Vikings Gone Wild: Masters of Elements
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The Ixalan Challenges

Ixalan has hit Pauper like a wet fish. The newest set has had a relatively minor impact on Pauper as a whole. Through the first four Magic Online Challenges since the set hit the digital realm, only one deck has successfully incorporated a new card (and spoiler alert: it’s a new take on an old threat).

So the latest season of Pauper has not been that different. Change is sure to come with the release of Iconic Masters in a few short weeks, but focusing in on that would undersell the story the Pauper Challenges have been sharing. The metagame, despite consisting of largely the same decks, has become a shifting landscape.

The first series of Challenges, held between the release of Amonkhet and Hour of Devastation, were dominated by Izzet Delver. The breakout deck took advantage of the interaction between Brainstorm, Gush, and Ash Barrens to add Red — specifically Skred and Lightning Bolt — to one of the most successful decks in all of Pauper’s history. It was a huge innovation that paid off and helped to shore up a traditionally bad Delver matchup in Stompy.

The Green Machine, however, could not be kept down for long. The deck surged in Hour of Devastation season, helped by Burning-Tree Emissary and a bounty of cheap threats. I talked about the reasons for Stompy’s success a few weeks ago and the same holds true today. Stompy provides questions that the format has trouble answering consistently.

Doubling up on Red removal spells is one way to try and handle the rampaging horde of Stompy. Boros Monarch has recently risen to prominence by pairing the ubiquitous Lightning Bolt with Galvanic Blast. The deck, covered in greater detail last week, has a strong Stompy matchup, which helped propel it to the top of the standings at the tail end of Hour of Devastation season and tagged it as the early contender for best deck during the brief Ixalan season.

Seeker of the Way
Before we explore Ixalan season in more depth, I want to talk about the three elements unifying these decks — they use cards from non-Standard releases to power up their strategy. Izzet Delver leans heavily on Ash Barrens and Augur of Bolas; Stompy on Burning-Tree Emissary and more recently Elephant Guide; Boros Monarch on Palace Sentinels. The biggest changes in Pauper come with powerful cards which, these days, tend to come from downshifts and special releases. Iconic Masters heralds another change with cards like Lead the Stampede and Seeker of the Way.

While it is good that the format consistently gets powerful additions, it has created an unhealthy discussion dynamic. A lot of Pauper discussion centers on what could be downshifted to help deal with a problematic metagame element as opposed to what tools exist currently. I am guilty of this myself in my begging for a 3-mana sweeper. Rather than exploring what could be done with the current card pool, the conversation centers on saviors from sets not yet conceived. While it is fun to dream, it doesn’t help to solve the questions posed by the metagame. I am not sure there is a way to staunch the allure of the unknown, but I do hope for a day when the new Standard release generates as much excitement as the next Masters release.

Back to the Challenge at hand. We have just finished the fifth week of Ixalan season and as of the writing of this article we have the results from the first four Challenges. Twelve different archetypes have made the Top 8 and three different strategies have won. Weeks 2 and 3 were won by Boros Monarch and the dominant deck took three of the top four slots in Week 4. The next two best decks are also well known entities — Izzet Delver and Stompy. Yet neither of these have an aggregate winning record in the elimination rounds.

Here is a chart that tracks all the decks that have made the Top 8. A * indicates a Challenge Win. K-Score takes the Swiss rounds match wins and subtracts losses while K-Score (8) is inclusive of the Top 8 win-loss record. Win+ measures the Swiss record of a deck against the deck in 32nd place — any win above the 32 place nets a +1. Historically, 1 Win+ of 1 is good enough to make Top 16 (and sneak into Top 8) while 2 makes it into Top 8 consistently.

If we work backwards, we can start with a doozy. Freed Combo is one of those decks that pops up from time to time but is far too fragile to be a regular player. The deck revolves around putting Freed from the Real on a creature that makes more than one mana. Not many creatures in Pauper do that (looking at you Oasis Ritualist). Traditionally the deck will animate a land, enchanted with Fertile Ground or something similar, with Lifespark Spellbomb or Wind Zendikon (beat you to it Jeskai Ascendancy Combo!) and then create an unbound amount of mana. In the past, this was used to fuel a Rolling Thunder but this latest version uses Valakut Invoker.

