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On the Fringe of Shadows

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While Shadows over Innistrad has crept into the real world, the digital realm has to wait until April 18 to try to unravel the set’s many mysteries. Pauper is largely played on Magic Online, and so we have to attempt patience before we can start investigating. In the interim, Paupers can peer into the future and build decks for the new metagame.

Faerie Miscreant
Before we can understand where Pauper may be headed, we have to understand its current state. Oath of the Gatewatch season started with Affinity and Tron leading the charge into a world without Cloud of Faeries. A month later, Delver started its rise to the most popular 5–0 deck in the format. The deck picked up Faerie Miscreant as a “new” 1-drop and managed to do just fine for itself, as it currently comprises nearly 12% of all recorded undefeated decks (down from 18.5% during Battle for Zendikar). Unlike Battle for Zendikar season, the second best deck is not more than 10 percentage points back in the volume department. Affinity clocks in at 9.89%, with Tron not far behind at 8.95%. Rounding out the top five (as of this writing) are Goblins (8.16%) and Stompy (7.85%).

Pauper appears to be far healthier now that Cloud of Faeries has been removed from the format. While the top deck remains the same, the spread from first to fifth has shrunk dramatically. Last season, there were almost 12 percentage points separating the most popular deck from the fifth most, while this season, it is just over 4 points. That is a massive difference. Resulting from this change, more decks are performing at a better clip than they had been, giving the impression of a wider metagame.

Not every deck is a top-line contender. Those lists at the very top look to benefit the least from Shadows over Innistrad. There are no cheap flying creatures or tempo plays for Delver and no artifacts for Affinity. Goblins do not roam Innistrad, and while Hinterland Logger may get some reps in Stompy test builds, it is just as likely to see no play. Tron could run anything it pleases if it wants to bend the mana, and Vessel of Nascency might have made the cut if Ancient Stirrings did not do a similar job for a third of the cost. Even so, if Tron decks move to adopting spells like Journey to Nowhere, I could see them warping their mana bases to include Vessel of Nascency.

For the sake of argument, let’s go all the way with Vessel of Nascency. Removal like Journey to Nowhere and Oblivion Ring are desirable, while spells are less attractive—sorry, Rolling Thunder. We can also focus some on graveyard synergies since we will probably be filling our bin consistently.

One thing I was never able to make work in Tron was using Ancient Stirrings to find Oblivion Strike and Scour from Existence, turning the green spell into a second-rate Forbidden Alchemy. Vessel of Nascency adds a toolbox element to the deck. I am unsure if this is better than the current versions of Tron, but it does come at the mana engine from a slightly different angle.

Vessel of Nascency
Aside from Tron, no top deck looks to benefit from the new cards. Rather, it is the fringe strategies that stand to gain the most from Shadows.

Starting where we left Tron, Vessel of Nascency may be the most interesting card for Pauper out of Shadows over Innistrad. Last week, I had it ranked as my fourth-best card from the set. After some consideration and discussions, I realize I severely undersold the card, and that was before I started to think about it in Tron. Perhaps the most obvious place for the new enchantment is alongside Sanitarium Skeleton in a Tortured Existence deck.

Tortured Existence is a build-around enchantment from Stronghold that begs for a big graveyard. The deck has long existed on the fringes of the metagame mostly because it is slow. I mean Meandering Towershell slow. Without a copy of Tortured Existence in the early game, the deck does nothing besides play utility creatures. The relatively recent push to give black and green graveyard-based Limited strategies has bolstered the deck with cards like Satyr Wayfinder, Commune with the Gods, and Gurmag Angler. The problem remains being able to reliably use the eponymous enchantment and find it in time.

Vessel of Nascency can replace Commune with the Gods in the deck. While Commune goes a card deeper, Vessel has the added benefit of being able to find a land. Vessel also comes down on turn one and can be held until it needs to be cracked. Finally, Vessel can operate at instant speed, allowing the deck to hold mana up in case it needs to attempt an answer.

Sanitarium Skeleton is not the spice in the Tortured Existence recipe. Rather, it is the salt that makes everything that much better. For the entirety of the history of Tortured Existence, it has relied upon Stinkweed Imp and Golgari Brownscale and a dredged draw to start the engine. Now all it needs is a spare 2b to start the wheel. This changes everything, as the deck now has to worry less about running out of cards and more about making sure it has enough mana available to grab whatever it wants. What does this new toolbox look like?

Above is where I would start with a Tortured Existence deck after Shadows over Innistrad comes to Magic Online. The toolbox is rather loose at moment, but it has tools to combat enchantments and artifacts in Sylvok Replica and aggressive strategies in Brindle Boar, and it can close out games with Twisted Abomination. Extra copies of Tortured Existence help the cause here, as looping Gray Merchant of Asphodel through Carrion Feeder gives you a large attacker while also repeatedly draining your adversary of the player’s precious life points.

Thrull Surgeon is a card I have recently run to some success in black control decks. While, on the surface, it appears to be a slow Mesmeric Fiend, it actually has an important piece of text missing: “nonland.” Thrull Surgeon can pry open a brain a take a Bojuka Bog or piece of Tron. While it operates exclusively at sorcery speed, the ability to take anything is too enticing to overlook.

