Pauper feels like a strange format at times. A format comprised of nothing but commons has combo decks that can goldfish you on Turn 3 or 4 consistently, aggro decks that can kill you almost as fast, and control decks filled with some of the best countermagic and draw spells in the game. Those things probably don’t immediately jump into the someone’s mind when they hear about the format for the first time. Decks like that shouldn’t really come as a surprise to the experienced mage, though, since they all share something in common with most successful Magic decks in any format: They don’t play fair.
Playing fair sucks in basically any format. This is why Rock-style decks exist in most formats, but rarely do well consistently. They do many things decently, but few things very well. Fair decks like The Rock or Suicide Black can lose not only to decks with more broken strategies, but also to their own draws. Playing a fair deck means risking drawing a handful of removal and little pressure against a combo or control deck. Conversely, you might draw a fairly quick, but not stellar, aggro draw and just get goldfished by a combo deck. In Pauper, Vampire Lacerator is a perfect example of a card a fair deck would play. Sure, he’s very efficiently-costed and beats down well, but that’s all. Since there isn’t a blazingly fast black aggro deck to support him, he finds his way into other, fairer decks. If all your Vampire Lacerator does is beat for 6 quickly while you play one-for-ones or middle-of-the-road creatures, you’re on the fast track to losing. When your opponent plays a few Dark Rituals, draws a million cards with Ideas Unbound, and kills you dead with Grapeshot, your Vampire Lacerator, no matter how efficiently-costed, sure is going to look silly.
Does that mean I?m advocating for everyone to just play combo decks? No. The point is that doing things like constantly trading one-for-one and attacking with efficient creatures can only get you so far. All things being equal, when a fair deck gets into a topdecking battle with an unfair one, my money is on the deck with more card advantage, broken effects, and internal synergies. Even if it never comes to that, and the fair deck has a good draw, it can still randomly get crushed by a good draw from an unfair deck (which, in being unfair, is better when it draws well than a fair deck when it draws well).
After spending some time trying to get Suicide Black and other mid-range aggro/control decks to work in Pauper, I realized the problem with the decks: They were just too fair. The most broken thing Suicide Black, for example, could do was maybe make 4-power of guys on Turn 1 and hope to get there. The disruption the deck was packing wasn’t enough to let even those almost-unfair starts get there. Most of the games I won with the deck involved just being faster than the other player, which proved difficult because I wasn’t really doing anything broken when I was out-tempo-ing my opponent. My creatures were good, but not great. My disruption was alright but rarely was a deciding factor in games. Finally, the deck had very few ways to generate card advantage, even with its discard creatures, whose bodies rarely made a huge difference. Noticing all of these shortcomings, I decided to play a different, more aggressive deck that can race better and generate actual card advantage.
I scoured the Interwebs for any sort of Pauper tech I could find. Sadly, most events were being won by a handful of decks, usually Aggro Goblins, Burn, or Affinity decks, with Storm making a decent showing as well. Affinity and Goblins are the top aggro decks because they can play some the least fair games an aggro deck can play. Both can amass armies very quickly and threaten a kill on Turn 4 or with relative ease. Storm decks of both sorts are obviously unfair. Traditional Storm is blazingly fast and difficult to disrupt effectively. Esper storm plays both the most unfair draw spells in the format and an insane mana engine. The bar is set quite high by these decks for unfair plays. I began pondering the other unfair options that have been played in other formats, with an eye towards killing an opponent quickly. A few days of brainstorming eventually led me towards everyone’s favorite Forest-dwellers, Elves.
Elves, Version 1 (not recommended)
The deck could certainly do some broken things. It had engines that were ported from a successful Extended deck, draw spells that a control deck would kill for, and a burn spell with the potential to be a 4-mana Searing Wind. Having eight mana elves was awesome at letting me get explosive starts, and the engines involving Lys Alana Huntmaster, Nettle Sentinel, and Birchlore Rangers were all very good at dropping an entire hand quickly. Distant Melody is basically your pauper version of Glimpse of Nature, pushing the deck from pretty good to being really strong. Melody is obviously insane after untapping with a Huntmaster in play, but can also be solid as “just” a draw-fivish-for-4-mana. Roar of the Crowd was the fastest way to get all my elves to my opponent’s dome, and one-shotting an opponent with a 4-mana burn spell was certainly quite a feeling.
For all of its powerful interactions and explosiveness, though, the initial list was rough and wasn’t quite sure whether it was trying to be a combo or aggro deck. Whenever a Lys Alana Huntmaster stuck for a turn or two, it usually did fine, but the aggro backup plan was somewhat lacking if the opponent had removal for Huntmaster. This was because of the deck’s large number of cards that are just awful without a massive army standing next to them. I fell into the trap of doing cool things with Roar of the Crowd instead of just using my massive armies to swing for the win. If Roar or Melody were countered, I would be left with a sizable army of 1/1 dudes, though an army that was oftentimes just short of punching through for lethal against any deck that could produce a handful of decent blockers.
