Let’s cut the chase right from the start: in this article I’ll talk about how Augur of Bolas (AoB from here on) shapes the Pauper metagame and why, in my opinion, it would be worthy of a ban.
The following string of unsolicited and personal opinions will revolve around three main topics:
- What is invalidated by AoB?
- Its role in the current most successful archetypes;
- What would the format be like without the Merfolk King? In other words, what would change in the case it was banned?
Let’s dive straight into it.
Speared by Its Majesty’s Trident
A card is worthy of ending up getting hit by the infamous Ban Hammer if it meets particular requirements. One of these is definitely “oppressiveness” – that is, not making many (perhaps too many) archetypes viable competitively.
This small side effect not only restricts metagame boundaries, but might eventually lead many players to distance themselves from the format, i.e. the ones piloting the decks that become “unplayable”.
I remember – not without a bit of melancholy – the era of Peregrine Drake: you could play aggro, tempo and unique decks such as Aura or Affinity, but you would have never dared playing Tron and midrange decks. It didn’t matter how much hate you packed, and how much prepared you could be from the maindeck: if you had a minimum of self-respect, you knew very well that you were at least a step behind Drake in any way possible. That was the matchup that you would have always struggled with, save for extremely lucky pairings. Always.
Going back to the Merfolk King, here’s what is stifled by its omnipresence.
«I play my trusty 2/2 creatures and start to swing with them. Sounds good!»
«I play my two-mana dork that will block one of your pieces for days to come and maybe add a Lightning Bolt/Snuff Out to my hand.»
Doesn’t sound too fair, does it?
Two-for-ones are the order of the day in Pauper. Gush, for instance, isn’t certainly the nightmare of every aggro deck, so much so that Gush Players hope to see at most one copy of the card in those matchups. A card advantage piece does not tipically bother aggro decks too much; however, a two-for-one that impacts the board and costs a measly two mana is a whole different story.
Some might argue that a 1/3 is insignificant against aggro decks and that Stompy can solve the issue with Rancor, Hunger of the Howlpack and whatnot. However, the problem doesn’t only lie in the Merfolk providing a two-for-one effect at a very discounted cost, but in the fact that such weapon was given to blue decks. Delver – yeah, you guessed that right- is one of its main beneficiaries. To put it shortly, the deck used to suffer aggro decks much more than it does now with AoB. Delver can now afford the luxury of having fair chances against hard-hitting creatures already from the maindeck without even being particularly equipped to fight those matchups. In other words, AoB has covered one of the historical weaknesses of Delver decks: their structural weakness to consistent aggro decks such as Stompy.
Time ago, Mono-U Delver would tipically hope to avoid facing Stompy. In modern times, UR Delver can face the matchup with some peace of mind.
Time ago, UB Delver was not a very viable concept due to aggro decks being tough to face without red. In modern times, the Merfolk King makes ends meet and allows you to have shots at winning where you could only hope to nail resolutive sideboard cards or double-Delver nut draws.
In modern times, having a shot against aggro with Delver is no longer a dream – it’s the norm.
Ninja of the Deep Hours
In the pre-Bolas era, the “tempo” archetype was identified by one and only incarnation: Mono-U Delver. Besides relying on the usual “protect the Delver” plan, the old ruler of the format aimed to snowball many games thanks to an early or midgame Ninja protected by bounce and counterspells of various kinds.
Ninjas have lost a lot of their potential since then. A 1/3 creature that can land as soon as turn two threatens to weaken the whole Ninja plan – also considering that bouncing opposing Augurs isn’t really the best plan. Bolas is different from a typical way to remove Ninjas, such as a burn spell. The Merfolk is a proactive play that prevents Ninja from cashing in addition to providing important cards – all of which, once again, at a measly two mana.
Having landed a Ninja with counterspell backup isn’t no longer a recipe for guaranteed success: one has to keep in mind that each resolved Augur of Bolas might be a roadblock for future Ninjas down the line. Without a plan to clear the way of pesky Augurs, Ninja might turn out to be a mere cantrip + self-bounce spell.
In regard to the Mono-U vs UR Delver matchup, the difference between the two decks doesn’t only lie in the presence/absence of burn spells. Rather, it lies in not being able to consistently snowball the tempo advantage or cards off the strength of Ninja for the mono-colored deck (also) because of Augur of Bolas. Mono-blue can only hope to get the advantage thanks to multiple well-timed Spellstutter Sprites or Spire Golem(s) that go all the way.
UB Alchemy and MBC have always relied on edicts to complete their suite of removal spells. Chainer’s Edict is the most important of them, as it can produce a two-for-one in the late-game. However, playing edicts in the new metagame is quite lackluster: not only they can line up poorly against Boros due to Thraben Inspector and Battle Screech, but even against Delver flavors they might be clunky due the omnipresence of – you’ve guessed it right – Augur of Bolas.
In any matchup where card advantage and favorable trades are the key to victory, AoB poses a huge threat if coupled with Ninja of the Deep Hours.
Take the UR Delver vs Boros matchup, or just a UR Delver mirror, as an example. If a player resolves an AoB and the opponent has no good blockers (which could be removed by burn spells anyways), the opponent is faced with a dilemma where no outcome is good.
The safest option is to remove the Merfolk from the field immediately, as it might represent a three-for-one even if Ninja does not connect: a replayed AoB would still provide more cards, becoming more than the initial two-for-one it was. However, if a burn spell is used on AoB right away for fear of this happening, its user will have one less piece of protection against other future Ninjutsu shenanigans or Spellstutter Sprite.
