Magic Arena has been generating a ton of hype since it went into open beta at the end of September, and it has resulted in Magic Online being left in the shadows. Many have lost all of what little confidence they had left in the program, but a few weeks ago Wizards of the Coast made an announcement that makes it clear that Magic Online will remain an important part of Magic's digital presence into 2020. The announcement laid out the details of the 2019 Magic Online Championship Series, and its very existence means Magic Online isn't going anywhere soon, but it's in the details where things start to get interesting.
Part of the plans for 2019 include elevating all of Magic Online's Eternal Constructed formats to the highest level of play. I'm referring to Modern, Legacy, Vintage, and even Pauper, which will now all be supported MOCS formats and will provide a path to the 24-player $250,000 MOCS Finals. Each format will have a leaderboard, with points awarded to players in leagues and tournaments throughout the year. It culminates with a championship for each format, each sending a player to the MOCS Finals. All the finalists will also be awarded a Pro Tour invite, and it's this "Pauper to Pro Tour" idea, that one can make it to the Pro Tour by playing solely their favorite format, that really has people excited.
The 2019 season of the Magic Online Championship Series began Wednesday, and all Qualifier Points earned will now count for next year. Leagues, including new Competitive Pauper leagues, which were formerly just Friendly, will kick off immediately, while every weekend will bring a challenge tournament for each format. I've been playing these weekend challenge events somewhat religiously since they kicked off in May 2017, and while my beloved 1 v. 1 Commander is being laid to rest, I am looking forward to continuing to grind the others. The events have given me a lot of great experience in these formats, so as the new season kicks off wanted to give an overview of what exactly is going on in these formats, identifying the top decks in each format and how they fit together to form a metagame.
As it turns out, that's a lot more than can be fit into a single article, so today I will focus my attention on Pauper. The announcement was the biggest boon to Pauper, which not only received competitive leagues, but was legitimized as a competitive Magic format. The fact is that someone is going to win the Pauper Format Championship and go to the Pro Tour, and that's pretty incredible le given that just a year ago the format was still completely obscure. This should help keep the momentum the format has built over the year going strong, and I expect we'll start seeing more Pauper events in paper in 2019.
Pauper is also in the midst of upheaval because of Ultimate Masters, which has reprinted some very strong cards at common for the first time, so I'll be sure to point out these cards and how they might impact the metagame.
Pauper uses common cards, but the game play is a lot closer to Modern, truly even Legacy, than some weaker-than-Standard format that some might initially think it is without taking a deeper look. Brainstorm, Daze, Counterspell, and even cards banned in Legacy like Gush and Gitaxian Probe mean this format is anything but underpowered.
Looking at the metagame, the most popular and consistently successful decks are those based around these blue spells. Delver of Secrets is the format's star creature, and it goes hand-in-hand with the excellent blue spells.
There are a few varieties of Delver of Secrets decks, with the old classic being a purely Mono-Blue deck that utilizes a Faerie subtheme with Spellstutter Sprite and Faerie Miscreant, along with one of Pauper's most dangerous creatures, Ninja of the Deep Hours. This card drawing engine can also return a creature to hand to be used again for more value, like the Faeries. It can also bounce Augur of Bolas, one of the finest creatures in the format because of blue's great spells. Augur of Bolas is the #1 most played creature in the format and understanding that gives you an idea of what Pauper is all about, namely card advantage. Without a ton of great finishers like planeswalkers, games can get scrappy, and the player who draws the most cards will often come out ahead.
Blue has so many great cards that Mono-Blue Faeries was the classic best deck in Pauper for years, and it's still a very competitive deck, but nowadays most of these decks splash into red for its excellent removal spells.
Removal spells are important for dealing with the many threats that fill the format, even just opposing Delver of Secrets. They're also great for pushing Ninja of the Deep Hours through the red zone. Lightning Bolt is familiar, and it's accompanied by Skred, one of Pauper's premier removal spells and the closest thing to Swords to Plowshares available. Red also provides Electrickery, one of the best sideboard cards in the format, partly because it's so good against the Faeries decks, as well as so many other strategies like Elves. An even bigger sweeper is Swirling Sandstorm, which has great synergy in a deck with mostly flying creatures.
A new version of the Delver deck has been having success recently, that instead of red dips into black for its removal spells, but also the incredible threat Gurmag Angler.
