Pauper has had a lot of talks surrounding it and the health of the format for a while now. With the introduction of Monastery Swiftspear to the format and the prevelance of Affinity especially since Modern Horizons Two, Burn and Affinity have remained two top tier options for a long time. Many people complained the format had grown stale, and there wasn’t much room for innovation. Luckily, this weekend showcased a cool, relatively new archetype in the spotlight. A deck focused on getting an opponent to have ten poison counters got second place in Magic Online’s Pauper Challenge on Sunday, and it’s a riot!
When most people hear you are winning via poison counters, they would assume you are playing a strategy with Creatures like Modern Infect. Yet this deck has no Creatures to be found! Instead, the deck utilizes two specific spells from Phyrexia: All Will Be One that can put the initial poison counter on the opponent. By casting either Infectious Inquiry or Prologue to Phyresis, your opponent ends up with their first poison counter. From there, the deck plays a ton of cards with the keyword Proliferate. The goal is to Proliferate nine times to add nine more poison counters to the opponent, ultimately winning the game.
What makes this strategy work is that all the cards that Proliferate all, at minimum, replace themselves. In this way, it is quite difficult for this deck to ever run out of cards. Cards like Experimental Augury allow you to both dig for one of the two cards mentioned that give the opponent a poison counter, as well as find more cards that Proliferate. Some cards like Infectious Inquiry and Vivisurgeon’s Insight provide actual card advantage to make sure you can continue to hit your land drops. In this way, the deck is quite consistent, but doesn’t it sound way too slow?
Luckily, Proliferate doesn’t just help add poison counters to the opponent. Most mana sources this deck utilizes enter with counters and can create more than one mana themselves. Take a card like Pentad Prism. Normally, this costs two mana, and gives you two mana to use on a later turn, but that’s it. In this deck, by continuously Proliferating, you can keep Pentad Prism around and keep getting mana out of it as long as you keep at least one counter on it at all times. The same thing applies for Everflowing Chalice as well, which this deck also makes good use of.
However, the real reason this deck works well is thanks to a cycle of lands from Mercadian Masques that enter with depletion counters. This deck plays four copies of each of these lands that produce either blue, black, or green mana. Each of these lands, such as Hickory Woodlot, enter tapped with two depletion counters. Rather than tapping to make one mana, they tap to make two of their appropriate color. The caveat is that tapping them removes a depletion counter. Most decks would only be able to use these lands twice before the depletion counters would be gone, and they would be sacrificed. Thanks to Proliferate, this deck gets to abuse these lands.
Much like with Pentad Prism, as long as you are careful and keep one depletion counter on each of these lands, anytime you proliferate, you can put one of these counters back on. Having access to 12 lands and eight Artifacts that can all tap for multiple mana gives this deck the mana advantage it needs to play all of its Proliferate spells rather quickly. In this way, the deck functions similarly to a combo deck, generating extra mana and killing your opponent potentially all in one turn.
Because a lot of the lands enter tapped and the deck needs time to set up its Artifact mana sources, this deck needs a bit of a catchup mechanism. This is especially true, given how prevalent Burn is at the moment. As such, this deck plays four copies of Weather the Storm in the maindeck. Because this deck does so much cycling through cards, it’s easy to find them and simultaneously not run out of gas. Weather the Storm is great at buying you enough time to set up your lands and Artifacts and make use of all your card advantage.
Further, this deck plays extra interaction in the sideboard for fast Creature decks. A card like Moment’s Peace can work wonders against Bogles and other fast Creature decks, keeping you alive until you can cast all your Proliferate spells. All the sideboard options this deck has access to are super important, and the deck’s ability to dig for them heightens their impact.
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Strengths and Weaknesses
This deck’s biggest strength is that it fights on a unique access that a lot of decks have a hard time interacting with. As long as you can survive versus decks like Burn or Bogles, there isn’t a good way for them to stop the poison train from rolling. Against slower decks like Dimir Control, this deck gets to maximize its card advantage without fear of dying too quickly.
Where the deck does struggle is with decks that can provide early pressure and back up the pressure with Counterspells. Mono-blue Faeries, for example, gets to build up a board, use its Ninjas like Ninja of the Deep Hours to keep their hand stacked with cards, and then counter the important cards from the poison deck. As good as Weather the Storm is against Burn, it isn’t super effective against Spellstutter Sprite decks that can fight through the life gain and counter the cards that matter.
Another weakness the deck has is against Land and Artifact destruction. Decks like Gruul Ponza that can play Thermokarst and other ways to break up the poison deck’s mana development can prevent the poison deck from ever getting off the ground. In this way, the poison Proliferate strategy seems like a good meta-call. The deck is certainly still powerful and plays in a unique way that many people weren’t prepared for.