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Looking for the Pauper Finish


Hello boys and girls!

As we get closer and closer to the landmark 100th chapter of Common Ground, we will at times find ourselves referring back to this column's humble beginnings. Today's topic is something akin to a spiritual descendant of Common Ground's very first chapter: “How to Win in Pauper.”

Don't worry, this is by no means a rehash of those same, nearly four-year old ideas. Instead it is a format-relevant work in progress that broaches the genre of Magic theory (which I might argue is an intellectual goldmine that has remained criminally unexplored by most of my fellow students of the common). This is something different. This is looking for the Pauper finish.

I'm borrowing the concept of “the finish” from the extremely technical and competitive combat sport known as Mixed Martial Arts. The finish is a decisive victory, one obtained by actions that result in a stoppage of the bout by the referee. In a press conference following his most recent win, Demetrious “Mighty Mouse” Johnson (who not only happens to be a gamer, but is also considered by many to be the UFC's greatest fighter ever) said the following:

I work too damn hard in the gym to not go for finishes.” - Demetrious Johnson

Because I'm weird, hearing these words ended up getting me to think about Magic and Pauper. How can we more deliberately set ourselves up for irrefragable, decisive victories? How can we takes steps towards “finishing” our enemy mages? Part of the puzzle can be solved by revisiting a realization I documented in my article “Pauper Warfare.” Here is a related quote:

Behind the dazzling artwork, fantasy lore, and intellectual depth of this game we're all so fond of lies a simple actuality. Magic: The Gathering is a war game... In Magic, two or more entities engage in a contest, which (barring some sort of stalemate) will result in one of the entities defeating the other(s). Resolution is achieved not through compromise or reconciliation but through domination.“

I find more and more these days that a number of my interests, dating back to StarCraft: Brood War and extending to military strategy, Mixed Martial Arts and most importantly Magic: The Gathering orbit around a number of overlapping strategic and/or theoretical principles. That's a long-winded way of saying that studying any one of these interests can teach us about another.

Going back to Mighty Mouse's aforementioned quote, it's important to recognize that he doesn't equate going for the finish with spamming brash, single-minded haymaker punches in hopes of scoring an unlikely knockout blow. What he's more realistically describing is the constant awareness and prodding of the opponent's weak points, the attempt to seize opportunities with consideration for appropriate timing and/or positioning, and the ability to operate from a place of advantage while forcing the opponent to operate from a place of vulnerability. Any one of these actions could potentially lead to a sudden, decisive victory, but the key is that the victory itself more often results from a series of chess moves than it does from an isolated and spontaneous kill-shot.

My assertion is that the mindset of looking for the finish can be adopted by Pauper mages the world over. Let's explore this notion further, shall we?

Finding the When and the How

This process occurs before a game of Magic is even played. In order to best exploit our deck's ability to finish the opponent, we must cultivate a clear understanding of when and how it does so.

In “Correcting Common Flaws” I studied nine games to figure out when and how my deck was winning and losing. I think you'll find that doing something similar with your own deck will be quite helpful.

By understanding, for instance, that our deck cannot win the game beyond Turn 8 or that our deck needs to have Freed from the Real in play to win, we will be able to better navigate our deck's overall composition, mulligan and sideboard choices, in-game lines of play and degree of interactivity with our opponents.

It's important to get specific here. I'm talking “my deck wins the game between Turn X and Turn Y” specific. Identify the conditions leading up to your victory as well. Observe what your board, graveyard, hand, etc. looked like, and observe how your conditions for victory compared to your opponent's respective game plan.

In the most simple terms, finding the when and how can help us know what to look for when working towards a finish.

The when, in particular, is linked to the concept of “stages” (formerly referred to as “phases”). This concept was pioneered by Mike Flores in his article “The Breakdown of Theory.” Games of Magic follow a progression from Stage One to Stage Two to Stage Three. In an article called “Initial Thoughts on Stage Theory” (a piece that I've only recently discovered), Jason Crickmer equates these stages to the Opening, Middlegame and Endgame of chess. How is our deck progressing through these stages, and how are we moving closer and closer to a finish in each?

