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The F Word – Is MTG’s Pauper Format Still Fun?

If you frequent the digital haunts of the Magic Online Pauper community, it’s hard to miss the malaise. For much of the past year, there has been a fairly constant refrain decrying the current state of the format from folks feeding their tickets to leagues and challenges. Moving from a dominant Storm deck to a dominant Affinity deck to the recent addition of initiative has resulted in a series of skewed metagames. Rather than enjoying themselves, those in the trenches treat the games as a slog. There is a word that is absent from these discussions, and it is one that should not regularly enter into the conversation about the health of a format – fun.

Fun is a horrible metric for determining whether a metagame is in a good place because it is incredibly subjective. Again, go into any of the forums or Discords for Pauper and you are bound to run into a myriad of opinions as to how players want to enjoy themselves. Some actively enjoy casting Stone Rain variants while others revel in the chance to resolve Spellstutter Sprite. Hang around long enough and you will hear from people who pine for the days of Storm Combo or the restoration of Gush and Daze. All of this is to say that relying on individual concepts of fun is a path of inanity. 

Yet if you decide to hang out in these same spaces for a little longer, you can try to drill down to the animating locus of these stances. Despite all the varied definitions, it does come down to what makes Magic, as a game, generally fun. People want their decisions to matter and want the opportunity for back and forth gameplay. For the purposes of this exploration of Pauper, whenever the word fun is seen, you can substitute it for these aforementioned elements.

Historically speaking, bans in Pauper have taken place when the format is missing one or both of these pillars of fun. These issues tend to arrive when there are decks that can cheat on mana in a significant way. Let’s take a look at some examples from Pauper’s storied history:

 

 

Header - FissurePost (2013)

Pauper FissurePost (Circa 2013)

FissurePost is textbook examples of breaking the mana system. FissurePost was a control deck that could leverage Cloud of Faeries with Mnemonic Wall and Ghostly Flicker to generate an unbound amount of colorless mana thanks to the Cloudpost engine. It would then eventually find Temporal Fissure with Mulldrifter or Prophetic Prism and then use it to cast a one-sided Upheaval. FissurePost combined the abundant mana from the Cloudpost-Glimmerpost pairing with Ghostly Flicker loops to create a packet of cards that was incredibly hard to defend against. Since Mnemonic Wall provided redundancy and a combo piece, there was a very narrow band of interaction available to combat the deck – namely Cloudpost-powered Reap and Sow decks or Bogles packing Forced Adaptation. And while the deck effectively won on the combo turn, it still needed to attack, giving the illusion of hope.

While this is an oversimplification of the era, it provides an image of what was going on at the top tables. Other decks were successful but they did so under the ever-looming shadow of FissurePost. If you were gunning for the top deck, you were likely to have issues with other elements, and if you were playing to beat the Tier 2 and below landscape, you could get overrun by FissurePost. Technically one could interact with the deck, but that opportunity came at the cost of multiple other matchups. Thanks to the redundancy in FissurePost, most decisions beyond deck choice did not matter in the matchup. 

Many of these problems cropped up again when Peregrine Drake was shifted to common in Eternal Masters. The deck was an utterly dominant force in the metagame that switched a Temporal Fissure victory for repeatedly cycling through copies of Lightning Bolt.

 

Header - Izzet Drake (2016)

Pauper Izzet Drake (Circa 2016)

There was another element at play that chewed into the fun of this era. When FissurePost won, it sucked up all the air in a game and while technically a deck could come back, the chances of that happening were so infinitesimally small the correct choice was to stop playing. If in a game the correct choice the majority of the time is to give up, perhaps there may be problems in that game.

This is not to say concession does not have value – in fact, it is vital to making competitive events work and it does wonders to preserve mental capacity. What I am saying is that the illusion of hope is worse than losing in that the potential for victory, even slim, can motivate people to try and eke out the win, especially when prizes are on the line.

 

Header - Flicker Tron (2019)

Flicker Tron (Circa 2019)

You can see this pattern repeated with the builds of Flicker Tron that preceded the Bonder’s Ornament and Prophetic Prism bans. The deck did have predators in the field but at the same time, its engine was incredibly hard to disrupt and once online, provided a similar sense of impending doom. Technically it is possible to break up Ephemerate with Mnemonic Wall, but the returns are diminishing. 

The biggest difference between Tron and Post are the number of slots required to make the mana engine work. Cloudpost required eight slots to maximize mana output and with all eight pieces in play could produce 36 mana (to say nothing of mirror matches). Tron takes up four additional slots and produces 28 mana with the dozen pieces on board. Cloudpost also could provide a boost with as few as two lands, giving the deck additional slots of lands that could produce different colors of mana. 

 

Header - Squirrel Storm (2021)

Pauper Squirrel Storm (Circa 2021)

While this list is from the most recent iteration of Storm, the deck’s strategy is largely unchanged from the days of Grapeshot and Empty the Warrens. Storm combo is incredibly difficult to disrupt in Pauper due to the dearth of potential answers. Duress is all well and good but it is the only single-mana discard spell that could strip key components from the Storm player’s hand and does nothing against top decks. There are no Mindbreak Traps to remove spells from the stack, no Wastelands to attack a mana base and certainly no Chalice of the Voids or Damping Spheres to try and ruin their day. Storm is nearly impossible to disrupt in Pauper, meaning there is no reasonable counterplay to the deck.

