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Thoroughly Modern Pauper


It isn't very often that I get inspired by the Pro Tour. I don't mean to imply that the Pro Tour is boring, but rather that I find myself more often entertained by the play than turning off the stream with a desire to brew. The last time I remember feeling the urge was after the finals of Pro Tour Kaladesh. I was dead set on making a control deck that won only with Sheer Drop. I wanted to emulate the near creatureless control decks from Shota Yasooka and Carlos Romao and ended up with a Bant deck that I took to consistent 3-2 finishes in the Pauper League.

Notice the difference? In order to port decks from Pro Tour formats to Pauper many different stars have to align. Standard Pro Tours are tougher, as the most powerful options in these formats tend toward higher rarities. It is at rare and mythic rare where the best payoff for set themes reside while common cards tend to help fuel those engines.

What was missing from the Bant deck? Torrential Gearhulk. Despite the individual strength of the spells in the deck, there was no top end to tie it all together. Pauper has cheap removal and strong card draw, but the lack of a true control game breaker helped to keep this brew from catching on.

When Modern returned to the Pro Tour, I was not expecting it to be a source of creativity. In years past Modern Pro Tours were dominated by decks that could not be replicated in Pauper. Splinter Twin combo may have an analogue in Midnight Guard/Presence of Gond, but that deck is a far cry from the ur control shell that has come to define a segment of the Modern metagame. But as the rounds wound down on Saturday, I found myself feeling absolutely giddy. Even though Pauper may lack the power of Modern there are still enough synergies to see what we can do in my format of choice.

I want to start with the breakout deck of the tournament. Five-Color Humans is a deck that recently took off thanks to the addition of Unclaimed Territory. The Land from Ixalan gave the strategy access to three different rainbow lands for their tribe of choice, as Territory joined Ancient Ziggurat and Cavern of Souls. Five-Color Humans uses its mana base to cast the best cards on tribe and attack with large copies of Champion of the Parish or go wide with Thalia's Lieutenant. Kitesail Freebooter, Reflector Mage, and Thalia, Guardian of Thraben help to play a light control game. The deck also uses Aether Vial to get around counters and, in some cases, featured Collected Company to get two creatures at instant speed.

Okay so we start with a bang. And by that I mean a whimper. The truth is there is no way to easily replicate the power of Humans in Pauper. The lack of a reliable five color land prevents us from casting spells of any color all willy-nilly. Instead, I took this deck as an invitation to look at creature based disruption strategies. It doesn't take much for me to want to run Mesmeric Fiend, which was Kitesail Freebooter before Pirates were cool. Spellstutter Sprite fills this role already, but Faeries are not that impressive on offense. The more I thought about it the more I realized a deck that featured Spellstutter Sprites with no other support could work. The format revolves largely around cheap spells and being able to run Sprite outside of dedicated Delver decks looks like an opportunity.

In order to facilitate this it may be correct to run Grapple with the Past. Grapple is an underappreciated card that can act as a Raise Dead or a pseudo-Impulse, all in Green. It makes sense for creature based strategies, as it can retrieve key cards. Once you go down the creature based path cards like Lead the Stampede enter the picture as do other cheap disruptive creatures like Sidisi's Faithful.

Here is where things start to come apart at the seams. While this all sounds great it suffers from a similar problem to the Bant deck -- it would struggle to end the game. Playing disruptive creatures sounds great but without the backbreaking plays of Collected Company or a Vialed in Reflector Mage the deck would sputter to finish.

What about the Pro Tour winning deck and Lantern Control?

Hop into any Pauper forum and it won't take long for you to find people trying to make a Lantern Control deck work in Pauper. There are a few problems with this, namely the lack of Ensnaring Bridge. While Fog strategies have worked in Pauper from time to time, they require a constant investment of new cards. Ensnaring Bridge can just sit there and eat through combat phases.

Instead, Pauper brewers like to focus on the library manipulation aspect. Thoughtpicker Witch is often mentioned alongside Myr Servitor. Thoughtpicker can also work with Ivy Lane Denizen and Rendclaw Trow to set the top of your opponent's library turn after turn for one mana. Sacrificing the Trow to Witch and having it Persist back will let you put a +1/+1 counter on it with Denizen. Lurking Informant, while slower, could also mess set the opposing draws.

Once again, things fall apart due to a major missing piece -- the lock. Curating your adversary's draw step is all well and good but you actually have to win the game. Unlike Lantern Control there is no way to stop your opponent from enacting their game plan. Instead you have to invest resources to try and stop them while also spending mana to manipulate their hand. Even if you add Carrion Feeder and Rite of Consumption for a combo kill using the same Ivy Lane Denizen trick, the time needed to set yourself up will leave you dead to all sorts of decks.

These two decks do not have much in common. Ken Yukuhiro's Hollow One deck wants to turbo out cheap 5/5s and attack while Gerry Thompson's Mardu Pyromancer deck wants to play a midrange control game. Both, however, run Faithless Looting. And if there is anything I am sucker for it is a br deck with Faithless Looting. After watching Thompson secure his third Top 8 I started thinking of a way to mimic his deck in Pauper.

That was a fool's errand. There was no way to replicate Lingering Souls and Bedlam Reveler in the Rakdos color combination. Cenn's Enlistment would have worked if Black were cut for White, but then the deck would like the top end of Gurmag Angler -- something I wanted due to the pace at which Faithless Looting could dump cards into the yard. Instead I looked for other ways to take advantage of the single mana spell.

The answer came from E_Hustle, he of Tortured Existence renown. He had been playing a br deck with a similar engine but used Call to the Netherworld. This intrigued me. While there is no Young Pyromancer in Pauper, Firebrand Archer does a serviceable impression. With access to Call, a Faithless Looting could represent two free points of damage thanks to Archer. Even better, if you discarded a Black creature alongside Call to the Netherworld, Faithless Looting became a straight draw two.

I was ecstatic and started iterating on the idea. A few versions in I noticed it more closely resembled Yukuhiro's deck. I leaned in, even trying Burning Inquiry at one point. I eventually moved away from the chancier spell for the more reliable Cathartic Reunion. Without Hollow One I needed to find another discard payoff and E_Hustle came through with Grisly Survivor. After some test games I saw the deck needed another way to close out games so I added a single copy of Temur Battle Rage. That left me with this:

The deck is still unrefined but shows promise. It can control the early game with Duress and Lightning Bolt before turning the corner with Gurmag Angler and Grisly Survivor. Firebrand Archer puts in work dealing damage for every spell cast. It is not nearly as good as Young Pyromancer -- tokens are better than pings -- but it's the best we can do in Pauper at the moment.

These ideas may never take hold in Pauper. It could be that all of these strategies are just too awkward or lack the real support to succeed in the format. At the same time sometimes it is just fun to see what the best in the world are doing and see what you can learn.

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