While B&R changes tend to be informed by trends in analytic data, emotion and enthusiasm from the player base also plays an important role and helps inform on a particular paradox: fun, popular formats can be “broken,” and “balanced” formats can be stale, boring, and feel uninspired to play.
Whether or not players feel excited to shuffle up and play can be as important in informing changes in a format as how often players select a specific deck and how well it performs in the metagame.
Last year, for example, Vintage had one of the largest B&R shakeups of all time resulting in four restrictions and one unrestriction, in a metagame that didn’t even have an established “best deck,” but rather an array of extremely powerful, high output performers. In this case, the numbers that mattered most were related to low turnout and community enthusiasm for gameplay.
Another thing to keep in mind is Ian Duke’s “December 16 B&R Announcement” also changed how we anticipate changes to our favorite formats:
“Going forward we’ll no longer be making a commitment in advance to when the next B&R update will be. While we still expect changes to come in a similar pace, and will always announce changes on a Monday, we’ll be allowing some flexibility in the exact week of changes. This will let us be more agile and responsive with changes when needed while respecting the needs and timelines of competitive events.” –Ian Duke, “December 16 B&R Announcement.”
Why does this matter? I would argue the previous commitment to an established time for reflection about format health and players’ satisfaction with gameplay (along with the expectation that their feedback would be heard) was in general a good thing for players of all formats.
With no established parameters for when or how B&R happens, other than we’ll let you know on a Monday, it makes discussing where we’d like to see our favorite formats go a tricky proposition, especially for smaller, community-driven formats like Pauper. There is no longer a meaningful time for having these important community conversations.
It would be a disservice not to point out some fundamental flaws with the current state of Pauper that can be observed both analytically and with regard to generating enthusiasm for players to shuffle up in play. With that said, I also think it’s important to have that conversation in a productive, respectful, and thoughtful way. I still love the format. Let’s be real, regardless of whether the DCI uses the B&R to shake the format up or not, I’m going to have fun playing the format on MTGO and IRL—but that doesn’t mean I can’t advocate for moves that would improve the experience as well as attract and retain more players to the format.
My Pauper B&R Perspective
My favorite part of being a Pauper fan is the design and rules of the format create a uniquely satisfying balance of my favorite elements of casual and competitive gaming with a dash of nostalgia thrown in for good measure.
On the casual side: there’s little results oriented grind informing a win-at-all-costs motivation to play, which tends to attract a significantly more chill crowd of gamers who are more focused on their own goals and motivations for gaming. Since the cardpool is “all common,” the cost of building decks and trying new things is significantly lower than any other established format.
Having to weigh the upside of testing an extra Engineered Explosives vs. $25 in your pocket is a prohibitive cost in other formats that is greatly diminished in Pauper. Here’s a quarter, I’m going to learn something today!
On the competitive side: All commons limits the cardpool in such a way that individual spells can only be so powerful, which creates a greater emphasis on strategy, and lines of play that take an investment of multiple turns to set up and execute. While many of the cards may look simple and straightforward, there’s a great deal of complexity informing when and why to make plays.
The original Magic: the Gathering sets featured cards with significantly more straightforward designs, so just because Questing Beast and Oko have a trillion abilities and stats doesn’t necessarily mean players have a greater quality or quantity of decisions to make in their games.
There’s also significantly less data and content for Pauper than other formats, which might seem like a bad thing on the surface but impacts gameplay in a positive way. Less bountiful and conclusive data means it takes longer for formats to become solved and creates a greater opportunity to play, learn, and be rewarded for creativity.
I’ve written two Pauper articles on CFB about rogue decks that were conceptualized, built, and tuned by players at my LGS (Thor’s “White Soldier Tribal,” and Ben Topping’s “Raid Bombardment Tokens.”) In both cases, players came up with an interesting premise for a deck rooted in solid fundamentals and were able to bring their idea to life and run the table at the weekly LGS event.
Keep in mind, our weekly LGS Pauper tournament attracts a large crowd of informed players who know “what’s up.” It’s roughly the equivalent of going 5-0 in an MTGO League. Regardless of which of these platforms a player is on, it is my opinion Pauper is at its best when the format does not feature a best deck that is so prohibitively good as to squash out the impetus for brewers to brew.
As a tournament player, I know and understand cream will rise to the top of the format and metagames are shaped by the most powerful strategies, but I love an Eternal format with ebb and flow, where a player can enter a dark horse in the race and have a legitimate shot.
I also like formats with established and familiar archetypes to choose from. I’m not saying I want all brews all the time! I’m suggesting that shaking up the format when one or two strategies start to pull away from the pack creates less derivative game play.
