Seeing as how the Pauper metagame remains mired in a pretty awkward place I thought today I’d take a look at some of the designs in Adventures in the Forgotten Realms in Pauper. While none of these cards look like they are ready to break Pauper in half, they do contain a lot of power. Similarly, the cards from Modern Horizons 2 were powerful but the ones currently seeing heavy play exerted enough pressure on the format to stress it to the breaking point. So what’s the difference? How can commons be released that make waves but don’t upend the applecart?
Looking at Modern Horizons 2, the problematic cards all mess with mana in some way. If you take a look at the list of cards banned in Pauper, most of them mess with the mana system in some way. Storm is a known issue in Pauper and spout cards – those that can effectively end the game – have proven especially problematic. Empty the Warrens, Grapeshot and Temporal Fissure all do a good job of putting the Storm pilot in a winning position and Chatterstorm does the same. Galvanic Relay has proven itself to be a powerful card but there is a caveat of actually having to cast the spells that get revealed off of its storm trigger.
The other cards that have thrown a wrench into Pauper’s works are the new artifact lands and, to a lesser extent, Sojourner’s Companion. In Affinity, artifact lands are essentially a painless Ancient Tomb and the new cycle comes with the cost of entering the battlefield tapped. The upside on these are enormous, as being able to fix Affinity’s mana out of a single land makes it easier to run high impact spells in diverse colors.
However, the real problem is with their indestructibility. The original artifact lands have long been legal despite their transgressions against the mana system since they were so easy to remove with cards like Ancient Grudge and Gorilla Shaman. Remove that safety valve and add another “free” 4/4 and the result is an Affinity deck that gets extra mana from each land, even once they’ve been tapped.
There are ways to break the mana system in Pauper that do not do the same for the format. Cards like Foil and Snuff Out have a real cost associated with their “free” side. Foil gets a lot of flack for being a free counterspell – one that many believe cost Gush its place in the format – but Foil still costs two additional cards to take care of one of your opponent’s cards. Snuff Out requires one-fifth of your life total and, in a format with viable aggressive decks, that is the equivalent of an entire turn off the clock.
So how do the latest commons fit into this equation? Let’s take a look at Devour Intellect.
The base level of this card is nothing special, but once you’re able to turn it on with Treasure, it turns into the best discard spell in the format. While you’re getting a great deal on the “kicked” version of Devour Intellect, cards like Thoughtseize and Inquisition of Kozilek have shown that spells of this level are worth about one mana, even if there are other stipulations attached.
Compare this card to Thraben Inspector. Thraben Inspector is an all-time great common that is efficiently costed while providing an effect that is well worth the investment. In both cases presented here the initial cost is low and there are options on how to best use the card in question. With Devour Intellect you can cast it in for the world’s worst Raven’s Crime but, with a little extra effort, you get something far greater. Thraben Inspector costs three total mana to maximize its utility but being able to split it across turns gives you the opportunity to maximize your mana.
If there is a thesis here, it’s that the best cards to print for Pauper are those that are efficient with regards to their mana value while also providing pilots with options. While this is true for every format, these cards are especially important in Pauper where effects normally reserved for higher rarity cards are verboten.
Let’s look at some other hits. Bonder’s Ornament made waves last year. As a three-mana rock that can turn into a recurring source of card advantage, the card saw heavy play for the better part of a year and still puts up results. As a source of mana, it’s a bit expensive, but it makes up for that in late game utility. Even decks outside of Tron can use it and although it is a hair slow for Pauper today, it’s very likely to come back before much longer.
You Find the Villains’ Lair is another three-mana card. It is, for all intents and purposes, a split card. On both sides – countering a spell or casting Careful Study as an instant – the card is a bit too costly. Yet I fully expect this one to see play since it can do either. Similar to Bonder’s Ornament, You Find the Villains’ Lair (I sure am going to love typing out the names of these cards) isn’t the most efficient card, but the fact you’re getting two cards in one slot can make up for the small premium.
There’s a fine line when it comes to commons. These cards have to serve their Limited environments and, in the case of Modern Horizons 2, what draft needed ended up having a massive impact on Pauper. Wizards can and should continue to make the best sets for draft while using tools like the ban list to adjust non-rotating formats.
Still, seeing cards like Devour Intellect and You Find the Villain’s Lair demonstrates a path to potentially impacting Pauper without turning the format on its ear: cheap, conditional spells with utility. Of course, if anything was as easy as I make this sound, all the issues with all formats would be fixed. I understand that this is a process – I’m just hopeful for more fun tools in Pauper’s future that don’t force entire archetypes out of the metagame.