Eventually, testing showed that the list had potential but was somewhat flawed. When the deck worked, it worked incredibly well, but when having the resort to simply beating down, it came up short. More testing and some tuning led to cutting most of the non-creature cards to have a more viable beatdown approach. Timberwatch Elf eventually made it into the deck as my Roar effect. Having my main damage source stick around to continually pump a man, as well as simply being an additional elf, proved invaluable. After a little fine-tuning and removing every non-creature card except Distant Melody, I arrived at the list I’ve been playing ever since.
Elves! (current version)
The current list is pretty straightforward and much more streamlined and focused than what I started with. Essence Warden has jumped to the main in quads since she is really only dead in few matchups and absolutely brutal against many others.
As far as what was removed, Roar of the Crowd was already discussed. The loss of Ponder was one of the last changes I made to the deck, but one that seems to be for the best so far. Ponder was excellent against control decks since you could ensure you always?had gas coming, but after a while I felt that simply replacing it with more gas seemed better. Finally, with all of the non-green cards cut down to seven total, I felt comfortable dropping to three Sylvan Rangers. Three Islands have been enough so far in testing since you only need one in play at a time, and you have the rangers to find one, plus Birchlore Rangers to make blue mana, as well. Eighteen lands also feels fine with so many mana elves and cantrips. Coupled with the low number of spells at the top end and plethora of mana elves, more leads to fairly frequent floods.
As far as actually playing the deck is concerned, it isn’t the hardest deck I’ve ever played, but it certainly isn’t the easiest by any means either. Your goal is basically to play the role of an unfair combo deck that can, if necessary, play a fair, but solid beatdown game. The very nature of the deck is such that you’re often almost forced to over-extend in order to seal a win. This isn’t much of a problem Game 1, but after boarding you must change game plans entirely to avoid being completely blown out by hate. More specific?sideboarding advice will come later in the article, after discussing the primary tactics of the deck.
There are a few different opening hands to look for with the deck. The most obvious keepers are hands with one or more Timberwatch Elfs or Lys Alana Huntmasters. These are the easiest hands to play since they usually revolve around simply getting out a must-answer creature as fast as possible and either amassing an army of tokens or pumping and swinging. Hands with multiple draw effects or even multiple [card[Nettle Sentinel[/card]s are usually keepable too, since they can propel you into more gas or a fast aggro start, respectively. Hands with lots of mana dorks and few real threats or draw spells are almost always mulligans, as are hands with lots of lands and little gas. (I know, thanks for the pro tip, right?) One-landers are actually pretty reasonable a lot of times if you have some aggro guys and/or mana creatures, but don’t get too loose on keeping them if the opponent has burn or land death.
Mono-U control lists can vary slightly from player to player but the overall core is the same, and we’re pretty good against all of them. Countermagic is somewhat annoying since it makes it hard to stick a Timberwatch or Huntmaster. If you do manage to stick one and untap with it, though, you’re probably in pretty good shape. The best part about them being Mono-U is that we’re able to over-extend without concern. Their removal is usually limited to Serrated Arrows and/or Piracy Charm, with nothing that can really answer an entire army Game 1. After sideboarding, little changes. They may or may not have Echoing Truth to answer your token swarm, or more Serrated Arrows to answer small men. Fade Away is another card to be aware of, though it’s fairly easy to play around by just leaving a few mana open each turn. Wildheart Invoker usually comes in as a trump to their Spire Golems and toughness-reducing removal. Essence Warden is usually the first card to come out to make room.
Vs. U/x Control/Tempo Decks
I’m going to lump several decks together here because the games play out very similarly against all of them. This section includes every Fish-style control/tempo deck that splashes one or more colors, usually for removal and a handful of sideboard cards. Game 1 is really the only times these games vary. Few decks play mass removal in the main, but one here might. Be wary of overextending against any U/B decks G 1 since they might have some number of Crypt Rats in the main. Other than that, Game 1 usually plays mostly like those against Mono-U, only slightly less favorably because of the higher quantity and quality of removal in the opponent’s deck. Sideboarding is also similar, with the Invokers coming in for Essence Wardens. Since they have a splash color, though, you can expect a bevy of hate cards coming your way. Swirling Sandstorm, Hurly Burly, Seismic Shudder and of course the aforementioned Crypt Rats can all be sent your way. It’s usually a good idea to hold back at least one major threat at all times if you can afford to. I’ve had success so far by running out anything with more than 1 toughness as quickly as possible to draw spot removal away from a Huntmaster or Invoker, and then trying to ride a few points of damage a turn to the win.
