Pauper is a wide-open format. There is a metagame, but playing a deck of your own design can be both fun and profitable. I love the ability to emulate my favorite decks from years past by recreating them with new and innovative card choices, which, of course, are strictly commons. This makes Pauper the perfect format for Building on a Budget. Without a large investment, we can play a deck full of our favorite commons against a huge variety of competitive decks. There is a steady stream of two-person tournaments firing on Magic Online. If you are looking for a cheap way to play competitive Magic, look no further than Pauper.
When I played at my local Friday Night Magic a decade ago, my friend Steve Miggels (10th at Grand Prix Atlanta!) put together a Standard deck that was a hybrid of two popular decks in the Invasion/Odyssey era Standard: Snaketongue and Frog in a Blender. The two decks were completely different.
Snaketongue used creature bounce spells including Repulse and Æther Burst to replay awesome creatures like Mystic Snake and Flametongue Kavu, which was especially awesome when combat damage could be placed on the stack. It also had other card advantage spells such as Fact or Fiction, Deep Analysis, and Call of the Herd to cause problems for your opponents.
On the other side of the spectrum was Frog in a Blender, a red-green aggro deck that used Wild Mongrel to discard awesome madness spells such as Arrogant Wurm, Basking Rootwalla, and Violent Eruption. Steve's deck combined both strategies by using the flashback mechanic along with madness spells and cards that allow you to discard cards, such as Merfolk Looter, Aquamoeba, and of course, Wild Mongrel. Depending on the match up, Steve could be aggressive or play control. This deck was as follows.
Steve went undefeated at FNM for at least two months with this list. Steve decided that he wanted to build a deck in the vein of his old Standard deck a couple of years ago. Pauper gave him the opportunity to build an updated version of his original deck.
I spoke at length with Steve this past weekend. When I asked for a suggestion for the column, Steve asked if I'd like to talk about his Pauper deck. This surprised me ... you see, Steve has been working on the same Pauper deck for the past few years. The deck has reached a point near perfection. Steve's win percentage in the two-person tournaments on Magic Online is staggering.
At its core, Steve's old Standard deck was about three things: countermagic, card advantage, and efficient creatures. Steve had no problem transferring this principle to Pauper. Lets take a look at the cards we want to play in this deck.
Wild Mongrel: This dog was the best creature in Steve's old Standard deck, and in Pauper it is even better. The amount of extra cards you draw means that it can fight with any creature in the format and survive by discarding excess cards, it allows you to cast Basking Rootwalla at instant speed, and it's great with cards that have flashback. Steve fondly recalls countless matches in which his opponent taps out and he discards a Deep Analysis or two and flashes them back to swing for lethal. Wild Mongrel was always scary good at stealing games when your opponents weren't maintaining a full understanding of the game state.
Looter il-Kor: This is a strict upgrade to Steve's old looter. The points of damage that are dealt by having shadow add up quickly, when you take into account the flashback cards, Basking Rootwallas, and excess lands you have with your Ravnica bounce lands it becomes a card advantage machine.
Basking Rootwalla: After the two previous cards, it is pretty clear that the deck would be lost without this little lizard. In aggressive match ups, it can be discarded to Wild Mongrel after attackers have been declared to be a 3/3 blocker, which is large enough to trump most creatures in Pauper. In control match ups, it is often discarded to Looter il-Kor for a free card or played during your opponents end step as a surprise attacker. It makes the deck tick, and although Wild Mongrel and Basking Rootwalla are the only green cards in the deck, they more than justify playing a third color.
Mulldrifter: This card is the most expensive card in the deck, but you can't ask for a better creature in this format. A 2/2 flying body is formidable and the two cards are fantastic. Don't be afraid to play it for the evoke cost if there is nothing else to do with your mana in the early game. With the amount of cards the deck can draw, we have no problem finding more.
Tin Street Hooligan: Even before the release of Scars of Mirrodin, Affinity decks were very popular in Pauper. Now that these decks can cast Carapace Forger and Galvanic Blast in addition to the artifact lands, Frogmites, Myr Enforcers and Disciple of the Vaults that all happen to be common, they are a very formidable opponent. Tin Street Hooligan is sometimes the Flametongue Kavu of Pauper, and it is especially satisfying to destroy the 4/4 Myr Enforcer with our underestimated 2/1 for two. In some matches, it can kill a Serrated Arrows, which, if you haven't noticed, is quite good against our creatures. In other match ups, simply being a two-drop that can trade with an Elf or Goblin can be enough to survive to the late game where our card advantage starts to kick in.
