Tuesday, July 23, 2019

July 21 Pauper Challenge Winner's Metagame

On July 21st, it was right to be the Beatdown in the Pauper Challenge. Stompy and Heroic met in the finals and although Stompy was crowned the winner, it appears that the finalists split. This was in the wake of yet another event where Arcum's Astrolabe value decks were everywhere. It appears that when decks take time off to play with trinkets, creatures can do some work on a life total. 

That's only part of the story. As Astrolabe decks have become a plurality of the metagame it makes sense that decks start gunning for them. That is, in order to beat the best you have to adjust to their weak points. The Jeskai Faeries deck in the Top 4 was able to use Spellstutter Sprite as a way to foil commonly played cards out of the Astrolabe decks including the namesake card, Ephemerate, and Skred. Sprite does not need friends to get the job done in these situations. Another deck, just outside the Top 16, took a different approach and paired Ingot Chewer with Ephemerate to nab multiple Artifacts on one 3/3 body. 
While decks can (and should) prepare for the mirror, there's something to be said for putting butts in seats. The Astrolabe decks do take time to set up and can have a hard time dealing with multiple threats - or one sufficiently large threat. Heroic and Stompy make sense as a way to attack these until a Stonehorn Dignitary shows up. With only two decks in the Top 32 running the rhino it was a good day to trample some birds. Still, the meta will adjust. It is almost trivially easy for these decks to run Weather the Storm - no non-Tron Astro deck ran the card this week - and build up a high enough life total that combat will not matter.

Looking to next week, black removal seems decently well positioned. Chainer's Edict and its ilk do rather nicely against Lagonna-Band Trailblazer, while not being completely dead against Stompy and Red Deck wins. Disfigure and Defile are still good cards and they allow you to potentially dodge some of the hate being throw Arcum's Astrolabe's way. Whatever you do, though, be sure to have a plan to beat the Tron Flicker Loop endgame.

2019 is going to be a banner year for Pauper. I want to continue to be at the forefront of the metagame. If you like the work I do, please consider becoming a Patron. Thank you!

Monday, July 15, 2019

July 14th Pauper Challenge Winner's Metagame

The July 14th Pauper Challenge had 24 copies of Arcum's Astrolabe in the Top 8 and another 16 copies in the Top 16. The card is everywhere. If you want some more of my thoughts you can check out this thread on Twitter

Blue Astro Tron won the Challenge and also finished just outside the Top 8. The deck has taking the old Ghostly Flicker engine and supplemented it with Ephemerate. Ephemerate is fantastic with Mnemonic Wall as it can get back a spell on the first half and then wall can get back the instant on the Rebound. This shrinks the engine and gives the deck an added layer of resiliency and inevitability. It also conveniently keeps a key card out of the graveyard to ignore common hate like Relic of Progenitus.

Arcum's Astrolabe has completely remade Pauper in its image. While the four of the five Tron decks run the card (and have similar lock plans for the late game), there are 12 Jeskai based midrange value decks that all lean heavily on the card to help keep seeing new cards and stitch together their mana.

Previously I had said that the rise in these decks has also given Affinity a shot in the arm. Aggressive decks like the Machine can take advantage of the set up time and prey upon slow starts. It appears as if these decks have adapted, both in construction and play style. As such Affinity did not crack the Top 16 this week. There were four aggro decks in the Top 16 - two Stompy, a Hexproof, and a Red Deck Wins.

Are people not being aggressive enough? That is a legitimate question. Playing the value game is fun and Astrolabe decks are great at seeing a ton of cards. More aggressive decks should be seeing play as a check on these strategies but they need to figure out a way to content with Weather the Storm and Moment's Peace.

Two events in and we are looking at the metagame as sorted by total Win+ - that is wins above a 4-3 record. Jeskai Trinket and Affinity are the moist popular decks, with Stompy not for behind. That being said if you combine various control Tron decks, that macro becomes the second most popular archetype. Any deck currently looking to attack the meta should have a plan to go under Tron but also be able to fight the multicolor Astrolabe decks. While I've had some success with Goblins, that deck can falter in the face of Boros. Zombies may be an answer as Shepherd of Rot is a quick clock, but may struggle in the face of Weather the Storm.

2019 is going to be a banner year for Pauper. I want to continue to be at the forefront of the metagame. If you like the work I do, please consider becoming a Patron. Thank you!

