It's always great to see some fresh lists showing up in the Pauper format, especially lists we don't see very often. If anything, the format has felt incredibly stagnated with nothing but the same decks perpetually being recycled in some form or fashion. There was a time when Stompy almost completely fell off the map before being rejuvenated thanks to the Modern Horizons card Savage Swipe. Similarly, Delver decks were thought dead during the Blue Monday bans that rid the format of Gush and friends, but when Mystic Sanctuary came into the picture, they came back arguably stronger than ever.
Today, I'm here to talk about a pair of combo decks that show up once in a while and have made a small showing for a period in the format once more. One of these decks is a long time favorite, the Cycling Songs combo deck.
Cycling Songs | Pauper | jamiieJR, Pauper Challenge
- Creatures (29)
- 2 Horror of the Broken Lands
- 3 Tinder Wall
- 4 Deadshot Minotaur
- 4 Drannith Healer
- 4 Drannith Stinger
- 4 Imposing Vantasaur
- 4 Monstrous Carabid
- 4 Street Wraith
- Sorceries (4)
- 4 Land Grant
This deck is pretty simple and easy to grok. You simply cycle away a number of creatures, use rituals like Songs of the Damned to continue cycling, and then use Reaping the Graves to get them back and keep the cycle going. Decks like this have come and gone a lot in the past, and in fact playing this deck feels a lot like playing the old Storm decks that I played with back in 2012 when I first touched the format. This, of course, was before Grapeshot and Empty the Warrens were banned, but it's not going to stop people from trying. This is where we've gotten low-tier decks like One Land Spy, Vinestorm, and Fishelbrand.
The difference between all of these is that Cycling Songs feels like, for my money, one of the better versions of these decks. However, that wasn't always the case. The deck made a brief appearance on the radar in 2018 thanks to an Instant Deck Tech video on MTGGoldfish. The deck won with cards like Consume Spirit or an arbitrarily large Crypt Rats activation. The problem with this deck was that it was clunky, inconsistent, and took far too long to actually get anywhere. By the time you would try to go in for the kill, odds would be that you'd already lost.
So what changed? Well, with Ikoria: Lair of Behemoths came a wealth of cycling cards. We've seen this have a major impact on Standard thanks to a Cycling deck appearing there. We've also seen it in the finance world with cards like Astral Slide jumping up due to a lack of meaningful reprint. With Pauper, however, we got a lot of great commons, including these:
Each of these creatures has cycling for a mere one generic mana. We've literally never seen that before now, short of landcycling on Ash Barrens (which is different than outright cycling) or the 2 life cost of Street Wraith. We have seen one colored mana cycling costs before, which previously helped fuel the Songs deck in the past with the likes of Architects of Will, Deadshot Minotaur, Horror of the Broken Lands, and Monstrous Carabid. Most of these still see play in the current lists, sans Architects of Will. This is a little weird, I might add, since Architects cycles for Black - which the deck makes the most of - and Deadshot Minotaur does not, so you might want to consider a small swap and see which you prefer.
These new ones costing generic mana, however, means they're easier to cycle than ever. We can cycle them away quite cleanly in the event that we have excess non-Black mana, and they're veritable win-cons as well. In fact, Drannith Stinger is our primary win condition, as we can cycle it early, bring it back in multiples to our hand with Reaping the Graves, and start the cycle chain again to go in for the kill. Drannith Healer can gain us life to help stabilize and keep things going, but won't win games on its own.
There are a few less used win conditions you can utilize as well if you desire. Consume Spirit and Drain Life are both excellent ways to take out an opponent since the deck will be generating a plethora of Black mana. Since cycling continually draws you cards, it's entirely possible to reach a point where it stops being viable to kill via Drannith Stinger triggers. In addition, the ability can be stopped (or at least stalled) by Prismatic Strands. Using one of the two aforementioned spells can also be stopped by Strands, but at that point the opponent needs to utilize a second copy of Strands. If all else fails, you can just spit out large creatures (especially Horror of the Broken Lands) and bring the beatdown.
This deck is ultimately quite the glass cannon, which is its downfall. The deck can be interacted with in several ways, making it difficult to go off. What's worse is the deck can oftentimes just lose to itself. This could be by way of bad openers resulting in numerous mulligans or else just not drawing what you need. I played the deck in a league on Magic Online to see what all the hubbub was about. Some games I saw no Reaping the Graves in the top 30ish cards of the deck and in another I had three of my four Songs of the Damned in the bottom 10 cards of my deck. It was a pretty poor showing at 0-4.