Last year, the DCI banned four cards via two announcements (also, preemptively banned three cards but that didn’t facilitate meaningful change in game play). I enjoyed each of the three versions of Pauper I played, and I enjoyed the format as a whole significantly more because a change was made when it was. I think playing any one variation for a significantly longer period of time would have gotten stale.
Based on my perception, these bannings impacted my enjoyment of the format positively, in combination with the fact that bannings are not cost prohibitive with regard to dollars and cents, I’m in favor of what I’ll refer to as a “stir and settle” approach to Pauper B&R to keep it fresh. I don’t want random change for change’s sake, but when the fix feels like it’s in on a dominant strategy, I’d rather pivot and move forward than do the same thing over and over for three months!
I’ve written extensively about a metagame phenomenon I call “metagame collapse” over the past year. Essentially, it’s a presumption that once there is an established “best deck” in an Eternal Format that deck will continue to pull away from the pack as more players abandon other strategies and jump on the bandwagon.
I also believe most players prefer an “unsolved metagame” where there are competing theories and points of view about what is, in fact, the “best deck” and that data is inconclusive to confirm or deny one point of view. There’s still game to be played and enjoyed in a solved metagame, but it primarily hinges on how to tune and position a build of the dominant strategy or playing one of a handful of predatory strategies to try to exploit the saturation of the best deck in the meta.
Since I wrote my Boros primer several weeks ago, the Pauper winner’s metagame has shifted in dramatic fashion. At the time I wrote the article, Boros variants and Urza Tron had a relatively similar distribution and cohabitated the space of “best deck.” Since, Tron has grown to approximately 20% and Boros has dropped to 10% and is now tied with U/R Control for the second most successful strategy.
My prediction for how the metagame will continue to evolve is informed by other collapsing metagames I’ve observed. I would expect Urza Tron (the known best deck) and its natural metagame predator (U/R Control) to continue to cannibalize and absorb other less attractively positioned options in the field. It’s also worth noting that when I say U/R is the “natural predator,” of Tron, it is one of the known viable strategies that has a slight edge against Tron. It certainly doesn’t crush Tron.
We’re not there yet, and maybe U/R’s rise will throw a monkey wrench into Tron’s plans of format domination. I haven’t seen a collapsing meta that reversed itself in an established non-rotating meta once a best deck was crowned (outside of a game-changing new printing) but I’d love to see it happen. Maybe the readers can think of a few examples that evade my recollection!
I’ll be doing my part and playing U/R Control, but my assumption is that the fix is already in! Again, I’d love to be proven wrong by the data going forward.
These are the B&R scenarios I believe warrant the greatest consideration going forward in a metagame if the Tron data continues to trend in a likely direction:
1) “No Changes”
Is the most likely outcome for the next B&R. Tron’s numbers are very good, but not as outrageous as other decks that have been banned.
With that said, I do think that Tron’s numbers are somewhat misleading. I think a strong case can be made that the deck is actually better than advertised. The majority of data comes from MTGO results, and Tron’s click-intensive play pattern is vulnerable to clocking out in the hands of an average MTGO player.
On the other hand, the fact that the deck is hard to play does police the archetype to some extent, which is sort of a natural fail-safe to how dominant the deck can actually be online. It’s hard to object to the opinion of “I’d like to see more results before making a decision.”
2) “Urza’s Tower, Urza’s Mine, and Urza’s Power Plant Are Banned”
It’s hard to argue on principle that Tron doesn’t exactly feel like common power level…
The power of these lands is a legitimate force in Modern and it’s no surprise they also play a huge role in shaping Pauper. The numbers suggest Tron is the best deck and something may need to be done to balance the playing field.
There are lessons to be learned from the recent Modern banning. My biggest takeaway was how punishing the move was to Affinity players, especially at the LGS level.
While the ban was designed to balance the dominant Urza decks and open up space for new design, I can’t help but feel the problem that really needed to be acknowledged was an egregious enabler (Astrolabe, a card Pauper players are intimately familiar with!) as well as payoff (Urza). With the exception of KCI last year, Mox Opal decks have seldom been the “best deck” in Modern since the format’s creation, but have always been a solid competitive choice.
To me, the point of an Eternal format (as opposed to Standard) is to provide players a place to jam their favorite strategies, and it’s hard to deny Affinity in Modern and Tron in Pauper are OG archetypes that players enjoy playing.
From one control player to another, let’s be straight up… Life has never been better for the Pauper Tron fan and a nerf may well be coming soon, but if the archetype indeed warrants pruning, I hope the DCI goes after the overgrowth rather than the roots!