Monday, July 8, 2019

The July 7th Pauper Challenge Winner's Metagame

While we have reached the official end of Modern Horizons season, what with the advent of Core 2020 and the Unification, the impact of the straight-to-Modern set continues to be felt in Pauper. One only needs to look at the July 7th Challenge results to see that at the moment it's Arcum's Astrolabe's world and we're just living in it. There were 14 copies of the Snow Artifact in the Top 8, and another 16 in the Top 16. The ability to fix your mana and draw a card is just that good.
Actually, it's probably better than that. The Astrolabe engine, whether paired with Glint Hawk and Kor Skyfisher, or with Trinket Mage (in Tron builds), or all three, provides a fairly steady stream of cards. On July 7th every there was a clean break from 16th to 17th place: everyone in the Top 16 went X-2 or better. Out of all those decks there were 30 copies of Astrolabe to help keep things moving. Combined, there were six copies of Palace Sentinels and Thorn of the Black Rose.

Let's put that into context. Previously Monarch was one of the driving forces in Pauper. It was a steady stream of card advantage that was hard to stop and easy to defend. A free card every turn is barely good enough in the face of Arcum's Astrolabe (at the moment). Combine that with the card's ability to subvert the mana system and it makes sense that this card is omnipresent.
It also makes some sense as to why Affinity is resurgent. After a long while on the sidelines the machine is back on top. Winning this Challenge (and last week's Playoff) the archetype is putting up some gaudy numbers. No doubt aided by the London Mulligan helping to ensure smoother draws, the deck has the ability to Just Win thanks to Fling and Temur Battle Rage. Skred is great at killing a 4/4, but much worse at killing 8 of them. The result is the Affinity is climbing the ladder and is ready, willing, and able to steamroll anyone who takes too long to set up.
Given all of this I think Gorilla Shaman is well positioned next week. At the same time I think Tron decks should be packing Shattering Pulse - Ancient Grudge is fine but barely replaces itself in the wake of Astrolabe and Prophetic Prism - and decks that can support Spell Pierce probably should add some copies. Stopping the first Astrolabe can be key in slowing down these decks and that cannot be understated.

2019 is going to be a banner year for Pauper. I want to continue to be at the forefront of the metagame. If you like the work I do, please consider becoming a Patron. Thank you!

Thursday, July 4, 2019

The June 30th Format Playoff

The second Pauper Playoff took place on June 30th. These playoffs qualify high finishers for a Championship, which in turn will qualify a player for the Magic Online Championship Series.

The Playoff was won by Affinity, which was one of two decks not running Arcum's Astrolabe in the Top 8. Affinity has had a strong season with two other Top 8 finishes. The strategy has experienced a resurgence in the wake of the recent bans. Affinity has always been a powerful option but when there are too many cheap counters running around it loses some luster. Now with the advent of Blue Elemental Blast one wonders if Affinity will see its stock decline since there will be more sideboard hate for Atog, Fling, and Temur Battle Rage.

The story of this playoff, and really the format since the release of Modern Horizons has been Arcum's Astrolabe. Not only has this card easily slotted into existing Kor Skyfisher strategies, it has also allowed these decks to expand their metagame share. At half the price of Prophetic Prism, Arcum's Astrolabe is a one mana cantrip that nearly any deck can run that has the upside of fixing your mana. While it does come with a very real cost - that is a slot in your deck - the upside is massive, especially when paired with Skyfisher and Glint Hawk. On top of all that it is not hard to get value out of Astrolabe since once it hits the battlefield it immediately replaces itself. The end result is that this card has become a format staple and is pushing Pauper in a specific direction.

The mana system is integral to the way Magic works. If you want to have better mana you need to run fewer colors. While various non-Basic Lands help to mitigate this almost all of them (as of late) come with a cost. Arcum's Astrolabe changes the nature of mana in Pauper in that as long as you have Snow-Covered Basics, you can cast nearly anything. The consequence of this is that Arcum's Astrolabe decks are started to resemble each other. They are becoming three and four color "good stuff" decks and are taking up a decent chunk of the metagame. Non-Astrolabe decks are relegated to linear strategies - Affinity Burn, Elves, Stompy - and are creating a metagame of beatdown against value. 

If Astrolabe is the current focal point of the metagame what can be done? Qasali Pridemage is a decent card but asks quite a bit when it comes to mana cost, as does Tin-Street Hooligan (unless you are yourself an Astrolabe deck). Hearth Kami and Torch Fiend might be good enough but then you are leaving yourself behind. It might be that Spellstutter Sprite is just the answer we are looking for, provided it can stay on the board long enough to matter.