Negate: Not much to be said here. Our mana does not allow us to play Counterspell so Negate becomes the next best option. Steve has tried Rune Snag and Mana Leak as replacements, but he keeps coming back. Hard counters are at a premium in Pauper; according to Steve, it's much more important for the card to have relevance in the late game than to have the ability to counter a random spell.
Exclude: Creatures with "enters the battlefield" effects rule this format, and Exclude rules them with an iron fist. Mulldrifter is easily the most common target for Exclude, but it helps to deal with creatures that burn cannot kill when they have enough mana to cast them in the late game. Excluding an Ulamog's Crusher is extremely satisfying, and I highly recommend it. Just as a warning, Exclude is known to be one of the best cards in Pauper, and its difficulty to acquire on Magic Online reflects this.
Deep Analysis: As card draw spells go, this is one of the best. It is either a 4 for 1 or a 2 for 0, which is excellent. If you stumble on mana in the early game, you can discard it after a Ravnica bounce land when you have eight cards to be played for its flashback cost. In other match ups, it ensures that you never run out of gas. This deck plays many games where you have seven cards in your hand at all times, and Deep Analysis is the main reason for this. For two mana, you can pump a Wild Mongrel three times which often means that you can swing for lethal damage out of nowhere. In some aggressive match ups, it cannot be cast for flashback, but most Pauper decks grind out wins and this is the best card to help you stay ahead in cards.
Lightning Bolt: This is the premium removal spell in the format, and there is no reason not to play it. Most of the time it is used in the early game to take out cheap creatures but it has many other applications. I often find myself responding to some of the best Auras in the format, such as Armadillo Cloak, Shield of the Oversoul, or Edge of the Divinity by destroying the creature. Trust me, you do not want to allow your opponents to put these awesome cards on their creatures. The other use for the Bolt, and all of the burn for that matter, is to put your opponent to a low enough life total where a single attack with a huge Wild Mongrel is lethal. If a control player is tapped out in the late game from a counter war you have the ability to send your unused burn at their face to put them in range of an attack from an enormous mongrel. In these matches they play few creatures and you should not be surprised to find yourself with about 10 damage worth of burn spells on a critical turn.
Firebolt: Against decks that play lots of small creatures, you can Firebolt early to stay alive and flash it back to seal the deal later on. Like many of the cards in the deck, it is a two for one, and there are tons of creatures played in Pauper that die to it.
Burst Lightning: We like our burn to be as cheap and fast as possible in the early game, which is why we choose to play Burst Lightning over alternatives such as Chain Lightning, Staggershock, and Incinerate. Similar to Bolt, being an instant allows you respond to Auras. Later in the game, dealing 4 to your opponent is quite significant for that huge Wild Mongrel attack.
Flame Jab: One of the most popular decks in the format is a super-aggressive goblin deck with tons of 1 drops and goblin bushwhacker, and flame jab shines in this matchup. Due to bounce lands and card draw, you will find that you have many excess lands and flame jab allows us to turn them into burn spells. Don't be afraid to discard two lands to kill two toughness creatures when you have a bunch of lands on the battlefield.
Izzet Boilerworks / Simic Growth Chamber / Gruul Turf: Ravnica bounce lands allow you to run twenty-two lands which means that you are more likely to draw meaningful spells. With a Looter on the battlefield, you have the ability to bounce a land and discard it, netting you a free card and the same amount of mana. They also give you extra fodder for Wild Mongrel. There are very few common dual lands in Pauper, so the fact that Ravnica bounce lands grant you card advantage and fix your mana make them perfect for this deck.
Terramorphic Expanse / Evolving Wilds: Having one of these in your opening hand is great. The mana fixing is a welcome addition in a three-color Pauper deck. Common fetches also thin out our deck, meaning that in the late game you always draw more spells to keep your hand full.
Hydroblast/Pyroblast: For one mana you can counter a spell or destroy a permanent of the respective color. This means in many match ups they are your best card. The format is wide open, but mono-blue and mono-red are very popular strategies. Steve insists that one of the major strengths of his deck is the ability to play both Hydroblast and Pyroblast in the same sideboard.
