What the Astrolabe is happening to Pauper?

What the Astrolabe is happening to Pauper?

Article by Fabrizio Pucci

Hi Pauper friends, I’m Fabrizio Pucci, Xardian7 on MTGO, and today I want to talk about Arcum’s Astrolabe.

Arcum’s Astrolabe has become the main topic in Pauper over the past weeks.

The card has proven to be great in the format, in this article I want to explain in detail why Arcum’s Astrolabe is so good in pauper and talk about the problems that this card might or might not have brought to the format.

In order to explain why this card is so good in pauper we have to start from the basic of Pauper, in particular the manabase.

Pauper manabase before Astrolabe was principally founded on Basic lands, Ravnica Bouncelands, Common Fetches, Gainlands and Ash Barrens. Some specific decks had to run Artifact lands in order to benefit from Affinity from artifact or Metalcraft.
Affinity based decks continue to play Artifact Lands. What happened to all other decks? They simply switched to Arcum’s Astrolabe and Snowlands.
Arcum’s Astrolabe is better both in tempo and in value prospective than standard dual-lands. It does not only fix your mana better than Fetchlands or Gainlands but it also replaces itself and because it comes into play untapped, fixing your mana quicker.

If this was the end of the usage of Astrolabe in Pauper there would be zero discussion about it. Arcum’s Astrolabe would be a fixer that improve every deck manabase, like Fetchlands in Modern or Legacy. There are other aspects that must be considered. The main discussions about Astrolabe in Pauper have been excellently summarized by Kendra Smith in an article on Coolstuffinc:

  • Metagame Homogenization
  • Difficulties of dealing with Astro decks
  • No hate card for a perfect mana fixing

In order to get into the discussion let’s see which the archetypes in the current metagame are.

White Midrange decks          

Jeskai Astro by SamuelGraebner, MTGO Pauper Challenge 8th Place

Creatures (17)
Archaeomancer
Trinket Mage
Glint Hawk
Kor Skyfisher
Mulldrifter

Spells (24)
Ephemerate
Lightning Bolt
Counterspell
Skred
Ponder
Preordain
Bonesplitter
Relic of Progenitus
Arcum’s Astrolabe
Lands (19)
10 Snow-Covered Island
Snow-Covered Mountain
Snow-Covered Plains
Ash Barrens

Sideboard (15)
Ephemerate
Electrickery
Weather the Storm
Molten Rain
Pyroblast
Lone Missionary

The card advantage of this list is based on 2 different interactions: Kor Skyfisher and Glint Hawk that can bounce Arcum’s Astrolabe in order to cycle themselves and Archeomancer or MulldrifterEphemerate that allow to redraw card from the graveyard or to draw 4 cards and play a 2/2 flyer for 2UW.
The gameplay of the deck can change in order to adapt on the opponent’s deck like a lot of midrange strategies in magic. It is possible to summarize that the deck can shift from a Tempo style to a Value style pretty well. The tempo aspect of the deck can be pushed with the addition of Seeker of the Way to the mainboard.

There are other decks that runs the Astro/Hawk package like Pestilence, Boros Monarch and Five Color Astro. We can group up them into the same category, those decks have some differences in both playstyle and card advantage, but they are overall white based midrange decks with some slight differences.
I’ve not included the Astro Tron list because it has been replaced in the metagame by the better Flicker Tron lists pretty quickly. Still viable, but not present enough to be considered.

Control Decks

Astro Flicker / Blink Control by sakkra, MTGO Pauper Challenge 6th Place

Creatures (13)
Archaeomancer
Aven Riftwatcher
Augur of Bolas
Mulldrifter

Spells (28)
Dispel
Echoing Truth
Lightning Bolt
Counterspell
Ephemerate
Skred
Ponder
Preordain
Arcum’s Astrolabe
Lands (19)
Snow-Covered Mountain
11 Snow-Covered Island
Snow-Covered Plains
Evolving Wilds
Ash Barrens

Sideboard (15)
Dispel
Lone Missionary
Pyroblast
Electrickery
Hydroblast
Leave No Trace

At a first approach we can say that there are really little differences between this list and the Jeskai Astro. A lot of cards are the same but here is missing the Astro/Hawk package. But that’s not the only difference between the decks and therefore I’ve not included this list in the previous category. This is not a midrange deck. This is Control Value deck that in order to win is forced to outvalue the opponent. There is no way with this list to switch to a tempo-oriented strategy.
In this deck Astrolabe is used only to fix mana, in a way we could define “fair”. The main card here is Ephemerate and the playstyle of the deck is completely different from Astro/Hawk midrange builds. The name of the deck probably helps the misunderstanding should be something like Ephemerate Value or Blink Control.

