Pauper is a competitive Magic that uses only cards printed at common.
This is perhaps the most functional definition of Pauper as a format that has existed. It is not only accurate, it is succinct and direct. As we enter The Brothers’ War release cycle, however, I find myself revisiting the concept of format identity. The heavily stratified nature of Dominaria United season has sparked discussion around Pauper’s composition which in my opinion is directly linked to its identity. Today I want to focus on this issue and try to understand how the format got to this point.
If you are familiar with Pauper or have been exposed to the format in the past several years it is likely you have heard it described as “Legacy like” or “Legacy lite”. In some ways this is true – Pauper draws on the entire history of Magic and has a relatively (compared to its card pool) small banned list. Despite being made up entirely of commons, there are some very powerful things one can do in Pauper. Beyond playing with staple effects like Counterspell and Lightning Bolt, Pauper remains the home of powerful fast mana, resilient card accrual engines, and broken mechanics. Historically these aspects have largely been constrained due to the power ceiling of commons but as more cards are added the weight of synergy is starting to strain the architecture supporting the metagame, much like Legacy.
The issue with this analogy is that some players come to the format with the expectation of Legacy. Due to the nature of the cards available, Pauper cannot be Legacy. Limiting factors like Force of Will and Wasteland do not exist in Pauper, and many strategies that are sometimes seen as hallmarks of higher powered formats have to be curtailed in order to be palatable for Pauper. The most notable of these is spell based “Storm” style combo (and we will talk more about this later). Instead of being Legacy-like, Pauper is more akin to the description that Brian Coval uses – Legacy without the nonsense that presupposed non-games like Chalice of the Void. In Pauper, the conceit goes, you are supposed to be able to play your games.
This veneer faded in earnest with the introduction of the Initiative mechanic on Magic Online. The mechanic rewarded getting on the board quickly and players adapted the Storm ritual engine to resolve their emblem bearing threats on the earliest turns of game. Decks adapted in an attempt to fight on this axis. Even with bans, the cork could not be replaced and these “fast” decks remained in the format in the form of Kuldotha Red and Dimir Terror.
A Fractured Identity?
Alone this is not a problem tied to the format’s identity. Yet these are just two of the decks that were competitively viable during Dominaria United season with Grixis Affinity and CawGate being the others. Unlike previous eras, these decks represented the best possible expression of their internal engine and dominated the eight weeks of the post-ban Challenges. In a very real way this removed a sense of player agency in the deck selection process – there was no reason to play any other red deck than Kuldotha Red, no midrange deck besides CawGate, and so on. Another piece of the Legacy Like comparison – one where you could continue to play a deck year after year – fell by the wayside.
This has left many dedicated Pauper players searching for answers. As mentioned previously, spell based combo decks have been largely removed from Pauper. These strategies are difficult to meaningfully combat with the available card pool. Whereas cards like Duress, Castigate, and graveyard interaction all exist, they are only so effective. Compare this to the abundance of creature removal that exists in Pauper. However, the presence of Kuldotha Red as a top deck has some questioning the comparison – why is dying to a turn one Monastery Swiftspear okay but losing to Galvanic Relay on turn three verboten?
To me so much of this goes back to the idea of format identity. For the majority of its history Pauper has been able to get by on the idea that it is competitive Magic with commons. Yet as the card pool swells alongside the banlist, this pithy statement is going to fall short. Pauper is not able to fully support some competitive archetypes due to the card pool while others – which tend to have answers readily available – can survive.
Drawing the Line
The glaring question right now is one of The Line. Cards like Gush, Mystic Sanctuary, Treasure Cruise, and Peregrine Drake have all easily crossed it in the past. Others, like the Monarch or the Tron Lands, have run right up against it (and according to some have transgressed it). Currently there are concerns around the mana base for Affinity and the strength of red. Where is the boundary between what is acceptable and what is not?
As a member of the Pauper Format Panel this is one of my animating questions. What is the identity of Pauper? This next section is going to me speaking from experience – that is playing the games. When I look at a deck or interaction that is causing concern one question I ask myself is this: is there anything I could have reasonably done differently? The answer might lie in the in-game decisions or the composition of my deck, or even my deck choice. If there is no reasonable decision I could make differently then there may be a larger problem.
Let’s go back to the Turbo Initiative decks. These builds could establish a dominating board position as early as turn one and without the safety valve of a Force of Will there was extremely little that could be done to stop the deck from winning. Similarly Galvanic Relay Storm could win through multiple layers of hate by chaining together draw spells and rituals before resolving their namesake. When I play against Affinity I know there is not a ton of room for error but I feel like my decisions matter. When my opponent plays Monastery Swiftspear on turn one I know I am on a clock but I can play in a way to extend the time available. Sure, there are going to be the draws where I lose on the spot – and those stand out – but so do the ones where I eke out victory because I made the right choices.
None of this is to say that the stratification of last season is acceptable. One thing I would like to see return to Pauper is the opportunity for several decks to be viable vessels for different engines. I do not think it is good if only one strategy can reasonably run the Basilisk Gate damage plan. I think Pauper needs to be the common only competitive Magic of the past, but with far more competitive options than are currently (seemingly) available. Pauper should be a format where your decisions matter and your games can develop, but one where there is a shifting metagame and sometimes you might have presented the wrong option.
But what about you? What do you think Pauper should be?