One of the biggest adjustments I have to make when building pauper EDH decks versus standard EDH decks is in regards to how I frame creatures in general. Pauper EDH, obviously by its very nature, has a very limited card pool. When it comes to winning or otherwise ending the game, fewer options exist. Combos are relatively limited and specific, and there are very few ways to break through a game relying on the power of spells in a multiplayer environment -- the power level of the spells available is generally too low. The role of creatures, as a result, is elevated tremendously. Unless we are playing towards some kind of infinite combo, we will generally end up winning via combat. Creatures are the lifeblood of the format, and taking the time to scrutinize which ones we sleeve up can get us a lot of mileage in the long-term.
The first step, and biggest indicator of how to go about building a creature base, is to identify and understand the removal available. Whereas in standard EDH we can always assume that some number of board wipes are lurking out in the wild, with a pauper card pool that assumption just doesn’t make sense anymore. The methods with which to clear the board of creatures in games of pauper EDH are clunky, color restrictive, and easily interacted with. As a result, there is a vacuum that fills itself in with redundant levels of single-target removal -- there will always be a need to interact with creatures on the board, no matter how inefficient it may be to do so. Once we acknowledge that players will be interacting with creatures primarily on a one-for-one basis, we can begin to craft a creature base to take advantage.
There are, primarily, two distinct approaches to take: either we overload removal spells with threats, or we build our creature base around creatures that generate value outside of simply being a body, making removal less effective. This theory isn’t particularly new, but takes on a new sheen in a format where creatures serve a much broader role. How do we decide which side to lean towards? That depends on what our deck is specifically trying to accomplish. It all starts with the selection of our commander and the strategy to support it. After all, a creature base built for Krosan Warchief, for instance, is going to differ significantly from something like Ascended Lawmage. Let’s take a closer look at Ascended Lawmage and see what we can come up with.
What creatures do we want to accompany this commander? First, we have to identify our win condition. In this case, it’s pretty easy -- the primary objective here is to climb on the back of our commander and ride it to the finish line. Also, because of the support that this commander needs, we have to build our creature base from the top down. By that, I mean that we need to start with the creatures that most directly advance our primary plan and build out from there into broader subsets of cards.
Let’s take this moment to look back at our original dilemma: based on this commander, what sort of creatures do we want? The biggest red flag, to me, is that this commander has hexproof, which fundamentally alters the dynamic by which our opponents will be interacting with us. Essentially, whereas with most decks, the commander is the most important piece to be able to remove, we get to circumvent that issue for the most part, in turn putting a larger target over the heads of our other creatures. For this reason, we should stay away from creatures that need to survive a trip around the table to be able to have an impact. Any standalone threat that doesn’t generate any value outside of attacking and blocking just attracts removal that would have otherwise just been sitting (mostly) dead. When our opponent is faced with the choice of using their Doom Blade on a Seraph of Dawn or a Trinket Mage/Whitemane Lion/Sea Gate Oracle, the decision is easy. We are losing the opportunity for our opponent to make a mistake. Crowded board states can be hard to figure out, so we don’t want to be in the business of making decisions any more clear for our opponent than they need to be. This is why it is generally not the best idea to put these sorts of creatures in more value-centric creature bases, which is where we are drawn with Ascended Lawmage.
Now that we have an idea of what general types of creatures we want, we need to get down to the specifics to fill out our list. I, personally, like to visualize this aspect of building a creature base as being comprised of a series of three concentric circles. The innermost circle is comprised of the creatures that will directly support our primary game plan -- these are creatures that are almost never without strong impact. In this context, cards like Heliod’s Pilgrim, Totem-guide Hartebeest and Trinket Mage serve as good examples. These are creatures that have a direct impact on what we’re trying to do, by tutoring up our most powerful enabling auras and equipment, and serve that purpose immediately, while sticking around to provide a blocker we can use to help us race when we need to. I like to refer to this circle of creatures as the CORE.
The second, larger circle is for cards that support our overall archetype. These are the creatures that we use to define the role we take in the game. With Ascended Lawmage, I always think of it as, ultimately, a tempo deck, where we are looking to impact the rate at which our opponents are playing the game. This can manifest in any number of ways, whether through bouncing creatures, countering spells, or otherwise hindering our opponents from advancing their board. In this category, we find creatures like Man-o-War, Mist Raven, Standard Bearer or Coalition Honor Guard. All of these creatures advance our board while setting our opponent back on resources, which is the way that we can keep them on the back foot while we continue to swing in with our commander. I like to refer to this circle of creatures as the SHELL.
