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Iconic Mastery


Ninja of the Deep Hours
I wasn't expecting to write this article so soon. Usually I write my season Challenge wrap up -- Iconic Masters in this case -- after the latest set becomes legal. Last Wednesday's Magic Online update threw a wrench in those works. Even though there is a final challenge before Rivals of Ixalan hits in full force, a bug has been introduced to the program that has drastically altered how games of Pauper are played. Simply put, the Ninjitsu ability of Ninja of the Deep Hours cannot be activated during the "Declare Blockers" step of combat, thus rendering it far less effective. Pauper without Ninja is not the same format.

Oubliette was bugged until the same Wednesday that broke Ninja. Once on the battlefield, removing the enchantment would crash the game. While this had an impact on matches, it did not take a baseline piece of interaction out of the game. Using Ninja to re-buy Spellstutter Sprite is fundamental to how Pauper games play out, and taking it away, even briefly, changes the format in a way that separates it from what came before.

So what can we do? While we await a day of the fix, this only will alter the results of the January 14 Challenge in the Iconic Masters season. Instead of inserting those potentially wonked results into the mix, I decided to wrap things up early. Without further ado, I am happy to present the results of the eight challenges of Iconic Masters season. Subtitle: a return to status quo.

2017 saw the release of two Masters style reprint sets. Modern Masters 2017 and Iconic Masters introduced game changing cards by shifting them down to common. The past year also saw the introduction of the Monarch mechanic, a persistent card draw engine, to the Online metagame. Burning-Tree Emissary made Stompy the best deck for some time, while Palace Sentinels added Boros Monarch to the mix. Augur of Bolas helped to push Izzet Delver into prominence and Lead the Stampede gave Elves a shot in the arm. Yet, at the end of the year, it was another strategy that ended up on top. Despite all of this Delver, traditional Mono-Blue Delver, starts 2018 at the top of the heap. And in the last two months of Challenges it was clearly the best deck. But we'll talk more about Delver later.

Normally when I do my seasonal recaps, I look at the Top 25 or so archetypes from the encompassed challenges. This time I want to try something different. Twenty different archetypes managed to make the Top 8, so we are going to look at a selection of decks that have a Top 8 finish in the Iconic Masters season. For a refresher, here is how I track an archetype's success in a season's worth of challenges.

"The K-Score takes a deck's wins and subtracts its losses to arrive at a numerical value. I've split K-Score into two different numbers -- one inclusive of Top 8 statistics and one that completely ignores the elimination rounds. The goal here is to try and understand how well a deck does in a Swiss environment since that's what gets you to the proverbial Sunday Stage.

The second metric is Win+. The Challenges are 6 or 7 rounds and this stat measures the Top 32 against the 32nd place deck. Normally this means an X-3, and for each win above three losses, the deck earns a point. The more points, the higher the finish in the standings and usually a Win+ score corresponds to a Top 16 finish."

Dimir Delver used to put up results on a regular basis. Combining Delver of Secrets, Blue cantrips, and Gurmag Angler made for a deck that could apply some serious pressure while holding up countermagic to defend its threats. While it was never one of the best decks in the format, it had respectable results. Everything changed when Izzet Delver hit the scene. Suddenly there was a better option if you wanted to run Delver of Secrets and play removal. That being said, Gurmag Angler remains a great late game sink for expended filter spells.

Delver Exhume makes use of this shell but adds another angle of attack. Initially using Greater Sandwurm, it has since moved to Striped Riverwinder as the Exhume target of choice. Riverwinder might not be as large, but it is nearly impossible to answer outside of Chainer's Edict. It also has the advantage of Cycling for a single Blue mana as opposed to the two colorless of Greater Sandwurm. This wrinkle opens up the line of being able to present 5/5 on turn two thanks to Exhume.

In order to make space for the combination the deck has skimped on removal, instead focusing on Vapor Snag for onboard interaction. It's a smart change. Between Gurmag Angler and Striped Riverwinder most decks are going to struggle to present anything that can trade on the ground.

Delver Exhume packs a lot of neat combos into the deck and they stitch it together with, you guessed it, Blue cantrips. Brainstorm can put two dead cards back only to have them binned with Thought Scour. Casting Gush and then Brainstorm, putting back the dead Islands, only to shuffle them away with Ash Barrens can help improve overall card quality. Delver Exhume is a strong option that can attack from multiple different angles, all while backed up with Counterspell.

It takes a lot to surprise me when it comes to Pauper, but when the Heroic deck started to put up results two weeks ago, I was caught off guard. People have been attempting Heroic decks in the format since Theros hit, but this is the first one to put up consistent results. Even more surprising is how it occupies a similar space to two established decks and does something different from both.

At its core, Heroic is an Ethereal Armor deck. The goal is to make a large Akroan Skyguard and Lagonna-Band Trailblazer and attack for victory. Using Ethereal Armor, Cartouche of Solidarity, and Hyena Umbra, it can be easy to build your own giant. Emerge Unscathed, a recent downshift, helps to keep your threats alive while Cho-Manno's Blessing does the same while pulling double duty as an Aura for Ethereal Armor. All these non-creature spells makes Seeker of the Way a reasonable option as well.