Gurmag Angler was good enough to be a key threat in Legacy Grixis Delver, which was the best deck in the format before bannings, and it's certainly good enough for Pauper, where Swords to Plowshares and Dismember are not legal, leaving very few good ways to kill it. For whatever reasons I have usually struggled at finding consistent success with the Mono-Blue and Blue-Red decks in Pauper, but the black version really caught my eye, and I've had a great run since picking it up a few weeks ago, even making it to the finals of the Challenge last weekend. It plays in a more controlling way than the Faeries versions, with less creatures and no Ninja of the Deep Hours, and it feels comfortable to just sit back and react to the game completely reactively, allowing for optimal use of the card selection spells and eventually completely running the opponent out of resources. At the same time, Gurmag Angler gives it the potential for some incredibly powerful and fast draws. The deck seems to be advantaged against other blue decks, which struggle with Gurmag Angler, and the black removal handles creature decks just like the red removal would, with Snuff Out often feeling pretty broken, so I am not exactly sure where the version is weaker.
Losing Ninja of the Deep Hours certainly costs the deck against Urzatron, which is the other premier blue strategy in Pauper and another top-tier deck. It's what I lost to in the finals this week, to the same deck and player who won the week prior and actually top 4ed the week before that, which is a very impressive run and a sign that Tron is in a great place going into this new season.
Tron decks come in a variety of shapes and sizes in Pauper, but what they share in common is the goal of converting their mana advantage into overwhelming card advantage that will inevitably bury an opponent. Central to this plan for many Tron decks is Mystical Teachings, which ensure the deck has plenty of things to do with its mana and can consistently access a toolbox of high-impact spells like Moment's Peace.
Eventually this deck assembles the endgame of Ghostly Flicker plus Mnemonic Wall, which leads to a never-ending supply of action. They can be combined with just about any permanent in the deck for value, even lands to gain life, or Prophetic Prism to draw a card, and things only get better from there when targeting Sea Gate Oracle or Mulldrifter – the deck can even bounce the opponent's entire board with Dinrova Horror. It's all held back only by the mana available, and the Urzatron, with Expedition Map helping assemble it, means the deck has more of it than any other deck in the format.
This version of Tron borders on a combo deck, and another version goes even deeper down that rabbit hole by adding Stonehorn Dignitary, which combines with Mnemonic Wall and Ghostly Flicker to completely shut down the opponent's ability to attack, which spells good game against many opponents.
Another version of Tron plays a more traditional control plan, complete with Counterspells and creature removal, and a full Mystical Teachings toolbox.
There's also a purely Blue-Red version, which might really benefit from Fire // Ice.
One of the coolest Tron decks in Pauper is White-Blue, which combines its mana advantage with Rhystic Healing to lock out the opponent's ability to deal damage in any way.
All of the blue spells in Pauper mean there are also a ton of more controlling blue strategies, decks that don't use Urzatron but also don't use the aggressive Delver of Secrets. Blue-Black is the classic example, where blue spells join powerful black removal spells like Chainer's Edict and Evincar's Justice.
There are similar red versions, just with red removal instead of black - but here's a unique burn-heavy version without Counterspells that top 8ed the Challenge last weekend.
Pauper's excellent blue spells also lend themselves to combo decks, where they are ideal for finding pieces and protecting them. Pauper's premier combo is Tireless Tribe plus Inside Out, which can kill as early as turn two, or with the help of Shadow Rift can get past any blockers from turn three onwards.
The beauty of this deck is that all the blue pieces of the combo cycle, so the deck is extremely consistent – the only card that isn't some sort of card draw or disruption is Tireless Tribe, and that can even block pretty well. Circular Logic is turned into Pauper's best Counterspell when combined with Tireless Tribe, so it's perfect for protecting the combo. The deck also makes fantastic use of Pauper's single most broken card, Gush, because the deck needs a large hand to discard to fuel Tireless Tribe. The deck is fast and consistent, and can rip through a lot of decks, but the fact that other decks have some amazing disruption means that opponent's do have plenty of tools at their disposal for stopping the deck.
To fight back, some versions of the deck add Seeker of the Way, which provides an alternate win-condition that will sometimes be able to take the game down with just the help of the blue spells.
An alternative combo-style deck is the Kiln Fiend and Nivix Cyclops deck, which combines these with blue spells for some quick kills, and Temur Battle Rage adding a combo aspect.
The deck is a bit clunky because it relies on two and three mana creatures for its combo as opposed to the one-mana Tireless Tribe, but it's also consistent – two potential combo creatures is better than just one, and the fact that it also includes Delver of Secrets means it will win many games in a more fair fashion, so it's less vulnerable to disruption.
One of the formats oldest combo decks is based around using Sunscape Familiar to make blue spells cheaper, and then generating a ton of mana with Snap and bouncelands.