Flicker Tron by Pascal3000, MTGO Pauper Challenge 1th Place

Creatures (7)
Mnemonic Wall
Mulldrifter
Dinrova Horror

Spells (30)
Ephemerate
Counterspell
Impulse
Moment’s Peace
Prohibit
Rolling Thunder
Weather the Storm
Forbidden Alchemy
Ghostly Flicker
Pulse of Murasa
Mystical Teachings
Expedition Map
Prophetic Prism
Arcum’s Astrolabe
Lands (23)
Mortuary Mire
Remote Isle
Snow-Covered Island
Urza’s Mine
Urza’s Power Plant
Urza’s Tower

Sideboard (15)
Dispel
Electrickery
Hydroblast
Pyroblast
Ancient Grudge
Weather the Storm
Wretched Gryff

Tron manabase have adapted to the new toy. Faster and better fixer than gainlands even if a little bit less stable, London mullingan is helping a lot here. There is little plus of being able to flicker Astros in order to instant speed Divination more frequently than before.

There is also the Hellsau’s Prison version of tron, but also in that list Arcum’s Astrolabe is mainly used to fix mana and to be flickered to draw cards.

Other “Astro” Decks:

Astro Bogles by Mathonical, MTGO Pauper Challenge 4th Place

Creatures (12)
Gladecover Scout
Kor Skyfisher
Slippery Bogle

Spells (30)
Commune with the Gods
Abundant Growth
Ancestral Mask
Armadillo Cloak
Ethereal Armor
Rancor
Utopia Sprawl
Arcum’s Astrolabe
Lands (18)
16 Snow-Covered Forest
Snow-Covered Plains

Sideboard (15)
Electrickery
Gorilla Shaman
Gut Shot
Journey to Nowhere
Relic of Progenitus
Crimson Acolyte
Dispel
Fling
Lifelink
Standard Bearer

The presence of Kor Skyfisher in Bogle has roots in the past. HexBox lists where the common way to play Bogle in 2016. Both because was possible to dig into the deck and because at that time black midrange decks were good. Now with Astrolabe and Aboundant Growth the cycling ability of the deck with Skyfisher has improved and Mathonical has recognize it, in addition the deck can run a faster and better manabase switching Unbridled Growth with Arcum’s Astrolabe.
If this is the best way to play Bogle is hard to say. Bogle is really well positioned in the metagame right now because the quantity of midrange decks without black removals and the absence of faster combo decks. This is probably why the deck can afford to play zero protection form Edicts (other than Kor Skyfisher itself) and be slower with the Kor + Growth/Astro package. London mulligan is also helping the deck to play less hexproof creatures.

Non-Astro Decks:

In this metagame a lot of non-astro decks are showing up to compete with the decks based on the two new powerful cards, Arcum’s Astrolabe and Ephemerate.

Affinity by N3nne, MTGO Pauper Challenge 18th Place

Creatures (18)
Atog
Carapace Forger
Frogmite
Gearseeker Serpent
Myr Enforcer

Spells (25)
Galvanic Blast
Fling
Perilous Research
Temur Battle Rage
Metallic Rebuke
Thoughtcast
Chromatic Star
Flayer Husk
Springleaf Drum
Prophetic Prism
Lands (17)
Ancient Den
Darksteel Citadel
Great Furnace
Seat of the Synod
Tree of Tales

Sideboard (15)
Dispel
Electrickery
Hydroblast
Krark-Clan Shaman
Pyroblast
Red Elemental Blast
Ancient Grudge
Ray of Revelation

Elves by BeakerDan, MTGO Pauper Challenge 2th Place

Creatures (36)
Birchlore Rangers
Elvish Mystic
Elvish Vanguard
Fyndhorn Elves
Llanowar Elves
Lys Alana Huntmaster
Nettle Sentinel
Priest of Titania
Quirion Ranger
Timberwatch Elf
Wellwisher