3) “Ghostly Flicker and Ephemerate Are Banned in Pauper.”
If you subscribe to the concept that Tron is OP and needs a reality check, the most commonly discussed remedy is to go after Ghostly Flicker.
Tron’s strategy is simply to make a ton of mana with Tron and loop Ghostly Flicker as many times as possible each turn on creatures with ETB effects. In the deck’s current form, it plays Ghostly Flicker (because it’s the best flicker variant available) alongside Ephemerate which is also a great CMC=1 variant capable of creating a loop.
I cannot deny that much of Tron’s power comes from the ability of these redundant loops, but it’s worth noting that there are substitutes if a ban were to target the currently played flicker effects:
A ban on the best possible flicker variants is one way to slightly nerf the power level of the deck without changing its inherent design. Displace would allow Tron players to “do the thing,” while also taking away some of Ghostly Flicker’s utility, for instance blinking Prophetic Prism or protecting Tron Lands from land destruction.
Banning some combination of “best possible” flicker effects is an elegant way of dialing back Tron’s performance relative to other strategies.
4) “Expedition Map Is Banned in Pauper.”
It’s also possible a ban on Ghostly Flicker AND Ephemerate wouldn’t make a huge dent in Tron’s armor.
Another way to curtail Tron’s deadly combination of synergy and power would be to ban a card that helps the deck quickly and consistently get its mana engine on line. Map is a difficult card for a Tron deck to replace, since it requires only colorless mana to use and can even find colored mana in a pinch.
If Tron ends up requiring B&R attention in Pauper, it’s an interesting question as to which part of the deck, the mana engine or the flicker engine, ends up getting hammered. The fact that I’m discussing which of “the two” broken engines warrants B&R attention is kind of a strong signal in and of itself!
5) “Stonehorn Dignitary Is Banned in Pauper.”
I haven’t heard this option discussed nearly as much as the others but I think it may have legs, and not just because it’s a creature!
Tron’s ability to completely lock an opponent out of the combat step is one of its most powerful (and frustrating!) attributes. What if instead of weakening the mana or flicker engine, the DCI simply said “you can mana and blink to your heart’s content, but denying an opponent their combat step is no longer a thing in Pauper.”
6) “Daze Is Unbanned in Pauper.”
I would put this one near the bottom of my list of unlikely outcomes, but I don’t think it’s impossible or implausible to discuss, nor do I think it would be a bad outcome. I’m open-minded, but skeptical about Daze, but on principle I’d love to be convinced that Daze could be a part of the format again.
The first and most compelling reason I’m on board with Daze potentially returning to Pauper is that I believe players genuinely love playing with the card. It’s an icon, and Eternal formats should be a place where fans can jam spells they feel a strong connection to.
I rebooted the “Paup It Like It’s Hot” podcast last Friday and explained in the show notes that “Fantasy B&R” chat would be our ending segment. Six minutes in the gang is talking about Daze. Our resident Mono Stompy expert, Chris Shavers, to my absolute shock, was on board with Gush coming back. The tech guys doing the recording were thumbs upping. There was a table of FNM drafters within earshot also applauding the suggestion. In terms of enthusiasm I can’t deny this would bring eyeballs and players to Pauper.
The second is that tempo-oriented blue decks tend to be a natural predator of unfair decks like Tron.
It’s also true Daze was ham’d as part of a 3-for-1 deal alongside Gitaxian Probe and Gush, which are both deranged cards in their own right! It’s not the same as banning Probe… Banning Gush… And, then still needing to also ban Daze because blue just won’t relinquish dominance.
The most compelling reason to pretend Daze never existed is bringing it back likely makes strategies like Mono-U and U/R Delver the immediate and default best deck. Not to mention:
I wonder if the knowledge that Mystic Sanctuary was coming down the pipe helped inform the decision to ban Gush and Daze. The drawback of Daze is that it often doesn’t do anything later in the game, but its ability to simply pick up and replay a Sanctuary to ensure a strong draw step the following turn is fantastic. With that said, I doubt there are many Blue mages out there who wouldn’t trade Daze for Sanctuary in a second if the offer was on the table!
Pauper is my format of choice, but it’s not my format. It’s OUR format! I’d love to have the Pauper players worldwide weigh in on the discussion and share their perspectives about where they’d like to see the format go. Did any of the popular B&R narratives sound good to you? Do you have an idea I didn’t reference in the article? How did you feel about the stir and settle approach to B&R in 2019 and its use in the format going forward?