Adapting The Aristocrats

While watching Pro Tour Gatecrash, Alex Ullman was inspired to brew by the winning deck. See the steps he took to adapt The Aristocrats to Pauper.

I started playing Pauper because it gave me a chance to brew. I love building decks, and back in 2005, I was a college student on a budget (as opposed to the college professional on a budget I am today). Pauper provided me an avenue to build multiple decks for dirt cheap and compete with my brews. As the format evolved and solidified, my ability to brew diminished, but I still have the urge. Sure, this can be fulfilled via my cube (all commons, of course) and Commander (with the full gamut of rarity). Sometimes, I just need the right inspiration.

Enter Pro Tour Gatecrash. Watching the Top 8 unfold, I was enamored with the eventual winning deck, The Aristocrats. It was no surprise that I felt this way—I love sacrificing creatures for value (three of my most played commanders are Jarad, Golgari Lich Lord, Lyzolda, Blood Witch, and Teysa, Orzhov Scion [notice a theme?]), and the gears started turning. I got out my notebook and started sketching out my first draft of a Pauper adaptation of The Aristocrats.

When adapting any deck from a fully powered format (Standard or Modern, for example) to Pauper, there are a few things that need to be taken into account. First is the change in the metagame. Most times when I try to adapt a deck, it is based around an interaction rather than a firm place in the metagame. The pieces to build a sacrifice-themed deck exist in Pauper, so that was the easy get. The metagame is drastically different because Pauper doesn’t have to worry about Boros Reckoner. This dovetails into the next point: looking at what will work and what will not.

The Aristocrats is a three-color deck made possible by the excellent mana available in Standard. Although the mana in Pauper is at an apex, it is not as good as that of Standard, which means going to two colors. Since black would be providing sacrifice outlets and white would be providing important creatures, I decided to cut red for my first pass at this deck.

If I were in an alternate universe and decided to pursue a red sacrifice-based deck, I would definitely include cards like Mogg War Marshal and consider Keldon Marauders and Vithian Stingers. Goblin Bushwhacker also plays nice in a deck looking to get extra value from creatures dying, along with Death Spark. In this case, I might just end up back at Goblins though.

So why white? White gave access to multiple creatures with good death triggers: Doomed Traveler, Loyal Cathar, and Blind Hunter. White also allowed for an increase in sideboard flexibility—with Affinity on the rise, I wanted a deck that could fight artifacts. Additionally, the mana for Orzhov was finally bolstered by access to a Guildgate.

The black suite was focused on sacrificing creatures and extracting value from their deaths. To this end, I wanted Carrion Feeder and Bloodthrone Vampire. Bloodflow Connoisseur would have been nice, but costing three was a final nail in the coffin—I could not afford to give up any more speed than I was already. Similarly, Falkenrath Torturer fell by the wayside since only eight creatures in the deck had the type Human.

The core of the deck, in a first pass, looked like this:

4 Unearth
4 Tragic Slip
4 Carrion Feeder
4 Rotting Rats
4 Butcher Ghoul
4 Bloodthrone Vampire
4 Doomed Traveler
4 Loyal Cathar
4 Blind Hunter

After getting stampeded by one too many decks, I went back to the drawing board, looking for ways to bolster my game against aggressive decks. My research yielded these additions:

Abyssal Gatekeeper was a card I felt I needed to fight Auras. Too often, the deck would stick one giant monster, and I would have no way out from underneath. With the Gatekeeper, I was never really out of it. It required some finesse (always having a value creature in play), but when it worked, it was spectacular. That being said, it only worked once. Afterward, Auras would play a secondary creature, and I would be left with at a disadvantage.

Next in line was Stinkweed Imp. Another fantastic blocker, the Dredge staple did quite a bit of work in blunting assaults. While a tad slow, the Imp was great at absorbing a ton of damage from anything that did not have first strike. It provided a constant source of food for Carrion Feeder and even managed to beat in for wins.

The Imp, in conjunction with Aven Riftwatcher, helped show me how important flying is in the format. Even though Delver Blue is still a deck, many decks are soft to blocking flyers. Riftwatcher used to have the nickname Corrupt during the player run event days of Pauper for it’s ability to provide an eight-point life swing. The fact that I could easily get it back with Unearth made it a better choice for this deck than Blind Hunter.

After a few games with different configurations, I eventually settled on this list:

This deck was much better than my first iteration. It was wonderful at slowing down the game and surviving until the late game. The problem was that once it got there, it had problems closing the door. It could often steal games early by chaining the right creatures into large Carrion Feeders, but those same Feeders looked awfully meek facing down armies of Myr Enforcers and Atogs or even Serrated Arrows. However, the ability to overwhelm opponents with an undead army was potent and warranted further exploration.

