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Breaking Down the Astrolabe Ban and Post-Ban Pauper Predictions

How surprised I was to read the Pauper B&R announcement:

“Arcum’s Astrolabe is Banned in Pauper”

As a content creator, I had a rough time navigating my feelings, perceptions, and opinions for this particular conversation because it pitted two things, both of which are important to me, against another:

Raw metrics vs. “Is the gameplay fun and interesting?” It’s a great question because it gets to the heart of what we want in a format, ideally both. I’m not surprised there was heat over this one because there were compelling arguments on both sides; so much so, I had a difficult time choosing which side to take.

I don’t play the fence. I don’t wait to see which side the hive mind falls on so I can have an opinion that sounds smart or popular. I read articles (same as you), play matches (same as you), analyze results (same as you) and I figure out what I think about the game based on those observations and experiences. I take my experience, break it down, present it for the reader’s consideration and encourage them.

In fact, when the hive mind consolidated its bullseye on Ephemerate, I went against the grain and expressed an opinion that reflected my experience playing games of Pauper. I concluded based on the metagame trends that Jeskai Snow’s metagame dominance was a phenomenon likely to worsen (and it did) and that it was unlikely to reverse course via any circumstance other than a new printing or ban.

I absolutely feel for people who got burned by the ban. I’m right there with you–I bought Jeskai Snow the day after it dodged the hammer under the assurance (at the word of the DCI) that I could play it for at least a month. It’s two weeks later and I’m left with a digital monument to wasted tickets and testing.

With that said, I’m excited for what the future holds in store for Pauper and to explore a new metagame without a dominant best deck. Today, I’m going to break down why the ban was so necessary and why I believe it is likely to usher in an amazing new era of Pauper.

Why The Ban Happened (The Splinter Twin Argument)

Arcum's AstrolabeSplinter Twin

The decision to ban Arcum’s Astrolabe has parallels to the banning of Splinter Twin in Modern. I find myself returning to Splinter Twin often in theory discussions, because it’s banning is such a paramount moment in Magic’s history. It’s a key example of an instance when “metrics vs. gameplay” was played out on a large scale.

Jeskai Snow (and to some extent Tron) in Pauper, like Modern Splinter Twin, are Blue Xerox Combo-Control decks. While Twin’s combo is more in your face with potentially infinite attackers on turn four, it’s important to recognize that looping Archaeomancer or Wall is a combo. It’s a sequence that wins the game if you can’t interact with it directly.

Is it less broken than Twin +Exarch? Sure, but remember the cardpool in Pauper, compared to Modern, is also substantially less powerful. The key is, how effective is the combo in context? The data (metagame %, winner’s metagame %, and win %) suggests it is extremely effective at winning matches of Pauper. It’s roughly as effective in context as Splinter Twin was in its unique context. I would have no hesitation to describe it as a dominant and format-defining strategy.

The decks also share another fundamental similarity: they were beloved and fostered warped metagames that were undeniably compelling to play. Twin, Pod, Tron, and Jund… The mere mention oozes sophisticated card choices, deck selection, game play, and nostalgia. The issue wasn’t that the games and format were uninteresting, hot garbage (Hogaak comes to mind) but that the metagame reached an endgame with scarce new territory to actually explore. The raw power and consistency of Twin (and Jeskai) invalidated so much potential strategic deckbuilding space and absorbed a huge percentage of the established metagame.

The precedent of the Twin ban, upheld by the dismantling of Jeskai Snow, is that metrics matter.

Why Astrolabe?

Context. Removing Splinter Twin invalidated the strategy and reset the meta. In terms of Jeskai and Tron in Pauper, there are so many redundant, replacement ETB effects one can loop that banning a single card like Ephemerate doesn’t curtail the actual problem. It likely concludes in a scenario where multiple cards would need to be banned and an entire strategy is eradicated.

It’s also important to consider how the Pauper Combo works. You don’t win by simply pointing an Ephemerate at an Archaeomancer like putting Twin on an Exarch. You win through attrition, answering an opponent’s threats on curve, and then using the recursion combo to come over the top by initiating a soft lock over the game established through focused card advantage (recurring removal and counterspells).

Arcum’s Astrolabe allowed decks like Jeskai and Tron to easily dip into all colors for answers to every potential scenario an opponent can throw against it. It allowed the best decks to run on a Blue Xerox mana base and splash all the best cards while also circumventing the typical drawback of duals entering tapped. I’d like to say Astrolabe provided fixing at no cost, but that would be an underestimation of what actually took place. Snowball broke the rules while also providing tangible upside by virtue of being loopable itself:

Kor SkyfisherGlint HawkGhostly Flicker

Guess what happened to two-color decks in the era of Astrolabe? They were dead and gone.

It all comes down to a simple hypothetical: why would you do that when you can do THIS.

Theory vs. Reality

I tried to fight the good fight against Jeskai. My experience was that no matter what I tried, it was better to just play Jeskai. The deck was so consistent and well-rounded that in order to gain precious percentage points against Jeskai, it always came at the cost of hemorrhaging equity somewhere else.

Having played and tuned much of the Pauper Gauntlet, I found Bogles to be the strategy that had the inherently best tactical advantage against Jeskai Snow. In order to gain this slight edge against Jeskai, I had to make the following concessions:

  • Lose almost every game where my opponent put a Serene Heart or Patriarch’s Scorn onto the stack.
  • Have atrocious Mono-Black matchup and Fog Lock matchups.
  • Have a deck that is fundamentally inconsistent, thus needing to draw specific cards in specific ratios to function properly.