Ancient Grudge: As I said before, affinity is extremely popular and perhaps even more powerful. This card is incredible in this match up. You have the ability to destroy artifact lands, but Steve recommends saving grudges for creatures, especially the 4-toughness Myr Enforcer, because they will eventually run out of creatures after an explosive start.
Seismic Shudder: Due to the abundance of common mana-production spells, Empty the Warrens storm combo is very good and really hard to beat. The deck can go off very early and you often find yourself staring down 20 or more 1/1 Goblins. Seismic Shudder takes care of all the tokens at instant speed, which can be necessary if the Warrens player follows up the goblins with a Goblin Bushwhacker.
Without further ado, here's the list:
I was especially excited about this Sideboard. Sure, it's 4-4-4-3, but look at those cards. Literally, the four best sideboard options available in the format are all in the board. You ignore decks like Green-White Slivers that tend to fold to this type of strategy.
Cards that didn't make the cut:
Fiery Temper: When Steve first built the deck, this card was a shoe-in. After testing, though, it became clear that it was only good when you had a Wild Mongrel on the battlefield. Instant speed burn is very important in pauper and therefore, discarding to Looter il-Kor is often a waste.
Repulse: Although it was awesome in the old Standard deck, three mana for a bounce spell is too much in this deck. No longer can we do shenanigans with combat damage on the stack and our "enters the battlefield" effects are minimal.
Although the deck is very powerful, it's also very hard to play. One of the most exciting aspects of Pauper is the length of the games. Pauper decks usually encourage games to go longer. Longer games mean that there's a lot more emphasis on one's playskill. Steve claims that this deck has really improved his game, and after playing a few matches, I'd have to agree with him. There's never a clear line of play; you tend to have a full grip and a graveyard full of flashback. Sometimes I feel like I'd be capable of writing a few thousand words about a single play. The mana can be tricky, so planning your turns in advance is often necessary.
When given the option, you should use Terramorphic Expanse to fetch a Mountain on turn one. This way, you have the option of using a burn spell on your opponent's creature before playing a Ravnica bounce land.
You would rather lead with Looter il-Kor than any other creature if your opponent isn't being super aggressive. An early Looter ensures that your draw will be strong and capable of finding the tools necessary to defeat an opponent's deck and draw.
One of the deck's major strengths is its ability to kill out of nowhere. Opponents will often tap out, expecting that a single hit from Wild Mongrel is not excessively dangerous. Our burn spells and Deep Analysis let us alpha strike people for lethal damage with surprisingly high frequency. A simple hand of Lightning Bolt, Basking Rootwalla, Deep Analysis, has the potential to do 12 damage with a Wild Mongrel and some lands on the battlefield. Wild Mongrel is very difficult to block, so opponents often run out of threats and the Wild Mongrel gets to steal the show.
I played a match with the deck on Magic Online to see how things went.
I won the die roll and kept Terramorphic Expanse, Simic Growth Chamber, Wild Mongrel, Firebolt, Burst Lightning, Exclude, Basking Rootwalla. I played my Terramorphic Expanse and passed the turn. My opponent led with Jackal Familiar and passed the turn back. I popped my Terramorphic Expanse and found a red source. I drew an Island, cast Firebolt targeting the Familiar, played my Growth Chamber, and passed the turn. My opponent played another Mountain and cast Mogg War Marshal before passing the turn back. I drew a Forest, played my Mountain, cast Wild Mongrel, and passed the turn back to my opponent. My opponent elected not to pay the echo cost on Mogg War Marshal, instead, casting a Goblin Cohort and followed it up with a Goblin Bushwhacker. I cast Burst Lightning on the Goblin Cohort. I blocked the Mogg War Marshal's token with my Wild Mongrel. I discarded an Island to give my pup +1/+1. I take 4 and it's my turn. I drew a Looter il-Kor, played my land, cast my Looter, and passed the turn. My opponent played a fourth land, cast another Mogg War Marshal, and followed it up with another Bushwhacker.
