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Challenging Results


After what feels like an eternity of waiting for large scale events Pauper has received Challenges on Magic Online. These Challenges are weekly Swiss style events that culminate in a Top 8 playoff. The first two have topped 90 players (the third took place after this article was submitted) and have given us a more in depth look at the format.

I have been looking forward to writing this article for what feels like years. Back when Pauper was first sanctioned it had monthly Challenge style events. When Daily Events were still commonplace the results provided a great look at what went undefeated but also what lingered just below the surface. When Magic Online went through massive stability issues around several high profile events the number of offerings were parsed back and Pauper ended up on the chopping block. Daily Events were removed and replaced with Swiss tournaments. Eventually the Daily Events returned and were summarily supplanted by Leagues. Leagues are great for providing data but only provided undefeated decklists. The decks that lingered just below the surface went unseen. The Challenges not only show us the decks that picked up losses along the way but give every deck that placed in the Top 32.

Going into the Challenges the metagame was informed almost exclusively by the league results. The best decks in these events seemed to be Stompy, by a mile, followed Izzet Delver, and Affinity with bu Ghostly Flicker and wr Kor Skyfisher tailing behind. If you had asked me what deck I would have picked to do best in the early events it would have been Stompy. The Green aggressive strategy has access to amazing openings thanks to Burning-Tree Emissary and Rancor. The deck has staying power due to Hunger of the Howlpack. Considering how long Stompy has stuck with its current configuration and maintained a dominating presence in the leagues I thought it would be a shoe-in for the best deck.

Spoiler alert: this was not the case.

Before getting too deep in the weeds I want to take a look at some broad strokes. Across both Top 32s (which represent approximately the top third of each tournament) there were 21 different archetypes. Out of these 14 different decks appeared more than once. The most popular archetype was Izzet Delver which made 14 appearances between both events. Izzet Delver also dominated the Top 8 of the first Challenge with three copies in the Top 4 including the eventual winning deck.

Looking at these results slightly differently we see decks start to accumulate into buckets. While Izzet Delver had 14 results there were two other ur decks in the Top 32 of the second challenge. The first is Izzet Delver’s antecedent Izzet Faeries, which features many of the same cards but lacks the eponymous 1-drop. The second was Izzet Control, a deck that eventually morphed into the utterly dominant Peregrine Drake deck that precipitated that card’s trip to the banned list. All told there were 16 Izzet decks that played this axis. There were two more Izzet Blitz decks across these events but those are a completely different animal. Rather than trying to take advantage on tempo or use removal and counters to control the board, Izzet Blitz relies on cheap spells, Nivix Cyclops and Kiln Fiend, and Temur Battle Rage to combo kill the adversary.

Tied with Affinity (the next most popular archetype), bu decks clocked in with 9 appearances. Three of these were the more tempo oriented Dimir Delver deck, using Delver of Secrets and Gurmag Angler to apply pressure with a light removal and counter suite to dictate the pace of play. The Dimr Alchemy deck looks similar except that is eschews the early pressure of Delver of Secrets for a more robust control game thanks to Forbidden Alchemy. The Innistrad common allows the deck to play a wide variety of answers while also fueling its endgame in Angler. Dimir Flicker is next slowest on the speed scale, trying to grind the game to a halt so it can win with Chittering RatsGhostly FlickerArchaeomancer lock. Finally there is Dimir Teachings which uses the powerful tutor – Mystical Teachings – to try and answer every threat. The decks are the two ends of the spectrum – Delver and Teachings — both performed best with three copies each. This tells me that it is probably better to embrace being either the aggressive Dimir player or the true control mage when playing this color pair. For the control element I think Forbidden Alchemy decks may be better suited to the metagame going forward since their namesake can find any card and not just Instants or creatures with Flash.

The last macro archetype I want to look at are wr Kor Skyfisher decks. There were two distinct varieties to make appearances in the Top 32s: Kuldotha Tokens and Boros Monarch. The former is a more aggressive deck that uses Battle Screech, Kuldotha Rebirth, and Rally the Peasants to go wide. To facilitate Kuldotha Rebirth the deck also runs Prophetic Prism and Ichor Wellspring, as well as Glint Hawk. Boros Monarch keeps the Glint Hawk but swaps Alchemist's Vial in for the Wellspring. It also cuts the token subtheme for Palace Sentinels. This change allows the deck to turtle up and draw into its flyers and burn which can end the game in short order. Alchemist's Vial is an inspired choice as not only does it draw a card but it is a pseudo-Fog effect for holding off creatures intent on stealing the crown. Despite there being more Kuldotha Tokens decks (3) to Boros Monarch (2), both Monarch decks found their way into a Top 8. The first Top 8 also featured a wb Monarch based deck. Pairing Kor Skyfisher with Monarch cards makes sense since the Zendikar staple can pick up either Palace Sentinels or Thorn of the Black Rose if you were to ever lose hold of the crown. These decks need the extra cards from the Monarch to help win the game and anything that helps them maintain the game object is a Good Thing.