So how is this deck different from Hexproof? First off, it is a single color. Hexproof, while an explosive deck in its own right, has to make concessions to cast both Green and White spells. A monochromatic mana base makes it easier to curve out. The ability to run instants and not rely almost exclusively on Auras to buff your creatures also helps. Emerge Unscathed represents two points of power as well as fending off removal. The +1/+1 counters mean that even if the enhancing Enchantments are removed, some remnant of their power will remain.

What about Izzet Blitz? The Gush combo deck has to win in one large turn, which means it can often spend the early game sculpting a hand. Heroic has to establish a winning position with its opening seven and then judiciously use remaining spells to ensure it can deal lethal. The difference is, Heroic has a fail case where it is still attacking with reasonable, if overpriced, creatures. Izzet Blitz has the advantage of running amazing Blue cards but it can still fall flat.

Heroic is something rare. It's a deck that burst onto the scene and has enough potential space for innovation to adapt. Given what is residing at the top of the Iconic Masters season standings and how familiar it all looks, it is nice to see something new show up at the top of the challenges.

Affinity is unique amongst Pauper decks. It is a hyperlinear deck using Artifact Lands to act as personal copies of Mana Flare. It runs one of the best removal spells in Galvanic Blast, a combo kill a Atog and Fling, a disruptive game with Metallic Rebuke, and it is all held together with one of the best draw spells in Thoughtcast. Affinity may be the single most powerful deck available in the format. Yet it does not dominate.

Affinity in Pauper thrives when people aren't packing hate. Gorilla Shaman might be the best answer to Affinity in the early game but the hate flows at every point in the curve. Gleeful Sabotage, Ancient Grudge, Fragmentize, Fangren Marauder, Smash to Smithereens -- the list goes on and on. While Affinity can weather the storm for one round, stacking the hate up round after round after round can make it harder for the deck to thrive. When Pauper is prepared for the machine, it is very easy to limit its effectiveness. So what made it one of the best deck in Iconic Masters?

Affinity is incredibly flexible in its sideboard. Access to a multicolored mana base of Artifact Lands supplemented by Prophetic Prism and Springleaf Drum grants the deck access to a wide swath of answers to everything else. It is very easy to find an Affinity deck with Krark-Clan Shaman, Circle of Protection: Green, Hydroblast, and Reaping the Graves, all in the same sideboard. Affinity also has access to "I win" hands where it presents multiple 4/4 monsters on the second and third turns of the game. Few decks can match that output, especially when backed up with Temur Battle Rage.

The cycle of success is as old as the format itself. Affinity can succeed for weeks at a time, but eventually people adapt and run the right answers. Until they don't and it starts all over again. Affinity is also the deck least likely to get new cards for its main deck since its power is tied so tightly to its core theme.

So here we are again. Delver was in the Top 10 last season but surged to the top this time around. It's hard to keep a good deck down, and in the Iconic Masters Challenges it rose to the top. Out of the eight events, Delver had ten Top 8 appearances and outright won three of the tournaments.

Delver is an aggro-control deck. It wants to stick an early threat, weather it is Delver of Secrets or Faerie Miscreant, and then apply pressure and protect the team with cards like Spellstutter Sprite and Counterspell. Eventually Spire Golem comes down to hold the fort until it can start turning sideways. Delver is one of the format's best Gush decks. It has a mana base made up entirely of Islands which makes picking up the lands for the alternate cost that much easier. The ability to run Gush with Ponder and Preordain means that Delver can see plenty of cards over the course of the game. Something has changed, however.

Recently, Delver decks have started to move away from Ninja of the Deep Hours in favor of Augur of Bolas. Ninjitsu bug aside, I think this is incorrect. Augur of Bolas is great at finding your best late game card in Gush but it comes with plenty of issues. Many of Delver's strongest cards are creatures. Spellstutter Sprite and Spire Golem both play a key role, and Augur bypasses both of these. At the same time it makes both of these cards worse by taking away their ability to be Ninja'd back for reuse. As mentioned at the top of this article Ninja into Spellstutter is one of the baseline interactions in Pauper. That being said, Augur is a fine replacement while Ninja is broken.

Where Augur shines is in finding Gush. Ninja may net you more cards when left alone, but it only gets you what is on top. Augur of Bolas can go three deep and pick the best spell. Ninja also struggles when removal is everywhere whereas Augur will get its card if it resolves. Regardless I believe that the Ninja-Sprite interaction is stronger than the Augur-Gush combo, but I'm ready to be proven wrong.

Delver -- Pauper | Nuylan, Winner January 7, 2018 Pauper Challenge

Rivals of Ixalan is not likely to have a massive impact on Pauper. Going into the next two months of tournaments, looking to what happened during Iconic Masters will be a good starting point in order to attack the format. Why two months? Because halfway through March we are getting yet another Masters set in 25th Anniversary Masters. If the last two sets were any indication, March is going to bring a massive wave of changes to Pauper.

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