The Pauper Format

The pauper format is a curious mix of lowest power limited and highest power legacy. Creatures rarely get bigger than 2/2, certain things like tribal lords and board wipes are almost nonexistent, and yet many decks boast consistent, resilient turn 3 kills. The premier aggro deck plays cards from Young Wolf to Rancor, and pauper infect is arguably faster than its modern counterpart. Delver decks can back up the titular one drop with Ponder and Daze, while control decks play lightning Bolt and Chainer’s Edict but win with 1/3’s and 2/2’s. And no deck embodies both halves of this format

better than Tortured Existence.

Pros Cons

Pros Cons
Highly configurable Slow to get online, vulnerable to fast aggro
Resilient to Hate High difficulty curve
Has combos which auto beat many decks Creatures are weak without the main engine
Rewards pilot familiarity and skill enchantment

Overview

There are two types of Tortured Existence decks, but both revolve around the one drop black enchantment that allows you to swap a creature in your hand with a creature in your graveyard. I’m sure this effect was of a common power level back when it was printed in Stronghold, but a flood of creatures have been printed since then that allow you to break that symmetry and establish absurd amounts of value and recursion. One version of the deck utilizes a host of madness creatures and discard outlets to establish quick, powerful threats like Gurmag Angler and Vampiric Hounds. The other plays a more controlling, toolbox package, recurring a few silver bullet creatures over and over. I’ll be writing primarily about the latter, today.

The core two creatures of the deck are Golgari Brownscale and Grave Scrabbler. Brownscale is one of a few common Dredge creatures that allow you to always have a creature in hand to discard to TE, and it’s the perfect Lizard for the job for a number of reasons. First, the low dredge cost allows you to dredge every turn for a long time before worrying about decking yourself. Second, the lifegain from returning the Brownscale from your graveyard to your hand can put you out of range of most aggression. It also completely hoses the powerful but narrow burn deck. Grave Scrabbler is the most value-oriented madness creature, allowing you to deploy a creature to the board and bring two back to your hand at instant speed for just 1BB.

The next most important creatures, at least in the toolbox version, singlehandedly win most matchups in the format: Spore Frog and Crypt Rats. Arguably one of the best sweepers in the format, a resolved Crypt Rats can wipe away most all of the tiny creatures of Pauper in one fell swoop. While most aggressive decks can recover from one sweeper, pauper aggro decks just don’t have the value to recover from two, let alone three, four, or more activations. Crypt Rats also become a win con in combination with a recurring Brownscale, allowing you to go up on life and burn out your opponent. And to buy time for all this, you can infinitely fog your opponent’s combat steps with infinite Spore Frogs. It’s a move that can instantly end the game against a host of uninteractive combat/combo decks, including Infect, Monogreen Stompy, Inside Out, and in some cases Izzet Blitz. After that, the deck breaks down into two types of cards: effects that fill your graveyard/find TE and value creatures to recur. The MVPs in the first category are Satyr Wayfinder, Commune with the Gods, and Vessel of Nascency, and my favorite effects in the second are Tilling Treefolk (which allows you to get back lands you mill but also recurs cycling lands, which can make it a sort of Mulldrifter) and Ambush Viper, a new innovation I’m experimenting with to combat creatures too big for Crypt Rats activations, like Gurmag Angler, Gearseeker Serpent, and monogreen creatures loaded up with Elephant Guide and Hunger of the Howlpack.

Strengths and Weaknesses

The secret strength of this deck is its resilience. Very few decks in pauper interact much with their graveyards beyond a single Pulse of Murasa or Delve threat, so sideboard hate is generally very light. However, a skilled pilot can easily maneuver around enchantment destruction for TE or even a Relic of Progenitus. Relic is a very skill intensive card to play, and the decision on whether to play it ASAP and try to tap it to keep the graveyard managed or keep it secret for a one shot exile at the proper moment is never easy. Generally, it’s correct to hold up your black mana on your opponent’s turn, and rescue a dredge creature from your graveyard in response to a relic so you can rebuild after your graveyard is gone. You can afford to lose most of the value creatures, so mass GY removal isn’t as effective as you’d think.

As for enchantment destruction, many TE players splash white for Auramancer, a maindeck play that also allows you to aggressively-self mill to find TE much more quickly. If you anticipate enchantment destruction, it’s often correct to hold the enchantment until you have enough mana to get a burst of value out of it, like rebuying a Crypt Rats or madnessing out a Grave Scrabbler.

