Modern Horizons broke Pauper in half - or dare I say wide open - when it released in 2019. The card Arcum's Astrolabe caused a tremendously homogenizing effect on the format in the weirdest way. Everything was suddenly playable and all manner of decks were playing the strangest cards. The joke of a five-color mono-color deck was a real thing, as the deck was mono-colored but supported a number of off-color cards in both the main deck and sideboard thanks to the Astrolabe. Jeskai Ephemerate decks warped the format thanks to the little mana rock and another fresh card in Ephemerate, and it wasn't long before Arcum's Astrolabe was banned.
With the announcement of Modern Horizons 2 came a lot of excitement but simultaneously there was a lot of trepidation as well. People were excited about the possibilities of what a set like this could bring after what the first one did. At the same time, many players were worried the set would break the format cleanly in half the way the first set did. Some of the initial cards were interesting but not over the top and seemed fine for most players. Then, Aaron Forsythe previewed this card on Twitter:
The moment this card was previewed, there was a near collective shudder of fear from everyone in the community. Pauper players far and wide began to immediately have flashbacks to the days of Storm from when Grapeshot and Empty the Warrens were legal. We were flooded with jokes exclaiming how wild it was to see a card printed directly to the Pauper ban list. It got even worse when players began to recall that this card was also very recently printed:
First Day of Class essentially turns your Chatterstorm into an Empty the Warrens with haste and replaces itself in the process. Suddenly, there was a race by Pauper players to put together the best Storm deck they could. Initial lists pulled from the earlier aforementioned Grapeshot and Empty the Warrens decks. Not only did those lists lose those cards, though, they also lost Gitaxian Probe, meaning the lists needed more work. Eventually, players seemed to settle into a general style of list, which allowed longtime Pauper grinder billster47 to come out on top of a recent Pauper Challenge on Magic Online. Check it out!
Squirrel Storm | Pauper | billster47, 1st Place MTGO Pauper Challenge
- Sorceries (20)
- 1 Sign in Blood
- 3 Faithless Looting
- 4 Chatterstorm
- 4 Galvanic Relay
- 4 Night's Whisper
- 4 Rite of Flame
The way it works is spamming ritual after ritual to get the biggest Chatterstorm possible, casting First Day of Class first so that each of your squirrels come into play with a +1/+1 counter and haste. With the right hand, it's actually possible to get a turn one kill on the draw. Even if you can't get it on turn one, getting it on turn two is also extremely feasible. The deck also gets some additional resilience in the form of the new Galvanic Relay.
I feel like many players were quick to write this card off. It reads well at first, but usually that's simply because it's easy to gloss over the part where you can't cast the spells until your next turn. As it happens, that can be all you need to try going off again later if you happened to not find your copy of Chatterstorm and/or First Day of Class on your combo turn. This allows for the Storm deck to have that much more consistency and makes it a continual menace in Pauper.
As it happens, though, Squirrel Storm is actually NOT the most prominent deck in the format right now. It might actually surprise you to know that it's Affinity on top! Since the release of Modern Horizons 2, Affinity has come to make up roughly two fifths of the top 32s of the majority of MTGO Pauper Challenges. The reason is simply these:
It turns out that giving the deck more indestructible artifact lands - and dual lands, at that - is really powerful. The one way many decks could often keep Affinity in check was with the help of Gorilla Shaman, as well as other powerful artifact destruction spells like Gleeful Sabotage. With the help of these cards, Affinity's lands could be destroyed, rendering their game plan that much more difficult to put into action. By adding more indestructible lands, you lose that counterplay, and it gets that much more consistent in the process. On top of that, you also get Sojourner's Companion, which is 5-8 copies of Myr Enforcer and also gives you the ability to cycle for any artifact land you need at any given time.
The result is a list that looks something like this:
Affinity | Pauper | Hamuda, 1st Place, MTGO Pauper Challenge
- Sorceries (4)
- 4 Thoughtcast
- Lands (18)
- 1 Island
- 1 Mistvault Bridge
- 1 Tanglepool Bridge
- 3 Darksteel Citadel
- 4 Great Furnace
- 4 Seat of the Synod
- 4 Silverbluff Bridge
The result is a super streamlined deck that's that much more difficult to disrupt while also being faster in the process. Swapping out the clunky Carapace Forgers for Sojourner's Companions is pretty much a no-brainer, as they're frequently cheaper or easier to cast. In a pinch, they also find you exactly the lands you need. The deck also performs well against the Storm decks of the format with solid hate out of the sideboard, including Krark-Clan Shaman to wipe out opposing squirrels after going off.
There's one other archetype that's able to keep both of these decks in check: Dimir Control/Tempo lists. These generally consist of Dimir Delver and Dimir Faeries. Both consist of trying to battle against your opponent's resources while building up a board-state at the same time. They just happen to do it in slightly different ways. Delver lists rely more on getting there with Delver of Secrets and Gurmag Angler, while the Faeries lists eschew the aforementioned Delver in favor of the typical Spellstutter Sprite and Ninja of the Deep Hours package. Many of the more controlling elements are the same between both decks, resulting in the decks being generally lumped together despite their differences.
