Magic is sooo fun. We all know it, and that simple fact is a big reason that you’re even giving this article a read. Each game presents challenges, opportunities, and even healthy doses of recreation. But each and every game of Magic has one thing in common: it must come to an end. While it’s often true that the journey is more important than the destination, having deliberate and resounding ways of ending games is pretty important for us as players.
So let’s finish this!
Today’s article is all about finishers, specifically in Pauper, and even more specifically in Pauper control decks. It’s easy to overlook how incredibly important win conditions can be when it comes to playing control, since our focus can more often gravitate to the “controlling” elements (card advantage, permission, removal, etc.).
It makes sense, doesn’t it? The game needs to start and progress with us staying alive (John Travolta-style), and this goes on for a good while before we can even start thinking about wrapping things up. Often when playing control, we’ll just win… when we win. The how just doesn’t seem particularly relevant.
But it is. The quality and quantity of our win conditions can make the difference between our control deck being “good” and being “bad.” This entire issue is complicated by the fact that gigantic, splashy, win the game cards aren’t exactly popular at the common rarity. When building control decks, I have to remind myself often to first think about how I’m going to win the game (rather than starting with how I’m going to not lose). This might be considered what Patrick “The Innovator” Chapin has referred to as Back -> Front Thinking. Here is a quote from page 48 of his e-Book Next Level Magic:
“The fastest way to create a blueprint for winning is start with a victory (which can be yours or someone else’s) and retracing step-by-step what it took for the game to get to that position.”
Chapin’s notion is echoed by Gavin Verhey in one of my favorite articles ever, where he looks at deck archetypes in Magic (among other things). Here is what he had to say:
“By looking at the endgame and working your way backward to the beginning, you can see what kind of cards will help you get to a winning position.”
In addition to this, Verhey paints the picture of a control deck’s typical winning board state:
“The game ends after many, many turns, with the opponent low on resources after you have dealt with each of them in turn. You likely have one large threat in play which has attacked the opponent over several turns, or your planeswalker is about to go ultimate. Your graveyard is stockpiled with removal spells, board sweepers, countermagic, planeswalkers, and other ways to stay alive and generate card advantage.”
I chose not to leave out the bits about planeswalkers, because I wanted to really emphasize the resonant victory condition void that is felt by Pauper Control mages. This is due in part to not having planeswalkers, various “Titans” and “Morphling”s readily available. But we’re far from hopeless! Control is still viable in Pauper (though arguably harder to pilot, develop, and tune), and has some pretty strong means of winning…
…which pretty much leads us to our topic for the day. I hope you’re ready because there’s no time to lose!
Finisher = Win Condition?
For the purposes of this article I’m going to use the terms “finisher” and “win condition” pretty much interchangeably. However, I don’t think that they are always synonymous. One of the primary differences I’d say is that finishers are more associated with late game play, and connote a contest that has gone through several stages and is on its way to a natural conclusion. A finisher is also not usually a “build around me” card, it just so happens to be how a deck, that is designed to do other things (like answer/shut down the opponent’s plan), eventually closes out the game.
On the flipside of things, some win conditions can be employed early in the game (Jace’s Erasure, for instance), with the subsequent turns and actions dedicated to protecting and amplifying the win condition itself. Win conditions can absolutely be “build around me cards,” as we often see in an archetype along the lines of combo.
While I’m sure there are a number of other distinctions between the two terms, just keep in mind that I may call something a “finisher” even though it might not perfectly fit the definition (because it’s not necessarily a late game card, etc.)
Qualities of a Good Control Finisher
The operative idea here is control finisher. I make this distinction because a control deck is going to want specific things out of their finishers. These specific things both reflect and inform how a control deck moves through games of Magic, which can be different than how a more proactive archetype might.
A good control finisher…
Provides a High Rate
Rate of what exactly? Typically damage per turn. In this sense, a high rate could also be considered a high damage output. However, if the finisher is not being utilized to deal lethal damage and rather works toward depleting the opponent’s library or other vital resource, it should probably be able to deplete said resource at a high rate.
This idea could be distilled down into considerably more basic terms: a good control finisher can close out the game quickly! But why is this important? Don’t control decks have a knack for running the opponent out of steam and winning more or less because they are drawing so many extra cards? Yes and no.
Oftentimes, a control deck will barely stabilize, and/or be placed in a situation where tapping out for a finisher is the best course of action. This happens a lot against stubborn, highly aggressive decks, and can present windows of opportunity for said decks to topdeck a lethal burn spell, pump spell, haste creature, what have you. The quicker our finisher can help us win, the smaller these windows of opportunity will be for our opponents.
As far as combat damage goes, I’d consider 4 damage or above to be a relatively high rate for Pauper. 4 has historically been a relevant size for creature toughness, and when a pair of 4-power beaters connect for damage, most orthodox race situations get completely turned around.
By ‘stabilize’ I mean move ourselves from a disadvantageous or potentially losing situation into one of near parity. Stabilizing is represented by a point in the game where we don’t need every play to be a reaction to our opponent, and can work towards structuring our late game. So how does this apply to control finishers?
