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My First Year on the MTG Pauper Format Panel

2022 was the first year of the Pauper Format Panel and I was honored to be a member. The group, consisting of Paige Smith, Emma Partlow, Alexandre Weber, Mirco Ciavatta, Ryuji Saito, Gavin Verhey and I was implemented to help monitor the health of Pauper and make recommendations on steps that can be taken with regards to banning (or unbanning) cards. Today, I want to talk a little bit about my experience this year and overall, how I think things went.

 

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Stewarding the Format

In the years leading up to 2022, I was often asked whether or not I thought a group akin to the Pauper Format Panel would work, and my answer was almost always no. The issue, to me, was not that players could not be impartial but rather I felt that it was incumbent upon Wizards to ensure a healthy format. Over time, my opinion changed, if only because there were issues in the format that were clear to those of us playing it regularly but flew under the radar of those who could make the changes. My time on the panel has shown me exactly how much work and effort goes into these decisions and considering that the fine folks in Renton have plenty of other formats on their plate, the need for the Panel became more clear. 

I always approach my work on the Panel from the perspective of wanting Pauper to grow and thrive. While I’m not going to talk about specific inner workings, I do want to provide some insight as to my state of mind. When the subject of bans comes up, I tend to take the stance of wanting to remove the fewest possible cards to maximize results. In my mind, I think removing a deck or archetype is a last resort, usually reserved for when the format cannot handle the archetype (Storm combo comes to mind), but at other times I want to see what steps can be taken to reduce the strength of otherwise powerful decks in order to allow them to exist but not dominate. 

My mindset has changed as a result of my work on the panel. Before this year, I would say I had a “maximalist” approach to banning cards. If something was offensive, I would want it removed from the format. Now I think more can be done with a “soft touch” that leaves behind more options for players while still keeping the format in relative balance. 

The initial trepidation I had – that being impartial would be difficult for members – proved for naught. Everyone has the same goal – the continued health and success of Pauper. The focus on this aspect illuminated me to the fact that it can be easy to set aside my own personal biases for the sake of the format.

Successes

Overall, I see a few areas where the Panel’s decisions could be deemed successful. Storm has long been a problem in Pauper as there are no options available to mitigate or counteract storm as a mechanic. Unlike other formats, there are no significant safety valves like Chalice of the Void, Wasteland or Thoughtseize. Banning Galvanic Relay was another in a long line of dealing with Storm combo via the ban list. Even though Relay did not win the game on its own, it helped the combo player see enough cards to all but ensure victory.

Similarly, I think the actions taken with regards to Tron were successful. Tron has historically stretched the limits of the format, using its significant mana advantage to dominate the late game. While it would not be wrong to say the abundance of mana made available by the Tron lands is a problem (as evidenced by the historical ban of Cloudpost), another issue with Tron is how easily the deck had been able to access discrete colors of mana. Taking away Prophetic Prism and Bonders’ Ornament cut off this angle and brought Tron back to the pack. 

That being said, this success may not prove sustainable. Energy Refractor is not nearly as mana efficient as Prophetic Prism but can unlock discrete colors of mana. If this new stripe of Tron deck can operate with a similar level of strength to previous iterations then it might warrant attention.

Finally, I think we hit a good note with regards to the initiative. Hitting the four-drop creatures and Underdark Explorer left the format with Avenging Hunter, Goliath Paladin and Trailblazer’s Torch. The initiative is still a player in the format but is hardly the threat it was before. The issue with the initiative – separate from the mechanic itself – is how quickly it can be deployed. While initial action was taken on the creatures, it has become clearer to me that trying to balance the inclusion of the storm engine – that is cards like Dark Ritual and Lotus Petal – with a healthy non-rotating format is a delicate balance and definitely an area to watch moving forward.

Room for Improvement

I think it’s clear at this point that the steps taken to limit Affinity have not had their intended impact. Taking out Atog and Disciple of the Vault might have removed Affinity’s combo kill but the deck has still put up some fantastic numbers thanks to the density of artifact synergies available in Pauper. Affinity has a deep bench and cards that were one time sideboard inclusions – like Krark-Clan Shaman – have become archetype staples. 

Affinity is a deck where the tension of trying to keep it around and making it tolerable for the format are in pretty direct conflict. The aforementioned density gives Affinity more tools at its disposal so taking out anything besides core elements of its engine – I’m talking about the artifact lands here – could result in having the same conversations about the deck time and time again. 

Looking Forward

As we step towards 2023, I’m happy with the work that the Pauper Format Panel has done and believe we can do better. Personally, I want to do a better job of trying to figure out what the root causes of issues are before any of our discussions. By doing this, I hope to be able to approach the issues facing the format from multiple angles instead of reverting to a maximalist stance – because the last thing I want to do is ban all the things.

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