The last home for Vessel of Nascency may just be in Hexproof. Certain builds of the deck have taken to running Commune with the Gods as a way to find a key card. Vessel fills a similar role but has the added benefit of adding to the enchantment count for Ethereal Armor and Ancestral Mask.

Vessel of Ephemera
Here, we have a fairly straightforward Hexproof deck. Resolve a hard-to-kill creature, and put as many Auras on it as possible to attack for the win. One of this deck’s natural weaknesses is the abundance of Diabolic Edict effects in Pauper. Khalni Garden is a concession to the metagame, but so is Vessel of Ephemera. I had initially overlooked the white Vessel as an overcosted token producer. I failed to account for the fact that I could be found with Vessel of Nascency in Hexproof as a way to produce two pieces of Edict fodder. While expensive, this play may be able to buy the time Hexproof needs to fight through various pieces of black removal.

Vessel of Ephemera also produces flying tokens, which is something I had neglected to fully consider in my set review. As Battle Screech has proven, flying tokens are very good in Pauper and can form the backbone of a potent strategy.

Tokens in Pauper is almost always a go-wide-style white deck. It grew in popularity due to its ability to run Suture Priest in the main as a way to bolster its own life total while also hindering Esper Combo; the second ability on Priest made it slightly harder for Esper to win. Tokens had the ability to generate card advantage through Squadron Hawk and Battle Screech and could win from nowhere thanks to white’s abundant Anthem effects. Raise the Alarm is a must-include in these decks, but Gather the Townsfolk saw less consistent play. Vessel of Ephemera could fill this role while providing some much needed insurance from Electrickery.

Tokens may be a home for Dauntless Cathar, but Sandsteppe Outcast gets the nod for creating two bodies on demand. Other Anthem effects include Kytheon's Tactics and Marshaling Cry, but I prefer the straightforward nature of Guardians' Pledge. Cliffside Lookout is a nice mana sink that can deal some damage on its own. Some versions will run Veteran Armorer in the main as a way to fight Electrickery, but I prefer Ramosian Rally, as it can be cast for “free” and doubles as a game ender.

One topic of conversation that has come up often in the past week is the idea of a madness deck. The chat box I keep open to discuss that matter often has many words written on how close these decks are and how disappointing our attempts have been. Jason (he of Murasa Tron) hit the nail on the head: Madness decks want free discard outlets. Even the powerful Faithless Looting may be too expensive to use in an aggressive strategy. Insolent Neonate, however, may be exactly what the deck needs. A 1-drop that can peck in for a few points early while setting up discards later may be exactly what a madness deck needs. Paired with Bloodmad Vampire and Arrogant Wurm, it may just be time for a Gruul deck.

Beat down—that’s what this deck wants to do. Insolent Neonate and Bloodmad Vampire provide an additional way to apply pressure early. The abundance of high-powered creatures also means Temur Battle Rage is a dream realized and can steal games. I am certain the numbers above are not perfect, but it is where I would want to start a Gruul-flavored madness deck moving forward. But that’s not the only way to lose our mind.

Sure, this deck may lack the beef of its Gruul cousin, but it is able to run some sweet cards in Circular Logic and Accumulated Knowledge. Blue and red comprise a powerful color pair in Pauper, and attempting an aggro–control deck fueled by madness might be the way to go. The value of having cheap discard outlets for a madness deck will put a new spotlight on cards like Aquamoeba and might mean it will be time for a card like Putrid Imp to gain some attention.

The lack of Circular Logic here is due to the nonbo with Sultai Scavenger and Gurmag Angler. It may be that this deck has too many low-impact enablers, but I am a bit giddy at the prospect of using Hapless Researcher to turn my Just the Wind into a cheap Repulse. What about the Pauper descendant of the progenitor of all madness decks?

The final edition of a G/U Madness deck will absolutely look different from this list, but I feel that the core of Aquamoeba and Wild Mongrel will remain the same. Rushing River might make it so that Moldgraf Scavenger will see some play, but I am still highly skeptical that the Fungus will ever dwell among us.

One more!

Okay, now that I’ve reclaimed my sanity, I want to leave on a tweet from a Hall of Famer.

Notes like this pique my interest. While Limited is not a litmus test for Pauper, when commons exceed expectations in a forty-card format, it tells me the card is worth exploring in common Constructed. So let’s break down Confront the Unknown.

It is a single-mana combat trick that eventually replaces itself through a Clue. It also asks for additional Clues to be present for it to be anything better than an Unnatural Predation. So what is the threshold for this being “good”? Is +2/+2 and draw a card (eventually) worth a slot in a deck? Quite possibly, and at +3/+3, it starts looking very strong. In order to reach this point, a deck would almost absolutely need to run Thraben Inspector to start reaching the appropriate number of Clues. Beyond that, the pickings are slim at common—Byway Courier and Expose Evil are mediocre at best. It might be that such a strategy will need to wait for Eldritch Moon to be fully realized, but to start, we can at least explore the following.

Okay, so this deck is a bit of a reach, but the idea of attacking with massive Auriok Sunchasers has a certain appeal. Maybe this deck will have its day in the sun in a few months.

Shadows over Innistrad might be a few weeks away from impacting Pauper online, but that just gives us more time to start thinking about the decks we want to build and improve. These are some of mine, and I am eager to see what the rest of the Pauper community can generate.


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