Friday, March 22, 2019

Common Design: Roar of the Wurm

We’re brushing off the dust and flashing it back. Let’s take a look at Roar of the Wurm and whether or not it could be a reasonable common in Modern Horizons.

You can check out this post to look at my guidelines. Needless to say, New World Order won’t matter much in a set built to impact Modern. 
Roar of the Wurm was a constructed caliber card back in its day. While a seven mana 6/6 is definitely on par for a common, a conditional four mana version is...well also on par for common these days. 
Ignoring Gurmag Angler for a moment - since that card costs one mana in reality - there are two cards we should look at when examining Roar of the Wurm: Walker of the Grove and Canker Abomination. Both of these touch on the different sides of Roar.
 Walker of the Grove can provide you two creatures, both of which are overpriced. The front half - 8 mana for a 7/7 - isn’t exciting. Similarly a 5 mana 4/4 is just average. Considering there are 4/4s four four mana available that do not see play, Walker is just not going to cut it. What it does showcase, however, is R&D’s willingness to print two-for-one creatures at common in Masters style sets. Walker is also a split card - it is either a 7/7 that leaves behind a 4/4 or it’s just a 4/4. Roar of the Wurm is similar in that you can try to cast the 7 mana version first, but then you have to invest more mana in the second half. The goal should be to get the cheaper version first.

This is where Canker Abomination becomes relevant. It is a conditional 4 mana 6/6. Sound
familiar? Roar of the Wurm fills the same role provided it has found its way into your graveyard. The difference here is that Canker Abomination could be smaller while the Wurm token will always be a 6/6. The point of this exercise was not to judge Roar of the Wurm against these existing commons - Roar is miles better - but rather to provide context as to whether Roar of the Wurm could be released as a lower rarity.
And I think the answer is a resounding “Yes!”. If you can get this card into the graveyard you can get a perfectly reasonable threat on turn four that just so happens to be incredibly vulnerable. Not only will the token die by conventional means, but it also falters in the face of the stiff breeze of Unsummon. Combine all of these factors with the supposedly higher level of Modern Horizons and I would be surprised if Roar of the Wurm wasn’t in the set.

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

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

From Scorpions to Skeletons

On -1/-1 Counters in Commander

When I first saw The Scorpion God I knew I had to build a deck around it. It was a big enough Commander to be a threat on its own, it drew cards, and it did one of my favorite things in all of Magic - it got itself back from the graveyard. 
I set about working on a deck that was part -1/-1 counters, part discard themed. With Archfiend of Ifnir I wanted to leverage cards like Tortured Existence and Nihilistic Glee as engines. As if The Scorpion God was not an engine unto itself. Regardless, I liked the idea of discarding for value and it appeared to be on theme with the Raise Dead clause on my Commander of choice. 
In the planning phase I ran into a small problem - a way to put the activated ability of The Scorpion God into overdrive. This involved making an unbound amount of mana and jumping through hoops with cards like Marsh Flitter, Phyrexian Altar, Ashnod’s Altar, and Nim Deathmantle. Despite the number of cards to get my mana going it still seemed worth it so I put the 100 together and took it to my local game store. It won its first outing, using Nim Deathmantle and Ashnod’s Altar with Puppeteer Clique to constantly rebuy Spore Frog out of a green player’s graveyard until I could steal a Blood Artist and drain everyone out of the game. 
I played the deck a few more times after that but it ceased feeling exciting - or even good. 
What happened? The deck was ploddingly slow. The Scorpion God is a five mana creature that then requires three mana to do anything. To set up a victory formation took a ton of time and a Rube Goldbergian level of pieces. I think in Commander it’s possible to succeed if you want to take either of these paths, but selecting them both means running countermeasures a la Counterspells - a decidedly blue specialty.
The Scorpion God sat on my shelf, unused, for quite some time. I kept thinking about ways to rebuild a -1/-1 counter deck but wanted to avoid Hapatra, Vizier of Poisons. I already had two black-green Commander decks and really did not want to add another. 
Also, I like being weird.
I’ve been playing Magic since 1994 and in that time I have had experience with plenty of cards. I tend to gravitate towards older Commanders that people may not have seen or are narrow in application. Part of this is nostalgia - I love playing with old cards that do things slightly differently. Another part of it is that I really, I mean really, enjoy it when my opponent’s have to read my cards multiple times to understand what the heck is going on. So this led me to Skeleton Ship.

