A Dimir Existence

If you want to do something different and powerful in the Pauper format, give Alex Ullman’s B/U Tortured Existence deck a try in your next event!

This week I am going to put my money where my mouth is and talk about something new. After my recent airing of grievances with Pauper, I decided to contribute something new to the discussion. I have been fascinated with Drew Levin’s recent adventures in Legacy deckbuilding. I wanted to take a similar approach to Pauper and explore some underutilized powerful cards and see what could be done with them.

A quick aside on Pauper’s place in the greater world of Magic. Pauper is just like any other Eternal format with its incredibly deep card pool. Just because there is a stable rank of "best decks" does not mean there is no more to be discovered. Similarly, Pauper is not a discrete entity. I often get questions about applying "non-Pauper Magic concepts and articles" to a format of only commons. The fact is that the concepts are the same, just the applications are different. One avenue to success in any form of Magic is the consumption of knowledge. Inspiration can come from anywhere, and leaving any source untapped is counterintuitive to progress.

Getting back to the topic at hand, if we’re going to try to design for Pauper, we have to have an understanding of the key elements of the format. Before going deeper, any potential Pauper deck has to first accomplish one task. It must have a game plan for the Delver of Secrets tempo deck. A resilience to the ideal draw of Delver of Secrets into Cloud of Faeries into Spellstutter Sprite is a huge plus as well. Delver decks make up nearly a quarter of the winners metagame, and ignoring their popularity is like running full speed into a brick wall—just a bad idea.
This plan can be anything from recursive threats to and overloading on discard to outclassing their creatures. Regardless of what the plan is, one must exist.

There are other deck buckets in Pauper that one must grind against. Largely falling into the aggro-control-combo trifecta, a rogue idea has to be able to handle (or at least be even with) two of these three items:

  • Beatdown in the form of creature decks, Burn, and Affinity
  • Late game control in the form of Tron decks
  • Combo in the form of Esper Combo

There is also something to be said for an ability to withstand an onslaught of removal from attrition-based decks, but that is less important than having a blueprint for the aforementioned strategies. Ideally, any new deck will have action against beatdown, as this collection of decks comprises a similar 25 percent of the metagame as Delver.

So now we have a framework within which we can work. Delver is public enemy number one, and beatdown is not far behind. Thankfully much of Delver’s dominance comes in the form of fragile creatures. Creatures also happen to be a vulnerable spot for many of the beatdown decks. This in turn makes spells like Death Spark, Crippling Fatigue, Firebolt, and Strangling Soot attractive.

Discard and disruption are powerful options when fighting the bottom half of the metagame. Control and combo are both weak to cards like Okiba-Gang Shinobi. The various Tron lists and Esper Combo both rely on specialty lands, so Stone Rain, Molten Rain, Thermokarst, and Choking Sands are attractive choices when seeking to fight that corner of the metagame.

These attributes help us choose tools for a new deck but themselves are not build arounds. Pauper is a format heavily driven by synergy where singularly powerful cards can only work given enough support (see Gray Merchant of Asphodel). Therefore, picking a powerhouse centerpiece means that it has to in some way play nice in the wood shop. And so I return to Tortured Existence.

Tortured Existence is the kind of card that we will not be seeing at common again anytime soon. It acts as an engine but gets super charged with the addition of creatures with dredge. The combination of Stinkweed Imp and Tortured Existence turns every black mana into a potential draw 5. It may be hyperbole, but the specialization of this deck approaches that of Birthing Pod in its ability to get whatever it wants.

I have been bullish on Tortured Existence for a long time. Two years ago I featured the following deck from a Premier Event. E. Hustle is a Magic Online player who was at the forefront of Tortured Existence deck innovation.