The third, and largest circle is for cards that tie everything together. This is where we find our general value creatures, and others that key in on smaller synergies within the deck. What this subset of creatures looks like in any given deck is primarily dictated by decisions made up to this point -- hence why it is the final piece of the puzzle. Based on the creatures we’ve discussed up to this point, this subset would include cards like Whitemane Lion, Dream Stalker, Mnemonic Wall or Archaeomancer. These are creatures that let us double down on our tempo plan by adding a layer of redundancy to our ETB triggers and interactive spells. And this isn’t nearly all of them that would be worth considering. Most of the cards we think of as staples end up falling into this category, and they do a great job of rounding things out (hence why they’ve come to be staples). Because it is the most unfocused and adaptive element to any creature base, I like to refer to this circle of creatures as the BUFFER.
This approach, for me personally, has helped to create focused, well rounded creature bases, and can apply to almost any potential deck. I mentioned earlier that something like Krosan Warchief is going to take a fundamentally different stance on what creatures it wants to play, as opposed to Ascended Lawmage. Let’s take a quick look as to why.
It all starts by going back, again, to see what sorts of creatures we want to be drawn towards. With Ascended Lawmage being a good example of finding value in your creatures outside of their power and toughness, Krosan Warchief is a good example of a commander that wants to try and overload the opponent's removal with threats. However, this does not mean that the three-tier approach we discussed isn’t applicable. Here are some examples of how I would start to construct a creature base for Krosan Warchief, using the methodology I’ve outlined above.
For our core, we want cards that directly affect our ability to be casting and attacking with beast creatures. The bigger, the better. The three best examples of cards I would put in this category are Advocate of the Beast, Wirewood Savage, and Berserk Murlodont. Advocate and Murlodont are both cards that provide powerful tribal effects and, in turn, make blocking difficult for our opponents. With a primary aggro plan, these creatures are of significantly higher importance. Wirewood Savage keeps us able to cast more creatures by causing each to replace themselves. Having some sort of card advantage is really important in aggro strategies, so I would also consider this creature to be essential. Notice that the three examples here are all support creatures that provide value over aggro. This is pretty normal, and something that should be expected in any core of a creature base. This is the tier, after all, that is the most specialized of the three.
It’s also important to note here that while it is generally inadvisable to slot in a couple generic threats into a value-centric creature base, the inverse doesn’t really hold true. When we are already spreading our opponent’s removal thin with a high threat density, we can afford to run some value creatures without altering the existing paradigm in regards to removal. When we establish in a game that our creature base is predominantly threats that are important to keep under control, there is only so much attention that can be given to handling the few support creatures that we run. It goes back to what we talked about earlier -- we don’t want our opponents to have easy decisions when it comes to killing our creatures. We want them to sweat the decision to kill a Wirewood Savage over a Fangren Hunter, for example. Understanding this relationship between value creatures and threat creatures is vital.
Let’s move on to our shell. We’re clearly an aggro deck. We are going to be attacking for the win 100% of the time. Being in mono-green, we don’t have a ton of tricks available to break through board stalls. That being said, I want our shell to focus on two primary categories. First, we want efficient creatures that have trample. It’s going to be the easiest way to push through damage, especially in mono-green where we have access to a lot of pump effects. Some examples would be Battering Krasis, Spiked Baloth, Thundering Tanadon, and Stomper Cub. When it comes to creatures with trample, we want to prioritize high power over toughness, since our commander lets us regenerate as a mana sink. Second, we want creatures act as a Lure, which is to say creatures that force our opponents to block. We have to go off-tribal to find them, but their ability to break a game open is really important in the long run. The two creatures that I would use here are Nath’s Elite and Taunting Elf.
As for our buffer here, the floodgates really do open up. Really we’re looking for any large body, starting with the most mana-efficient and moving down the list until we’ve hit as many creatures as we want. I do, however, want to specifically mention Glowering Rogon, and why it belongs specifically in this tier. While it is a card that plays off of tribal synergy, it will always simply be a vanilla creature. At its best, it is an efficient creature, and at its worst, it is an inefficient creature. There really isn’t anything more to it than that. For that reason, it firmly belongs as a buffer creature, but higher up in priority than most. There is no set of circumstances where I would put this in a core or shell. In the specific context of tribal decks, the presence of a tribal synergy doesn’t make it key, or even significantly important, to the strategy. We have to evaluate how the cards function on the board to determine which of the three tiers it falls into.
Creatures have always been my favorite part of the game, and making sure I choose the right ones for the job has always been something of a hobby within the hobby, so to speak. With all the creatures that are at our disposal in the format, it can be overwhelming to conceptualize exactly which ones to include in any given deck. It’s never going to be an exact science, and your final list may look drastically different from where you started. Hopefully the approach we used here can help you focus things to a good starting point that can be used to develop and playtest further. How do you go about developing a creature base in this format? What qualities and distinctions do you hone in on? Are there any general rules or guidelines that you follow? Let me know via the PDH Home Base discord!
Take care, gang.