Skeleton Ship is not what one would call a good card. It is a five mana 0/3 that requires you to control an Island. It does not do anything when it hits the battlefield, instead needing to survive an entire turn cycle before mattering. The low profile can be a benefit if playing in a pod where the average power level of the Commanders are, in a word, higher. 
Still, Skeleton Ship doesn’t require you to attack, not does it require any additional mana investment. Instead all you need to do is tap it to get your -1/-1 counter. And here is where blue shines in comparison to red. First, blue has access to multiple Proliferate effects - from Viral Drake to Tezzeret’s Gambit to Inexorable Tide - so one counter never stays one for long. Blue also gives the deck access to countermagic and card draw. As mentioned before, my -1/-1 counter deck needed time to set up and these defensive measures help to buy that time.

Blue also gives the deck access to Fatestitcher effects. While Magewright’s Stone and
Umbral Mantle are good, being able to use Thassa’s Ire can turn extra mana into more dead things - which goes very nicely with Demon of Dark Schemes and Necroskitter. The un/tap theme also helps the deck with one of its few unbound combos thanks to Nest of Scarabs and Intruder Alarm.
I haven’t had a chance to take the deck out for a spin but I’ll be putting up a decklist later today. In the meanwhile I want to know: what ostensibly “worse” Commander do you run and why?

So the decklist took a little longer to get up than I expected, but here you go!

Skeleton Ship

9 Island
6 Swamp
Bad River
Bojuka Bog
Cabal Coffers
Choked Estuary
Darkslick Shores
Desert of the Glorified
Desert of the Mindful
Dimir Aqueduct
Dimir Guildgate
Dismal Backwater
Dreadship Reef
Ifnir Deadlands
Jwar Isle Refuge
Memorial to Folly
Salt Marsh
Submerged Boneyard
Tainted Isle
Temple of Deceit
Underground River
Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth
Watery Grave

Liliana, Death Wielder

Aphetto Alchemist
Captain of the Mists
Carnifex Demon
Deadeye Tracker
Demon of Dark Schemes
Draining Whelk
Enclave Cryptologist
Graveblade Marauder
Harvester of Souls
Massacre Wurm
Midnight Banshee
Puppeteer Clique
Sidisi, Undead Vizier
Sepulchral Primordial
Thief of Sanity
Tideforce Elemental
Viral Drake
Core Prowler
Grim Poppet
Mindless Automaton
Solemn Simulacrum

Fuel for the Cause
Soul Manipulation
Vraska's Contempt

Beacon of Unrest
Black Sun's Zenith
Liliana's Influence
Spread the Sickness
Tezzeret's Gambit
Toxic Deluge

Astral Cornucopia
Cauldron of Souls
Contagion Clasp
Contagion Engine
Dimir Signet
Everflowing Chalice
Magewright's Stone
Mimic Vat
Sol Ring
Spawning Pit
Trigon of Corruption
Trigon of Thought
Illusionist's Bracers
Swiftfoot Boots
Thornbite Staff
Umbral Mantle

Black Market
Blowfly Infestation
Crumbling Ashes
Grave Betrayal
Inexorable Tide
Intruder Alarm
Nest of Scarabs
Shadows of the Past
Thassa's Ire

2019 is going to be a banner year for Pauper, but I want to bring you Commander content as well! If you like the work I do, please consider becoming a Patron. Thank you!

Monday, March 18, 2019

March 17 Pauper Challenge Winner's Metagame

After a few weeks on the decline, Boros Bully took the top two spots in the March 17 Pauper Challenge. The go wide version of a Boros Garrison - Palace Sentinels deck had two pilots in the Top 32 and the only undefeated player on the day. The two Top 8 finishes helped to push Bully further up the Ravnica Allegiance power rankings.

A lot of innovation over the past few weeks has been centered around Gurmag Angler. Being able to answer a singular large threat has become paramount in the format. While Gurmag Angler is the standard for what amounts to a large threat in reality this is anything with more than two toughness. Palace Sentinels, Stormbound Geist, Guardian of the Guildpact - these are all sizable threats that have a direct impact on the game. And when looking at the recent spat of answers - Curse of Chains springs to mind - they are about stopping these threats.

But what happens when you can go wide? What happens when your threats are resilient?

We are starting to see a shift in the way Pauper players are posing threats. Boros Bully has not had a good season (compared to previous performance) to this point. However the ability to go wide has proved valuable. But there's another way to fight the good fight against removal.