Not surprisingly, this aspect of the deck is probably one of the biggest reasons it's already been falling off in the meta pretty quickly. Still, it put up some good strong numbers for a few weeks and I doubt we've seen the last of it. It's totally possible no one has discovered the optimal list and we'll see it improved with time. In the meantime, it's still a fun deck that you can largely put together with a bunch of random cards that might be in your bulk box. Give it a try if you can. If nothing else, it's a blast to get it to work once or twice.
Cycling Songs isn't the only combo deck to pop back up on the radar again! Another less-known deck has made an appearance, and that deck is the Freed from the Real combo deck!
Pilgrim Freed | Pauper | Kirblinxy, Pauper Challenge
- Instants (15)
- 1 Capsize
- 1 Ghostly Flicker
- 1 Mystical Teachings
- 1 Pulse of Murasa
- 2 Dispel
- 2 Ephemerate
- 3 Snap
- 4 Brainstorm
- Lands (19)
- 1 Snow-Covered Plains
- 3 Snow-Covered Island
- 8 Snow-Covered Forest
- 3 Ash Barrens
- 4 Evolving Wilds
This deck showed up this weekend in the top 32 of Saturday's Magic Online Pauper Challenge in 27th place. While normally I don't put much stock into lower placing decks for results, I think Freed Combo is one of those decks that's interesting and worth bringing up. After all, the last time I can recall seeing it outside of random league results was in the Pauper Challenge that I won all the way back in October 2017. Here's the list that I faced back then:
Freed From the Real Combo | Pauper | Darkfyre7, Pauper Challenge
- Artifacts (4)
- 4 Lifespark Spellbomb
The way this deck works is you put a Utopia Sprawl onto a Forest (or in the older version I listed, Fertile Growth and Gift of Paradise), use Wind Zendikon or Lifespark Spellbomb to animate the land, and suit it up with Freed from the Real. This allows you to create an infinite mana loop which you can use to sink a ton of mana into and take out an opponent with. In the newer list that showed up over the weekend, this is aided by the likes of Heliod's Pilgrim and Mulldrifter to try drawing the key pieces. Cards like Ephemerate and Ghostly Flicker also help to get some extra redundancy into the mix.
There are a few ways to win here. One is to just go hard and beat down with the Mulldrifters and such, bypassing the need to combo at all. This gives the deck a bit of a Plan B to help push a cleaner win. The other is once you have your infinite mana loop established with Freed from the Real, you simply cast a giant Rolling Thunder or loop your Capsize to bounce your opponent's board and then beat them down.
Seems easy enough, right? So why isn't the deck played very much? Like many of the format's combo decks, this one can be quite fragile, meaning it's interacted with very effectively. The other reason is that, frankly, the deck hates Magic Online's clock. Generating enough mana to go in for the kill can take upward of ten minutes depending on both your kill method and how good you are at clicking through all the abilities. To make matters worse, if your opponent has a way of gaining a lot of life (say through a God-Pharaoh's Faithful, Wellwisher, or Weather the Storm) it can actually make it impossible to kill your opponent before your clock fully runs out.
This creates a weird situation, where the deck is difficult to make show up online but can be more of a force to reckon with in paper. It's far easier to establish that you have the loop and the kill in paper than online where your opponents might often make you play it out. When it comes to these paper events, however, players tend to net deck from lists they find online. Can you guess where these lists come from? Magic Online events, of course. This means since the deck has little representation online, players don't know about it for paper events, and don't give it a lot of love as a result. The deck isn't all that hard to build, however, so definitely pick it up for your paper collection and have it at the ready once paper events are back on the menu.
At the end of the day, it's great to see combo decks popping up more and more. These two decks have made some sweet showings, and they're not the only ones either. Izzet Blitz has also been seeing a small resurgence and players are still continuing to try making a new version of Inside Out Combo work. And this is all to say nothing about something like Familiars which is better than it has been since the days of Cloud of Faeries. What other combo decks, jank or not, do you love to play, and what do you think is gonna be the next to break out in time?
YouTube: Kendra Smith