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PAUPER B&R SPECULATION: BLUE MONDAY PART 2?

Exciting news for MTG Constructed fans across a number of formats, but in particular I’m stoked to see changes coming to Pauper!

Today’s article will focus on how Monday’s upcoming B&R Announcement could impact the MTG Pauper format, as well as a few of the changes I’m personally hoping to see. I don’t have a crystal ball, nor do I know how to cast the stones to see the future, so I’ll just give it to you straight: what I think is likely to happen and what I’d like to see happen. 

I’ll be bringing some metagame analytics into the discussion as well as sharing some of my eyeball test observations about my experience in MTGO Leagues. With that said, I think we as Pauper fans can use this moment to discuss the things we enjoy about Pauper as well as areas where the format could be improved in the future. 

 

WHY CHANGE ANYTHING NOW? 

First things first, if WotC hadn’t explicitly teased that a change was coming on Twitter, I would have assumed no changes based on how the metagame looks right now. 

The DCI didn’t see fit to make a change last time around and the observable metagame analytics seem to suggest that decision has led to greater diversity and better balance among the top tier strategies. In a sense, ‘doing nothing’ actually worked as well as one might have hoped with regard to how the format has actually played out. 

Before the last B&R the metagame data (as well as my play experience) led me to advocate for no changes but I also saw a lot of potential upside to nerfing the Flicker Tron deck in some way shape or form. In this article, I discussed at length the various ways the B&R could be used to take the format’s bogeyman down a peg and why I thought that was ultimately a good idea.

Since we know the DCI will be forcing change, let’s take a look at the metagame breakdown to try and figure out what type of change they are most likely to make. The data I’ve compiled was gathered from MTGTop8 and MTGGoldfish.

 

DECK NAME  MTGTOP 8 WINNER’S META (2 MONTHS)  MTGGOLDFISH META (2 Weeks)  AVERAGE 
BOROS 15% 9% 12%
STOMPY  10% 9% 9.5%
IZZET  10% 7% 8.5%
MONO BLACK AND ORZHOV 9% 8% 8.5%
AFFINITY  7% 9% 8%
DIMIR  8% 8% 8%
MONO U  5% 9% 7%
BURN  5% 8% 6.5%
TRON  9% 4% 6.5%
ELVES  5% 3% 4%
WALL COMBO  4% 4% 4%
FLICKER  3% 2% 2.5%
90% OF WINNER’S METAGAME  80% OF METAGAME  85% OF WINNERS META + 2 WEEK META 

 

I’ll start by saying that WotC has access to better and more precise analytic data than a rando like me scouring the various reported tournament results. For instance, I tend to believe the 5-0 League decklists tend to be picked based on how interesting they are rather than how accurately they reflect the larger metagame trends. If I were looking at a larger and less cherry-picked sample of data, for instance, it’s possible the trends might look different – but I work with what I can get my hands on. 

The reason I would have assumed no changes based on this metagame breakdown is that it’s about as diverse and balanced as I would ever expect to see in a non-rotating Eternal Format. I don’t think I’ve ever seen Pauper meta data reflect decks like Boros, Black-Based Midrange, and Stompy all performing so well at the same time.

Three of the top performing decks are in fact, not Blue. With that said…

 

IS BLUE TOO GOOD? 

One thing that does stand out to me is the ubiquity of blue in the metagame. While three of the four best performing 75 cards archetypes are non-blue variants it’s also true that when we add up all of the various blue-based strategies they equate to a huge chunk of the top tier meta. 

Various flavors of Blue Aggro Control (Izzet, Dimir, and Mono U) built around the powerful core of Mystic Sanctuary, Preordain, Spellstutter Sprite, and Counterspell equate to roughly 25% of the field, and when we add the other blue strategies such as Tron, Flicker Control, Familiars, Affinity and Walls into the mix we’re pushing toward 50% of decks are based in blue. 

Is that a problem? It’s subjective, and you can decide that for yourself, but I’m looking for logical reasons to deploy the banhammer on Monday. 

While 40% – 50% Blue Based decks may seem like a huge chunk of the metagame, it’s worth noting there’s a great deal of diversity to how Blue decks are built and what they strategically accomplish: Delver (tempo), Affinity (aggro), Tron (prison control), Izzet (midrange control), Familiars (combo) AND many of these archetypes also provide a high degree of customization with regard to how they can be positioned. 

