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Pauper and Shadows


The full Shadows over Innistrad spoiler has finally arrived. Like so many other players, I’ve spent the past few days poring over the card list and trying to figure out how to make these new cards work. While there are many words written during this time with regards to Pauper, most of them are manifestations of hope. Pauper has a massive card pool, and for a new card to supplant something that already exists is a fairly big ask. Trying to find a new element that breathes life into an archetype is a rare occurrence. Shadows over Innistrad may not give rise to entirely new decks, but it has an abundance of tools to aid decks that have been operating on the outskirts of the format. On balance, I believe Shadows tilts toward a set that could seriously impact Pauper.

The mechanics present all in the set play into existing archetypes and also align with current lines of play. There are decks that want to discard for value, decks that want to fill the graveyard, and decks that benefit from incidental artifacts. The foundation exists for Shadows over Innistrad to shine its gloomy light.

Angelic Purge represents a more permanent Oblivion Ring for Pauper. The lack of Planeswalkers hardly hurts the card in a format in which they do not exist. Purge is on par with Terminate and Journey to Nowhere for its ability to handle any creature (including the omnipresent Gurmag Angler) while also being able to take out Oubliette, Rancor, Curse of the Bloody Tome, or Prophetic Prism just to name a few. That it exiles and prevents Unearth or Haunted Fengraf from doing their job cannot be discounted. The cost of sacrificing a permanent is not negligible and requires a deck that can afford to send something to the bin for a benefit.

The various Kuldotha decks are perfect for Angelic Purge. They already feature a full complement of Ichor Wellspring and other cards that have versions of a death trigger. While not currently the most popular, the ability to add an on-color Vindicate may be enough to get players to give the deck another shot. It is also likely to see this paired with the wide array of creatures that do not currently see play but have no problem hitting the bin—Sultai Emissary, Viridian Emissary, and Jeskai Sage to name a few.

Dauntless Cathar and Ghoulcaller’s Apprentice are both cards that meet a vital criteria: They are resilient to Chainer's Edict–style effects. While neither of these creatures creates a body upon entering or leaving the battlefield, their afterlives can be saved for a turn that would otherwise be empty. Neither token is generated at above rate, but the fact that neither Spirit nor Zombie costs an actual card is huge. Extra creatures are incredibly valuable in certain matchups, and the ability to store reasonable ones on decent bodies is a surefire way to be considered for a spot in a Pauper deck. Out of these, Dauntless Cathar is more likely to be played, as the 1/1 flyer for 1w is more attractive in the midgame than a 2/2 for 3b.

Stern Constable is out first madness outlet. A free Spellshaper, it can tap any creature that can prove useful against 5/5 Zombie Fish and 8/8 Eldrazi with annihilator. In the past, Gideon's Lawkeeper and Goldmeadow Harrier saw play in White Weenie as a repeatable answer to large threats. The metagame has gone wider—even Tron resolves more than one creature these days. The Constable, however, can put cards like Battle Screech and Cenn's Enlistment into the graveyard for value and is one of the few new discard outlets without a mana cost attached. While it’s not high on my list, I could absolutely see running some in the right situation.

There is an abundance of non-pump spells in Shadows over Innistrad. Strength of Arms, Grotesque Mutation, and Rush of Adrenaline all reward other colors for attempting to play like a Stompy deck. Black, white, and red all have strong suites of creatures that are easily enhanced. Out of all of these, Rush is the most interesting due to the fact that it can turn any 2-power creature into a candidate for Temur Battle Rage. Rush also has the advantage of being in a color with prowess, and casting it on a Mage-Ring Bully or Sanguinary Mage could mean quite a bit of damage. With Titan's Strength, red potentially has enough combat tricks to attempt a non-Goblins aggressive strategy.

Strength of Arms is the least likely to see play, as the rider of creating a token is hardest to achieve. Mutation is another in a long line of cards that make me yearn for an aggressive black deck and leave me with the understanding that now is not the right time.

Thraben Inspector provides a small body with the opportunity to draw a card later. On turn four, it is a chump-blocker with a draw-a-card kicker. Where things get interesting is in the same Kuldotha decks as mentioned for Angelic Purge. Kor Skyfisher and Thraben Inspector comprise a decent combo, as it means more cards in the future or the ability to present two threats without resetting a board state. The fact that Clues are artifacts means that cards like Galvanic Blast become that much easier to cast.

Riffing on Kuldotha Boros and Jeskai, this deck is more concerned with advancing its board position than recasting Ichor Wellspring for value. Angelic Purge is an upgrade on Kuldotha Rebirth in its ability to affect the board. The above list is screaming for a Bonesplitter, but for an initial run, I’d want to push in this direction before finding which card to cut for the Equipment.

Deny Existence is an interesting card. When playing against black decks as a blue mage, I am loath to see Liliana's Specter on turn four. Losing a card in these matchups is horrible, but countering it is a fool’s errand, as Unearth is a real possibility. Deny Existence helps fight on that axis. Against decks with Unearth it turns off the opponent’s ability to eke out additional value. Haunted Fengraf has become a key part of the Tron deck, but Deny Existence can turn off the opponent’s ability to recur Ulamog's Crusher or Fangren Marauder. While it is often going to compete with Essence Scatter and Exclude, Deny Existence has a home in sideboards for decks that want to stop a creature from ever, ever coming back around.

Our first madness card is Just the Wind, and it is anything but air. For Just the Wind and others to see play, Pauper is going to have to lean harder old discard standbys like Wild Mongrel, Gathan Raiders, Merfolk Looter, Putrid Imp, Faithless Looting, and others. Shadows over Innistrad does not provide anything quite on this level, so we will have to make do. Just the Wind is better in the aggressive strategies that want to press their advantage. Using it in conjunction with Waterfront Bouncer to build an Undo or Kris Mage to pastiche a Jilt are fine. Pitching it to Wild Mongrel to clear a path initially seems to be the best use. Just the Wind is going to be an often-attempted card, and I hope it finds a home.