Like many combo decks in Pauper, Freed takes advantage of fantastic Blue spells to hold up an otherwise awkward deck. Ponder, Preordain, and Impulse make finding key pieces easy while Drift of Phantasms can find both Freed from the Real and Valakut Invoker. Gigadrowse is the savior of these decks, allowing them to “go off” with minimal fear (until players start running Snapback or Snuff Out).

Freed Combo ? Pauper | Darkfyre7, Top 8 October 1 Pauper Challenge

Next up we have Dimir Flicker. This deck has been around since Peregrine Drake was sent to that great Tolaria in the sky and Ghostly Flicker was stuck looking for a new friend. A midrange deck with a lock finish, Dimir Flicker wants to play value creatures like Sea Gate Oracle and Mulldrifter before denying the opponent any fresh draws by looping Chittering Rats and Archaeomancer with Ghostly Flicker. Supporting this is a combination of removal spells and a light counter suite.

Dimir Flicker is a fine deck that has one glaring weakness: the lack of a broken opening. Many other successful decks in Pauper have access to an unbeatable starting seven or a sequence of plays that can completely invalidate anything an adversary attempts. Dimir Flicker, as a midrange deck, lacks this but has one of the best end games available. Some builds have opted to include Gurmag Angler or Twisted Abomination as a way to close out games. It remains a fine option but lacking when compared to other decks.

Rally Gond is another breakout deck from an earlier season. It combines elements of a Soul Sisters/Tokens strategy while also shoehorning in a Splinter Twin-esque combo. Putting Presence of Gond on Midnight Guard does mean a never ending stream of creatures; but, like Freed and Esper Flicker, the deck relies entirely on creatures. Unlike those the deck lacks access to Blue meaning that defensive counters like Dispel are out of reach. Yet in aggressive metagames the copious lifegain and ability to go incredibly wide makes Rally Gond a solid choice.

What happens if you strip away the control elements from Dimir Flicker and instead focus on gaining as much value as possible? You’d likely end up with Esper Flicker. Another combo deck, Esper Flicker uses Nightscape Familiar and Sunscape Familiar to reduce the cost of key spells. When combined with Mnemonic Wall, Ghostly Flicker, and newcomer Prosperous Pirates, this allows the deck to generate an unbound amount of mana. Eventually a second Mnemonic Wall can be found and Esper Flicker can either target an opponent over and over with Compulsive Research or cast a one sided Upheaval with Dinrova Horror.

Esper Flicker has a potent lineage. When powered by Cloud of Faeries this deck was incredibly oppressive. With the now banned creature the deck could start its combo as early as turn three and win shortly thereafter. Prosperous Pirates is no Cloud of Faeries and delaying the combo a few turns has, thus far, proven tenable. Reliant almost entirely on creatures, Esper Flicker is an interesting option but hardly a world breaker.

Delver is, well, Delver. It is a mono-Blue aggro-control deck. It runs efficient threats and solid counters. It has access to some of the best creatures in the format in Spire Golem, Delver of Secrets, and Ninja of the Deep Hours. It also can run Gush, Ponder, Preordain, and all sorts of other cards that routinely get pitched to Force of Will. The deck is good.

So why is it struggling recently? Stompy and Boros Monarch built their reputation, in part, on their ability to beat Delver. Stompy can present too many threats while Monarch can summon an impressive air force to play defense. These two factors have limited Delver to merely being a good deck and not the format defining presence it has been in years past.

Burn has recently gotten a shot in the arm thanks to Firebrand Archer. Combined with Thermo-Alchemist, the duo can add the damage equivalent of a Fireblast every turn cycle. This has made the deck significantly faster and more resilient. In the past, one only needed to run some lifegain to be healthy enough to survive the Red deck. Today, that is no longer good enough. Now you not only need to bring in lifegain, but decks also have to leave removal spells in. Once the metagame catches up to this change, I believe Burn will go back to being another reasonable, if unexciting, option.