The deck has been nerfed by a ton of bannings over the years, but even in its current weakened state it's still competitive.
I want to point out that it's blue decks that gain the most from Ultimate Masters, possibly so much that it might induce a banning. The most important new card is Foil, which now as a common means Pauper has a card akin to Force of Will. The card disadvantage is tremendous, but so is the tempo advantage. The card issue is surmountable for a color with so much great card advantage, and especially when it has access to Gush – which feels a bit broken with Foil. It's very possible that Foil is the nail in the coffin for Gush, which was already arguably too good for the format. Alternatively, Foil's three-for-one isn't actually good enough in a format where there aren't a ton of high-impact cards you actually need to stop, so maybe the hype is overblown – maybe Foil will just be best in small numbers to add some diversity to a Counterspell suite. We'll have the answer soon enough I am sure.
Ultimate Masters also brings Fire // Ice to common. A flexible instant-speed removal spell is a great fit into the Blue-Red Delver deck, so I assume it will become a staple in some numbers, maybe up to a format-defining four-of that actually pushes small creatures out of viability. It will also benefit more controlling Blue-Red decks, which could actually replace the Faeries decks, which are incredibly vulnerable to Fire // Ice. It's also a strong addition to Urzatron decks, and will be welcomed to Mystical Teachings' toolbox.
There are a lot of other successful non-blue decks in Pauper too, though I'll admit they never really hold my interest for long. My favorite is definitely Elves, which is really the format's other combo deck.
It's not quite as explosive as the Legacy version with Glimpse of Nature, but Birchlore Ranger plus Nettle Sentinel is a powerful mana-engine, and Quirion Ranger is excellent with Wellwisher and Timerwatch Elf, not to mention any mana Elf. Lead the Stampede and Distant Melody give the deck a ton of card advantage, so with the mana engine it's not uncommon for the deck to "go off" and generate an insurmountable board presence in one huge turn.
The most popular and consistently successful non-blue deck in Pauper is Boros, which is actually closer to a midrange and controlling deck than its aggressive guild might imply.
The deck takes advantage of the best non-blue card drawing engine in Pauper, the monarch mechanic that can be found on a few creatures in the format, the best being Palace Sentinel. As long as the deck cannot get hit by the opponent's creatures it will run away with the game, so the rest of the deck is designed to disrupt opposing creatures while presenting threats of its own to steal back the monarch when necessary. This makes it the perfect combination with another one of Pauper's best non-blue card advantage engines. It's based around using Glint Hawk and Kor Skyfisher to return value cards Thraben Inspector, Prophetic Prism, and Alchemist's Vial. It might sound a bit clunky, and it is, but it works. All of the card advantage eventually leads to a board of flying threats that will take down the game when backed by burn spells, which are also the deck's primary way to disrupt the opponent. They are backed by Journey to Nowhere, the format's most reliable hard creature removal spell, and Prismatic Strands, which is perfect for shutting down combat and making it impossible for the opponent to steal the Monarch.
Over the past few weeks a more aggressive version of the Boros deck has been successful.
This deck has removed the Glint Hawk and Kor Skyfisher engine and instead focuses on robust creatures with inherent card advantage, like Squadron Hawk and Sacred Hawk. Faithless Looting adds some excellent card advantage combined with a bunch of cards that can generate value from the graveyard, including Battle Screech, and it comes together to look like quite an impressive deck.
As far as other competitive decks, they tend to be singularly-focused aggressive strategies that simply try to smash through the card advantage and control elements of the other decks.
The most popular of these in Pauper has usually been Mono-Green Stompy, though it has fallen off in popularity considerably.
The current mono-color aggro deck du jour is Mono-Red Aggro, which is basically a red version of Stompy, with Burning-Tree Emissary and Goblin Bushwhacker as standouts.
One of the more dynamic aggressive decks is Affinity.
Pauper Affinity decks are always based around Atog, which is almost a one-card combo in itself and is truly a combo with Fling and Temur Battle Rage. It gets card draw in Thoughtcast, and removal in Galvanic Blast, along with a strong sideboard, so it's overall a pretty solid deck. It does have some issues with consistency, and well as being relatively underpowered at times when it doesn't have great Atog draws, not to mention popular sideboard hosers like Gorilla Shaman.
I could really go on listing decks all day, because the huge depth of the card pool allows for almost any sort of conceivable strategies. Burn, Slivers, Mono-White Heroic, Green-White Auras, Mono-Black Control, and Presence of Gond-Midnight Guard combo are just a few of the many other viable decks. It's also quite a fun place for the deck brewer, as there are so many cards to try and what feels like a ton of unexplored space.