In a nutshell, AoB is not a simple two-for-one in these matchups, but a two-for-one that can easily snowball the game due to Ninja. In Skred mirrors, it is basically the best card to enable one’s own Ninjas and the best card against opposing Ninjas. Can you guess which is the only play that results in us not falling behind to an Augur played by our opponent? Playing our own Augur!
The fact that the power level of one card depends for better or for worse on another and that the only non-counterspell answer to a strong card is playing the same card yourself sounds like a vicious circle to me.
All hail the Fish
After having seen which strategies are somehow invalidated by AoB, we now take a look at the decks that play it: UB Angler and UR Delver, but also UW Tribe and UR Kiln.
As mentioned, Augur plays a dual role in the red-powered Delver deck: roadblocking aggro decks – thus making up for a slower manabase – and being the best play in the mirror and midrange matchups thanks to its sinergy with Ninja of the Deep Hours.
Augur is also quite important as an additional “cantrip spell”. It increases the built-in card selection of the decks that play it, allowing to “spin the wheel” one more time to find removal spells or sideboard sweepers against aggro decks/Elves, counterspells vs Tron and Gush against other midrange decks. The increased selection also lies in the fact that choosing an instant or a sorcery among the top 3 cards is tipically preferable to drawing a random card, except when mana screwed.
Another niche utility of the Merfolk King is found against Affinity, where in addition to stalling Frogmites, it can tag-team with Lightning Bolt to take down 4/4s without going down on cards. In other words, Augur upgrades the removal suite of the deck by acting as a pseudo-removal spell for four-toughness creatures. Whoops, another weakness covered!
In a nutshell, AoB truly enabled UR Delver as a competitive deck by giving it all that was missing before: a two-drop that does pretty much everything except getting you out of mana screw. UR was not playable as a Delver deck in the past, but only as a Flicker incarnation due to the lack of such an aggressively costed good creature.
UBxd (previously known as “UB Angler”)
This archetype has always had the problem of finding the balance between cantrips, counters, removal and card advantage cards. No solution to such conundrum seemed possible, because even if you found the right configuration for a certain matchup, that would have likely also been wrong for at least other three matchups.
AoB provides the deck with the flexibility it needed. It acts as a jack of all trades: it blocks Ninjas and aggro dorks for which further removal would be necessary, and propels the deck to the mid-game by digging for cantrips and/or Gush. And if that wasn’t enough, it makes it easier to find narrow, yet strong sideboard cards such as Shrivel versus Boros Bully or Hydroblast versus Burn.
The only thing that Bolas can’t find in the deck are lands and threats. However, it can do so undirectly by grabbing Preordain and friends. To recap: even in this deck AoB turns out to be the missing piece and the “perfect glue” to cover a broad range of matchups.
The other Augur decks
In UW Tribe and UR Fiend, AoB plays the very important role of lightning rod for Edict effects. The two combo decks have always been historically ill-equipped to fight this type of removal spell, as it makes no sense to play narrow countermeasures such as counterspells for sorceries. Once again, the Merfolk covers such weakness by insulating a threat from future Chainer’s Edicts while also spinning the wheels. Additionally, it can dampen the race of aggro against these decks, therefore giving them that extra turn necessary to find the missing combo pieces.
In other minor decks like UB Alchemy or oddball incarnations of UR Control, Bolas plays the useful role of “value wall” against small critters, allowing one to save maindeck slots otherwise devoted to removal spells for more counters, manipulation and card advantage.
A future return to the past
For all the reasons mentioned so far, AoB has proven to be the missing piece for many archetypes, enhancing them and even covering many of their natural weaknesses.
What would happen in case of a return to the past, though?
What would change if Wizards decided to limit the consequences created by dangerous downgradings by banning AoB (and maybe Palace Sentinels) in the first place?
I believe the answer would be a more varied and less stifled metagame, able to breath more without a card that is so solid that it covers the natural weaknesses of Blue-based decks. This is what would change metagame-wise, in my opinion:
– Mono U Delver’s return to the high tables: not that Mono U is now a bad deck, but UR Delver and Boros Monarch definitely give fits to one of the few true tempo decks of the metagame;
– Bx decks become more playable: without more AoB punishing edict effects and enhancing Ninjutsu sequences, top8ing tournaments for MBC and UB Alchemy players might become easier.
– A more tempo-based UB: today’s UBxd would survive by replacing Augurs with Elusive Spellfist. This would make the deck more tempo-based (and classy!) and less oppressive in the metagame, as its mid-game power would suffer from the switch.
– Balls-to-the-wall aggro thriving again: playing aggro with a massive presence of Augurs around feels quite suicidal – as if the omnipresence of Prismatic Strands in the format wasn’t discouraging enough. If you remove AoB from the equation, aggro is once again a force to be reckoned with in the competitive metagame. Burning-Tree Emissary – a card whose only fault was to be downgraded together with the tyrannical Merfolk – would finally be back.
– UR Delver “dies”: this could be the only loss from this hypothetical ban. Such false-tempo deck would cease to exist competitively and could very well evolve into UR Flicker, equipped to deal with Tron in post-board games.
It’s also worth noting that such return to the past would only be partially comparable to the pre-downgrade of AoB state of things, as cards like Seeker of the Way, Lead the Stampede, Burning-Tree Emissary would still be there to mark a difference from how Pauper used to be back in 2017.
To sum it up: tempo, aggro and black-based decks would likely increase with no more midrange decks disguised as tempo decks dominating the metagame – a gradual shift that was made possible by Augur of Bolas among other things.
I really hope that Wizards will support the format more by intervening to improve the variety and competitiveness of the metagame. I am confident that banning AoB would be the turning point towards a better Pauper.