Zombies and Azorius Blink are both based on resilient threats - that is creatures that can either dodge removal or can be easily recurred. The recent advent of Tethmos High Priest in Tireless Tribe decks follow a similar thread - you can stop me once but can you stop me three times? The answer, at least for now, seems to be no. I've been having my own success with Black-Green Aristocrats, a deck built around converting dying creatures into victory.

On the season, the threshold for the power rankings has moved to 6 total appearances.

The interesting thing about this new spat of resilient decks is that they are not as easily blanked by Moment's Peace. Azorius Blink can gain just as much value as a Ghostly Flicker Tron deck while Boros Bully has access to Flaring Pain. Even Zombies can stick a Shepherd of Rot and go to town. So what is a good answer to these decks? At the moment, it might just be Stonehorn Dignitary based Tron decks, but even that could be a stretch if Burn comes back.

Despite not making the Top 8 this week, Dimir Delver stays in the number one spot. It remains the best deck by a fairly significant margin but multiple Monarch variants are coming for its crown. Hexproof is also climbing the standings but I wonder if a pending shift in removal could stop its rise. 

There's five more weeks until War of the Spark and while the Pauper metagame is very much stable at the moment, there could be changes coming. We'll just 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!

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Common Design: Baleful Strix

Years ago I started a series on this blog where I looked at various cards through the lens of design and ask: is this a common? My discussion centered on a few key elements about the card.

  • Support casual play
  • Support limited play
  • Viable for high level constructed
  • Color Identity
  • Serve as an entry point into Magic
  • Adheres to New World Order

With Modern Horizons on, well, the horizon, I wanted to revisit this series with an eye on potential downshifts. Modern Horizons will feature some entirely new cards as well as reprints of cards that are not currently legal in Modern. Similar to Masters sets, Modern Horizons will get to set aside the complexity limits that come with New World Order. That does not mean we are suddenly going to get Planeswalkers at Common, but it does mean we are going to get more Sparksmiths than Thermo Alchemists. Being an advanced product, I am also going to care less about serving as an entry point into the game.
Masters sets have also pushed against the normally acceptable power levels for a common. One only needs to look to the massive impact of cards from Modern Masters 2017 and Ultimate Masters to see commons that live well above the curve. Considering that commons have a large role in supporting limited environments it stands to follow that if the power level of the set is high then the commons will have to follow. Modern Horizons looks to be one such set. With that out of the way let’s get to the first card.

Hello gorgeous. Baleful Strix is what one Michael J. Flores would call a hell of a Magic: the Gathering card. Coming from the second Planechase, the card has become a staple in Legacy and one of my favorite cards to run in Commander. It isn’t that Strix does any one thing exceptionally well, but rather does quite a few things at an above average clip.
Baleful Strix is the kind of card I would love to include in a Cube because of how many archetypes it could enable. It has artifact synergy and the fact it replaces itself means it slots into sacrifice based strategies. Evasion means it can peck in for damage while deathtouch makes it a threat deterrent. Strix can also serve as a signpost for what Dimir is about in an environment. All in all, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Strix was part ant with all the heavy lifting it does.
So Baleful Strix can do work in Limited, does quite a bit for kitchen table constructed, and has a Legacy pedigree. It also makes perfect sense in its color combination. It is a small flyer (blue) with deathtouch (black) that has some card advantage stapled to an enter-the-battlefield trigger (both). It’s also simple enough that it could be a common in a set like Modern Horizons. However, given that it appeared as a rare in Eternal Masters and the online-only Vintage Masters, this probably will not be the case.

And that’s alright with me. As much as I like this card, giving blue-black another tool in Pauper is a real case of the rich getting richer. Dimir is already one of the more powerful color combinations in the format and giving it another solid two drop is only going to further stratify the competitive scene. On top of this, aggressive strategies are already struggling mightily and injecting a creature with deathtouch that replaces itself won’t help the issue.

So as much as I want the Strix to be in the mix...I hate myself so much for trying to figure out this rhyme I’m just going to end this post.

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

Monday, March 11, 2019

March 10 Winner's Metagame Breakdown

The story of the March 11 Pauper Challenge was that there was a Banned and Restricted List announcement the next day. And nothing changed.
After a week with a relatively diverse Top 8, both online and in paper, there was hope that trend would continue.


