Last week it was announced that ChannelFireball would be hosting Pauper side events at the four Grand Prix they are holding in January 2018. There's a lot of excitement around the possibility for the format to become a competitive mainstay, and there has even been discussion by CFB themselves about a potential Pauper Grand Prix in the future. Pauper is a format with decks and a metagame as rich and diverse as any other, like Modern and Legacy, which has been developed through years of play on Magic Online. The CFB Pauper events will follow the online legality list, and it's presumed that any larger-scale future events, like a Grand Prix, would follow the same list.
I've always dabbled into online Pauper, and I've been playing it more recently since the beginning of Challenge events, which have done a big part in advancing the metagame and making clear what the top decks in the format are. I have been amazed at how robust the metagame seems to be. Rather than being dominated by a couple of overpowered decks, the metagame seems to be self-correcting, and a dominant performance by a deck one week is met by the opposition reacting and pushing it down the next, only for the process to happen again the next week.
For example, a couple months ago Mono-Green Stompy was the most successful deck in the Pauper Challenge events, and the metagame became completely saturated. In response, the Red-White Kuldotha Boros Midrange deck – laden with creature removal and blockers – took hold of the metagame. Suddenly, there was a meteoric rise in Izzet Blitz and Inside Out Combo, two decks that the Boros decks theoretically couldn't stop. The reign of these creature combo decks was short lived, as the next week saw the resurgence of removal-rich Mono-Black and Blue-Black Control decks to counteract them. The metagame then moved to the Mono-Blue Delver deck on top, which with a balanced gameplan and powerful cards is historically the best archetype in Pauper, and preyed on these slower and clunkier control decks. Now, Mono-Blue's nemesis Affinity, which overpowers itis creatures and outpaces its counters, is suddenly back in the picture with a surge in popularity and a Challenge win. I imagine Affinity might really struggle against Kuldotha Boros, so I wouldn't be surprised if the metagame moves back there and the cycle starts again.
There's always another deck that can rise to beat anything that gets too popular, and this cyclical process is a sign of a healthy metagame. It has been argued that the efforts of pros and determined brewers applied to the rigors of a Grand Prix could break the format, but this impact seems minimal for a format that might have one big event a year, and if it did grow more popular and the metagame broke down, then it would be no different from other formats with banned lists to manage them.
Today I'll run through the top decks in Pauper, explaining how they operate and the niche they fill, with the aim of shedding some light on the metagame before these paper events take place. Rather than rank decks in order or try to break them into tiers, I'll explain where they fit into the overall metagame.
The gold Standard in Pauper is Mono-Blue Delver, which uses some of the finest individual cards in the format, which put together function as a brutally efficient midrange deck. It applies pressure with Delver of Secrets, disrupts whatever the opponent is doing with Counterspell, and generates card advantage along the way with Gush to bury the opponent through attrition. It's important for keeping broken combo strategies in check, and it's a gatekeeper to the format that keeps anything silly from ever being competitive.
A variation of the Mono-Blue Delver strategy dips into red for the removal of Lightning Bolt and Skred, which also means it uses the Pauper-legal Snow-Covered lands.
Kuldotha Boros is a very different flavor of midrange deck, but it uses the same principles of pressure, disruption, and card advantage. Its disruption is in the form of creature removal, which works because the format completely revolves around creatures, and Galvanic Blast and Lightning Bolt also double as aggressive tools. Its card advantage comes from its ability to bounce Thraben Inspector and cantrip artifacts like Prophetic Prism with Kor Skyfisher and Glint Hawk, which compose the core of its threat base. Palace Sentinels gives the deck a source of repeatable card advantage that will bury opponents over time, and its flyers are perfect for retaining control of the monarchy.
A midrange deck that isn't a big part of the metagame but I have noticed being played recently is a white-black version of the Kuldotha Boros deck that pairs the white creatures with black to gain access to creature removal, like the value-generating Chainer's Edict, and a full set of Pestilence, which it can keep in play with its wealth of creatures. It's both a source of creature removal and damage, and it's extremely powerful. Grim Harvest gives the deck a creature recursion engine that only blue decks will be able to disrupt, and it gives the deck another win condition by completely shutting down aggressive decks with Kami of the False Hope. The strategy also benefits from the additional form of disruption with discard like Castigate in the sideboard, so there's a lot of potential in this deck.
Affinity performs the same role in Pauper as it does in Modern, where it's a fast and lethal aggressive deck. Cranial Plating is banned, so there are no Ornithopter here, but the artifact lands are not so the deck returns to its roots with Frogmite and Myr Enforcer. Carapace Forger gives the deck an efficient threat, and alongside Metallic Rebuke gives the deck two cards it would have loved in the Mirrodin era. Mirrodin does provide the all-star of the deck in Atog, which quickly threatens lethal and combo-kills the opponent with Temur Battle Rage or Fling. Like in Modern, Pauper Affinity is vulnerable to creature removal and sideboard hate, which include Gorilla Shaman as a broken way to hose artifact lands.
Stompy is another classic Pauper deck, and it's an aggressive deck that combines efficient creatures, including Skarrgan Pit-Skulk to get around blockers, Burning-Tree Emissary as free spell, Young Wolf to hose removal, and Vault Skirge as life gain, with the powerful buffs effects Rancor, Elephant Guide, and Hunger of the Howlpack, along with Vines of the Vastwood to counter removal. It can race just about anything, and its redundancy makes it very consistent, but also very predictable and potentially exploitable.
