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Life Begins at 16: Is Pauper MTG Too Fast?

The other day, as I am one to do, I put a flippant statement on social media. The idea behind the statement was less a fully formed thought and more a concept that had been rattling around in my head for a while as it relates to the current state of Pauper. Given the nature of social media, the statement was a quip and one that landed poorly. Thank goodness I have this platform to better explain myself.

 

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Anyway, the post asked about what changes one would make to their deck construction and selection if the games they played began at 16 life instead of 20. Many people replied that they would play an aggressive Burn deck to take advantage of the lower starting life. But why did I pose the question this way?

Galvanic Blast has been legal in Pauper for over a decade but it has never been as popular as it is currently. Part of this has to do with the prevalence of Affinity and the ease of achieving metalcraft thanks to the Modern Horizons 2 Bridges. There is also an increased incentive to run artifacts thanks to the potent card draw of Deadly Dispute and the reach provided by Makeshift Munitions, which in turn makes Galvanic Blast a more enticing option. Finally, there is the addition of Monastery Swiftspear which, in conjunction with Great Furnace and other artifact synergies, uses the Scars of Mirrodin standout to great effect. 

Since Galvanic Blast is not only popular but also powerful, it has had a drastic impact on the way games play out. Affinity and Kuldotha Red are two decks that show up a ton in challenges and tend to perform well, while decks like Mardu Synthesizer and Madness Burn also run the instant but tend to be closer to Tier 2 than the top of the format. These decks pack four spells that each eat one-fifth of your life total. So why am I positing this as the format having a lower starting life total?

Taking a step into the past, when the Khans of Tarkir gainlands were revealed, it was a pretty big shot to Burn as a strategy. Burn was very good at dealing 20 damage at the time, but with so many decks opting to run these lands, the effective starting life total in the format trended towards 21. Burn didn’t stop being a deck, but it had a harder time getting the job done, even if not every deck was running these lands. Today, with so many decks packing Galvanic Blast, there is simply less time to establish a game plan. The fact that decks are also filled to the brim with velocity also means that they’re going to see a ton of cards and are able to put the opponent on the defensive from the get go. 

The pressure of these strategies reduces the overall clock of the game. Decks that are under the threat of dying in a flurry of Galvanic Blasts cannot afford to set up more involved plans. This is a drastic change of course in Pauper where players could often take the first few turns to develop their board and draw cards. Now there is an immediate threat and even if you’re not facing down a quick Swiftspear, there’s a good chance other pressure is coming your way.

Things have changed so much that even Spellstutter Sprite is relegated to the second tier. Sprite is too slow on the play and lacks the same efficacy in the late game thanks to the heavily played Makeshift Munitions being able to pick off the faeries before the trigger resolves. 

Many players are choosing to fight this fire with fire by running their own aggressive strategies. People who are constantly in the Magic Online League are reporting that they face Affinity or Kuldotha Red several times each run which can help to promote a feeling of stagnation or worse, hopelessness. The idea that one must prepare to face these decks several times every run can detract from the process of deck selection. While this is part and parcel for any competitive format, the severe limiting imposed by the constraints of these decks and the compressed development phase might be too restrictive. The shadow cast by Galvanic Blast is long.

So what decisions can be made in this world? First, I think that trying to take the first few turns off of the game to set up is a big ask. It’s a much safer bet to play an untapped land and hold up Ash Barrens than it is to try to lead on Evolving Wilds. Life gain on a one-drop, whether that be Lunarch Veteran or Sacred Cat or Banehound, is huge. Especially when it can be combined with Basilisk Gate or another force multiplier. But none of this is new, and yet it all feels so strange.

I’ve said it before, but Pauper is experiencing the same cycle that takes place in other non-rotating formats where efficiency starts to win due to the sheer volume of cards available. I was fond of saying that a better Lightning Bolt isn’t walking through the door but at this moment, I may just be wrong. Pauper has entered another level of efficiency where the baseline is four damage for one mana. After years of games defined by Preordain to sculpt turns two and beyond, Experimental Synthesizer is not a breath of fresh air but a gale force storm knocking the format on its ear.

Even so, there are still games to be played and knowing these decks are out there means they can be targeted. I’m not saying that it is time to run Galina’s Knight, but if it isn’t, then the clock might strike that moment soon. And if it does, might I recommend Steel of the Godhead?

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