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Winding New Ways in Pauper Elves


Last week we rounded out week two of the Pauper Premiere League, sponsored by CoolStuffInc.com and Wizards of the Coast. We had some amazing matches that you can view here, along with week one's videos, and during that week I got a chance to play! For my first week, I wanted to kinda give a little fan service. A few people told me how they wanted to see me on Elves again and I figured it would be a great way to introduce less enfranchised players to some of the wild things the format allows.

When my list dropped and the matches happened though, a lot of people started bombarding me with questions about my deck choices. A lot has changed with the deck thanks to Modern Horizons and I went against the grain a bit based on what I expected to see. Before I get into my list from the event, let's talk about what's been happening to the archetype lately.

This list is what I ran to make 12th place in the most recent Magic Online Pauper Playoff event that happens each quarter. It was a bit of a take on the deck that players had been working with a lot more lately: killing the sacred cow of Distant Melody in favor of Winding Way.

Winding Way

When War of the Spark came out I had a lot to say about Vivien's Grizzly. On the surface, the card looked like a fantastic engine, and indeed it was. But, as it turned out, it was too costly of an ability for something that quite often - especially in post-board games - missed the mark. You would hit a Forest which would smooth out your draw but then it might see you draw your sideboard card and it would get tossed to the bottom. More often than not, it felt like you'd not get what you needed, but when it worked, boy did it work!

It didn't take long for the card to be overtaken by Winding Way, however. A riff on the Stronghold classic Mulch, Winding Way opened up a new way of drawing a large chunk of creatures off of one spell. There was some discussion about trying this card over Lead the Stampede, playing it in place of Distant Melody, or else ignoring it entirely. As it turns out, players were onto something with the idea of ditching the deck's Blue mana in favor of the consistency.

I tested it myself and it was, in fact, quite great. There was one problem when it came to the deck, however: finding sideboard cards was always a real challenge. What's more, if you found one off a Winding Way, it often ended up in your graveyard with no way to get it back. That's not as bad for some cards like Gleeful Sabotage where it basically exists to get you an easier game, but for cards you literally need to end a game, like Viridian Longbow or Harsh Sustenance, it gets worse.

What's more, the solutions to the problem are arguably subpar at best. Flaring Pain turned out to be an MVP against Moment's Peace and Prismatic Strands, even if the latter of those two has fallen out of favor in the meta lately. It didn't do much against Stonehorn Dignitary, though, meaning you would need that direct damage outlet. Enter Valakut Invoker, another option players would sometimes opt to try. It could deal damage, but basically demanded you hold a Priest of Titania on the board, which could be a real challenge sometimes. Other options just felt lesser. Faerie Macabre is great card that you can find off your draw spells, but sometimes it doesn't fit nearly the same role as a Relic of Progenitus.

So, this made me think about what to do as I went to prepare for my upcoming League matches. I expected Joseph Hourani to be on Familiars or something like Delver, as he's played that before. Ricardo Mattana I figured would be on something like Stompy or Burn with how I'd been hearing him discuss the metagame and planned accordingly. Brian I was a little less sure on. I knew he loved playing Delver decks in other formats and had seen him play decks like that in Pauper as well, but with the meta shifts, he felt like a big old wildcard.

Covering my bases, I came up with this heavily meta'd list:

So you might notice some off-beat things, most notably that I ended up returning to the Distant Melody package. This was largely because I fully expected Joseph to be on Familiars in order to, like myself, give people a good show. I figured the other decks would be a bit slower and, if Ricardo was on Stompy, the Melody can make a so-so game heavily skewed in my favor. As such, I felt the overwhelming draw power to be a huge enough a benefit for these matches that I ran it and, well, as you can see in my first match against Joseph, it definitely paid off for me a bit.

The four-of Weather the Storm was another one that might've seemed a bit egregious. After all, we didn't really see much in the way of aggro decks at all. If I saw Burn, however, I would've been in for a really bad time. Given that I also didn't really think I'd need my Gleeful Sabotages, which I mainly use for Affinity and Bogles matchups, I figured why not shave down a few for something that would make a rough matchup almost a slam dunk? They didn't pan out at all for me, which is unfortunate, but it still felt right based on what I was expecting at the time.