As a point of contrast, in the other Eternal formats Blue decks represent about 42% of the Tier 1.5+ metagame in Legacy and nearly 66% in Vintage. Yet, it’s important to keep in mind that the omnipresence of blue in other formats is linked to the necessity to play Force of WIll in those formats to combat fast, broken combo decks: 

 

FORCE OF WILL

The Pauper card pool doesn’t include, nor require, Force of Will as interaction because there are no “broken” decks that necessitate FOW to combat. While it’s not uncommon for blue decks to be very good in eternal formats because of the density of outstanding staples, Pauper doesn’t actually require blue decks to police strategies like Mishra’s Workshop or Show and Tell

From an analytic metagame representation standpoint, the only thing that stands out to me as strange or even worth addressing is “half the viable decks being played are blue-based.” It’s theoretically possible that scaling back blue could open up more room for other strategies to become more viable. 

 

MYSTIC SANCTUARY

If scaling blue’s lead over the field is an objective, it makes sense to me that Mystic Sanctuary would be a card likely to draw the heat of the banhammer. In fact, it is the one that I would advocate banning from Pauper (and I hope it does get banned). 

On principle, I actively despise the card because it represents to me thoughtless and careless design and I said so way back in September of 2019 after reading about it during Spoiler Season: 

 My issue with Mystic Sanctuary is that it provides a ton of tangible upside, strategic depth, and for basically zero cost. The question is never: “Should I play Mystic Sanctuary in my blue deck,” but rather, “So I get Mystic Sanctuary for free (because I’m playing the obvious best color) so which and how many combos and synergies can I freeroll through it for virtually no cost?” 

If a possible objective is simply to bring blue closer to ⅓ of the field rather than ½ I think Mystic Sanctuary is the best possible card to ban from the format because it’s a fixture of most of the blue decks regardless of archetype.

It’s also possible that given a better, more comprehensive dataset to breakdown (i.e., what WotC looks at) that we’d see base-blue good stuff performing even better than my chart indicates. In my experience, it does feel like I play against a ton of Preordain/Counterspell/Mystic Sanctuary decks when I run through a league and I also don’t have access to what those deck’s abstract win percentages are. 

I’ve been playing Izzet Good Stuff lately and finally felt I had a good list and information to write about before the B&R news dropped. It does feel like a very strong deck in the abstract and I could see it having a high win percentage against the field.  

 

WILL THEY UNBAN? 

Based on the fact that the metagame data seems to suggest Blue is dominant I see zero value in unbanning a blue card right now. I’d like to flirt with the idea of Daze coming back at some point, but I don’t think it makes much sense to release Daze into a format with Mystic Sanctuary. 

 

ARCUM’S ASTROLABE 

I also think it’s likely that Arcum’s Astrolabe will be banned in other formats during this multi-format announcement, which leads me to believe it’s unlikely to come back to Pauper. It seems like it’s been made pretty obvious why it is really poorly designed and a problematic card to exist. I know a lot of people enjoyed the card because it’s obviously great and built one of the best “good stuff blue soup” decks ever, but I really don’t see it coming back anytime soon. I also don’t think it would help relinquish blue’s share of the meta and would in fact likely increase it substantially. Astrolabe is a blue card. 

 

HYMN TO TOURACH 

I’ve vocally advocated for Hymn to Tourach to be given a chance in Pauper. What’s the harm? If MBC dominates the format there’s no harm in banning it a month down the road, but I do identify that it would be adding a clearly fantastic spell to a color that isn’t blue. 

I’m not going to hold my breath for Hymn to come back and I don’t think it’s a very likely outcome of the B&R, but I would be extremely satisfied and excited if the only change made to Pauper was that Hymn to Tourach was unbanned. 

I don’t think Sinkhole is a desirable card to unban in Pauper. A lot of people point out that it’s a counter to Tron decks, but it’s actually just an obnoxious play pattern to curve Sinkhole into Ice Quake or Stone Rain

I’d put the chance of Hymn coming back at roughly 10%. Extremely unlikely, although I do think it is a move that has the potential to chip away at blue’s lead on the meta. 

On the other hand, what if I’m looking in the wrong place for the motivation behind the bans? What if it doesn’t have anything to do with analytics but impressions.

 

IS TRON “UNFUN?” 

Fun is subjective. What seems fun to me, may not seem fun to you, and vice versa. 

I’m inclined to say A LOT of people would not describe their MTGO Pauper experiences involving Flicker Tron to be very fun. If you want my opinion (and this IS an opinion piece!) I think the current iteration of Flicker Tron is a pox on the format that drives casual players away and makes people not want to play. I include myself in this subset of individuals. 

I’ve been over the various reasons I don’t like Tron on MTGO many times, but ultimately it boils down to the sheer density of clicks required to replay the same loops of spells over and over again and how it makes beating the clock a fundamental element of various match ups. Ultimately, I believe Tron is the best positioned deck in the format in the abstract, but the importance of clock management and manual dexterity make it an unfeasible choice in the hands of most players (myself included). Tron isn’t so much an option, as a lifestyle choice. 