The less secret weakness of this deck is that it revolves almost entirely around having a TE on the battlefield, and it can take some time to set that up. Your mediocre creatures are much more powerful when they’re constantly dancing between the graveyard and the field, but a quick draw can shut you down before you’re even online. Cards like Spore Frog and Grave Scrabbler, despite their power, look very embarrassing on their own. Sideboarding in relics and Gleeful Sabotage isn’t enough to beat this deck, but backing those hate cards up with a quick clock will often get there. My win rate with the deck after I’ve played TE is very high, but my overall win rate dips when there’s aggressive decks in the week’s local meta. Control decks can also be a problem. If you can sneak a TE in under countermagic, you almost can’t lose, but players picking up Bojuka Bogs with Dimir Aqueducts can be very annoying.

The main defensive play of the deck, recurring Spore Frogs, doesn’t work against everyone. Many decks, like Izzet Blitz, have the ability to remove the frog on your turn. Viridian Longbow and Gutshot can come in even from non red/black decks, forcing you to keep two Spore Frogs on the battlefield to truly be protected.

Tips and Tricks

Tortured Existence is an incredibly mentally taxing deck to play. Having access to your entire graveyard provides you with a lot of options throughout the game, and the decision to get more lands, set up another Fog Frog, or dig deeper into your deck in a given turn can have huge repercussions. Here’s a small list of some of the plays and ideas I’ve discovered with the deck:

  • If you have a Brownscale in your hand and another in the graveyard, you can pay B to swap them, effectively gaining 2 life for one mana. Sometimes it’s correct to take a turn off and spend all your mana to gain 10 or 14 life, putting you out of range of most cards. If you only have one Brownscale, it’s BB to gain 2 life.
  • If your opponent has a resolved relic and you want to rescue a creature from your yard, activate TE. In response to them exiling all graveyards, discard a Grave Scrabbler and madness it out to save both creatures. This way you can beat a relic even if you don’t have any spare cards to sacrifice to its tap ability.
  • When milling with dredge creatures and other effects, think about what you’re hoping to find. If you really just need to find TE, putting it into your graveyard with Dredge 5 or a Wayfinder trigger won’t help, so it may be better just to draw cards.
  • Maximize your black mana. It equals more TE activations and bigger Crypt Rat numbers. You do want to have GG for plays like playing and cracking a Vessel of Nascency, or sometimes casting a Brownscale.
  • If your opponent has a Young Wolf and you have a Crypt Rats, you can activate the rats for 2, then hold priority
    and activate it for 1. The second activation will kill the wolf first, then the first activation will kill its 2/2 body.
    This trick can also be used in response to pump spells. If you get in this kind of war over killing a creature, keep
    in mind that the repeated activations might kill your creatures that would’ve survived the first activation.
  • If you have the time to set up, Gravescrabbler is the first creature you should be going for with TE, to get your
    value started. Always target the creature you want the most with the TE activation, in case the Scrabbler is countered.
  • It’s better to take a combat swing and activate Rats on their end step, so they don’t have a second main phase to redevelop. This can give you a whole turn off to develop your board instead of just recurring the rats.
  • It’s good to Frog fog combat steps even when you have a high life total. If you wait until you’re almost dead to start fogging, you may lose to a single instant speed removal on your frog. Figuring out when to give up developing and spend your mana recurring fogs varies on each matchup.
  • Direct damage can circumvent Fog Frog. The most notable instances of this are multiple lightning bolts, Fling on a large Atog (or even just a Myr Enforcer!), and Disciple of the Vault.

Conclusion

While some decks are packed with individually powerful cards that never should have been printed at common, Tortured Existence uses synergies to turn truly common cards into powerhouses. The deck is incredibly rewarding to play, though your opponents may find losing to an infinitely recurred Crypt Rats frustrating if they’re playing more traditional decks. The enchantment earns its name in that case. If you’re looking for some videos of gameplay of the deck, I highly recommend checking out Caleb Gannon on Youtube. Many content creators will pick up a deck to highlight it for one video, and TE is a deck that will punish you over and over if you don’t know it well. Caleb knows his stuff, and his videos are both entertaining and educational.