If it does, it may be alongside Nagging Thoughts. While not the best card-selection spell available to blue, it does have the advantage of having madness. The ability to add a card to the graveyard for something like Gurmag Angler or Werebear also matters. Nagging Thoughts is not flashy, but it may just be an important piece of glue for decks that want to discard for value.

Murderous Compulsion is one of those obviously good cards. For 2 mana, it can kill anything that has attacked. At sorcery speed, this is unexciting, while at instant speed, it can shut down any attacker. As one of the few black spells that can handle a Gurmag Angler, it is a reason to attempt an aggressive madness deck. We will need enough discard outlets to make it consistent, and Vampire Hounds only lets you fuel it with creatures.

Undertaker is another low-cost madness outlet that does a decent Tortured Existence impression. I like it here since it can be easily retrieved with Font of Return or Grave Scrabbler. Murderous Compulsion has a great fail case—same cost, just different speed—making it an ideal card to try out in Pauper. Even at its worst, it is pretty good. Twins of Mauer Estate earns the nod here as well, as the Vampire has decent stats. Outside of a dedicated madness deck, I’m not sure they see play.

Sanitarium Skeleton is everything I love. A small creature with the ability to come back, it is endless fuel for Tortured Existence. The enchantment is among the better engines available in Pauper, and it has been a fringe strategy for years. One of the things holding the deck back was that it did not always have creatures to use on demand. Versions without access to green mana would often run Golgari Brownscale in an effort to have enough naturally recurring creatures to use for the Existence. Sanitarium Skeleton solves that while being in the same color. Now for 2bb, the Tortured Existence player can draw any creature in his or her graveyard. Bojuka Bog is no longer the absolute dagger it once was if there is 3 mana available.

The goal will be staying alive long enough to make it to a point where everything is fair game. Innocent Blood and other removal spells should help in that scenario. Cards like Qarsi Sadist may see play as a way to put the Skeleton into the bin while padding a life total. I am not sure what the rest of the deck is going to look like—Tortured Existence decks are among the hardest to build for a wide metagame—but I do not doubt it will be a popular presence in the Pauper league in a few weeks.

Dual Shot is quite the card. While it cannot hit players and cannot play the role of Shock, it does a great job of keeping a board clear early. Delver, Goblins, and Stompy are all heavily played and have vulnerability to this style of card. It is hard to get better than 1 mana for this effect, and it is a much more reasonable main-deck inclusion than Electrickery for its ability to hit creatures while on the draw. If I had to guess which card made it into a 5–0 deck first, it would be this one.

The Werewolves are not easy to use effectively. As “just creatures,” they need to actively reward you for not casting spells. Out of all the Werewolves available, Hinterland Logger comes the closest. A 4/2 with trample is a very fast clock, and it happens to be the right size for Temur Battle Rage. I am not sure that Logger is good enough to stop casting spells, but it is certainly the closest.

Moldgraf Scavenger was the card that generated the most discussion in Pauper circles upon its release. On its surface, it looks to be an efficient beater that can survive Lightning Bolt. However, the outside of the best-case scenario, this is an 0/4. Delirium was going to require a pretty hefty payoff to see play, and the Scavenger barely toes that line. The problem is that the setup cost is high in deck-building, and all the work can be undone by a single Bojuka Bog. Think about a hypothetical R/G deck. In order to have the best possible Scavenger, you would have to vary your burn suite with cards like Seal of Fire, Pyrite Spellbomb, and Pillar of Flame. These cards are fine, but running all of them, the payoff becomes a 3-power creature. Running Lightning Bolt and friends makes it possible to cast a Hooting Mandrills, which has 4 power naturally and is not randomly weakened by a Bojuka Bog. For now, Scavenger is the epitome of almost.

Vessel of Nascency is the last card I want to look at in depth. It will almost certainly find a home in Tortured Existence decks running green, but I want to discuss its applications in Hexproof. Some versions of the deck have taken to running Commune with the Gods as a way to dig for bodies or Auras. Vessel can do that while also hanging around to make Ethereal Armor or Ancestral Mask better. It can also be activated an instant speed, so whatever is drawn can be used on the next attack. To me, this is a pretty significant upgrade for the deck.

Here are a few other cards that caught my eye:

Vessel of Ephemera — It’s another token-producer, but it’s probably too expensive

Shamble Back — There are enough abilities on this card that it might be good, but I am not sure it is better than Vile Rebirth or Beckon Apparition.

Vessel of Malignity — This is a card I would not mind in the Mono-Black Control mirror, as it can help boost devotion while acting like a Wrench Mind. As a bonus, its victims cannot be used to feed Gurmag Angler.

Bloodmad Vampire — If an aggressive red madness deck exists, this will be a key part. Senseless Rage might fit there as well.

Pyre Hound — A slower Kiln Fiend with natural evasion, this could see play in the Kiln Fiend decks that take a more controlling route as another finisher.

Stoic Builder — Cartographer is back, and now it can block Chittering Rats.

Warped Landscape — Unless I am running a wedge deck, I am almost always going to pick a Panorama over this new land. The only reason I would consider this over that cycle is if I desperately needed to run Wastes for access to colorless mana.

There are over two dozen commons worthy of discussion. Shadows over Innistrad has certainly given Pauper some interesting options, and I cannot wait to see which ones make the cut. My top five Pauper cards for the set are:

  1. Just the Wind
  2. Vessel of Nascency
  3. Murderous Compulsion
  4. Sanitarium Skeleton
  5. Dual Shot

What are yours?

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