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Pauper's Endgames


Last week’s discourse on the nature of value in Pauper motivated me to try something new. While the thoughts were not fully formed at the time there was a good bit of discussion which followed on the Facebook page I maintain for all things Pauper. The conversation tailed off with the idea value may be best achieved in Pauper when it is done on curve.

What do I mean by this? Young Wolf, Thraben Inspector, Sign in Blood — these cards all help to keep the game moving along while also generating value. Young Wolf does this by potentially blanking opposing answers, Inspector with its Clue, and Sign in Blood by virtue of being a pure card draw spell. This is wonderful at the lower end of the curve as Pauper is packed with smaller creatures and effects to advance card economy.

Take, for example, Jeskai Midrange.

Jeskai is packed with small interactions capable of netting cards. Ichor Wellspring and Prophetic Prism in conjunction with Glint Hawk and Kor Skyfisher provide a slow but steady flow of new cards. In turn, this lets Jeskai play out its answers — Journey to Nowhere, Lightning Bolt, Galvanic Blast — while its fliers, eventually supplemented by Mulldrifter, go on mop up duty.

Yet to me, Jeskai is lacking something. If we assume the power level in Pauper is largely flat, all Jeskai is doing with its engine is drawing more of the same. In this way it is far more akin to Stompy than other midrange decks. This is not inherently a bad thing, but it helps to inform exactly what midrange decks need in Pauper. Clearly, they need to go up in card economy, but they also need to be able to turn the corner with a threat.

In a similar realm, let us examine this 5-0 deck from the past week.

Grixis Metalcraft operates along a similar axis to Jeskai. Galvanic Blast is a uniquely powerful card, and once again it makes an appearance paired with Mulldrifter. Where Grixis deviates, however, is at the start and the end. Jeskai spends many of its first turns developing its mana and attempting to set up its engine. Grixis does the same but, unlike Jeskai, it does not need to set its own board development back to do so. Instead of trying to split the early game between development and threats, Grixis is content to play the control role with cards like Duress and Pillar of Flame. Moving to the latter stages of the game, Jeskai continues to draw cards and deal with threats. Grixis has Bleak Coven Vampires. While the Vampires may be expensive, they come with a Soul Feast attached which makes them a potent finisher. Jeskai lacks such a card.

On top of this Grixis includes Ghostly Flicker and Archaeomancer as an additional late game option. Looping Vampires or Beetleback Chief can create an overwhelming advantage, let Grixis turn the corner, and give it a stranglehold on the game. Jeskai does not have this option.

However, Grixis Metalcraft is far from an ideal midrange deck. It has a vulnerable mana base, and being three colors means it has to concede the early turns. However it does highlight something these decks desperately need in Pauper: a way to close out the game by going over the top.

One of the best ways to understand this is to contrast the current Mono-Black Control lists with their ancestors. The older versions of the deck attempted to leverage Chittering Rats and friends with Unearth to present a persistent stream of card advantage. Much like Jeskai, it would win by dealing with the creatures on the other side of the battlefield and let its two-power beaters take over. That all changed when Gray Merchant of Asphodel was printed. Mono-Black Control now had a legitimate way to seal the deal. The release of Gurmag Angler simply reinforced this and Mono-Black Control developed one of the better end game strategies in the format.

While it always had Corrupt, Gray Merchant allowed the life swing to become incidental. Corrupt remains great in that it rewards you for playing lands, but Gray Merchant continues to swing for two or absorb blows, all while fueling further Merchants. Gurmag Angler, on the other hand, is one of the best creatures in the format and can assail life points like few others.

With all this in mind, it becomes clear midrange decks in Pauper need to have a dominant late game plan. All the cards drawn in the world do not count if they don’t help progress you to certain victory. These threats are few and far between, so sometimes you have to do extra work to build your own.

I recently went 4-1 in the league with the following list. I had initially wanted to write about the deck this week but conversations with Jason Sirichoke demonstrated that there were some serious flaws beyond those I saw in those five matches.

G/W Midrange is based on the idea of incremental value. At almost every point it tries to present a card which, at the very least, replaces itself. Thraben Inspector and Pulse of Murasa are probably my two favorite cards at the moment. Squadron Hawk is a pesky threat which tutors for friends. Qasali Pridemage is a fantastic card capable of stacking on damage quickly and helping smaller creatures (of which this deck has many) punch through defenders. Leafcrown Dryad provides some defense against flyers and removal as its Bestow mode can ensure one creature sticks to the table in the face of Edicts. Krosan Tusker provides card flow early while pairing nicely with Pulse for some late game action.

Stoic Builder is odd. As a 2/3 it is better suited for combat than Tilling Treefolk but it does generate less card advantage. It also asks we bias the lands toward those which can be used with Builder. Secluded Steppe and Tranquil Thicket are great, but in this deck Haunted Fengraf is subpar thanks to the smaller creatures. Bant Panorama is better than Evolving Wilds here, in my opinion, because it can immediately tap for mana. Being able to tap for mana once it’s drawn is huge and sometimes is worth the extra mana invested.

Llanowar Sentinel is rather strong here if you look at it as a 5-mana pair of 2/3 creatures. Other decks seek to generate the full nine early to present eight power, but I was almost always happy to slam one on turn five with a friend coming along for the ride. Three toughness matches up exceptionally well in the format — just look at Kor Skyfisher — and while Mulldrifter might be the best turn five play, having two creatures stacks up well.

The problem with this deck is the end game. It does not build to anything other than a Krosan Tusker which, let’s face it, is not super impressive. What made the deck work was Bonesplitter. This card turned every 1/1 into an actual threat and lets the deck use its mana more completely in the early game as well. In the absence of a Gurmag Angler pastiche, Bonesplitter lets any creature help you turn the corner.

Is that enough? I am not sure. I definitely enjoyed playing the deck and it has potential. It moves the game along at a steady clip and, provided it can avoid the unbeatable draws, has the tools to draw any game out. Of course it might just be better to pair Bonesplitter with Razor Golem again or just cast Gray Merchant, but a Stoic Builder carrying the axe does work against both these creatures. I can see myself running this deck for the near future continuing to seek the best possible endgame.

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