Peering Into Pauper: Studying Storm

In my last article, I discussed the advantages of having a game plan that was fundamentally unfair and the weaknesses of playing with fair creatures and disruption in Pauper. It seems, judging by the results of a recent Pauper Premier Event that I was proven fairly correct. The event was dominated by incredibly powerful combo decks that looked to do things more broken than the other decks. The most successful control decks in the event were those using a Cloudpost engine to generate obscene amounts of mana, in a much less “fair” way than most control decks operate. The sole fair deck in the Top 8 of the 40-some-person event was an interesting Blue/Red Faeries build that we’ll come back to later. For now, though, I’m going to focus instead on the menace that is Storm Combo in Pauper. I’ll examine the lists that Top 8-ed the PE, going through individual differences, overall strategies, and what other decks can do to stand a fighting chance.

First off is the winning list, and a few others like it that placed in the Top 8:

The general game plan of Frantic Storm may not be apparent to someone unfamiliar with the deck. Basically, the goal is to spend the first few turns developing your mana with Ravnica bounce lands and assorted Familiars, possibly drawing a few extra cards with Careful Consideration or Deep Analysis. Then around Turn 4 or so, you can use Urza’s block free spells to start netting mana and building a storm count. The mana then gets sunk into more draw spells to find more untapped effects. After drawing approximately a million cards and generating around a billion mana, you simply cast Temporal Fissure to make opposing permanents disappear, allowing you to swing with whatever men you have handy until your opponent dies. Mnemonic Wall and multiple Fissures ensure that you can continue keeping opposing permanents off the table even after combo-ing once.

The sideboards are all fairly similar and focused primarily on beating the red decks in the format. Two of them use the time-tested method of life gain and damage prevention to combat the aggressive red decks, while the third uses a slightly different approach. Medvedev used the unusual but effective approach of loading up on creatures with protection from red and then had the ability to turn them into huge lifelinking threats with Steel of the Godhead.

Strengths: Thanks to the plethora of draw spells and untap effects, the deck is very resilient. The redundancy of the effects in the deck also makes it very efficient. Every card either draws cards, helps with the goal of producing gobs of mana, or both. The excess of mana and card advantage engines also helps the deck mulligan fairly well.

Weaknesses: The biggest weakness of Frantic Storm is how susceptible it is to land death. Since the entire engine leans quite heavily on bounce lands, a few Stone Rain effects on those can cripple the deck and slow it down substantially. Frantic Storm can still theoretically combo off regardless with enough Familiars, but that plan is much less powerful and consistent. When coupled with a reasonably fast clock, a couple of early land death spells will set them back enough that they’ll never really be able to get into the game. Additionally, if an aggressive deck like Stompy can do a decent amount of damage to Frantic Storm quickly with an untargetable critter in play, they can sometimes rely on that creature to punch through the last few points. On the opposite end of the aggro spectrum that can beat Frantic Storm, is the Swarm deck. Something like Goblins and even potentially the Elves deck can deal damage quickly and then either amass an army too large to bounce completely with Temporal Fissure or rebuild a smaller army very quickly thanks to the low casting costs of their creatures.

Playing against the deck: Frantic Storm can be tricky to play against since the deck has so many redundant pieces. If you’re playing any sort of aggressive deck, the best plan is generally just to race as best you can. Frantic Storm has no disruption in the maindeck to slow you down until they go off, so racing is possible with very good hands. Removal should generally be thrown at Familiars since killing one or two can buy you a decent amount of time, depending on the Storm player’s hand.

For more controlling decks that pack disruption like discard or countermagic, things can get complicated. Since there are tons of both mana- and card-advantage engines in Frantic Storm, it’s best for control players to focus on disrupting one element or the other (either mana or card advantage). Countering a draw spell or two and then one untap effect can leave one or two of each effect for the Storm player to resolve and still allow them to go off. I tend to prefer countering their draw spells. Stopping the flow of cards to the deck can cripple it since it doesn’t really have a way to win if it can’t find a Temporal Fissure. Another thing to consider, especially with countermagic, is that countering untap effects adds to their storm count, and if you’re bumping that up for them, they may only need one or two untappers to generate the mana needed to cast Temporal Fissure with a sizable storm count. When you’re the control against Frantic Storm, it’s important to stay ahead and devote your disruption to their card advantage since they can’t mount much of an offense without extra cards. They can only run twelve mana generators and may not be able to find enough of them drawing cards at the normal rate.