An alternative green deck is Elves, which takes a more synergistic approach to green than Stompy by using Elves to create an insurmountable board presence. A core of mana elves headlined by Priest of Titania allow the deck to flood the board. Elvish Vanguard becomes a huge threat, Timberwatch Elf turns anything into a huge threat, and Wellwisher gains an obscene amount of life. Lys Alana Huntmaster generates a stream of tokens, and with Distant Melody allows the deck to generate massive card advantage. Lead the Stampede gets the deck going even without any Elves in play. If Elves gets going it can overpower just about any deck, but it also lacks disruption, is at risk of being outraced, and is vulnerable to creature removal.
There has been a resurgence in Pauper Burn, which operates like its Modern counterpart by acting something like a combo deck that wins by piecing together damage, most of which the opponent will have trouble interacting with. If they aren't destroyed, Thermo-Alchemist and Firebrand Archer give the deck extra value from its burn spells and deal damage of their own. The slow-burning Curse of the Pierced Heart is pretty much indestructible, and it puts the opponent on a clock that is devastating in multiples. The rest of the deck is familiar, and it gains some huge upgrades over the Modern version with Chain Lightning and Fireblast. Needle Drop gives a little value and helps keep the land count low, and Forgotten Cave mitigates flood.
Izzet Blitz uses Kiln Fiend and Nivix Cyclops to combo-out the opponent with Temur Battle Rage. It gets to use the banned-in-Modern Gitaxian Probe, Ponder and Preordain to enable its creatures and consistently find them, while Gush fuels the deck and is potent as a free spell. Removal with Lighting Bolt and access to counters give it some flexibility to work more like a midrange deck, so it's a balanced approach that can disrupt the opponent, but it's vulnerable to disruption against it.
Inside Out Combo is a more extreme approach to the creature combos, and what it loses in consistency and flexibility it gains in speed and raw power. Tireless Tribe combines with Inside Out to create a creature with over 20 power, and Shadow Rift get it past any blockers to K.O. the opponent. The deck can win as early as turn two. It's very vulnerable to disruption, but it plays protection spells like Apostle's Blessing, so it destroys decks without adequate disruption to stop it.
A creature-combo style deck that plays well against disruption is Green-White Auras, or Bogles, with which hexproof creatures invalidate removal, and with Cartouche of Solidarity can even invalidate Diabolic Edict. Just like the Modern version, it puts Ethereal Armor and other auras on its hexproof creatures to overpower opponents, and with life gain from Armadillo Cloak can race opponents. Ancestral Armor gives the deck a super-Ethereal Armor effect that makes the deck even more consistent than in Modern, but the loss of Daybreak Coronet might bring down the overall power level.
The natural foil to creature decks is black-based control decks, which use a wealth of creature removal like Chainer's Edict, Disfigure and Doom Blade combined with card advantage to contain creature decks and beat them with attrition. The stock version of the deck uses blue for card advantage, with Augur of Bolas and Mulldrifter as board presence to support the main win condition of Gurmag Angler, along with Forbidden Alchemy, Mystical Teachings, and counters for more disruption.
A more proactive approach to black is Mono-Black Devotion, which like its old Standard versions plays a curve of creatures up to Grey Merchant of Asphodel and supports them with disruption. Cuombajj Witches and Crypt Rats disrupt creatures, as do Oubliette and Pestilence, while Chittering Rats and Phyrexian Rager generate card advantage. Tendrils of Corruption gives the deck another big payoff for staying mono-black. In the sideboard, Thorn of the Black Rose gives the deck another way to generate card advantage.
Like in Modern, Cloudpost is banned in Pauper, but like in Modern, the Urza's lands are legal, so the Urzatron is in full effect in Pauper. The deck typically takes the form of a blue control deck based around Mystical Teachings and a toolbox of one-ofs, and its key cards include Condescend as a counter and Moment's Peace to hose creature decks and buy a ton of time. It uses Ghostly Flicker to give a combo-like kill, which combined with the Tron lands generating a ton of mana, can be used repeatedly on Mnemonic Wall to generate massive card advantage when combined with Prophetic Prism, Mulldrifter or Sea Gate Oracle.
Ghostly Flicker has long-been used as a combo engine in Pauper, but the deck built around it that once dominated the format fell with the banning of Temporal Fissure. It's still capable of generating infinite mana with Snap, which allows it to draw its deck and generate infinite life with God-Pharaoh's Faithful, and deck its opponent with infinite Compulsive Research. It had a nice finish last weekend with a Top 8 in the Pauper Challenge, and it gained a new tool in Prosperous Pirates as another way to generate infinite mana, so the deck could be back on the rise.
The final deck I want to mention is the Blue-Black Reanimator deck, which uses Striped Riverwinder to combo with Exhume to generate a big, hexproof threat. Reanimation is just one part of the overall plan, which includes both Thought Scour and Mental Note to enable Gurmag Angler, and helps maintain a high spell count for Delver of Secrets as an additional threat. The deck supports the creatures with disruption like Counterspell, so it's a nice approach that could definitely be a contender and be tweaked in various directions, like pushing up the power level by including Ulamog's Crusher.
There are plenty of other decks in Pauper, and there's a ton of room for brewing. What are you playing in Pauper?