Spells (10)
Lead the Stampede
Winding Way
Viridian Longbow
Spidersilk Armor
Lands (14)
14 Forest

Sideboard (15)
Wellwisher 
Spidersilk Armor
Viridian Longbow 
Essence Warden
Gleeful Sabotage 
Relic of Progenitus
Scattershot Archer 
Ulamog’s Crusher
Wrap in Vigor

MBC by Swiftwarkite2, MTGO Pauper Challenge 13th Place

Creature (19)
Chittering Rats
Cuombajj Witches
Gray Merchant of Asphodel
Gurmag Angler
Thorn of the Black Rose
Whisper Agent

Spells (18)
Duress
Sign in Blood
Defile
Geth’s Verdict
Tendrils of Corruption
Victim of Night
Pestilence

Land (23)
Barren Moor
19 Swamp
Sideboard (14)
Duress 
Geth’s Verdict
Tendrils of Corruption 
Choking Sands
Nausea 
Wrench Mind

RDW by Michern, MTGO Pauper Challenge 10th Place

Creature (33)
Foundry Street Denizen
Burning-Tree Emissary
Goblin Bushwhacker
Goblin Cohort
Goblin Heelcutter
Jackal Familiar
Mogg Conscripts
Mudbrawler Cohort
Valley Dasher

Spells (10)
Chain Lightning
Goblin Grenade
Lightning Bolt

Land (17)
17 Mountain
Sideboard (15)
Electrickery 
Flame Slash
Flaring Pain 
Gorilla Shaman
Sparksmith

Stompy by Diego_Brando, MTGO Pauper Challenge 5th Place

Creature (25)
Burning-Tree Emissary
Nest Invader
Nettle Sentinel
Quirion Ranger
Skarrgan Pit-Skulk
Treetop Ambusher
Vault Skirge
Wild Mongrel

Spells (18)
Savage Swipe
Groundswell
Hunger of the Howlpack
Vines of Vastwood
Rancor
Lands (17)
17 Snow-Covered Forest

Sideboard (15)
Gleeful Sabotage 
Gut Shot
Relic of Progenitus 
Viridian Longbow
Weather the Storm

Those decks are well known in the Pauper metagame and are still competitive.

There are also some playable decks like Big Tron (Fangren Tron, ndr), UR Faeries and Boros Aggro.
About Burn we have to talk a little about it. Burn is an incredibly good deck in Pauper, so good that all the decks have plenty of sideboard and maindeck cards to deal with this deck. Therefore, it does not show up in Challenge.

The archetypes are various but in the last challenge (14/07/2019) Astro-Hawk decks were the most common (10 in top32) and there were also 2 Value Ephemerate decks.

Metagame Homogenization

The last challenge (14/07) has shown that Astro-Hawk midrange decks are good. That is undeniable. At least 4 different archetypes of Astro-Hawk are competitive right now: Boros, Jeskai, 4-5c Mid and Pestilence. The games against those matchups have a lot of points in common and can be considered as facing the same deck, from a feeling prospective, not entirely true from a game and sideboard prospective.

The metagame is adapting to this. Elves and Stompy are becoming more popular and Affinity raised from its grave.

Though the midrange decks are plenty in the meta, other decks use astrolabe just for fixing. Bogles could run it even without Skyfisher, Ephemerate Value and Flicker Tron use Astrolabe in order to improve their manabase. Those deck are way different from Midrange decks and cannot be compared to them in terms of playstyle both piloting the decks and facing them.

About the metagame homogenization caused by Astrolabe I partially disagree. The current issue in my opinion is the quantity of Astro-Hawk midrange played and the fact that the metagame has not adapted to beat them yet. In addition to this, there is absence of a good combo deck that could keep in check those midrange lists and Tron.

 If the numbers of Astro-Midrange will be kept in check, we will just have shifted from a Monarch Based mindranges to an Ephemerate+Astrolabe based. Personally, I think that this is a huge benefit for the format. Monarch is a bad designed mechanic that give card advantage at the price of forcing the two players to play a sub-game in order to win the game. From the moment one player becomes the monarch the game shift from being Magic and usually becomes “who is the monarch longer wins”. This means that we probably going  to see less static “prison” style of games. This statement is of course true only if Astro-Hawk decks will not degenerate is something like Drake becoming the only viable strategy.

