Pauper Duel Commander; What to Expect - An Early Metagame Analysis
Welcome to Pauper Duel Commander or PDC! (Also called 1v1 PDH just to keep things confusing) Maybe you are here because you want to join a Discord tournament, or maybe your LGS is hosting a PDC event. This format sounds exciting, but what should you play? And, more importantly, what should you expect to play against?
We will keep this brief and to the point. First, we will list the most common archetypes and corresponding commanders and then we will discuss what kind of deck might do well against the top contenders.
Before we do that, there are two important things you should know:
1.) This format is young and the metagame is relatively unsolved and unexplored. Brew your own brew! Bring something new! Break the format! PDC is exciting since there is so much room to do your own thing. Don’t think that you have to bring the most popular deck to do well…. BUT! You should know what you are up against. Your cool brew will still need to be able to face off against the top decks and win if you want to go anywhere. So, pay attention to what everyone else is playing and show up prepared!
2.) The data that is included in this article is based on two PDC leagues. The first league was held in the spring and summer of 2021 with a relatively small number of players in Italy. This Italian league started off playing with 30 life and 16 commander damage before switching to 25 life and 21 commander damage about half way through the season. So, the results of the Italian league are not exactly representative of the current meta. The second set of data is from a worldwide league held in the summer of 2022. This league had about 18-20 players per week for 10 weeks and it used the standard 25 life and 21 commander damage for the entire time. Even with both of these data sets put together, we still have a very small amount of data available on win percentages and metagame. This data is useful but it is not definitive or exhaustive.
Part 1: The Meta
Aggressive and Combat Based
This archetype is all about putting lots of creatures into play and turning them sideways. There are a few different takes on the strategy, from the enchantment/equipment synergy of Reyav to the infect of Fynn. In 2022, 17% of the decks played were aggressive and combat based and they put up an overall win-rate of 53%.
There are several creature-based decks that can be very fast and very consistent. The oldest of these is Azra Oddsmaker. Azra did well in 2021 with an 100% win-rate over just 6 games and put-up strong results again in 2022 with a 58% win-rate over 12 games. Azra combines aggressive creatures with discard synergy to produce card advantage and power on the board.
Keleth/Rograkh was played in 13 games in 2021 but finished with a slightly sub-50% score-line. However, this “Red Horse” deck took the number one slot in 2022 with a 63% win-rate over 24 games. This deck boasts aggressive constancy. It can always put its commanders into play turns one and two and it packs the protection to back them up while they grow. It is a scary deck to face any game but it is terrifying when it is ‘on the play’.
Example Commanders: Loyal Apprentice
There is really only one valid choice for a Red Deck Wins strategy in PDC. Loyal Apprentice. Yes, Loyal counts itself as commander, so you get a Thopter turn two, and every turn after, until Loyal is killed. This ability to pump out evasive creatures, coupled with the huge number of powerful red burn spells printed at common, makes Loyal Apprentice a popular and powerful choice for PDC enthusiasts. Loyal boasted a 71% win-rate in 2021 over 21 games and a 59% win-rate in 2022 over 44 games.
The name Voltron typically evokes the idea of a deck that is all-in on one evasive creature that is enchanted and equipped into a huge beater. When we say Voltron-ish we mean that, but we are also counting any deck whose primary game plan is to attack with one big creature, whether or not it is being buffed in the traditional sense. Many single-attacker strategies in PDC don’t actually rely on enchantments and equipment to make a creature huge. Some decks, like Dargo, cheat out a large creature early in the game and others, like Sprite Dragon, let a small creature grow through triggered abilities. In 2022, 28% of the decks played were Voltron-ish and they put up an overall win-rate of 49%.
Slippery Boggle is a classic PDC commander. But, with the commander damage change, the deck is less of a menace than it used to be. Many savvy pilots turned to other single attacker strategies in 2022, proving the viability of a number of other Voltron commanders.
Dargo plus Esior has proven to be a powerful combination. The deck plays a large number of low-cost artifacts and token generators. It uses Dargo’s sacrifice ability to play him early under the protection of Esior. This deck was not played at all in 2021, but it burst onto the seen in 2022 with a 65% win-rate over 20 games.
The classic Esior and Keleth deck, or Bird-Horse as it is fondly known, is also still a strong option. This deck wants to get both commanders into play early and then protect them with counterspells while they collect counters. Bird-Horse put up a 60% win-rate in 2021 over 10 games and a 65% win-rate in 2022 in 23 games.
Sprite Dragon and Crackling Drake can also grow themselves and have the benefit of a stronger color combination than Bird-Horse. But they lack the built-in protection of Esior or Boggle. Crackling Drake was played 29 times in 2021 with an overall win-rate of 59%. Sprite Dragon was played 23 times in 2021 with a 61% win-rate. The commander damage change seems to have had a negative impact on these serpents and in 2022 they were played only 27 times combined with a 37% win-rate together.
Black Based Control
Control is a viable strategy in PDC, but the jury is still out on which control commander is best. It seems that each control-loving mage has their own pet deck that they insist on running. The common thread through all of the control decks is that they are built around a backbone of black mana. In 2022, 16% of the decks were in the Black Based Control architype. And their overall win-rate was a healthy 58%.