Here's some lists to check out:
Dimir Faeries | Pauper | BOB_THE_CAT, 5th Place, MTGO Pauper Challenge
- Creatures (18)
- 2 Gurmag Angler
- 2 Thorn of the Black Rose
- 3 Faerie Seer
- 3 Ninja of the Deep Hours
- 4 Augur of Bolas
- 4 Spellstutter Sprite
Dimir Delver | Pauper | ecobaronen, 7th Place, MTGO Pauper Challenge
- Instants (23)
- 1 Behold the Multiverse
- 2 Dispel
- 3 Brainstorm
- 3 Echoing Decay
- 3 Snuff Out
- 3 Thought Scour
- 4 Cast Down
- 4 Counterspell
- Sorceries (4)
- 4 Preordain
The reason these two decks are able to play so well against Storm is that they run tons of hate. While they can't stand up quite as well to a Chatterstorm with the likes of countermagic, they can usually handle the rituals and such just fine. In the event that the squirrels hit the battlefield, you have access to Echoing Decay and Echoing Truth - 2 powerful spells that can wipe away the pesky rodents with ease. The deck also holds up solidly against Affinity thanks to being able to easily remove the large bodies while also preventing your opponent from getting you with a flung Atog.
Over the last month, however, these three archetypes have been continually eating away at the format's metagame share. In the last few weeks of Pauper Challenge events, these three have pretty much taken up 75% of the lists that cracked the top 32 of their respective event. A few decks still show up here and there, such as Burn and Tron, but in far less quantities than we've seen historically. It's one of the least diverse metagames I've ever seen over the years, and I whole-heartedly expect bans to be right around the corner. Gavin Verhey has even stated that he's alerted Play Design - the people who generally handle bans - about the situation with Pauper and I wouldn't be shocked if we see the banhammer come swinging within the next few weeks.
There's no way that things can continue at this rate, and I expect things to only devolve further. The question is, what's likely on the chopping block? The obvious one has generally been Chatterstorm itself, though there's been some discussion about the merits of banning First Day of Class. Without this card, Chatterstorm arguably gets easier to disrupt with smaller board wipes like Electrickery. There's also some who feel that you can get around the whole haste thing, though I'd like to remind people that Goblin Bushwhacker does still exist.
The problem I see with banning First Day of Class is that you also inadvertently kill at least one other deck in the process. Goblin Combo was starting to take off a little bit before the release of Modern Horizons 2 thanks to First Day of Class comboing with Putrid Goblin and any old sacrifice outlet. On top of that, it's hard to imagine a world where Storm doesn't continue to be a problem going forward, and this season has only been a clear indicator that some things really do just deserve to stay dead.
It's important to remember, though, that there's actually been a deck with a stronger performance than Storm right now, and that's Affinity. With less ways to hate it out in a meaningful manner thanks to the advent of the indestructible dual artifact lands, it's likely the deck will continue to be an issue well into a post-Storm world. This deck is one that's a lot harder to choose what to hit.
A lot of the discussion has surrounded the lands themselves. They're clearly what caused the most issues, so why not get rid of them? The problem with this approach, however, is that they're also creating a lot of innovation in other builds. Boros Bully and Cascade Ponza decks both adapted some of these artifact duals into their lists to use in conjunction with Cleansing Wildfire and Geomancer's Gambit. By targeting your own indestructible lands, you can actually ramp yourself up, while also having the option to blow up your opponents' lands if the need arises. I personally would be very interested to see how this approach could continue post-bans. On top of that, Wizards isn't particularly keen on banning whole cycles of cards, and you'd really have to if you were going to take this approach.
This generally leaves Atog or some other creature, like perhaps Sojourner's Companion. In all honesty, the simplest and cleanest choice here is Atog. Loathe as I am to admit it (I have long had a special place in my heart for this critter's big toothy grin), removing Atog is sensible as it removes one of the deck's axis of attack while still letting it retain some power level. If your deck doesn't have some kind of countermagic in it, it's very difficult to survive an Atog Fling, after all. By removing it, it leaves us with an army of 4/4s, which seems like a lot until you realize they die quite easily. Skred, Galvanic Blast, Cast Down, Doom Blade, Snuff Out, and many forms of artifact hate all handle these with ease. Banning one of those instead feels like putting a band-aid on a gaping wound and just isn't enough to fix the issue at hand.
But what about the Dimir decks? If anything, I feel their dominance is more a symptom of a problem than the actual issue itself. It's the one archetype that can really stand up to both of the top two decks efficiently enough to still consistently make a showing in the top of the metagame. It hasn't changed too much from pre-Modern Horizons 2, just enough to be able to hold its own against the other two.
Regardless of what happens, change is clearly right around the corner. I fully believe that Wizards merely wanted to hold off until preview season for Adventures in the Forgotten Realms has finished or the set releases. They've done this with other ban announcements in the past and I think they're going to drop the hammer soon enough. Until then, if you're willing to brave the treacherous waters of this broken in half format, allow me to wish you all the luck along the way.
YouTube: Kendra Smith