The Top 8 was all known and established archetypes, with four Gush Delver variants (plus one more that has the same shell and no Delver of Secrets), a Gush combo deck, and two Monarch decks. Exacerbating the distinction between the haves and the have-nots the Top 16 had another five Gush decks, two Monarch decks, and a lone Tron deck. While it can be said that the Top 8 Tribe list and Top 16 Gush deck did innovate - High Priest of Tethmos in Tribe and actual factual removal and Counterspell in Dinrova Tron - these are not format defining changes. Rather they are iterations on known strategies and archetypes in an attempt to get an edge in a well established metagame.

There's nothing wrong with that. It's just what it is - people taking advantage of stagnation. And there's nothing bad about that either. But this hardly represents the dynamic and robust metagame that the MCQ Top 8 seemed to herald.

The chart that follows takes every deck that made Top 8. Those shaded have fewer than 5 appearances (where 2% of the volume equates to just over 5 appearances).

There have been 64 decks to make the Top 8 in Ravnica Allegiance season. Almost 36% of those have been aggro-control Gush decks. Add in combo Gush and you that number bumps up over 39%. Just under 30% of the Top 8 decks were Monarch builds. Burn, in two quick weeks, amassed around 11% of the Top 8 share but dropped off after that. Tron decks have under 5% of all Top 8s. 

But let's go back to those first numbers. Nearly 70% of the Top 8s have been earned by two defining strategies. It's awesome when you see Ruin Processor in 18th place, but when you look at the fact the deck went 4-3 in its lone appearance some of that sheen comes off. How many times this season has a new deck emerged only to be gone the next week?

How many times over the past year?

Innovation is absolutely possible. Sustained innovation that heralds change is harder to achieve. Such moments have to come from new, high power cards entering the format or significant ones leaving. Considering the lack of action on the ban list as of late I am hoping that Modern Horizons has commons that will have an impact.

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, March 4, 2019

March 3 Pauper Challenge Winner's Metagame

The March 3 Pauper Challenge was the second major Pauper tournament to take place last weekend. Out at MagicFest Los Angeles, the first ever Pauper Mythic Qualifier was held and - spoiler alert - Hexproof won. The build had a near immediate impact as the Forest- Crumbling Vestige build went on to make the Top 8 of the Challenge as well. I'll have more about this historic event in the coming weeks but something of note: both events had eight distinct archetypes in their respective Top 8s. Across the 16 decks, there were only two repeat strategies - Dimir Delver and Hexproof. 

More on this later.

The six round challenge saw a repudiation of Burn. Despite putting up strong results for a few weeks the strategy crashed and, well, burned on Sunday. Looking at the composition of the different decks this week it shouldn't be that much of a surprise. The winning Tribe list had maindeck Seeker of the Way while the Orzhov decks were packing Lone Missionary, Arashin Cleric, and Aven Riftwatcher. Lifegain was abundant enough to keep Lightning Bolt.dek out of the Top 16 and give us a moderate reprieve from getting our faces charred.

Hexproof had a breakout week. One appearance in the Top 8 and two more in the Top 16, these decks are moving away from Blossoming Sands in favor of adding Unbridled Growth and Crumbling Vestige to facilitate their non-green cards. While this does leave the deck somewhat vulnerable to Leave no Trace, it is an interesting innovation and could help bolster Bogles for the next few events.

This is the winning Tribe Combo list from Theflotist. They went undefeated in the Swiss and only dropped a game in the Top 8. The first appearance for Tribe in Ravnica Allegiance season was a good one and this deck brought some tech. First, Seeker of the Way gives the deck another threat while also padding the life total against Burn. To do this the deck cuts Augur of Bolas which is an interesting choice. I am not as high on Augur as many other Pauper players are but cutting it from Tribe, which leans hard on Gush and Inside Out, is a bold choice. Still, with 19 one mana cantrips it is possible the deck sees enough cards that it just doesn't need Augur to help. 
Dive Down is back as a way to protect Tireless Tribe while also providing another bit of damage. Dive Down is one of those cards that isn't game breaking but does just enough that it should see more play.

The eighth place list from Kazuya3 is an interesting take on midrange. A blue-white value deck, it wants to use Momentary Blink and Angelic Renewal to get as much value as possible out of Mulldrfiter. Custodi Squire is a nice top end here. That being said, I'd like to see another land somewhere to support  the 7 five drops. I would also be interested in seeing another threat of some sort to help close out the game.
Summary Judgment sees its first serious play in this build. The spell has the advantage of being able to hit both Delver of Secrets and Gurmag Angler. Unlike Sunlance, it doesn't get blanked by Kor Skyfisher and Palace Sentinels. All in all, it's an interesting option that should be seeing more play than it does at the moment.