In came the entire opposing team, but I was at the ready. I discard my Basking Rootwalla, blocked two Goblins, pumped the Rootwalla, and took another 4. I drew a Flame Jab, attacked with my Looter, and drew a Ravnica bounce land. I played the land, returning a land back to my hand. I started using the Flame Jab to minimize his board presence. Generally speaking, it's very difficult to lose against Mono-Red Goblins with the Flame Jab. Mono-Red Goblins needs a lot of inexpensive cards on the table. Flame Jab can just wreck them. My opponent attempted to play another creature, but I had the Exclude and I drew into another Rootwalla. My opponent passed the turn back to me. I drew a Deep Analysis. I decided to hard cast it. I drew a Lightning Bolt, and another Ravnica bounce land. I attacked with the Looter again, drawing into a Lightning Bolt. I discarded the Rootwalla and paid the madness cost. My opponent cast a Mogg Flunkies, and passed the turn. I aimed a Lightning Bolt at the Flunkies to prevent any shenanigans.
I drew another Firebolt on my turn and decided it was time to go on the offensive. I bashed with one Rootwalla and the Wild Mongrel. My opponent blocked the Wild Mongrel with a token. I pumped the Rootwalla, used the flashback on Deep Analysis. I drew into another Lightning Bolt. I drew some cards, cast some burn, and discarded some loose cards to finish my opponent off with Wild Mongrel and the pair of Rootwallas.
My opponent led with a Goblin Sledder and passed the turn. I played a Mountain, cast my Firebolt targeting the Sledder, and passed the turn back. My opponent cast a Dragon Fodder and passed the turn back. I drew another Gruul Turf, cast Wild Mongrel, and passed the turn. My opponent cast a Flame Slash on the Wild Mongrel and made me ask myself how much I needed it on the 'field. I thought for a bit and decided to let it go. My opponent cast a Mogg War Marshal and passed the turn back to me. I drew a Looter il-Kor, played my land, and passed the turn. My opponent bashed me again and tried to cast a Goblin Sledder. I responded with Hydroblast—but it wasn't good enough as my opponent had a Goblin Cohort to follow it up, then passed the turn back. I drew a land and things looked pretty bad. I passed the turn after casting the Basking Rootwalla. My opponent played a pair of kicked Goblin Bushwhackers and I scooped immediately.
I kept Mountain, Gruul Turf, Lightning Bolt, Burst Lightning, Wild Mongrel, Basking Rootwalla, Basking Rootwalla. I played my Mountain and passed the turn. My opponent cast a Goblin Cohort and passed back. I cast Burst Lightning targeting the Cohort on the end step. I draw Izzet Boilerworks, play my Gruul Turf, and passed the turn back to my opponent. My opponent cast a Mogg Flunkies and passed the turn. I drew a Mulldrifter, cast Wild Mongrel, played my Mountain, and passed the turn. My opponent cast a Lightning Bolt targeting my Wild Mongrel.
I discarded a pair of Basking Rootwallas and the Wild Mongrel scurries off to safety as a 4/4. My opponent cast Goblin Sledder and Jackal Familiar before passing the turn back. I drew a Simic Growth Chamber. I cast Lightning Bolt targeting the Mogg Flunkies, played my Simic Growth Chamber, returning the tapped Mountain back to my hand. I attacked with a Rootwalla and my opponent took the 1 damage. I passed the turn back. My opponent cast another Goblin Cohort and passed the turn. I drew a Negate, then attacked with my Wild Mongrel and both Rootwallas—getting in for 4. I played my Mountain, payed the full amount for a Mulldrifter, and passed the turn. My opponent played a Goblin Bushwhacker and attacked with the whole team. I blocked one of the Cohorts with my Mulldrifter. On my turn, I drew a Hydroblast, then attacked with the Wild Mongrel and one Rootwalla. The damage got through again, so I pumped the Rootwalla. My opponent attempted to cast another Bushwhacker, but I had the Hydroblast and a pump on my untapped Rootwalla. My opponent passed the turn. I drew Mulldrifter, cast it, and then played my last Ravnica bounce land. I attacked with Wild Mongrel, which got chumped. My opponent played a land and passed the turn. I attacked with my team and my opponent conceded when I show intent to pump the Wild Mongrel up to lethal range.
I hope you all enjoyed this quick sidestep from the norm. I'm always open to suggestions for columns. I was excited that Steve let me showcase this awesome piece of Pauper tech. Be sure to email me with any questions or comments regarding the column.