Once I started playing Jeskai and got more familiar with the matchup I was able to tune my sideboard to defeat Bogles a substantial amount of the time. It’s just not worth it. All roads lead to Jeskai Town.

Another factor I’d like to point out is how the MTGO clock factors into Jeskai’s off-the-charts win percentage. It likely dilutes it! I’m a novice MTGO Constructed player and the clock was easily my most formidable opponent. I averaged 3.25 wins per league and roughly half of my losses were to clock-related issues, either directly (I timed out) or indirectly (I had to take subpar lines or made mental mistakes under duress of the clock).

I can’t imagine I’m the only one who was losing to the clock, as the deck was laboriously click-intensive and slow to close out games. My point is that the stated win % generated from MTGO data is likely lower than it would be in paper where timing out isn’t a thing, or down the road when players become more proficient with the click sequences.

The last match I played, I was on Mono-Black and opponent was playing Jeskai. I won the match 0-1. I could not win either game, but the clock is always the greatest foe of the Jeskai. It counts in the metrics as a Jeskai loss, but in reality it should have been a Jeskai win and boiled down to user error.

The other factor is just how big the difference between a hand that opened on Astrolabe was– it was night and day compared to anything else. Snowball hands felt like easy mode and my win % in these games was absurdly high. I could do whatever I wanted up and down the curve. It got to the point where I was increasing my overall win % by mulliganing hands that were probably fine just to find a hand with Astrolabe. As Astrolabe in the opener was easily worth more than two cards in terms of the consistency and fluidity it provided.

If that’s not the definition of a ubiquitous, busted card, I don’t know what is! Pound for pound, I believe it was the most powerful card in the format. It was clearly the most-played card in the format outside of Snow-Covered Island.

It’s Dangerous to Go Alone! Take This

Arcum's Astrolabe ban

I’ve spent ample words on why I believe Astro ban is good and necessary going forward, so let’s return to the question: metrics or fun and interesting gameplay?

Why not both? I thought the gameplay with Daze and Gush was fun. I thought the gameplay with Astrolabe was fun. I believe the gameplay that comes next will be fun as well, because I think Pauper is a format that facilitates fantastic gameplay simply by dialing down the power level of individual cards and gives players more room to make plays.

I’m excited about what comes next and am excited to spend the last segment of today’s article spitballing some ideas about how to approach Astro-less Pauper.

My first assumption is banning Astrolabe won’t fundamentally blow up the format. It’s a case of addition by subtraction, where the gameplay will feel more diverse because the field won’t be saturated with a specific archetype. Let’s talk about some of the decks that would appear to be great choices to explore the new format, going from small to big:

Burn and Stompy didn’t get any worse and will likely be the aggressive decks driving a lot of the action out of the gate. There is no doubt in my mind that blue decks have the tools to compete, but it will take time for blue mages to focus strong lists to combat linear aggro. Chris VanMeter told me that he thought Burn was the best deck in the format during the Astrolabe era, and I’m confident based on his wisdom that it’s a great choice for the coming weeks.

The biggest door I see swinging open with Astrolabe out of the mix are midrange decks like Boros Monarch and Mono-Black Merchant.

These decks tend to feel like traditional Jund decks and boast favorable matchups against fast aggro. In the Astro era, these decks were simply outclassed by Jeskai’s depth and pushed to the background. But that’s the case no longer, and midrange is back on the table.

Last but not least, don’t ever count out Tron. It’s always been a strong deck. It thrived in the Gush era before Astrolabe, and will be back as a strong contender to make life hard for midrange players. It certainly lost Astrolabe, but the loss of Astro may ultimately work to Tron’s advantage since it means opposing blue decks can’t abuse it either. With Ephemerate surviving the banhammer, Tron is the preexisting deck most likely to make immediate use of it.

The big question is what will blue decks look like now that the default pattern is rendered obsolete? Mono-Blue Faeries/Delver is my first thought. I’ve played against Mezzel several times on MTGO and his list is fierce and focused. I’d start there for sure. It’s also hard for me to imagine Izzet Delver won’t find a role. Perhaps Kiln Fiend is back on the table as well.

It may also open the door for other fringe strategies to have a stronger presence in the meta, such as Golgari Sacrifice, Dimir Control, and Orzhov Pestilence.

While I don’t assume that the banning of Astrolabe will transform the metagame into something dramatically different from before, with the exception that it won’t be saturated with an amorphous blob of Jeskai decks, there’s nothing wrong with returning to a more balanced Paper, Scissors, and Rock metagame. In my opinion, it’s vastly superior to what we’ve had.

Ultimately, I think the ban is a big win for Pauper players and fans because it will break up the logjam of Jeskai. I look forward to playing against a greater array of archetypes, rather than against Jeskai Snow repeatedly. I also look forward to playing a wide array of different decks and trying to separate the good ones from the great ones, now that there isn’t a default best deck.

Overall, it’s an exciting time to shuffle up (digital or paper) and get the Magic Pauping! My advice is to play whatever archetype suits you out of the gate, because I don’t see a prohibitive frontrunner. I’ll be jamming Mono-Black, because it’s my favorite deck and my strategy for Pauper deck selection has always been to play my favorite deck until there is compelling evidence I shouldn’t.

I’m going to end on a quote I received via Twitter because it summarizes my feelings on the ban succinctly:

New format time, so what are you going to play now?

Discussion

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