The shaded area are decks that have a Top 8 appearance but fall beneath the 2% volume threshold. 

Dimir Delver and Boros Monarch are still having a fantastic seasons. Orzhov Monarch is also creeping up the standings despite not being nearly as popular as the other decks.

So back to the lingering point. Two Top 8s and 14 archetypes. Does this mean the format is healthy? I don't know. There's a chance it's healthier than I've been saying but I still think there's something to be desired. Decks like Dimir Delver and Boros Monarch - cards like Gush and Palace Sentinels - are fine when they aren't omnipresent and oppressive. If (and this is a big if) the results from a modified Swiss tournament (cut to Top 8 after 5 rounds, not the 9 it would have been in full Swiss) and the Challenges hold up, combined with Modern Horizons coming, it could be that Pauper is going to be alright.

We'll have to check back next week.

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!

Wednesday, February 27, 2019

February 24 Pauper Challenge Winner's Metagame

I wish I had something new to say. Burn had another good week at the February 24 Pauper Challenge. LightningBolt.dek took three slots in the Top 8 and another 4 in the Top 16. Here's the part of our story where people mockingly ask for a Lightning Bolt ban.

Got that out of your system?


Burn did have a great week. The size of the challenge also meant that four players made the Top 32 with a losing record, indicated with a '~' in the chart. 
This brings me to an interesting fork in the road. Up until now I've been counting these decks as they have appeared in the Top 32, and rarely more than once per challenge. How important is it to count them if they appear more frequently? If we are concerning ourselves with the winner's metagame is it accurate to consider decks that did not end up with a winning record?

I do not have an answer to this and until I am convinced otherwise I will keep counting them since I have done so to this point.

So why is Burn having such a breakout?  Burn is one of the few decks in the format that really does not care what its opponent is doing. While many of the top decks try their best to limit interaction in some ways, Burn just attacks from a completely different angle. Moment's Peace is useless against it and you can only trade three cards for three damage so many times before you're out of cards (while Burn still has more Bolts). Unlike other combo decks - Elves, Tribe, Hexproof - removal is basically dead against the deck. 

Skewer the Critics has also been a huge addition. People have been leaning on Dispel as a piece of cheap interaction and Skewer conveniently avoids the counter. Spell Pierce should see more play but decks can be slow to adjust.

I am not going top spend a ton of time on the season stats this week. The cutoff to be considered was 4 appearances (with some Top 8s appearing at the bottom just to be visible).

Dimir Delver is performing five Top 8s better than expectation. 

Okay but what does that mean? 

Given how often a Win+ 1 deck makes the Top 8, Dimir Delver should have close to 8 appearances in the elimination round this season. 

It has 13.

There may be a correlation between how often the deck is played and how often it makes the Top 8 but just because a deck is heavily played doesn't mean it is going to make Top 8 more often. Boros Monarch has made the Top 32 the same number of times as Dimir Delver and yet has performed worse. It is averaging two fewer X-2 finishes - that is two more Dimir Delver decks have appeared in the Top 16 compared to Boros Monarch. 

There could be numerous reasons for this discrepancy. Early in the season Boros Bully far outnumbered Boros Monarch in appearances. Yet given its popularity, Bully has dropped significantly in its ability to finish strong - it has a similar number of X-2 finishes as it does X-3 finishes. 

Let's look at the top three decks of the moment: Dimir, Monarch, and Burn. Burn is arguably performing better than Dimir Delver when comparing Win+ to Volume. Yet it still is performing closer to expectation than the Delver deck. That is, Burn is just as good as it should be when it comes to making Top 8.

What can we infer from this?

Burn is a far easier deck to hate out than Dimir Delver. Life gain is easy to come by and a shift to Lone Missionary and Seeker of the Way could make it far harder for Burn to gain a foothold. Dimir Delver, however, can be seen as a more powerful deck that has fewer weaknesses. Despite being the top dog for the better part of three months it is still out performing most other decks in the winner's bracket.

This weekend the Pauper Mythic Qualifier is taking place at MagicFest LA. As of this writing there are over 70 people registered and my guess is that number is only going to go up in the next few days. The information gleaned from this event will be of huge importance - for the first time there's an incentive with massive implications for winning - going to London to play in the second Mythic Championship. People are going to bring their best.

And cream rises to the top.

What happens in LA is going to do a lot to inform us all about the true state of format health. I hope it's healthier than the challenge metagame.

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!