The problem with Tortured Existence is that it is a unique effect. E. Hustle mitigated this in his Rakdos build by running Faithless Looting to provide access to additional virtual copies of the card while also enabling dredge. When looking to build Tortured Existence decks, I find it helpful to go back and look at this one as a template. The format has definitely evolved since 2012, but Eric’s choices go a long way in explaining how to make Tortured Existence viable. Here are some key elements:

  • Filling the graveyard. This is done with a combination of cards with dredge and discard outlets. Obviously cards that can flip more cards directly into the bin can mitigate the number of Dredgers required. The above list runs six standouts from the original Golgari plus another five cards that enable discard.
  • Early defense. Tortured Existence plays the long game. Longer than that. We’re talking really long here. Cards like Perilous Myr and Mogg War Marshal are in the deck because they are excellent blockers that can keep coming back. The goal of this deck is to survive to the point where the namesake enchantment takes over the game, and these cards do just that.

When Born of the Godscame out, I was unnaturally excited about Satyr Wayfinder. The littlest Mulch did exactly what I wanted for a Tortured Existence deck in that it could find a land and put cards into the graveyard. Combined with Commune with the Gods (again, more virtual copies of Tortured Existence) I felt confident that a Golgari version of this long-game deck would take off.

I was wrong. I tested this idea a ton, and it just did not want to work. The biggest problem was the lack of cards that actually read "draw a card" to help enable Stinkweed Imp. Faithless Looting was far more important in the Rakdos build than I had initially given it credit for, allowing the deck to boost its volume to eleven. Dumping cards into the bin was nice, and being able to get lands, creatures, or Tortured Existence was great. But Golgari could not dig through cards fast enough to keep up with the format. Before I retired the deck, I ended up with this list.

I put this down after an extended losing streak. I would probably still be thinking of ways to make this deck work if it wasn’t for those Drew Levin articles and the synapses that started firing in my brain.

After consuming Drew’s content, I decided to drill down Pauper to the tenets I mentioned before. I then started looking at powerful interactions and cards that were not seeing play. Given my predilection for a certain style of play, my list included cards with madness, dredge, unearth, and their enablers like Faithless Looting, Tortured Existence, and Forbidden Alchemy.

And then it hit me like a whack on the back of my head.

Get it? Because they’re sneaky, those Dimir folks.

I’m really trying too hard here . . .

When I was writing out the cards, I saw Tortured Existence and Forbidden Alchemy together and realized the potential power of that combination. Alchemy could help fill the role of both Commune with the Gods and Satyr Wayfinder by acting as a virtual extra of every card in the deck. Going to the Islands also led me back to the original Faithless Looting in Careful Study. Losing Flashback was going to hurt, but I figured the deck could compensate for this by being blue and running some superior card draw options like Mulldrifter.

How does this deck potentially stack up against the rules I laid out? It has the ability to interact with both Delver decks and beatdown with cheap removal. Tortured Existence also has this neat trick with its eponymous card and two copies of Golgari Brownscale. The Lizard reads that whenever it is returned from the graveyard to hand, its owner gains two life, not only when it is dredged. This means that for every black mana, two copies of Golgari Brownscale means two life with a Tortured Existence activation. That life gain is often enough to buy the time needed against more aggressive strategies.

Blue and black also have access to some of the better disruption elements to fight control and combo. Duress, Raven’s Crime, Okiba-Gang Shinobi, Mesmeric Fiend, and even Mournwhelk allow a deck like this to overload on discard. Black provides land destruction options, while blue adds specialty counterspells to the mix. The icing on the cake is that Tortured Existence as a card provides a natural foil to removal-heavy decks. All things considered, this brew has the potential to attack the format in a meaningful way (albeit not every deck at once).

I sketched out a few versions on paper and fired up Magic Online to take the following to the test site:

While quite rough, playing this deck taught me quite a bit. First of all, playing it felt powerful. Piloting the Golgari deck always felt like playing fair, but this deck had on its rocket-powered skates. It moved quickly and was much better at playing the tutor game. Careful Study proved an all-star and fantastic one-drop. Mulldrifter was every bit as insane as one would think. Combined with Stinkweed Imp and Tortured Existence, this build could more or less access any card it wanted.

Some cards were not quite as awesome. Waterfront Bouncer was an attempt to provide a blue board control element and another discard outlet, but in the end it was just too cute. Grave Scrabbler was a strong element of the Rakdos and Golgari builds as a source of card advantage. Since we’re blue, four was overkill. Similarly, I found that thanks Careful Study three copies of Forbidden Alchemy were too many.