Stompy only made four appearances across the two weeks but the same pilot — Hyrmfaxe — made the Top 8 in both events. In the first week they took Stompy to the semi-finals and did one better in the second Challenge. Yet for such a popular deck (almost 20% of the undefeated league lists from this season), it’s put up a paltry 6.25% of the Top 32 metagame. Stompy may be overrepresented in the league due to its ability to win and do so quickly. Stompy is a deck that can go through matches at a rapid clip and as such players may pick it as their grinding weapon of choice. Going 3-2, 4-1, and 5-0 quickly and consistently could potentially flood the 5-0 results with copies of the list. Stompy is also highly tuned for the top of the metagame, performing well against most decks that are not Izzet Delver. The early rounds of these events could prove challenging as there could be more variance for the Stompy players. All that being said the deck is still strong and should not be discounted.

The Top 32 lists do a great job of displaying the volume of decks but does little to explain how well the decks are doing as a whole. Knowing that Izzet Delver had three decks in the first Top 8 and one on the second tells one story, as does knowing that in the first challenge there were four Izzet Delver decks total and 10 in the second. In order to better understand the best decks I employ a method first described by Frank Karsten. Karsten’s method gives every deck with a known record one point per match win and deducts a point for match losses. This will give decks that do well in the Top 8 an advantage but also helps us gain better insight into the ups and downs of the metagame. For example, Izzet Delver earned 24 points using this method in both events. As mentioned, the first event had four copies of the deck (an average of 6 points) while the second had 10 (2.4). The deck was more popular but the ones that appeared, on average, did worse. The Karsten Score is valuable as it helps us to understand relative value while also examining the intersection of volume and success. Here is the same metagame using the adjusted score.

From this chart we can see Stompy over performed relative to its volume while Affinity underperformed. Izzet Delver is clearly the deck to beat at the moment. The other decks are more or less performing as expected. But this only tells us so much. I’ve gone on and on about Izzet Delver, the deck that won the first challenge. The deck that won the second has made two total appearances. In the first challenge, Pauper stalwart Deluxeicoff took a Midnight Guard-Presence of Gond deck into the fray and ended up in the Top 32. Mathonical took the same archetype all the way to the winner’s circle in challenge two.

Presence of Gond
Rally Gond is part tokens aggro, part combo deck. The ability to generate an arbitrarily large number of Elf Warrior tokens is more than any Pauper deck can reasonable handle. The deck also plays defense against aggressive strategies exceptionally well with access to the full suite of Soul Warden and Soul's Attendant, backed up with Prismatic Strands. Rally Gond can play a fairly straightforward Tokens game with Battle Screech fueling a Rally the Peasants kill. Commune with the Gods finds key pieces of the combo while also putting other cards with Flashback into the graveyard.

I had the opportunity to play this deck and it is undeniably powerful. The ability to slam two cards that say “I win” recalls Splinter Twin combo and Pauper, while powerful, is far weaker overall than Modern. That being said I also found that the deck struggles against Counterspell. The deck relies on two three-mana cards to win and has minimal action for the early turns. When Blue decks are spending their turns casting Sea Gate Oracle for Chainer's Edict, Rally Gond has no problem. When they can leave up Spellstutter Sprite and Counterspell, things get that much harder. I believe the deck has merit and moving forward should cut a Cenn's Enlistment from the main deck. I also found the two copies of Journey to Nowhere to be superfluous and they would likely be better as Gods Willing and maindeck copies of Standard Bearer, since protecting the combo is vital.

With two challenges in the book and more to come the Pauper metagame is coming into the light. For the first time in years we are getting more than just the top of the crop. Instead we are seeing the forest for the trees. Right now everything looks great (although if Izzet Delver stays on this trajectory I would be concerned) and innovative decks continue to emerge. If people continue to play the Challenges then I fully expect to see a new golden age for Pauper.

Which is kinda funny if you care about words.

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