What did I learn from this experiment? Unearth was powerful, especially in a deck built to exploit it—cost reduction is always good, and the ability to get back anything in the deck (barring some Ogres) was worth it. Flying was also well positioned at the moment. Although small, Riftwatcher and Stinkweed did a ton of work chipping away at life totals. Finally, I learned that any one-drop with a potential to grow was a serious threat.

So I abandoned white in favor of a color that could do all the things listed above. Being so close to the release of Gatecrash, I had Cloudfin Raptor on my mind. When I imagined the prospect of casting Thought Scour on myself only to Unearth something sweet, well, I was sold on the Dimir bill of goods. My first pass at a Dimir list looked something like this:

This deck did a better job of punching through damage. Silent Departure was a solid include but lacked a power and toughness. I wanted to attempt “no removal, all disruption,” which proved one thing to me—you really want some form of removal in Pauper if you can afford it. Mono-discard seemed nice but did not work.

The combo I was most pleased with was Cloudfin Raptor and Stormbound Geist. Together, these represented a formidable air force. The Geist did double duty, helping to evolve the Raptor to its largest possible size in the deck (a rather robust 3/4).

It was at this point I realized I should be running more creatures and removed Silent Departure for Man-o’-Wars. The Jellyfish were fantastic, helping to clear the path for attacks while also being viable targets for Unearth. Going along with the results from the Orzhov flavor, I borrowed heavily from Travis Woo Black Rats deck and its bevy of creatures with Unearth (the ability) to help create a massive army at a moment’s notice. Once I maxed out on the number of offensive Alara all-stars, the performance of the deck went up as well.

As much as I liked casting Thought Scour, it did nothing to advance my board. During a card search, I came across Screeching Skaab. After a few tests, it was clear I’d found the card I wanted. Considering the thing thing you want draw most of the time is a two-power creature, it made sense to replace Thought Scour with such a card. The lost utility is more than made up for by the extra threat.

There was one more change I made before settling on the list below. While Butcher Ghoul was good food early, as the deck moved towards Viscera Dragger and its ilk, I found less need for Bloodthrone Vampire. As such, the need for an undying creature with one power eventually passed on. Mulldrifter took the slot as a reasonable draw spell that can fuel both evolve and Carrion Feeder. Thus far, results have been promising.

This leads me to what is my current working list of Blue Bloods:

This list is still rough, but it has promise. The interaction of Geist and Raptor is one I will definitely be building around in my brews for quite a while. Similarly, Carrion Feeder is a card that deserves to see more play in Pauper. The ability to turn dying creatures into actual threats is powerful. Unearth is a card that should see more play outside of Rats lists for its capability of cheating creatures, albeit small ones, into play—I have never felt so good casting Man-o’-War as when I did it for B.

This deck loves to attack. Being able to swing in with impunity thanks to an Unearth in hand is a wonderful feeling. Agony Warp is an ideal removal spell here because it allows you to save one of your creatures and take out two of theirs.

The deck certainly has shortcomings. If it draws creatures in an awkward sequence, the wheels can come off, and you can get overrun by the more aggressive decks in the format. I would definitely include an additional removal spell, like Doom Blade, and Crypt Rats in the sideboard. Affinity has proved to be a troublesome matchup, but Steel Sabotage might be a reasonable answer to help keep the game closer in the midgame.

Cloudpost is going to be a significant slice of the metagame for the foreseeable future, so packing either Rancid Earth or Choking Sands in the sideboard is also a must. Grim Harvest would likely get a slot for games that go long (and where you absolutely want to have the last threat), and Mesmeric Fiend can play the role of multiple Duresses, which is never a bad thing.

While this deck may not be ready for the Daily Events yet, I still consider it a success. I saw an idea on the “big stage” and wanted to adapt it to Pauper. The best way to do this is not to try to find the best analogue for every card, but rather latch on to one or two ideas from the inspiring deck and adapt it to your current environment. Giving yourself parameters is a great way to foster new ideas. Look at the process that went into getting at the current list:

  • Watched the Pro Tour and got inspired.
  • Discerned what would and would not work in Pauper.
  • Made the first draft.
  • Tested, tested, tested.
  • Made changes.
  • Tested some more.
  • Switched a color and finally figured out what the deck wanted to do.
  • Made more changes.

The deck went from a bad midrange deck to an aggressive tempo strategy that chains together creatures for wins. This is nothing new to veterans of Magic, but it is refreshing to do once in a while. Even if this deck does not make it big, I learned a few key things about Pauper.

  • Cloudfin Raptor is a legitimate threat and can be exploited.
  • Unearth is a reasonable “build around” card. The graveyard is an underutilized resource.
  • Undying creatures deserve more respect—having the last threat standing is valuable.

As the new metagame takes shape, it is important to keep these and many other underutilized cards in mind since they could be key to the next big break. Remember, for a while, Aura Gnarlid was bad too.

Keep slingin’ commons-


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