playing this deck is overall fairly straightforward; it’s a very fast aggressive deck that’s looking to kill the opponent on turn 4 or 5 between pump spells and creatures.
When playing this deck it is critical to do combat math over multiple turns, which is something that Magic players don’t do enough in general. Every single point of damage matters with this deck, as often times you’re sneaking out a win right as your opponent is about to turn the corner.
Young Wolf is surprisingly one of the hardest cards to play with in the deck. I’ve found that if you attack with, say, a 2/2 and a Young Wolf into a 2/2, your opponent will often opt to block the 2/2, and let the Young Wolf in, rather than upgrade your Young Wolf and take two. The pump spells are also cards that allow for a lot of play on the part of the Stompy pilot. As a general rule of thumb, leave up Vines of Vastwood and don’t jam Rancors into open red mana. Saving Hunger of the Howlpack often feels bad, as instinctively you want to play it the first turn you have Morbid, but this deck can often engineer situations to get Morbid (or you can just play a Nest Invader) later when either your opponent has no mana available or you have a Vines of Vastwood as backup.
The decks I mentioned here don’t come close to covering every deck in pauper, nor do they come close to even covering every ‘pillar’ deck of pauper, they are meant to serve as a rough guide line of some of the decks you might face if you were to run through a couple of leagues of pauper. For a format full of commons, Pauper is surprisingly deep and varied, so give it a try if you’re looking for something new.
Will Krueger is a Level 2 judge from suburban Chicago who spends most of his time judging Championship Trials, but occasionally plays Modern in paper and Pauper on Magic Online. Follow him on Twitter @willkrueger13.