"A Guide to Pauper: Part II"
Please excuse how long this latest installment took to make as I've had exams recently which have taken up a lot of my time and caused me a bit of stress, hopefully, Part III won’t take nearly as long.
As for Part II of this series, let's have a look at the defining cards and synergies that make Pauper the format what it is. It's worth noting that understanding a bit about the control, midrange, and aggro deck types will give some added context to this guide. I recommend also reading up on these beforehand at the following resource below if you are unfamiliar.
To briefly summarize them, Control wants to destroy your stuff and win the game slowly, Aggro wants to kill you quickly and attack with a bunch of creatures, Midrange is a combination of them where it can play aggro against control and control against aggro. Lastly, Tempo plays a few threats and tries to protect them.
What Makes a Pauper Card Good?
One word that defines a good card in this format is efficiency. A great example is Lightning Bolt vs. Fireball. You need four mana to make Fireball equal to a Lightning Bolt. You might not get to four mana before you're virtually dead or literally dead in Pauper, it is a format where the decks that run the most efficient cards just often win. Decks that go against this idea are ones that cheat on mana such as Cascade and of course the dreaded Tron. Decks like these cheat on mana via "Tron Lands" and ways to make your forests produce copious amounts of mana, this way you make those big cards more efficient at the cost of having a worse early game compared to other decks in the format.
To further define efficiency we can look at maybe the best Pauper deck at the time of writing this, "Skred Faeries." This list has an average mana cost of around two and uses low-cost interaction in a deadly combination with the synergy of low-cost fae such as: Faerie Seer and Spellstutter Sprite with tools like Ninja of the Deep Hours to bounce them back to your hand to use their abilities once more. Once this strategy has been established of bouncing faeries and drawing cards with ninja, it's hard for the opponent to get back on their feet, you use cards such as Counterspell and Skred with cantrips like Preordain and Brainstorm to bury them in card advantage and value.
Before we get ahead of ourselves, let's take a look at some specific cards starting with maybe the most misunderstood cards by newer players, cantrips.
A cantrip is a card that replaces itself, in this case, you get to choose what to draw instead. When it comes to the cantrips at your disposal in this format you are dealing with serious power. All three of the best cantrips in Magic history are available in Pauper, those being Ponder, Brainstorm, and Preordain. Many new players don't find them exciting at a first glance, but these cards are oftentimes the best cards in the decks that run them as they let you shape your draw steps and adjust your hands for the matchup and board state. These pieces also allow you to run a lower land count as they are excellent for digging after precious land drops. The most powerful deck in Pauper history "UB Delver," demonstrated how powerful these three cards are. This deck was truly oppressive and played on a "legacy-like" power level. This doesn't mean that cantrips are necessarily broken, they are mostly fine in today's meta, but are still some of the most powerful and defining cards in the format. The most powerful of these cantrips is Preordain because of its flexibility, as you almost always get a good deal out of it. With Brainstorm you can end up with two cards you don't want on the top of your deck and with Ponder, the cards you choose to keep on top can be awkward. In two-color decks that use Evolving Wilds and Ash Barrens to shuffle your deck at key moments, I would recommend using Preordain complimented by Brainstorm. In mono-blue decks or decks utilizing three colors, I would recommend running Preordain along with Ponder as these decks tend not to use many shuffling effects.
This is where Pauper truly shows that it does have quite some powerful cards. The interaction in the format is great and has been so for a long time, cards like Counterspell and Lightning Bolt have been staples integral to the format throughout its history.
Counterspell is a card that is a universal answer to anything your opponent is trying to throw at you. When you have two blue mana open you have the ability to fight on "the stack." This card prevents the format from becoming a soup of combo decks and is responsible for Pauper's overall health, but it isn't the only form of countermagic in the format. Prohibit, Spell Pierce, and Dispel are always viable options depending on the deck you're playing. "Delver" for example, wants to run some number of Spell Pierce alongside Dispel and decks like Tron have an easier time getting colourless for the kicker on Prohibit than it has to get two blue mana sources for Counterspell.
Choose your countermagic carefully if you're playing blue and remember that there is a wide selection of countermagic that hasn't been mentioned.
Lightning Bolt alongside Skred and Cast Down is the premium removal of the format. These cards offer an answer to almost every threat in the format and the debate of Cast Down vs Skred is a deep one as there are two distinct faerie decks (Blue/Black and Blue/Red) one that runs Cast Down and the other one Skred along with Lightning Bolt. Cards like Snap and other "bounce" effects could also be classified as removal and these types of spells see fringe play. Pieces like Corrupt and Tendrils of Corruption also see occasional play in mono-black control decks. The problems with these cards are that they restrict deckbuilding due to how much black mana they require and their casting costs are high, though their effects are still very powerful and can win games on their own.