All of this may be for nothing. The recent addition of all commons means that Mystic Remora is coming to play. An early Remora could put a damper on the plan of "recast Astrolabe to get ahead". And we are still early enough in Modern Horizons' life-cycle that an answer may be uncovered.

2019 is going to be a banner year for Pauper. I want to continue to be at the forefront of the metagame. If you like the work I do, please consider becoming a Patron. Thank you!

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

June 23 Pauper Challenge Winner's Metagame

What happens when a format decides to take several turns off to spin its wheels? The answer appears to be found in the June 23rd Challenge. For weeks the name of the game has been Arcum's Astrolabe. On Sunday, two Affinity decks made Top 8 and Stompy took down the tournament.

Arcum's Astrolabe is a good card but at the same time it doesn't really do anything. Yes, it fixes mana and yes, it is cheap. Compare it to Ponder, Preordain, Faithless Looting, and Ancient Stirring. It is clearly less powerful than these and this is a horrible comparison. 

But run with it for a second.

At their apex, Ponder and Preordain helped to keep the best decks in the format flowing, They looked at multiple cards for a single spell and presumably upgrade the quality of a card in hand (although the number of times I've seen people Preordain into Preordain is...high).

So Astrolabe replaces itself with a random card and helps to fix your mana at the cost of a mana. For a deck that features Glint Hawk and Kor Skyfisher, that is all part of the plan. In a deck like Tron, however, the cost is a bit higher since Tron cannot cast the spell. And the Glint Hawk decks have now taken to running more spells to find key cards (similar to Tron) and less action. 

So what is the end result? Sometimes Astrolabe decks are glacially slow. Affinity and Stompy can prey upon slow draws and apply pressure early and often. Will this last? Probably not, but it exposes something about Pauper - you can't always afford to waste turns one and two on hand sculpting. 

Minimum number of appearances: 2 (or a Top 8)

So where does that leave us going into next week's playoff? I think we could see a return to an earlier metagame. Glint Hawk decks will likely need to choose which is better - Arcum's Astrolabe or Prophetic Prism - and run a playset of one and one or two copies of the other. Tron may have to devote more slots to actually handling the board instead of seeing a random card. 
If I had to pick one deck to do well on Sunday, it would be Boros Midrange - no Monarch. These decks have been picking up steam in recent weeks and now with Astrolabe, they have an easier time making Seeker of the Way large. Of course that could make an opening for a correctly metagamed Tron deck to take the whole thing down.

We'll have to wait and see.

2019 is going to be a banner year for Pauper. I want to continue to be at the forefront of the metagame. If you like the work I do, please consider becoming a Patron. Thank you!

Monday, June 17, 2019

June 16th Pauper Challenge Winner's Metagame Breakdown

It's Arcum's Astrolabe's world; we're just living in it. That's the distinct feeling I got after looking at the June 16th Pauper Challenge results. The winning Murasa Tron deck featured four copies of the card and there were 16 copies in the Top 8 - 40 across the Top 32. Why is this trinket so attractive?

For years, Pauper players bemoaned how hard it was to play multiple colors. Before Khans of Tarkir gain lands and before Gates, trying to build a multicolor deck that could function would often mean relegating the second or third color to a splash or running a card like Prophetic Prism to stitch things together. Over time Prism became less a necessity and more a luxury if not an outright engine piece. The lands got better and so too did the mana bases. One only needs to look at a deck like Dimir Flicker, which runs both Chittering Rats and Counterspell, and finds slots for Radiant Fountain, as to the strength of Dismal Backwater and Dimir Aqueduct. In this way, Arcum's Astrolabe represents opportunity.

Prophetic Prism is a fine card. It replaces itself and it can fix your mana. It still costs two mana and in eats a turn of development. Tron decks are fine with this as they can afford to take turn two off since their third turn is more like a seventh turn with regards to mana development. Glint Hawk decks enjoyed the opportunity to build their own Mulldrifter. But it still costs you two mana. Arcum's Astrolabe cuts the cost in half and has the exact same effect, but requires you to run a Snow mana base.

In my set review I said that Astrolabe would find a home in Boros decks but that Tron would struggle to include it. One out of two ain't bad, but it isn't good either. I underestimated how Tron would contort their mana base to fit in another cantrip fixer. It appears as if Astrolabe fueled Tron decks are here to stay as all four Tron decks in the Top 32 ran the new addition. 

