Can Pauper Be Saved from Itself?

Depending on who you ask, Pauper is either the best it has ever been or is suffering under the weight of several broken cards. Pauper’s top tier has further separated itself from the pack and the march of the non-rotating format dictates that it’s hard to turn back the clock. Now, as the format waits for the injection of cards from Battle for Baldur’s Gate, the format’s stalwart fans – myself included – are wondering about the future of Pauper. And yet looking back on the past 15 years of common competition, my mind centers on two questions: How did we get to this point? Where does the format go from here?



The former question has a somewhat easier answer in that Pauper survived. While many playgroups in Magic‘s history have toyed with pools limited by rarity, Pauper caught on with Player Run Events on Magic Online and stuck. It has outlived Casual Format 1 and Casual Format 2 (Singleton and Five-Color on Magic Online), Tribal Wars and several other formats that had a decent following. Maybe it was the persistence of the player base, maybe it was the fact that by limiting the card pool to only commons meant fewer broken things could be done in the early days. Regardless, Pauper survived and in turn became an integral part of Magic Online‘s ecosystem.

Pauper received daily events, leagues and major challenges. It has a spot in the qualifying rounds for the Magic Online Championship Series and remains one of the more accessible ways to get into the legacy platform. Pauper also had a very vocal player base that had relatively reasonable requests – namely competitive events. And as Pauper became part of the fabric of digital Magic, its popularity grew. It helped that in the times before an ever present Cube, Pauper was a great way to play during lame duck Standard. 

As the popularity grew, so too did requests for new effects. Downshifts in the various online Masters Editions and later Modern Masters and Modern Horizons helped prop up strategies that might have otherwise struggled in the face of powerful Alpha cards like Lightning Bolt and Counterspell. Over time, the overall power level of the format increased, but until recently it was a slow creep. Still, it is hard to ignore the fact that some of Pauper’s current situation has stemmed from the desires of the player base coming to fruition.

Arcum's AstrolabeGalvanic RelaySojourner's CompanionChatterstorm

That isn’t the entire story, of course. The shift in card design has also influenced Pauper. The higher power level of Modern Horizons and Modern Horizons 2 Limited has had a massive impact on the format, leading to several bans (Arcum’s Astrolabe, Galvanic Relay, Sojourner’s Companion, Chatterstorm) and several other high profile cards that influence the format (Ephemerate, the Bridges). The recent trend of adding material in the form of tokens has also made cards that come with an additional cost – such as sacrificing a permanent – much easier to include and resolve. Pauper also has to deal with sets that are released for multiplayer play, with mechanics like the monarch and initiative throwing off the balance of one-on-one games. Finally, as more sets are released and Limited themes are revisited, eventually enough cards will be released to help prop up fringe strategies or increase the strength of already powerful options.

Pauper, in some ways, is a victim of its own success. By surviving and thriving in its own corner of the Magic-sphere, it has commanded just enough attention to be heard. The result are cards shifted to common with the hope of influencing the format in addition to powerful commons printed in non-Standard sets. In many ways, these are similar to the issues that have been discussed with Commander with one major difference. Whereas Commander is primarily a social format, Pauper is a competitive endeavor with a tournament structure that can provide a path to the Pro Tour.

The consequences of these factors is that Pauper is following the trend of other non-rotating formats. The fantastic Lawrence Harmon does a great job of breaking this phenomena down here. The gist is as follows: as new cards are added to Magic, the most efficient ones will see play in Pauper as well as the cards that synergize with cards from the past 30 years. Modern designs cannot be restrained by past mistakes but they have to live in the same sandbox. This, combined with revisiting the same wells for Limited time and time again, means that Pauper is going to keep breaking in certain ways.

We have seen this in the past with decks powered by Gush and Tron, and more recently with the powerful Affinity core. As the overall power level of Pauper continues to rise, these strategies exist as outliers in that they are not only powerful but they also have the ability to run many of the format’s best cards.

So that leaves us with a question – what can be done to ensure a healthy Pauper? That begets the question of the nature of format health. To some, a healthy format means one with a wide variety of viable strategies and decks. To others, this is about healthy play patterns. Depending on who you ask, Pauper currently has both of these, neither of these or one of these. If Pauper stays the course, then it’s heading towards Legacy and Vintage – formats where problems are glossed over in favor of keeping as many cards legal as possible. 

I am not a fan of this path as I feel that Pauper lacks enough incentives to make more esoteric strategies attractive. At the same time, something has to be done because Pauper is not going to get a Pioneer to its Modern; the conceit of the format is competitive Magic with commons from the entire history of the game. I am not saying a more restricted card pool format could not be successful, but it does not have the same weight behind it as the current Pauper.

I think that if Pauper is going to continue to succeed and grow, and if cards are going to continue to push the boundaries of common, then the ban list has to be a tool in the arsenal. I believe that a more liberal application of the banned list – when necessary – can be used to cultivate a more balanced format. This path is not without its own fraught as at some point the ban list may be too onerous but for now it appeals to me as a way forward. In the short term, it can be used to achieve some set of balance while in the long term it can allow new cards a chance to shine.

Pauper can be saved from its own success. The format grew due to player support and has transitioned to a new era. There are many ways this one can end but to me the best option is to take some cards out of the pool. But what about you – what would you do to balance Pauper?


1 thought on “Can Pauper Be Saved from Itself?”

  1. Go read Pauper: Bans will never solve the Real Problem, by Humberto… Not only don’t bans solve anything, but they feel overly prohibitive. If you want a “fair” Pauper format, then go play the Historic version.

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