Sideboarding against the deck should be focused on stopping either their mana engines or their card advantage. Cheap counters such as Spell Pierce, Dispel, and Red Elemental Blast are all effective to some degree. Other disruption like Duress is also very valuable, especially for the black decks that will likely have excessive amounts of removal to sideboard out. Most Frantic Storm players sideboard to beat red decks, as illustrated above, and therefore often have little to nothing to bring in against controlling strategies or even other non-red aggro decks. Control decks can generally forego any removal and focus on stopping the draw spells to some success. Aggressive decks don’t really change much for Games 2 and 3; the plan simply remains racing as fast as possible and trying to find hands with very low curves.

The next most popular combo deck that placed in the Top 8 was Traditional Storm Combo, or TPPS (The Pauper Perfect Storm).

The deck concept should be familiar to anyone who’s played just about any format other than Standard or new Extended. Basically, the entire deck is comprised of Dark Ritual effects and small draw effects that all contribute towards building one big turn and generating enough storm to kill the opponent with Grapeshot or Empty the Warrens. This style of deck is much faster than the above Frantic Storm combo decks but also less resilient to hate. It lacks the powerful card drawers of Frantic Storm but makes up for it with pure speed. An ideal hand can kill you on Turn 2, and the average goldfish will win the game around Turn 3 or 4. The Invasion lands that sacrifice for two mana are an excellent mana engine for the deck since they act as mini-Rituals and TPPS is generally all-in when it goes for it, anyway (meaning losing the lands isn’t an issue). The card selection in the deck, while not providing the raw advantage of Frantic Storm, is very powerful. Sign in Blood and Ideas Unbound both provide excellent value for their mana costs, and the deck is full of cantrip effects like Manamorphose, Ponder, and Chromatic Sphere. Cycling for almost or literally no mana loss is a powerful effect and really what lets the deck exist in this form.

Weaknesses: Disruption. I’m not saying that the deck crumples completely in the face of a single Duress or Counterspell, but it can be slowed down a great deal. Answering a setup spell or two can also leave the Storm player with a hand that contains only draw spells but no Rituals, or vice versa. The main weakness of the deck is actually the other side of the coin of one of its greatest strengths, that is, its explosive mana base. While the Invasion lands are terrific at generating extra mana on an all-in turn, they’re just awful for casting setup spells like pre-combo Ponders or Sign in Bloods. If the Storm player cracks a single land for something like that or a Manamorphose, I like to counter it almost every time. Making them work with their draw step instead of letting them sculpt an insane grip makes it very difficult for them to win.

The mana base is also extremely light (that is, it skimps on running mana-generating cards when possible) to enable playing more business spells, meaning that the same land death that’s effective against Frantic Storm can potentially be good against TPPS, too. Be aware, though, that land death spells aren’t quite as effective here as against Frantic Storm since TPPS can sometimes just kill you before you get three mana to cast those Stone Rains. For the same reason, extra land death spells that are commonly played, like Earth Rift, are mediocre at best against TPPS due to their relatively slow speed.

Playing against it: Control decks generally have the best shot at taking down TPPS. They have the easiest access to countermagic and other disruption effects, and they are also somewhat more likely to sideboard land death spells if their colors support them. As I stated above, the best chance you generally have is using your disruption against anything they use to try to set up. With lands that act as uncounterable rituals, it’s rarely worth countering their mana-generation spells unless it comes late in a string of cards, and they’re trying to get the last few mana to actually cast the storm spell. Also, throwing countermagic early if they break a single land for mana can be beneficial, since you’re not only trading for the spell they cast, but netting value by having it act as a mini Stone Rain as well.

If you’re an aggro deck, your best plan against TPPS is to avoid getting paired against it. Seriously. Sometimes you just have to bite the bullet and accept a bad matchup. People play TPPS in part because it pretty effectively crushes the aggressive decks in the format. All but the fastest draws from Affinity, Goblins, Burn, or Elves will be unable to race even an average TPPS hand without some sort of interaction. Fringe aggro-control decks like UWr Tempo/Blink or Suicide Black may be able to steal some games from TPPS with a few early drops backed with heavy permission or discard, but even then it’s not a pretty matchup by any means.

Sideboarding: I already addressed this a bit with the discussion about land death, but there are also other options. Duress is an excellent option against TPPS for any deck that can support it, as is Dispel. The keys to sideboarding against TPPS are that you want to be the control deck no matter what you’re playing, and that you need to be able to interact meaningfully or kill your opponent by around Turn 3 with some consistency.

The final combo deck that placed well in the last Premier Event was a Mono-Red Storm build.