All that being said, I think the card is overrated. Running Arcum's Astrolabe alongside non-Snow lands leaves you often with a card that can be impossible to cast. That is not to say that decks should not run the card but rather care has to be taken in crafting a mana base. Ideally you want to cast it on the first turn and trying to shoehorn in too many other specialty lands could impact a decks ability to cast key spells. Should Astrolabe continue seeing play in Boros? Absolutely. Tron, I'm less sold but considering how I was wrong before I am willing to be wrong again. But I think many of the three and four color decks that are being held together by Astrolabe, duct tape, and a dream are prone to poor draws. Take the Top 4 deck from Sakkra. While this deck can churn through cards quickly, its main win condition is Bonesplitter. These kinds of decks can (and do) win, but personally I would much rather run a deck that draws one too many land than one too few.

We are still very early in the Modern Horizons season and yet it is already almost over. Given how soon Core 2020 will be upon us, figuring out the best deck might be a challenge. That being said, I am still very high on cards like Manic Vandal (provided they don't hurt your own board in the process).

2019 is going to be a banner year for Pauper. I want to continue to be at the forefront of the metagame. If you like the work I do, please consider becoming a Patron. Thank you!

Monday, June 10, 2019

June 9th Pauper Challenge Winner's Metagame

It's finally here. Modern Horizons is legal for play on Magic Online. The Leagues have been consolidated. The bans are in effect. Pauper has entered a new era. Whatever Pauper was a few weeks ago it is something different today. It's also rather familiar. Both poles were on display in the June 9th Challenge.

What's familiar? The decks at the top of the challenge. Izzet Delver, featuring Accumulated Knowledge, won the day. It had two slots in the Top 8 (with a third going to Izzet Faeries, complete with Faerie Seer) and another finish in the Top 32 with a 3-4 record. Izzet Delver did not lean as hard on Daze or Gitaxian Probe as other blue tempo decks and as such had an easier time porting directly over to the new metagame. The two Top 8 lists were fairly stock and avoided the recent addition of Fire // Ice. 

Coming in with two Top 8 appearances - Mono Black Control. While this deck has never really gone away, Modern Horizons has given the deck its very own version of Skred in Defile. Defile was the most played new card in the Top 8 with 7 copies. The eighth place list splashed blue for Dimir Guildmage off of four Dimir Aqueduct. I'm a fan of Dimir Guildmage but have moved my Mono Black deck to a Snow-Covered Swamp mana base to facilitate Arcum's Astrolabe. The one mana prism allows you to keep your Swamp count high for Defile while enabling cards like Dimir Guildmage and other fringe (read: only I play them) cards like Strangling Soot.

Speaking of new, Arcum's Astrolabe headlined all new cards. There were 16 copies across all Top 32 decks. Faerie Seer and Winding Way were tied for second with 8 copies each. Astrolabe gives every deck a solid turn one play that replaces itself. There is a real cost to this as it means skimping on the number of gain lands, karoos, cycling lands, and fetches you are able to run. Still, the opportunity to fix your mana while also seeing a fresh card is attractive. Anecdotally, I saw a ton of decks in the league lean on the Astrolabe to stitch together base Boros decks splashing multiple colors.

Dimir Control has also emerged in the wake of Dimir Delver. Leaning hard on Gurmag Angler and disruption, this deck is still quite capable of dumping a ton of cards into the graveyard early to fuel a big fish. Condescend played the deck to the finals this week, complete with three copies of Mulldrifter. While the deck lost some free wins off of Delver of Secrets, it still has the ability to play a solid control game and see a ton of cards. 

Moving forward cards like Tin-Street Hooligan become attractive options. The ability to develop your own board while potentially stranding a Glint Hawk looks to be important for the foreseeable future. Hearth Kami and Torch Fiend are not as good since they have to hit the bin, and Ainok Survivalist is just a bit slow (and it's no Nantuko Vigilante). Qasali Pridemage, however, might hit the sweet spot between threat and answer. Still, this is just Week One of Modern Horizons season. The league results drop on Wednesday and considering the influx of new cards, it will be interesting to see what decks managed to get to five wins.

2019 is going to be a banner year for Pauper. I want to continue to be at the forefront of the metagame. If you like the work I do, please consider becoming a Patron. Thank you!