Pauper also has a small collection of targeted disruption or discard spells, the best being Duress. This card is used mostly by combo and midrange decks as a way to try and beat control and other combo strategies. Divest also sees fringe play as well as Castigate in the "White/Black Pestilence" deck as a powerful way of answering the opponent's threats before they hit the battlefield.
Moving on to what many players find underwhelming about the format, it's creatures. The suite of creatures available in Pauper isn't that impressive at first glance, but this is also something that gives the format its identity.
That being said, this doesn't mean that there aren't any good creatures in the format, Gurmag Angler and Delver of Secrets along with old standard all-stars like Wild Mongrel and Augur of Bolas are all legal. Pauper Elves is famous for being a "legacy-like" deck by using the trio of Priest of Titania, Quirion Ranger, and Birchlore Rangers which carry the deck to victory. Mulldrifter is also a card that sees play because of its flexibility and synergy with Ephemerate and there is also a suite of sweet Slivers as well.
Whilst looking at these cards you might wonder how they all go together and the truth is that most creature-based decks in the format are synergy-based and made to create a critical mass of creatures in the early game instead of slapping down big dudes.
For example, if you play Mulldrifter for its Evoke cost instead, and cast Ephemerate in response targeting the drifter, when it comes into play you draw two cards, it comes back into play, you draw two more cards and now it technically returns "non-evoked" so it does not have to be sacrificed. Ephemerate Rebounds on the next upkeep so if you target the drifter, you'll draw two more cards for a total of six cards, that's basically a new starting hand. All of this for the cost of one additional white mana on top of the 3 mana already invested.
When the set Commander Legends was released, Annoyed Altisaur and Boarding Party entered the picture with their powerful Cascade abilities. These cards have enabled a new type of midrange ramp deck that is similar to what you may find in other formats and is extremely powerful in Pauper which is based around card advantage.
The term "card advantage" is thrown around a lot, but it basically means maintaining more resources than the opponent, most often in the form of cards in hand, but in a creature deck mirror it's the number of creatures you have on the board. In the control mirror, it's the amount of mana you have plus cards in hand. It is a bit of an abstract concept, but for this section, I'll just define it as cards that give you multiple cards back or take away cards for your opponent.
For creature decks, there is a small selection of green cards that grant card advantage, cards like Winding Way and Lead the Stampede are the gold standard. These pieces can potentially give several creatures in exchange for one sorcery spell and are of incredible value. When playing against a control deck, these are the cards you often want to land. For tribal-based decks, there's an additional option in Distant Melody which does some heavy lifting in the Elves deck.
For midrange and control decks there is a suite of options depending on colour and what you want to do. Sign in Blood and Night's Whisper both do very similar things and are excellent cards for black-based control. A card that is worth two cards is a very simple and elegant card advantage engine and drawing two cards in exchange for two life is as plain as it gets. Another card that many decks run is a newer card called Bonder's Ornament. This card generates mana for you while easily drawing you three to four extra cards or more over the course of a long game. It's become such a powerhouse in the Tron and Cascade decks mentioned earlier because of how much mana those decks can produce.
Frantic Inventory and Behold the Multiverse are another new pair of cards that have entered the scene and have had an impact on the already strong blue decks. Inventory is strictly an upgrade to Accumulated Knowledge as Knowledge counts both graveyards so your opponents can profit from it.
Another way of gaining card advantage in Pauper is "hand disruption" or discard effects. The two most played are Wrench Mind and Blightning, the latter being a way to close out games as well. Midgame, these effects are very powerful in midrange mirror matches as a way of making your opponent discard significant portions of their hand.
But haven't I forgotten something?
The Monarch defines Pauper's slow grindy creature decks. The mechanic reads the following:
"Whenever an opponent deals combat damage to you they become the monarch."
In a deck that runs removal backed up by creatures on the ground, the monarch becomes a busted ability. It can easily give you three to five extra cards in a long game where you drop it on an empty board which is more than Frantic Inventory or Sign in Blood will ever give you and it comes with a creature!
It has birthed new archetypes and is very important for decks that don't run blue, it is the reason non-blue control and midrange decks exist. The best monarch creature is probably Palace Sentinels due to its four toughness it survives Lightning Bolt. The runner-ups are Thorn of the Black Rose and Azure Fleet Admiral though lately, Crimson Fleet Commodore has made appearances in the Pauper metagame.
Pauper has many different dimensions to it and there are a lot of good staple cards to be aware of especially if you're into brewing your own decks and strategies. Thank you for reading, I hope you enjoyed this article. Part III will contain some additional context into aggro decks as they are straightforward and easier to pilot allowing for newer players to better learn and experience the format.