Sometimes this just means that the creature is really big and can be used as a roadblock against small dorks. What’s frequently more important, though, is the ability to gain life, draw cards (so we can find additional answers) or deal with some kind of problematic threat or permanent.
I think this is important because it discriminates against “win more” cards. If our finisher does nothing while we’re behind, but is perfect when we’re already ahead (as any other finisher would be), why exactly do we need to play it?
Doesn’t Cost a Million
To put it in less cheeky terms, a good control finisher should be reasonably priced considering what it does. This is why Ulamog’s Crusher makes the cut despite being 8 mana, yet very few of us have given Crash of Rhinos a second thought.
Like other eternal formats (Legacy, Modern) Pauper is defined by a lot of cheap spells and abilities, so fooling around with something that is clunky, expensive, etc., can lead to a degree of pain and discomfort. This goes double for a card we’re hoping to close out games with.
There may be some other obvious qualities I’m missing, so don’t hesitate to let me know!
Loved and Unloved Pauper Finishers
The most popular colorless finisher by far is Ulamog’s Crusher. Crusher made the transition from Cloudpost decks of all colors to the more contemporary Pauper Tron decks pretty seamlessly. I don’t know about you, but I’m of the opinion that Crusher doesn’t necessarily require “big mana” strategies in order to be incorporated as a finisher. Granted, we’d still need a lot of lands and card draw to get there, but that’s something I don’t have much problem getting onboard with.
Another colorless option is Hand of Emrakul. This guy is basically worse than Ulamog’s Crusher, but could be considered if we want Crusher 5-8, are playing with Eldrazi spawn, etc. At that point, we’re probably moving into the realm of ramp or reanimation more than control.
Lastly, I really wish Skyreach Manta were good! It just violates the “doesn’t cost a million” law way too hard. It’s deceptive to look at the 5 “colorless” converted mana cost when the reality is something more like 1WUBR for a 4/4 or WUBRG for a 5/5. That’s a lot of bending over backwards, and frankly I think our posture is more valuable.
The main control finisher option in white is Guardian of the Guildpact. It’s too bad Guardian doesn’t provide a high rate, which is why we often see him paired up with Bonesplitter when he does get played.
It might be interesting to compose a control deck that finishes the opponent with Midnight Guard and Presence of Gond, while playing some cards that also work okay with Presence (either by being vigilant, using the inspired mechanic, or something else). This would potentially prove to be underpowered, perhaps disjointed, but you never know!
Mono-Blue Control by Ser1alKinder
Delver of Secrets really shines in the “provides a high rate” and “doesn’t cost a million” department. An early flipped Delver (or worse, a pair of flipped Delvers backed by permission) is one of the scarier propositions a blue deck can make.
The power of Delver of Secrets (though you’ve probably heard this all before) has a lot to do with tempo. The fact that you can cast him later in the game at marginal expense to your own plan (which probably involves leaving up mana on your opponent’s turn) is pretty sweet. This means protecting Delver and yourself with counters is both viable and convenient. It also means you only have to do the protecting long enough for your Delvers to actualize lethal damage (as it turns out, doing this doesn’t take all that long).
One blue alternative I’ve been trying out lately is Benthic Giant. He’s got just the right toughness for combat purposes, and (pretty much) only dies to Geth’s Verdict. Costing 6 is pretty rough, and so is the absence of any sizeable value.
I haven’t quite decided whether Giant or Errant Ephemeron would be a better option for blue decks that aren’t playing Delver, but at this point maybe I should be asking, “Why am I playing a blue deck that isn’t playing Delver?”
Merchant made the Top 8 of a February 24th Premier, in this Mono-Black list:
Mono-Black Control by Kreiseler
I think that black has some other interesting options, namely Twisted Abomination. The five damage rate is nice, particularly when backed by regeneration. The fact that he costs 6 is mitigated by his relevance in the early game as a Swamp tutor. I’m also marginally intrigued by Terrus Wurm, but I’m not sure that the intrigue will take me anywhere.
I can’t really think of anything in red, aside from Atog (also known as the biggest creature in the format). A metalcraft control deck should be just about there at this point (between Galvanic Blast, Perilous Research, and pretty much any controlling element in Affinity), but it’s very hard to make an argument for not just playing Affinity (man that deck is sweet!).
In green I like Fangren Marauder. Marauder provides a high rate and is really good at stabilizing. I’m a bit surprised it took him this long to reach the main tables (as I recall he was quite a house in Mirrodin Besieged Limited, no?), but he’s here and he‘s very tricky for Affinity to deal with. Let’s not overlook the fact that some aggro decks will just scoop to us casually gaining 10 life after we’ve broken a few eggs.
Green has got to be the color with the most potential, as there just seem to be more and more cost-effective green dudes getting printed left and right these days. Thanks to Fierce Empath’s ability to tutor and green’s inherent ability to ramp, I wouldn’t be surprised seeing more control decks incorporating its finishers.
Okay, so how did I do? What did I get right, what did I miss, and what control finishers do you like the most? Hoping to hear your thoughts. As always, thanks for reading, and please comment!