The latest Organized Play announcement heralded the impending return of the Pro Tour. While still several months away, these tournaments (and their corresponding qualifiers) will use a wide variety of formats, but outside of Standard, the Constructed options (as of the time of writing) are not available to play on Magic Arena. And while tabletop play is coming back, if you want to practice Pioneer or Modern at an increased rate, it could mean turning to Wizards’ other digital offering – Magic Online.
Magic Online, sometimes referred to as MTGO, lacks the polish of Arena. In return, it provides an experience much closer to tabletop Magic in that you can trade the cards in your collection and in certain instances, can exchange entire sets of digital cards for their paper version (reserved for the latest Standard releases). This means that while you might trade cards at a loss, it is possible to convert one deck to another via the platform’s economy.
So you may be asking why is the Pauper writer talking about this? Because Pauper is a fantastic way to dip your toe into Magic Online. It is a competitive format – complete with leagues and challenges – where you can grind your way towards resources that can then be exchanged for cards to build out a collection for Pioneer or eventually Modern.
Before diving further, we should take a few moments to talk about how tournaments work on MTGO. The two main events on the platform are Leagues and Challenges. While there are other offerings, these two make up the majority of scheduled play. Leagues are five round events where you can plan on your own schedule – you do not have to play every match in a single sitting. Leagues are lower stakes but going positive earns you back your entry fee and a Treasure Chest prize pack. Four and five win runs earn the pilot more rewards. Challenges are larger weekend events and are Swiss style tournaments. These can range from six to nine rounds and pay out to the Top 32. Most of the results you find on the MTGO Deck List page come from Challenges and Leagues and these are the best on ramps to playing matches that matter on MTGO.
So then why should you start with Pauper? Simply put, Pauper is accessible. While the format does have some cards that are surprisingly pricey for commons (Snuff Out and Lotus Petal come to mind), it is still easy to acquire the cards and start grinding Leagues, building up a bank of Play Points (one of the ways to pay for entries into events). The Magic Online economy has a marketplace with various stores (or bots), many of whom sell commons for fractions of a cent.
The most affordable and accessible decks tend to also have some of the clearest lines of play. Decks like Bogles and Burn have depth but are also relatively straightforward. This is important as it gives players an opportunity to learn and master the interface which does take some practice.
Pauper is also part of the existing structure for organized play on Magic Online. In short, this means it is possible to make your way to the highest levels of play by playing Pauper. While this may change with the new system, it is likely that Pauper qualifiers will continue to be offered on MTGO. Getting familiar with the format provides you with additional opportunities to qualify for the next level.
But if you are coming from smaller formats to MTGO, Pauper does something more. It can help teach the fundamentals of non-rotating formats in a way that scales up. Learning something in Pauper can help make it easier to learn in other larger formats.
Pauper in many ways is all about resource management. While this is true about all of Magic, because Pauper is made up entirely of commons. Correctly evaluating the worth of a card in a situation is paramount; mistakes compound and one wrong step can leave you trapped in a hole.
Let’s take this situation for example: You are playing a Spellstutter Sprite deck on the play against Affinity. On your opponent’s second turn, you have an opportunity to Sprite an Experimental Synthesizer. This is an obvious target and you should snap it off. But what happens if you choose not to, instead opting to hold the Sprite for something like Galvanic Blast? The Synthesizer may “draw” the opponent a land, help reduce the cost on Myr Enforcer and then be fed to a Deadly Dispute to help “draw” another card while also drawing two more.
Here’s one where it’s less clear. You are Spellstutter Sprite deck squared up against Bogles. Again, you have the opportunity to use Sprite on their second turn. After playing their second Forest, they opt to play out Abundant Growth. Do you counter it? This one has a less clear answer. While Growth does replace itself, it is far less dangerous than Utopia Sprawl or a creature. Even then, the creatures in Bogles are fairly anemic without enhancement. But Growth does give them access to white in this situation, which means Ethereal Armor is online. Here the context matters, but making the wrong decision at this moment can mean that Bogles can start to press their advantage.
Because of the relatively flat power level in Pauper, the format can also teach you how to extract the most value from each card. Card advantage engines are at the core of many of the more successful Pauper decks in the current metagame and have forced players to reexamine cards from the format’s past. For example, Deadly Dispute has completely changed how people view artifacts that store material on the battlefield. Being able to understand what is making a large card pool format tick and then dive deep into the available card pool is an important skill. Again, looking at current Pauper it becomes apparent that a lot of the card draw in the format is currently being stored in noncreature permanents and in tokens like Clues, Blood and Treasures. Couple this with several decks lowering their curve and a card like Repeal starts to look more attractive in this context.
If Pauper excels at teaching you how to look for little edges and extracting value, it is woefully lacking in swingy plays. The format lacks planeswalkers and the closest approximation is the monarch, which cannot be removed from the game. Pauper also lacks spells and effects that are typically better than a two-for-one, meaning that most fights tend to be at a fair rate. Playing too much Pauper and not enough other formats can leave you with a lack of awareness for sweepers or busted card advantage options. Yorion, Sky Nomad isn’t showing up anytime in Pauper to reset Omen of the Sea. And while Pauper has fantastic creature removal, the creatures are rather paltry. Death’s Shadow is a pipe dream and while Gurmag Angler is legal, it is hardly format defining.
All of this does not take away from the fact that Pauper is still a great on ramp to Magic Online competitive play. But what should you pick up for your first Pauper deck? That all depends on what you like doing in Magic.
I think a great place to start is Burn. While the exact cards might change from format to format, Burn plays a similar way no matter what the card pool may be. Burn is an easy to acquire deck that does not have a ton of card turnover from set to set in Pauper and is very good for grinding Leagues. Similarly, there are various Kiln Fiend decks in Pauper that have lines of play that resemble both Arclight Phoenix and Prowess decks in the larger formats.
Bogles is another deck that has both similar lines of play and has several cards in common with the deck in Pioneer. Ethereal Armor hits hard no matter what and while Pioneer swaps green for blue, and if Modern Bogles ever makes a comeback, then you will be all set.
There are other decks that have less clear analogues but work nonetheless. Pauper Green Tron might not have the game enders of Karn Liberated and Ugin, the Spirit Dragon but it does have several avenues to assemble Tron to leverage a big threat. Learning the sequencing of this deck in Pauper before trying to Eldrazi out your opponents in Modern could be time well spent.
Finally, I want to highlight the Goblin Combo deck. It looks to assemble Putrid Goblin with an active First Day of Class and a Skirk Prospector on the board to generate an unbound amount of mana. If this sounds like other undying or persist-based combos you’d be right, and since Yawgmoth, Thran Physician combo is very good in Modern this could be a way to get in reps with something in line with that strategy.
I am not going to sit here and say that playing nothing but Pauper is going to get you to the Pro Tour. Still, Pauper is a great way to learn a lot about Magic and more so about Magic Online, and practice the skills needed to one day maybe hoist some hardware.