The deck performed adequately against aggro, but after much pressure from critics I added two copies of Golgari Brownscale to the main. My numbers then improved drastically. I also made space for some true removal spells and better turn 1 defense. Fume Spitter is quite good, but I wanted something else that could go toe to toe (or wing to wing) with Insectile Aberration. Enter Oona’s Gatewarden, which has the added bonus of coming down turn 1 no matter what.

The thing that impressed me most however was its ability to win without the namesake enchantment. Too often the Rakdos and Golgari versions would run out of gas without a Tortured Existence on the battlefield. The inclusion of Mulldrifter and other independently powerful cards made the Dimir version far more resilient to targeted hate. It doesn’t matter if they destroy Tortured Existence or exile your graveyard—Mulldrifter will draw you into more gas.

After some feedback from posters on my page and test matches, this is where I am with B/U Tortured Existence:

Crypt Rats comes in as an additional tool against aggressive decks that pulls double duty as a finisher. Gray Merchant of Asphodel isn’t quite required, but it does a fantastic job of helping to end games quickly (just keep sacrificing it to Carrion Feeder). While this may not be strictly required, I find that I need help closing out the game within the allotted time with this deck, and Gary does that job nicely.

I have gone down to three copies of Grave Scrabbler, which makes sense given the amount of card draw available to the deck. I could see myself going down to three copies of Mulldrifter at some point down the line regardless of how anathematic it might feel.

The sideboard is far from perfect, but it acts as a toolbox for the expected metagame. Faerie Macabre comes in against other graveyard decks and Esper Combo (which needs to cycle Ghostly Flicker through Mnemonic Wall to achieve victory). Okiba-Gang Shinobi finds a home against control decks, while Oona’s Gatewarden and Gray Merchant of Asphodel can come in to preserve the life total.

My list is far from perfect. In fact, B/U Tortured Existence is a deck that will have to be in sync with a given metagame in order to perform in an ideal manner. The core cards are:

4 Tortured Existence
4 Stinkweed Imp
3 Careful Study
1 Forbidden Alchemy
2 Mulldrifter

These are the only cards I see as untouchable since they are integral to the engine. I am more likely than not to include the following:

2 Carrion Feeder
2 Grave Scrabbler
1 Crypt Rats
2 Golgari Brownscale
2 Perilous Myr
1 Ghastly Demise or Snuff Out
1 Mulldrifter (for a total of three)

This is a concession to the aggression of Pauper. The above cards help keep you alive long enough for the overwhelming card advantage from zombified flying fish to become too much for the opponent to handle.

What about different packages? Here are some cards I could see including (aside from those listed above).

Anti-Beatdown (Creatures): Fume Spitter, Baleful Eidolon, Gray Merchant of Asphodel, Oona’s Gatewarden, Faceless Butcher, Oculus, Aquamoeba, Sylvok Lifestaff

Anti-Beatdown (Affinity & Burn): Golgari Brownscale, Gutless Ghoul, Victim of Night (for Atog), Parasitic Strix

Anti-Control & Combo: Rotting Rats, Mesmeric Fiend, Mournwhelk, Okiba-Gang Shinobi, Merfolk Looter, Chittering Rats, Raven’s Crime, Negate, Dispel

And that’s just a short list. I know I will be looking forward to taking this list to battle in some configuration for the foreseeable future.

If I wanted to return to the Rakdos version of the deck, this is the core I would build from:

4 Tortured Existence
4 Faithless Looting
4 Stinkweed Imp
3 Carrion Feeder
2 Sylvok Lifestaff
3 Grave Scrabbler

And if I wanted to go back to Golgari:

4 Tortured Existence
4 Stinkweed Imp
4 Satyr Wayfinder
3 Commune with the Gods
3 Grave Scrabbler

If you want to do something different and powerful in Pauper, you can do far worse than Tortured Existence. For example, you could be the card art.