Pauper is a format where only commons are allowed. Pauper, at its core, is the basic level of Magic, and the colors all fill specific roles while maintaining specific weaknesses. This series examines the place each color holds in the color wheel of commons Magic. Check out white here. Check out blue here.
The little engine that could of Pauper, black never goes away. The color of disruption, rats, the graveyard, and removal, black is second only to blue in the ability to generate card advantage. This does not mean black can draw cards at the same clip as its antecedent, but rather does so through grinding out two-for-ones in the form of small creatures. Additionally, black is the go-to color for taking a creature off the board, as well as yanking key spells from an opponent’s hand.
One cannot discuss black in Pauper without talking about removal. No color can lay claim to killing things quite like black. The removal falls into three broad categories: Edicts, Grasps, and Doom Blades.
Edicts, named after Diabolic Edict, get around nasty abilities like protection, hexproof, and shroud. Innocent Blood, Diabolic Edict, and Geth’s Verdict all can force a sacrifice, making them key cards against threat light decks. Additionally, these cards often find themselves as part of a larger removal package to help keep the board clear.
Grasps are spells that, while not necessarily capable of killing everything, do a good job of taking out most things. Last Gasp and Grasp of Darkness take out most creatures in Pauper, while Echoing Decay plays nicely against tokens and certain beatdown decks. Vicious Hunger and the upgrade Sorin’s Thirst can take out smaller creatures while providing a nice boost to a life total. Disfigure sees play as a turn one answer, and while Wring Flesh hasn’t made a splash in Pauper yet, it would not be surprising to see it if blocking comes back into vogue. Strangling Soot falls into this realm as well.
Doom Blades do not care if there are other creatures on the board or how big they are. They kill things dead. Doom Blade, Rend Flesh, Victim of Night, Ghastly Demise, Snuff Out, Eyeblight’s Ending, and a whole slew of others just like killing creatures. Usually there is a drawback or a condition, based upon that set’s theme, but it rarely matters. These cards tend to be the secondary removal spell in black decks, falling behind our next entry.
A category unto itself, Tendrils of Corruption was at one point the defining removal spell of Pauper. By the time it came online, it was able to handle just about any creature on the board (provided that you were mono-Swamps, which you almost always were) as well as undo multiple combat phases with lifegain. While the advent of Goblins with Mogg Raider/Goblin Sledder took away some of the efficiency of Tendrils, it is still a mainstay due to the advantage it can generate. It also fits into one of black’s other themes.
Black is the color of self-interest. This translates to game play by having black cards demand heavy black mana bases. Tendrils is perhaps the most common example, but Corrupt is the first and most game breaking. Corrupt used to be the reason to sleeve up 23 digital Swamps. Drain Life and Consume Spirit fill a similar role but do not see play due to the effectiveness of Corrupt.
This is also reflected in the “shade” mechanic. Cards like Crypt Ripper like it when you play more black sourcesâ€”it makes them more powerful. There is also a trend recently at making removal spells require a heavier black commitment, if Grasp of Darkness and Victim of Night are any indication.
Discard and disruption:
Much like blue has a stranglehold on counterspells, black has a near monopoly on discard effects. Recently it appears that design has pushed one-mana Peek and pull effects out of common, but that does not mean Paupers cannot make use of the cards already printed there.
Duress is perhaps the most recognized discard spell in Pauper: see their hand and take their best spell. The being said, it is not the most playedâ€”the inability to nab creatures is a huge liability in this format. Duress does see play, often out of sideboards as a way to snipe cards from control or rip key cards from combo, but for a long time, the go to spell of this nature was Distress, all thanks for the ability to take creatures. Ostracize sees occasional play, but the liability of drawing it after their best creature hits the table is almost too much to bear. Mire’s Toll also falls here but rarely sees play, as it is nearly dead on turn one and as the game goes on becomes obsolete due to Distress. There have been multiple one-mana discard spells printed that are not as specific as Duress. Cards such as Cry of Contrition and Raven’s Crime make up for the inability to look for the chance to nab more than one card.
One of the largest disparities between paper and online Pauper is Hymn to Tourach: common in the real world but not in the digital one. The closest analog is Wrench Mind, which is a risky run, as Affinity is a major player, and multiple decks make use of artifacts, so the fake-Hymn is a hit-or-miss prospect. Neither Blightning nor Consult the Necrosages is mono-black, but the latter does see play in some Dimir builds. Perhaps the best “discard two” however, is Okiba-Gang Shinobi, since, like Ninja of the Deep Hours, it comes with a rebuy.
Finally, discard can also come attached to rats. Creatures like Ravenous Rats, Chittering Rats, and Liliana’s Specter do a good job of providing a body while also knocking cards into the bin. Mesmeric Fiend sees occasional play, providing a cross between Duress and Ravenous Rats.
Bring out your dead:
Black has a strong mechanical and flavor tie to the graveyard. Raise Dead and reanimation effects fall firmly in black, although Pauper has more of the former.
