The Pauper metagame of today looks drastically different than it did a few months ago. Looking at June and July, Boros Monarch, Izzet Delver, and Stompy were the decks to beat. While these decks have not vanished from the ranks of the successful, they are not nearly the dominant forces they were half a year ago. Instead a new breed of deck has emerged, not as the baseline for Pauper but rather as a significant chunk of the metagame.
Boros Monarch and Izzet Delver rode Red removal to the top of the heap. Lightning Bolt found a home in both decks with the former suiting up Galvanic Blast and the latter leaning on Skred. This suite of one-mana instants works because they, at worst, make for an even trade. The curve in Pauper starts at one and being able to answer opposing aggression on the first turn can be key to surviving long enough to establish a game plan. Izzet Delver used its duo to keep the board clear and crash in with flyers while Boros Monarch wanted removal to survive until it could resolve Palace Sentinels and then start overwhelming with card advantage. Monarch could also use its removal to close out games as Galvanic Blast goes to the face much better than Skred does.
These spells also happen to answer Stompy exceptionally well. After the printing of Burning-Tree Emissary, the Green Machine took on the role of the baseline deck in the format. In order to have a fighting chance in Leagues and Challenges, one had to come prepared for Stompy. It was at this time that Izzet Delver took off, adding the Red removal to Delver. Traditionally, Stompy matched up well with the Mono-Blue deck but the addition of Lightning Bolt and Skred helped to improve the matchup. While draws that involve Burning-Tree Emissary can quickly overwhelm defenses spells like Lightning Bolt can help to contain the threats and keep the more controlling deck in the game.
For a while, there was equilibrium. Something changed when other decks rose up to prey on Stompy. Izzet Blitz, a Gush combo deck that uses the free Instant to make a large Nivix Cyclops or Kiln Fiend to one shot with Temur Battle Rage grew in popularity. Blitz decks could get by Stompy's defenses with Apostle's Blessing, Artful Dodge, or Shadow Rift, and kill in a single attack. Tribe Combo emerged, using a similar spell suite but pairing Tireless Tribe with Inside Out, as another way to deal 20 in a single swoop. These two decks have made their presence felt, and, in the past few weeks, they precipitated the tendency in Pauper to go tall.
When looking at decks that want to attack, there are two paths. The first, a traditional swarm strategy, can be seen as going wide. Decks in this vein want to overwhelm defenses with bodies. Instead of using a few creatures to punch through large bursts of damage these decks want to make blocking a nightmare. Pauper has seen many such decks like this in its history, including Stompy and Kuldotha Tokens (with Battle Screech and Rally the Peasants).
The other type of deck likes to go tall -- that is they build up one (or two) massive threats that can attack with impunity. Izzet Blitz and Tribe Combo are both decks that want to achieve this height, although they are aggressive strategies only in the sense that they win via attacking. Hexproof also fits this bill as does the new kid on the block, Heroic. Right now this style of deck seems to be on the rise so much so that it has influenced the way other decks are put together.
Take Lightning Bolt in abstract. In a world full of Bolts, anything with less than three toughness is a liability. As such decks have to take this into account when selecting their threats. Many of the go tall decks do not worry about this card because, by the time they move to their victory formation, Lightning Bolt does not matter. Instead they can use their defensive spells to literally shrug off the Red boon.
A little over a year ago I wrote an article about the triumvirate of removal in Pauper, represented by Lightning Bolt, Chainer's Edict, and Journey to Nowhere. I posited that when Lightning Bolt was bad and the need to fight decks with singular threats was present that a shift to Black removal made sense. A year ago, that held true, but two things have changed. First, the go tall decks have gotten better at negating the efficacy of Chainer's Edict. Second, go wide decks have adopted elements that enable them to build up a single creature and make them a menace.
The first point is easy enough to observe. The presence of Augur of Bolas in both Izzet Blitz and Tribe Combo make it so that the Black deck needs to handle the speed bump before their Edict goes to work. Both Heroic and Hexproof feature Cartouche of Solidarity which functions in a similar fashion. The second point is a bit obscured, but can be seen in many Stompy and Affinity lists. Affinity has started to supplement their copies of Fling with Temur Battle Rage while Stompy has added the full suite of Elephant Guide to go with Hunger of the Howlpack. Both of these changes enable the deck in question to deal with a significant portion of a defender's life total in a single combat step. And both of these decks already have a resiliency to Chainer's Edict.
In moments like this one, the Pauper metagame is populated with decks that are trying to race past each other. Being able to disrupt your opponent's ability to put pressure on you is paramount but ideally you also want to waste their resources. Cards like Snuff Out and Vendetta would be attractive if not for the life loss associated with them. Even cards like Journey to Nowhere, normally a nice stop gap, are barely enough to contain the threats. It is time for a new challenger to appear.
And its name is Vapor Snag.
Vapor Snag may not be an actual removal spell but in the current metagame it fills a similar function. Currently the majority of Pauper decks are racing past each other and investing resources into a solitary threat. Even in Stompy, they are often loading auras and counters onto a Vault Skirge. Vapor Snag allows you to undo investment all while advancing your game plan.
Vapor Snag, in it of itself, is not a removal spell. Instead it fills the role of one when used in a deck that is seeking to play a tempo game. Tempo is a core Magic concept, but it is one of the hardest to describe. In this instance I will use the word yempo to talk about the natural pace of the game. Anything that disrupts your opponent's pace while advancing your own can be seen as tempo positive. However, this advantage only matters if one can capitalize on it.
To illustrate this I want to talk about land destruction. Using a Stone Rain to undo an opponent's land drop is a tempo positive play, but that gain is wasted if you cannot follow the spell up with pressure. Even if it hits a Dimir Aqueduct, the opponent can recover in a turn or two. Tempo gains only matter if there is a suitable follow up.
In the case of Vapor Snag, the goal is to use it on a threat that has been built up but also to clear a path for your own attackers. Removing the creature is only so good if that time is wasted. Crashing in with your own threat is a good way to take the initiative. Using the bounce spell to disrupt a Tireless Tribe or a Nivix Cyclops is great, especially if cards have already been spent to make it more threatening, but coming in with your own creatures helps to further tilt the scales. As long as Pauper is full of decks seeking to compress the game into a few turns and fewer threats, Vapor Snag can serve as an important tool.
Unlike other removal spells, which can be slotted into most decks and used to good effect, Vapor Snag needs to be used in tandem with creatures which can make use of mid-combat effects. I am of course speaking of creatures with Prowess. Jeskai Sage, Ingenious Skaab, and Elusive Spellfist all play very nicely with Vapor Snag. If I were looking to make use of Vapor Snag currently I would start at this point.
Spellfist Delver -- Pauper | Alex Ullman
- Creatures (22)
- 2 Jhessian Thief
- 4 Delver of Secrets
- 4 Elusive Spellfist
- 4 Faerie Miscreant
- 4 Ninja of the Deep Hours
- 4 Spellstutter Sprite
- Lands (16)
- 16 Island
Vapor Snag may not actually kill a creature. Instead its best used to undo your adversary's plans while advancing your own. At a single mana, it's hard to beat and let's not forget, you can pitch it to Force of Will.
I mean, in formats where that card is legal.