Things get a bit tricky here because certain decks in the format have multiple paths to victory. Affinity for example (currently the format's winningest strategy in terms of 5-0 performances) is capable of opening draws that dump its entire hand on Turn 3 or 4, followed by attacks with 4/4s over the course of a couple of turns until the opponent submits. Affinity is also capable of Flinging Atog for lethal damage well beyond Turn 10.

Keep in mind that having multiple paths to victory is an advantage as much as it is a complication.

Things get even trickier when we realize that stages are relative in Pauper. Tron can race towards its own relative Stage Three by assembling massive amounts of mana in the first four or so turns. This can happen while the opponent remains stuck in their own respective Stage One or Two. In a different game with different circumstances, however, the Tron deck might not reach Stage Three until Turn 11, let's say.

If the stages represent a line from start to finish, decks like Affinity, Elves, Tron, etc. are capable of jumping ahead of others in that line based on their transcendent mana efficiency. This means that looking for the finish sometimes involves knowing when and how to “cut in line.”

Finding Advantages

The concept of advantages in Magic could probably be discussed endlessly. The types of advantages a player can secure in a given game range from things like superior board position and tempo advantage to card advantage and beyond.

It's important to understand and find advantages whenever possible in order to set up a win. Remember that earlier I described our requisite victory conditions as being like chess maneuvers rather than some fluke super punch.

Stormbound Geist
Dark Ascension (Foil)

Keep in mind also that pressing a secured advantage is generally more feasible than recovering from a disadvantage as per the rules of “The Snowball Effect,” which was coined and explored masterfully by A.J. Sacher. Here is a quote from A.J. to hammer this point home:

If a game is exactly even, the first person to gain a small edge is more likely to be able to parlay that into a larger and more significant advantage... If both players break even for a turn, whoever was ahead before is the one who profits... Because of all of this, it is easier to extend an existing advantage than it is to come back from behind.”

This concept is compounded in our format due to the absence of uncommons, rares and mythics. Pauper lacks splashy “reset the game” effects like Wrath of God and super-bombs like Primeval Titan. In other words, finding advantages in games of Pauper is critical, and once an advantage has been established it is harder to reverse than in most other Constructed formats.

So how can we seize opportunities and secure advantages in Pauper? I cannot emphasize the benefits of playing a deck that is simply more mana efficient than our opponent's enough. But let's go even further than that. Let's actively look for chances to gain an advantage.

Some scenarios you'll recognize right away. You're playing a beatdown deck. Your UB Alchemy opponent (a control deck full of Counterspells) seems to be missing their fourth land, so they evoke a Mulldrifter on their main phase before dropping a tapped Dismal Backwater. That's right...they're all tapped out for once! It's likely time to deploy your most relevant and/or crucial threats (while you have the chance) in order to put them in the most amount of trouble possible.

If you're holding something along the lines of Loyal Cathar, Stormbound Geist or Young Wolf, this is an ideal time to resolve it. What UB would normally be able to handle with a single permission spell they must now likely fight off with a pair of removal spells!

I've started with this extremely simple example, but from here the scenarios and opportunities connected to finding advantages become increasingly complex. How might we be able to entice the Alchemy pilot to tap out more often, or perhaps merely at the perfect time? What kind of threats can we prompt him to counter first, so that we might secure an advantage with better threats later? When must we commit to a certain line of play because the window within which we can finish the opponent is starting to close? Should we punch through with more damage this turn, or establish a more populated board in hopes of getting even more damage achieved next turn?

I simply have no space left to answer these questions. I'm finished.

The strategy I've selected for today's video section is Red Deck Wins. It's an aggressive concoction with finishing (and finishing fast) constantly in mind.

As always, thanks for reading, and enjoy the videos!

Jason Moore
Jason Moore

About Jason Moore

Jason Moore is 25 years old, and a resident of Los Angeles California. He began playing Magic seriously in 2010, and has developed a strong interest in MTGO and the Pauper format. He is one of the hosts of the podcast Pauper's Cage, and has covered Pauper on other websites and his YouTube page. His other interests include acting, writing and playing guitar.

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