Something I don’t observe in the analytics, but feel in my experience, is how miserable the play patterns and experience against Tron tends to be. My negative feelings about Tron are compounded by being able to identify it as the best strategic option in the format, but being precluded from piloting it because it’s too difficult to pilot against the clock. 

I also see a correlation between playing against Tron when I’m on an X-0 winning streak in a League because many of the trophy leaders are proficient with Tron and rake with it. I believe this strange dynamic, where the best deck is known but only a viable option to extremely seasoned MTGO players creates a confluence that incentivizes a lot of players to simply stop playing the format. 

It’s not about the “choices” being too hard, rather the redundant execution of the same loops over and over again being difficult for novice MTGO players to perform especially against opponents who are actively trying to leverage the clock. 

I also believe the play pattern of simply denying an opponent’s combat step every turn is a negative experience for players, especially in a format based around commons where the primary way people win games is via attacking. There simply isn’t much meaningful counterplay aggressive decks can muster against this strategy. 

While I can certainly appreciate the joys of a good prison deck, based on all of these factors I’m inclined to say that in an MTGO based Pauper platform that Tron’s existence don’t make the format more fun for the majority of players. 

 

WILL “TRON” GET BANNED?

There have certainly been precedents in the past where a metagame’s representation and diversity looked great and the DCI acknowledged players were unhappy with the gameplay of a format. Last year’s mass Vintage Restrictions, as well as the Restriction of Trinisphere were both based on player’s dwindling enthusiasm to play formats they didn’t enjoy. 

 

TRINISPHERE

Not being able to play spells isn’t entirely different from being locked out of the combat step and for all intents and purposes it boils down to a player pattern where one player is quickly locked out of playing the game with little or no counterplay. 

Pauper is also a format that tends to have a more casual fan base that plays for personal enjoyment and entertainment rather than grinding toward specific competitive goals. I also tend to object to uninteresting or broken play patterns that frequently occur in competitive formats, but grinders are going to play those formats no matter how bad they are because they want the glory. However, since Pauper isn’t a professional format there’s less incentive to continue playing if it’s not enjoyable, or even worse… annoying. 

The metagame looks fine to me, and it’s even worth noting that Tron’s numbers have subsided. It still tends to do disproportionately well in the high profile events that attract the high caliber pilots capable of playing it at a high level, but the casual players seem to have figured out it isn’t a deck they have positive EV to play which lowers its metagame representation in the format, i.e., it’s a bigger part of the winner’s meta than the overall meta. 

In my opinion, the best thing WOTC could do to generate greater enthusiasm for a format like Pauper would be to nerf Tron to an extent that it isn’t a big gray cloud hanging over the format disincentivizing the casual crowd from wanting to shuffle up and play. 

The hardest challenge in addressing the current iteration of Flicker Tron via B&R is that every possible option (aside from the Tron Lands themselves) has a fairly suitable replacement waiting on the bench to step in and fill the role: 

STONEHORN DIGNITARY = MOMENT’S PEACE

EXPEDITION MAP = CROP ROTATION, IZZET SIGNET

GHOSTLY FLICKER = DISPLACE, EPHEMERATE 

If you’re interested in reading about how banning various cards would impact the archetype, I wrote extensively about that in this February article

I’m just as excited and anxious to see where the hammer is going to fall as the rest of the Pauper Community. I actually have no idea what the DCI will do. 

Based on the metagame percentages and how they have improved from the last B&R announcement when no changes occurred, for me a decision to pull the trigger can only stem from two possible motivations: 

  1. Diminish blue’s dominance
  2. Obliterate Tron’s stigma

I simply cannot find another worthwhile reason for the DCI to take action that is motivated by anything else. 

If I were laying odds on what is most likely to happen with regard to #1 (blue’s ubiquity) I would suggest Mystic Sanctuary is the most likely card to bite the bullet. 

Even more likely than a good stuff blue” ban, I think we’ll see a shot fired at Flicker Tron. I think the most likely target for the banhammer is Stonehorn Dignitary. I say “most likely” because it is the safest ban and it addresses the characteristic of the deck that player’s tend to find the most “unfun” (being locked out of the combat step) and I also believe losing Stonehorn does make the deck substantially worse. 

While I hope it doesn’t happen, I also think there’s a longshot chance that Tron itself could be banned. What better way to signify “the king bogeyman is dead” than to topple the lands themselves? I actually think the Tron is sweet, iconic, and interesting to build around and I’d like to see them remain a fixture, but with that said I do think this current Tron iteration has been played out and now functions as a deterrent that gatekeepers a lot of potential new players. Personally, I think banning Tron lands would be a horrendous misstep but I know a lot of people would like to see it happen. 