Before I get to the next point I want to talk about the mana system as it relates to Pauper. Often problems arise in the format when cards or decks subvert the mana system in some way. Post and Tron routinely generated more mana than the lands would normally dictate; Arcum’s Astrolabe meant there was no real consideration when it came to colored mana costs – they could all be filtered. Storm decks subvert the mana system in a drastically different way than Tron or Post. Instead of generating an overabundance of mana, they instead chain together cheap mana generating or mana neutral spells to up their Storm count, turning their spout into effectively several copies of the spell. 

These are just some of the examples of decks that limited interactivity and reduced the importance of in game decisions. Speaking from my own personal experience, trying to find paths to victory against both Post and Storm was fun for a little while until it became clear that any counterplay I came up with could easily be shut down. But again, that is my personal experience. 

So why spend all this time talking about old decks? Because today there are some decks in the format that potentially treading in the same waters.

 

Header - Today's Pauper

Pauper Aggregate Affinity by Frank Karsten

Affinity has been a part of Pauper for years but it received a massive boost in Modern Horizons 2 with the indestructible Bridges. Prior to those lands entering the format, the vulnerable mana base made Affinity a high risk, high reward deck. Removing that vulnerability turned the strategy into a force that has thus far been the subject of several bans. All that being said, Affinity is still putting up very strong results. Much of criticism of the deck centers on how hard it is to disrupt their game plan, specifically targeting their lands. In this way, Affinity today is closer to Tron than it is to the old aggressive builds.

Like Tron, Affinity is able to extract additional mana from its lands. Each artifact land generates at least one additional mana per turn – and sometimes more if there are several spells with Affinity to be cast. The deck has access to plenty of efficient draw, which simply adds to its mana advantage. Finally, it has the ability to deploy undercosted threats and recur them. All of this is far more in line with a Mulldrifter-powered Tron deck than a Carapace Forger featuring aggressive strategy. This leads to some players feeling as if their decisions do not matter as Affinity can just draw out of any deficit or recur threats otherwise removed.

Pauper Turbo Initiative by Pr0boszcz

The Initiative has generated a ton of buzz since its release on Magic Online last week. Like monarch before it, initiative generates persistent value turn after turn, except the Undercity presents concrete benefits as opposed to a random card off the top every turn. The other major criticism of the mechanic is that it creates a game piece that cannot be removed, only passed back and forth. It can also present some incredibly hard-to-answer threats thanks to the Forge room and, if left alone, will hurl five points of damage due to the Trap room. 

This says nothing about the free benefit that comes from maintaining the initiative (or the monarch). Once these pieces enter the game, they generate free value, ranging anywhere from one mana to five mana worth of effect. These mechanics have a profound impact on the game and unlike planeswalkers in other formats, cannot be removed. Decks that can resolve either of these effects quickly tend to be in a strong position which can leave adversaries struggling to make choices that matter.

Here is where things are going to take a turn. There are limits to whether or not “fun” can matter when looking at format health. In the instances of Cloudpost decks and Grapeshot Storm, these decks rose to prominence at a time when Pauper had a much lower power level. The floor has risen dramatically over the past five years and even though Storm is still over the line, there needs to be a larger consideration as to whether high powered strategies are reasonable to include. It is not that Affinity is impossible to beat or interact with, just that it requires a drastically different approach than it did three years ago. Initiative is still relatively new and the online metagame has barely had time to adjust to the addition of these cards, let alone react to their prevalence. It’s not that there are no interaction points or decisions to be made, just that the moments at which they occur may have changed. 

None of this is to say these decks are healthy or should remain part of the metagame long term. Rather, when looking at what makes games of Pauper fun, it’s important to understand that at some point it becomes a bad metric. Decks should have counterplay; decisions should matter. As Pauper increases in power level we have to take a step back and try to understand if we are using yesterday’s technology to fight today’s battles.

 

3 thoughts on “The F Word – Is MTG’s Pauper Format Still Fun?”

  1. I would disagree with your definition of what fun consists of, for almost everyone all that means is they are winning a lot, whilst unfun is losing a lot. People like to believe when they are winning it is because they are making meaningful decisions ie it is there skill that is causing them to win, whilst when they lose, they like to believe it is because there is a lack of meaningful decisions to be made. And almost everyone in magic likes to believe that when they win it is down to skill rather than luck, and when they lose it is down too bad luck me included. But honestly when most people say a format is unfun, it just means they are losing a lot.

  2. As always, thanks for the amazing content Alex! Now hear me out: ban Myr Enforcer. There, i said it. As much as i love the card (i’ve been casting them since mirrodin standard) i believe they are the main problem. It’s ok for a deck to be able to have recursion maindeck; the problem is when they can cast both big creatures for free and still have all their mana available! Not only do you need artifact hate, but also graveyard hate, or affinity will just come back, given some time! There are plenty of cards to take the enforcer’s place (serpent, angler, various blue affinity creatures) so the deck will survive, just not in this ultra resourcefull state.

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