About Astrolabe itself, is clear that, even if the Astro-Hawk deck will low in popularity, will be always one of the most used cards in Pauper.
Is this bad? Personally, I think not. If the Astro-hawk midrange decks will not be a problem in terms of presence and win rate, Astrolabe has given to pauper one of the widest metagame it has ever had.

Perfect mana fixing and how to deal with it

In Pauper there is no way to punish people for being greedy with their manabase or abusing of Arcum’s Astrolabe, like in Legacy and Modern.
It is also true that Pauper is different from Legacy and Modern. Pauper is a format where strategies and little value are key in order to reach the victory. Midrange decks in this moment may be super good, but the way to deal with them is not based on cards you can play. There are no Blood Moon like cards in this format and the format do not need them. The way to deal with “perfect” manabase is to have a good strategy. Playing hate cards like Ancient Grudge or Shenanigans as Wasteland or Field of Ruin is the wrong way of facing Astrolabe Midranges.

This is why I’m expecting more MonoW Hero, Bogle, Elves and Affinity in the next weeks. Those deck have the potential to stop the mass of value midrange we are facing right now. Why? Astro-Hawk decks do not have ways to deal with MonoW Heroic and Bogle pre-side, Elves can be slowed by removals, but Winding Way and Lead the Stampede give Elves the possibility to recover from a pair of Skreds. Elves is also capable of openings that midrange cannot beat. Affinity is able to propose a lot of pressure really fast. Atog if not countered is nearly unbeatable before sideboards.

Elves and Bogle in particular, are really good right now. Astrolabe has stabilized Bogle manabase and Winding Way + Lead the Stampede are incredibly good in Elves.
About Winding Way + Lead the Stampede “combo”, a niche deck that could rise is Slivers. If midrange decks will continue to have this low count of removal spell, Slivers can easily overrun them.
Flicker Tron, are also good in order to stop this Midrange fiesta, but is also true that Astrolabe has improved the matchup for midrange against Tron, that is not entirely a bad thing. More tight games mean a funnier format. Tron is also good against aggro so if you are trying to play it in Pauper keep in mind that your deck must deal with Stonehorn Dignitary / Fog locks.

Conclusions

White midrange decks must be kept on radar, but the format is way far from being solved. As I described in the previous paragraph, we have all the tools to deal with this metagame. Screaming for bans now is honestly way to soon. Also just talking about how Astro-Hawks are good and do not propose way to deal with them will not help the format.
Personally, if the numbers of those midrange will not drop, I would probably ban Ephemerate and not Arcum’s Astrolabe.
Arcum’s Astrolabe has improved midranges against Tron granting them a high pace in clocking the Urza deck making better the tempo game they can play. This means that Tron would be less problematic in the future. In addition, Arcum’s Astrolabe will always give more deckbuilding possibilities to players allowing a better manabase.

Ephemerate is a one mana “infinite combo” with Mnemonic Wall or Archeomancer. If is not interrupted and played correctly can be stronger than Monarch.
Can be stronger because the card is chosen from graveyard and is not just randomly drawn from the deck, is weak because is easier to interrupt and do not degenerate into a sub-game where the advantage of the monarch increases linearly during the game.

Flicker Tron has also improved the stability with Astrolabe, but Ephemerate on Wall paired with Moment’s Peace or Weather the Storm is incredibly better than Ghostly Flicker in the early stage of the game, helping Tron to stabilize against aggro decks easier and to keep up against Midrange before over-valuing them out of the game.

If things would go bad for the format diversity, I would call Ephemerate as a ban. Forcing midrange to rely on worse form of card advantage and making Tron loops harder could open more space in the metagame.

That being said, I could not write it more frequently than I’m doing, is way too early to call out for a ban. Pauper is slower to adapt than Standard and Modern, give the format time to evolve. Try to be propositive instead, analyze the meta and think how beat it. If this process will finish to a dead end, Wizard will solve the problem for us.

For today is all, I want to thank Pauperwave team and all the readers!
If you have any comment and/or suggestion I would be glad to read them! You can reach me via Twitter at @Xardian7

Enjoy Pauper and enjoy Magic!