If it were up to me, the way I’d personally like to see the DCI shake up the format is to ban the lion’s share of the powerful “flicker / blink” effects that are used to generate redundant loops that cause the clock to become such a defining feature of MTGO Pauper. 

I’d go ham on the loops and ban:

MYSTIC SANCTUARY
GHOSTLY FLICKER
DISPLACE

EPHEMERATE 

REAPING THE GRAVES 

I’d even take the Displace off Tron’s bench. It’s very difficult to try and balance a complex metagame with twenty different decks to be even. I’m a bigger purveyor of the idea that the best way to approach B&R is to remove cards or strategies that will always tend to unbalance a format. 

In Modern, for instance, the types of cards that ‘don’t work’ have been identified as mana accelerants that cost 0 or 1 and net mana immediately. Nearly all of the cards that achieve this type of effect have been banned away. 

In Pauper, I see the endless looping of the same cards over and over again as a mechanical problem. It’s not only the most powerful endgame available (since you never run out of good options!) but it’s also one of the most mana efficient things that can be done that also naturally synergizes with the best cards in the format (Mulldrifter, Augur of Bolas, Dinrova Horror, Mnemonic Wall, Archaeomancer). It also tends to create a situation where an opponent needs to deal with EVERYTHING in order to stop the loop, since creatures like Archaeomancer and M-Wall restart the loop by regrowing a Flicker spell. 

In the past, the DCI has accurately identified that the two things that tend to break Pauper almost every time are free spells (Gush, Daze, Probe, Cloud of Faeries, Drake, etc) and storm spells (Empty the Warrens, Temporal Fissure, & Grapeshot). I would actually argue that endless or redundant loops have always tended to be a part of the equation as well. While the storm or free spells might be the pie that is hitting you in the face, a lot of those decks also tended to include and utilize looping mechanics. 

I’d also nix Reaping the Graves because I think in the abstract it breaks two seperate rules (storm and generating loops). The Cycling decks is nearly unplayable on MTGO because of the ridiculous magnitude of clicks required to win a game, but I do see it as an extremely potentially oppressive deck in IRL Paper events down the road. 

I know a lot of Pauper fans and players have already made up their mind about what they think should happen, what would be best, and why that is the case. Today’s article isn’t to impose my way of thinking on anybody, but rather to put my opinion on the table and share it with my fellow Pauper players. 

I don’t specifically have a problem with anything that is going on in Pauper at the moment. I think it’s a fun format and I enjoy playing it. I also don’t read the metagame chart and see a problem, in fact I see the opposite, that the diversity and representation of the format has broadened especially at the top of the mountain. Compared to what I see going on in every single other constructed format, I would much rather play games of Pauper “as is” than any other option. I think it’s a better format with better games of Magic. 

With that said, why is the DCI taking action now? The only two things that make sense to me are that Blue has a disproportionately large chunk of the meta (in a format that doesn’t require the balance Force of Will brings), or enthusiasm and attendance of MTGO events is down because players don’t enjoy the metagame dynamics and gameplay created by Flicker Tron. 

My prediction of what will most likely happen is that 2.5 of the following four cards will be banned in Pauper: 

 

MYSTIC SANCTUARY
EPHEMERATE
GHOSTLY FLICKER
STONEHORN DIGNITARY 

 

My next most likely scenario is Tron and Sanctuary are banned. 

 

MYSTIC SANCTUARY 

URZA’S POWER PLANT

URZA’S MINE

URZA’S TOWER 

 

I hope it is not the case that Tron itself receives a ban. 

 

If you’ve got another thought about why the B&R hammer is coming… I’d love to hear it! 

If you’ve got a better solution… I’d love to hear that as well! 

If you want to throw a prediction into the comments… I’d love to see where you’re at! 

There’s a lot of nuance to how the DCI could choose to deal with Tron if they choose to and I can see various pros and cons to each option. Overall, I tend to agree that doing something to nerf Tron is likely a positive that would increase enthusiasm for the format, particularly with engaging casual fans who want to play some fun games without getting flicker locked. 

The #1 reason I advocated for going hard after the various looping mechanisms is that I’d like to get back to playing some Pauper Magic, rather than watching my opponents play Magic with themselves. Casting the same spell over and over for value doesn’t create a lot of interesting scenarios, it just creates the same scenario over and over again. 

I think whatever happens on Monday is going to be multiple cards deep and impact the format in a profound way. I hope for the better and no matter what happens I’ll be excited for a fresh MTG Pauper start. 

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