Goblins is an interesting matchup since you are usually the control deck, not the beatdown. Game 1 isn’t the greatest for you unless you can make an army with Huntmaster really quickly or put them on the back foot with Timberwatch Elf. Be aware that it’s very easy for them to swarm even when you’re ahead and win from nowhere with Goblin Bushwhacker. Of course, this is all irrelevant if you happen to draw multiple Essence Wardens since then you just sit back gaining life until you can draw into a Lys Alana Huntmaster and simply stop them cold. Firing off a Distant Melody is also easy here, and you will almost always win after you bury them in card advantage with it. After boarding, it gets better for you. I usually board out some Sylvan Rangers and Coiling Oracles to make room for Quirion Ranger and your ultimate trump, Wellwisher. Ranger makes it so you are basically guaranteed a win if you draw either Wellwisher or Timberwatch Elf. Of course, sometimes you get there just with Wellwisher plus lots of Elves or a Distant Melody, or even just with the Essence Warden plan from Game 1.
These decks are oftentimes almost a bye. You can actually race the burn decks somewhat effectively if they don’t burn out at least some of your creatures. Stompy and really any other creature-based aggro strategies are all pretty much the same. They are trying to do the same thing you are, only they aren’t as explosive by Turn 4 and lack real card advantage (i.e., they aren’t doing something unfair). Chump until you can draw a million with Distant Melody or make infinite blockers with Lys Alana Huntmaster. Board as you would against Goblins and enjoy crushing people. Do be aware, though, against Affinity that they almost always have some sort of sweeper to bring in, but otherwise you’re fine. Beating up on random aggro decks is really one of the biggest reasons to play this deck.
This is where things start to go downhill for our pointy-eared heroes. Frantic Storm is generally around a full turn or two faster than we are. There is a glimmer of hope in the match, though. If you can manage to get a good draw with a Turn 3 Huntmaster and some other gas, you can actually create an army too large for them to bounce completely. Your creatures are also cheap enough to continually replay after being bounced. Their good draw still beats your good draws, but your good draws can actually beat some of their mediocre ones. Boarding is tricky here. I generally take out Distant Melody since it isn’t likely that you are going to be needing it here. Firing off a Melody is going to be good, of course, but drawing cards isn’t nearly as important here as beating down. This is the match where Hornet Stings come in, since hitting a Cloud of Faeries mid-combo can be pretty good. Quirion Ranger can sometimes come in against them as well since you’re banking on Timberwatch Elf to race most times, and she gives him a definite boost. Also, I admittedly haven’t thought of anything more useful in this match. Just try to race as best you can and sometimes you’ll get there against Frantic Storm. Sound off in the comments or forum about better options.
And this is where it gets, really, really bad for our heroes. Storm is insanely fast in this format, about two turns faster than we are, in fact. Unlike Frantic Storm, Ritual Storm just straight-up kills you when it goes off, making it even worse for us since there is no chance to rebuild. The only saving grace in the matchup is that they are somewhat land-light and mulligan with relatively high frequency. Mulligan aggressively Game 1 for the fastest kill you can find. A mediocre seven is almost always a loss in this match, so if you are hesitant about a hand, a random six will almost always be better here. Boarding is fairly simple. Board out Distant Melody since it’s far too slow, and bring in Quirion Ranger. She can randomly bump up your clock to racing speed with Timberwatch Elf, and if nothing else, she at least has power to swing with. When this deck is common in events, I’d probably shy away from the Elves since your best hope is really to avoid the matchup.
Elves is a solid deck that’s fun to play, doesn’t fight fair, and generally crushes the aggro decks and random homebrews that are fairly common in the pauper metagame. Control isn’t a walk in the park, but is generally favorable once you learn how to play around hate and board into fat. There is definitely room to improve against the combo decks in pauper, but I honestly haven’t been able to figure out how yet, other than by hoping they mull to oblivion or time out. Green doesn’t really have the tools available to it to beat Storm. The only other plan I’ve thought of is boarding in a land death package against them. The upside to it is that you can sometimes blow them out if they have a mediocre draw, and land destruction is solid against the Post decks as well, though those haven’t been too common as of late. The downside would be, of course, the loss of other sideboard slots, though I wouldn’t miss Hornet Sting all that much, and the rangers may be able to drop in number. Take Elves for a spin if you’re looking for an unfair aggro deck in Pauper, and let me know what you think in the comments. As usual for my articles, I will also create a forum topic for the deck in order to delve into even deeper discussion.
If you enjoy my ramblings, you can also find me online as:
Pitlord (most Magic forums)