While not a new strategy, Mono-Red Storm builds have been seeing increasing amounts of play lately. The concept is most similar to TPPS. Instead of using mana colors, though, for black Rituals and blue draw spells, the red build relies only on red Ritual effects such as Rite of Flame and cycling cards to find them. Most spells in the deck cost only a single mana and are used to build storm and reduce the storm count needed to win. Lave Dart is the quintessential example of what Mono-Red Storm is trying to accomplish. For the cost of only a single red mana, it is effectively worth three copies of Grapeshot, your fastest kill condition. Essentially, the first few turns should be spent cycling mediocre cards away to build a hand with some Rituals and other cantrips, leading to a single large turn comprised of mana production, small burn effects, and additional cantrips. This, then, all culminates in a large Grapeshot or Empty the Warrens, hopefully supported by Goblin Bushwhacker for the immediate kill.

Weaknesses: Mono-Red Storm builds share many of the weaknesses that plague TPPS. The deck is very dependent on sculpting its hand early but has little in the way of actual card advantage. Fast disruption, especially discard, can really put a damper on the plans of the Storm deck. Also, the deck relies on having at least a few lands in play at a time since its best spells (Lava Dart and Fireblast) require pretty heavy sacrifices to use effectively. Land death is somewhat effective here as a result, especially because of the relatively low land count in the deck. The final major weakness is the major one shared with TPPS, and that is that the deck is very much an “all-in” sort of deck. Once you start stringing together spells, it can be very difficult to rebuild efficiently if the combo somehow fizzles.

Playing against it and sideboarding: Just about everything stated above about playing against and boarding for TPPS holds true against Mono-Red Storm as well. The only major difference in playing against it is that countering Rituals against Mono-Red is almost always correct. They have no real way to generate true card advantage, and by being limited to only a single color the ritual count is slightly lower than in TPPS. Being able to counter two early Rituals can leave them in a position with little to no way to draw more, hopefully with a handful of expensive win conditions like Empty the Warrens.

As for sideboarding, very fast disruption is still king, and removal is still blank. Just like I said before, disruption here should almost always be thrown at mana producers, hopefully as much as possible. Duress, Dispel, and Spell Pierce are all excellent. Of course the best disruption against the deck is easily Blue Elemental Blast, though any comparable, one-mana effect is good as well.

So now that everyone knows a little bit more about the combo decks in Pauper, I want to briefly address one final deck from the Premier Event.

This list is, in my opinion, a perfectly placed deck in the metagame. It illustrates perfectly many of the principles discussed earlier for beating combo decks. It manages to combine everything needed into one neat package. It can generate a fast clock fairly early thanks to the cheap beaters, create a stream of card advantage with Ninja of the Deep Hours, and has a bevy of cheap countermagic that comes online fast enough to stop even the quickest of combo decks. The burn component of the deck is excellent. It provides removal for any Familiar, as well as being obviously useful against more aggressive decks, and going to the dome supplements an already timely clock against creatureless decks like TPPS.

Red and blue are also two of the best colors to support sideboarding right now in Pauper. Both Red Elemental Blast and Blue Elemental Blast are excellent. Blue also brings with it the ability to play a great deal of 1-cast countermagic that I’ve already mentioned to be solid against combo. Finally, red has some of the best land death spells in pauper, useful against all manner of combo and even some control decks.
Combining all three of the best elements discussed above (fast clock, cheap disruption, and land death), it’s easy to see how such a deck could do well in the current pauper metagame. I’ve been testing the list a little lately and have been having pretty good results. If you don’t want to join them, try beating them with some Faeries. It’s a blast to play and stands a pretty good chance against lots of the top decks.

For my next article, I’m most likely to try and bring some video content to the series, most likely a deck tech and Daily Event. What deck would everyone be most interested in seeing? Let me know in the comments section and the poll below.

If you enjoy my ramblings, find me online:
Pitlord on MTGO and forums
@Grant_champion on Twitter

Which Pauper deck should Grant use for his next article?

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  1. Nice analysis of the current top decks and their strengths/weaknesses. Gives new players a decent rundown on what they might want to invest in or how to exploit inherent foils in every deck. Also, for the deck to run, play UR Fae, LSV already did a whole video series on another site running the UR Cloudpost deck through 8 man queues. The Fae look to make a metagame shift as it beats storm, and that’s pretty much what you want to be doing right now to be competitive.

  2. I put in my vote for UR Faeries. I hope you change the deck up a little – I’m not a fan of 4x Mana Leaks – this format has prohibit and condescend, both of which I vastly prefer. If you are going to have a drawing engine, you definitely don’t want counters that become useless late game.

    The kind of decks trying to play big spells can pay for the leak or counter it themselves anyway. I’d definitely rather have hard counters vs storm decks as well.

  3. u need a better sb plan for affinity – its stil heavy played and just beats u with mass 4/4s u cant stop

  4. As a new(ish) MtG player – both online and in real life – I find these articles invaluable. Great job especially on this post Pitlord. I have been scouring the Tournament Practice room and have seen all of these decks. Great analysis!