Everything else feels fairly stock and a lot of my play similarly felt pretty standard. Most of the participants as well as our host, Alex Ullman, each noted something I wanted to touch on: why did I bring in Harsh Sustenance against Brian's Sultai Teachings deck? With lots of removal and counter magic, it seems bad on the surface, right?

Harsh Sustenance
Massive Raid
Mob Justice

The reason I started bringing this card (and variations of it) into this matchup actually started over a year ago, back when I was still running Mob Justice in my list. I was running into a decent number of Teachings lists at the time and I realized one thing: a sweeper was always inevitable. This inevitability meant that I was able to get them down quite a bit in their life total but not outright kill them. Usually they'd be left with 7-8 life, wipe my board, and then stabilize their life total with Pristine Talisman, or in Brian's case, Weather the Storm.

By having access to a follow up Harsh Sustenance or similar effect, it allows the Elves player to take out the opponent's life total while the window is still open. It's not always a perfect solution, but it's something that makes a tough matchup even just a little better in the right scenario. Going in on the Harsh Sustenance vs. Ricardo's Standard Bearer, however, probably wasn't the right play and was absolutely a situation I would've played differently had I remembered it.

So now I want to discuss where to take the deck from here. Clearly the deck suffers from Winding Way not being great at finding sideboard cards, but Distant Melody has a lot of other problems, namely that pesky Island. I do think Springbloom Druid is often going to be better than Sylvan Ranger, but seeing a one-lander that's just an Island never feels good. Even if the London Mulligan is in effect, it can still be bad as ever.

The answer hit me on Twitter and somewhat dumbfounded me with how simple the solution was:

Arcum's Astrolabe

Now, yes, I know what you're thinking. I just wrote a huge article about the card being a potential problem for the format, so why run it? Am I trying to prove a point or what? The reality is that I actually saw a tweet about "the different flavors of Arcum's Astrolabe in Pauper" and one person mentioned "well what about Combo Astrolabe?" It made me laugh and say Elves and then I realized, wait a minute - that would probably go really well with Distant Melody!

Think about it. By having only Snow-Covered Forests in your deck, you don't need to worry about hitting an Island and instead you've got a bunch of sweet rocks that fix your mana. Not only do they benefit your Distant Melodies, they also give you an extra way to cast your Harsh Sustenance and any other sideboard toys you want to try out. What's more: it draws you a card, replacing itself almost for free and thereby making your deck basically 57 cards to start.

The one problem it faces is Lead the Stampede, but it's less concerning when you only have to worry about that card. I might shave a few more when I start cutting copies of Distant Melody for Winding Way, but having seen some ratios on numbers of creatures needed to make Lead the Stampede work most effectively, our creature count is a-ok.

Speaking of Winding Way, I want to round this out by saying that I think it's great to see it create a new evolution in the deck, but I think it's not quite there. I don't think it's the fault of Winding Way itself, but rather the answers you want to find to make sure your matchups are that much better overall. In these Melody builds, it's 100% better out of the sideboard where you can take out your Melody and probably some number of Astrolabes against an opponent with a lot of sweepers. Remember Winding Way helps rebuild your board, making it easier to come back from a board wipe, unlike Distant Melody itself.

I still think Elves hasn't fully settled on its final form and, as players test, we'll see a new evolution of the deck. I can't wait to be able to talk about it at that time with you all. It's going to be a blast!

In the meantime, be sure to tune into this week's edition of the Pauper Premiere League! Week three features these great players, each on a sweet different deck:

  • Emma Partlow on Mono-Blue Delver
  • Chris Van Meter on Burn
  • Adam Yurchick on Astro Jeskai
  • Brian DeMars on Mono-Black Control

The fun begins this Thursday, July 25 on the CoolStuffInc.com Twitch page at 9PM EST/6PM PST. Full decklists and event schedule will drop right here on CoolStuffInc.com tomorrow. Until then, may all your elf draws snowball into a win!

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