We’ll get back to Elves in a minute (since it won a challenge) and focus on Dimir Alchemy. Again we see an abundance of powerful Blue cards that help to make the deck feel smaller. Forbidden Alchemy is a turn slower than Impulse but has the advantage of fueling Gurmag Angler and “drawing” half a late game Chainer's Edict. Dimir Alchemy wants to resolve a big fish and protect it with a light counter suite. It is nominally a control deck but can play to resolve a quick angler if needed.

Dimir Alchemy suffers, like many control decks, when it packs the wrong answers. Pauper lacks the kind of general purpose catchalls, at least in Black, which means it needs to have the correct mix of removal for the correct metagame. The deck has made multiple Top 8s but has never made the final round. If one day a person brings the “Right Build” for the tournament, I could easily see them triumph. I just don’t know when that day will come.

Elves won the first challenge in the Ixalan season. Not only did it win, it went undefeated. The deck uses the usual suite of mana elves alongside Birchlore Rangers and Nettle Sentinel to pastiche Heritage Druid in older formats. Instead of reloading with Regal Force or Collected Company, the deck uses Distant Melody to draw an abundance of cards. It can then go wide with Lys Alana Huntermaster or tall with Timberwatch Elf or Elvish Vanguard. TheMaverickGirl also included maindeck copies of Viridian Longbow, allowing her to mow down opposing armies thanks to a plethora of tokens and gobs of Priest of Titania mana. Staying alive with Wellwisher, Elves has the ability to take unprepared metagames by storm.

Of course Elves is incredibly vulnerable. Outside of its big threat cards, all of which are listed above, the deck is mostly mana. When decks can point their kill spells at the biggest threats then it becomes relatively easy to contain the other Green army. While Elves can withstand some removal thanks to Spidersilk Armor and Wrap in Vigor, it can suffer in the face of Shrivel and others. Elves likely will see more play in a few weeks when players get the opportunity to add Lead the Stampede but no matter what, the deck needs the right metagame to find success.

And this brings us to the winner of the latest challenge. Murasa Tron is a control deck I’ve written about before. A base ur Tron deck, Murasa Tron uses Pulse of Murasa to not only re-buy important creatures like Mulldrifter and Mnemonic Wall but also to stay alive long enough for its cards to matter. The problem with control decks in Pauper these days is that the format is fast and unforgiving This means decks that are playing for the long game need to balance their haymakers with early removal spells. As mentioned with Dimir Alchemy, picking the wrong answers can mean the tournament is over before it ever really started.

Jsiri84 prepared for the field with seven removal spells that could be cast for a single mana (counting Electrickery) and two more Doom Blades for good measure. Remove Soul gets the nod over Exclude, likely due to mana efficiency. Hieroglyphic Illumination is an interesting option that cycles early or is fetchable with Mystical Teachings later for a burst of cards. The sideboard is split between handling aggressive decks, with Moment's Peace, Evincar's Justice, Magma Spray, and Circle of Protection: Green — and other control decks with Dispel and the duo of Hydroblast and Pyroblast.

Murasa Tron was well positioned to deal with Boros Monarch and Stompy. Whether or not it continues to work moving forward will depend a lot on whether or not the correct reactive cards are included from week to week. The list below provides a template for what a control deck could look like moving forward — flexible cheap answers and just enough threats to get the job done.

The first four Top 8s from the Ixalan season are telling. While there is some diversity in the 12 archetypes, fully half of the 32 decks are from one of the big three archetypes in Boros Monarch, Izzet Delver, and Stompy. The lack of impact of cards from the latest release means this is likely indicative of what we’ll see over the next few weeks. Whether or not Iconic Masters will herald the anticipated change remains to be seen but now is the perfect time to attempt to craft the right deck for the Pauper metagame. Just be sure to dodge Lightning Bolt and have an answer to Burning-Tree Emissary.

Easy, right?

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