The vanguard of this card is Gravedigger. It attacks and blocks and brings a creature back. Thanks to Unearth (the card, not the mechanic), Gravedigger is currently too expensiveâ€”why spend four when you could spend one? Warren Pilferers used to see play as a way to beat through other Gravediggers. Currently, Cadaver Imp spends time in some lists specifically because it can be reanimated with Unearth.
Speaking of, Unearth is like Dark Ritual, only good. It will almost always “cast” a three-drop and put you down a card. Unlike Ritual, however, losing an Unearth is not the end of the world, as chances are the creature coming back already did some work. Additionally, it can cycle.
Exhume exists, but as it is the only spell that can reanimate any creature, Pauper is still a spell away from an actual reanimator deck.
Tortured Existence is a potent “build around me.” While slow, no one runs enchantment removal, so it is nearly impossible to stop. When combined with the right cards, Tortured Existence can create an overwhelming long-term advantage, provided the game goes long enough.
Grim Harvest, Death Denied, Death’s Duet, Disturbed Burial, and Morbid Plunder all represent Raise Dead effects that can get back multiple creatures. Grim Harvest is best suited for long games where the Recover cost can be paid repeatedly. Death Denied can often reload a hand in one fell swoop. Affinity occasionally breaks out Reaping the Graves as a way to rebuy creatures thanks to that deck’s propensity to playing multiple cards in a turn.
Vampires, Rats, and Crocodiles:
Black’s commonly played creatures tend to fit into one of three types. Vampires are the small, aggressive creatures (sometimes with a draw back). Rats are the core of black strategies in Pauper, with small bodies but disruptive effects. Crocodiles are the high-power, low-toughness Limited staples.
Vampires represent the typical aggressive black creature. Carnophage and Vampire Lacerator both do a good job of attacking, despite their drawback. Vault Skirge and Pulse Tracker fit the mold, helping to punch through damage. Dauthi Horror and Slayer see play in black aggro, as they are nigh-impossible to block effectively. Skittering Skirge can be a nice beater, and Skittering Horror probably needs to be looked at more closely, as a 4/3 creature can absolutely dominate in certain matchups. Carrion Feeder will see play when a deck needs a sacrifice outletâ€”as will Bloodthrone Vampire, Vampire Aristocrat, Phyrexian Ghoul, and Nantuko Husk. These, however, tend to be played alongside a deck that can produce tokensâ€”something black is not great at doing.
Black also has a tradition of two-drop creatures that are fragile or challenging to play. These creatures include Wretched Anurid and Blind Creeper. Yes they are aggressively costed, but playing them is a huge risk thanks to Empty the Warrens (Anurid) and your opponents actually casting spells instead of doing nothing (Creeper).
Rats are mostly made up of creatures already discussed. Any creature that can come down for a reasonable cost and generate an advantage qualifies as a rat. In addition to Ravenous Rats, Mesmeric Fiend, Chittering Rats, Liliana’s Specter, Cadaver Imp, Gravedigger, and Warren Pilferers, the other rat to see major play is Phyrexia Rager, since it replaces itself. Rotting Rats sees occasional play in decks that can make use of its “downside.” Mournwhelk is rather large and expensive for a rat, but certain decks can power it out.
Crypt Rats does not have an enter-the-battlefield effect per se, but it does impact the game like no other creature. One of the few “Wraths” available to Pauper, Crypt Rats functions as both sweeper and direct damage. It helps to keep aggro in check. On top of this, it also costs three, making it easy to Unearth.
Crocodiles…well, they do not see much play in Constructed. These are your Dross Crocodiles, your Giant Cockroaches, and your Rotting Fensnakes. Decent for 40-card play, but that is where their utility ends.
What black does: Black works the grind. It gains incremental advantages but does so consistently. Rat into rat can snowball. Combine this with the benefits of playing a heavy black deck (Tendrils, Corrupt) and a healthy dose of removal, and black decks skew towards board control with a hammer of an endgame.
Black also has some of the tools for an aggressive deck. Between the high power one-drops, discard, and removal, black can put up a great game for the first three turns of the game. After that, the potency dries up, as aggressive decks do not want to run enough land to reliably hit six on turn six for the game-ending Corrupt. The other aggro decks in Pauper (Goblins, WW, Affinity) all have game after turn three. Currently, black aggro does not.
What to look for: Black is always on watch for more rats. These creatures are the backbone of Mono-Black Control. The new removal spells are always reviewed and often tried.
Discard spells should be cheap or be able to nab more than one card. If the new set brings a way to strip a specific card, then it might see sideboard play.
Beatdown-minded Swamp players will always look for a reason to try attacking. For this, there needs to be a reasonable series of plays for turn four or later. Currently, this means looking for Zombie (creature type), as the advent of Ghoulcaller’s Chant gives the tribe a chance to reload on the cheap.
Black’s top 10:
- 1 Okiba-Gang Shinobi
- 3 Ravenous Rats
- 4 Chittering Rats
- 3 Crypt Rats
- 4 Phyrexian Rager
- 3 Liliana's Specter
- 3 Perilous Myr
- 22 Swamp