Baleful Strix is an old PDC deck that saw less play in 2022 than in previous years. This deck is a traditional permission deck that uses the annoying bird to slow down opponents while gaining card advantage. Sometimes, the deck includes a combo finish. In 2021, Strix was present for a whopping 56 games with an impressive 73% win-rate. In 2022, the deck was only tried for 16 games and its win-rate dropped to 50%.
Knights of the Black Rose was played by one dedicated pilot in both 2021 and 2022. The deck eschews counterspells and leans into quality black removal and card advantage from the command zone. The cheeky inclusion of the Rune of Protection cycle also continues to perform frustratingly well. The deck was played 10 times in 2021 with a 60% win-rate and 17 times in 2022 with a 65% win-rate. It finished in second place.
The most common mono-black choice for the format seems to be Plaguecrafter. This control deck respects Voltron so much that is includes an edict in the command zone! It is packed full of removal along with some creatures to sacrifice, and includes all of the best black 60-card pauper staples. Plaguecrafter was played 6 times in 2021 with a 67% win-rate and 11 times in 2022 with a 73% win-rate.
It seems that a lot of homebrews fell into the Midrange category but haven’t particularly performed well. Midrange decks (and some other decks that have no home; like combo) played in 25% of games in 2022 with a disappointing overall win-rate of 44%.
Mayhem Devil is a standout in this category. This Black-Red deck plays all of the good blood and treasure generating cards and sacrifices them while the commander is on the board to ping all of their opponent’s creatures to death or to just put damage straight to face. This deck was not tried in 2021 but finished well in 2022 with a 65% win-rate over 22 games.
Armix and Toggo is another popular Black-Red deck of the PDC format. This partner deck loosely relies on artifact and discard synergy alongside the removal provided by both commanders, to grind out a win. It was a popular choice in 2021, being played in 37 games with a 73% win-rate. In 2022 it was only played in 9 games with a disappointing 44% finish.
Part 2: What To Play?
Play Early Removal
After two years of PDC leagues, and over 600 games, we have hopefully learned a few things about what is important in a PDC deck. The first lesson is that early removal is critical. Most decks play two mana removal, but it is also important to include disruption that can be cast on turn one. Some of the faster decks of the format will be established on the board with shields up by their turn two or three. If you cannot deal with them before then, you will have a harder time as the game progresses. That is why it is important to run a decent amount of removal in general, but also to specifically include a suite of one-mana removal spells. In red and black decks this is not that difficult, but the options are fairly limited in some of the other colors. Consider including cards like Sun Lance and Force Spike, or enchantments like Kirtar’s Desire and Witness Protection if you don’t have access to black or red.
Edicts Are Important
Voltron-ish decks account for 28% of the meta, and they are putting up respectable results. A deck that does not have a plan to beat a single large beater is going to have a hard time. Most of these Voltron decks use some sort of protection to keep their guy on the board, so traditional removal cannot always be relied on. This is why edicts are so important in this format. An edict is a card that forces the opponent to sacrifice a creature. Diabolic Edict and Chainer’s Edict are examples. Black has the most options, and if you are a black deck, you should consider running a good number of them. White has Celestial Flare and blue has Curfew. I would recommend running both of these cards in most white or blue builds. Red can use cards like End the Festivities or Fiery Cannonade against a Voltron deck that starts small, like Slippery Boggle or Sprite Dragon, but those cards don’t work well against something like Crackling Drake. Regardless of your color combination, you should have a plan to beat a Voltron deck.
Just Be Faster
If your deck doesn’t have an answer to a Voltron threat or it doesn’t want to be spending cards on removal, there is another path. You can just race the opponent. Playing the beatdown deck is a perfectly valid option. There are few options for board wipes in the format, so brew up a go wide strategy or maybe Gruul aggro. (Someone needs to come up with a good Bloodbraid Elf deck!). If you don’t want to come up with something of your own, you could always pick up a tried-and-true deck like Loyal Apprentice or Keleth and Rograkh. Not everyone wants to play a deck that tries to counter every move the other player makes, and that’s ok. Just race them instead. In is format, that is a perfectly valid option.
Don’t Forget the Late-Game
Consider this a warning. PDC is not like 60-card magic. You will never, truly, run your opponent out of resources. (ok, ok, except for Oubliette) They will always have their commander to recast, again and again. Every time you have to spend another card killing a commander, you go down in resources in exchange for their loss of tempo. Against a partner deck this is especially true. At the start of the game, it is ok to trade a removal spell for a commander, but as the game goes on it becomes more and more taxing. Therefore, it is critical that slower decks include card advantage engines that will sustain them through the late game. This could be things with buyback like Disturbed Burial or Evincar’s Justice or cards that draw cards, like Destructive Digger, Dark-Dweller Oracle or Ninja of the Deep Hours. Monarch and Initiative cards also fill this role as long as you can keep control of the board. A slow deck is going to want multiple ways to stay in a long game without running out of things to do.
With that, go and break the format! PDC is too young and too infrequently played to have been solved yet! You could be the one to blow it wide open.
Thank you for reading!