Pauper is popular. Every week brings more Pauper content and an increased demand for the opportunity to play it in tournaments. The format is many things to many different people: a competitive outlet, a way to flex deck building muscles, or an on-ramp to other formats. I love Pauper because in many ways it is a perfect realization of the fundamentals of Magic. Colors are distilled down to core concepts and the execution, on individual cards, is simple.
And yet the games can be complex and intricate. You only need to look at the recent video from Luis Scott-Vargas running Tribe Combo to have a glimpse into the depth of gameplay. That says nothing of the multiple streamers who showcase the format on a daily basis.
Pauper has been described as both Legacy like and Legacy light. Unlike Legacy, however, Pauper is easier to access. The lack of Reserved List cards and four-digit price tags lowers the barrier to entry. While cards are not always cheap, they are on balance cheaper than a Modern mana base.
Today I want to explore different ways to capitalize on this. Pauper is a great format, and I want to help make sure it stays that way. Not only does it provide a way to get people into the tournament setting, it also allows people to make use of their entire collection. Now, I’m a realist, and I’m not going to call for Pauper to be a Pro Tour format, but there are real and actionable steps to ensure the scene remains vibrant for many years to come.
The current Pauper League on Magic Online has over 1,300 competitors. The League is denoted as “friendly,” which means that the cost to enter is lower but so are the prizes awarded. Going 3-2 in the League will earn back your entry fee (80 play points) and a Treasure Chest booster. This is all fine and good but if Pauper is going to succeed beyond its current status, it might be time to investigate adding a competitive option.
There are issues with setting up a second League. Would the player base be divided evenly or would one League fire more rapidly, effectively rendering the other an eternal wait? There is also the issue of stress testing the format at large. Currently, the League is home to a wide variety of decks—the more competitive Challenges less so—and with more on the line it stands to reason that there would be more homogenization. On the other hand, it could force players to explore more options to explore weaknesses in a metagame.
I feel iteration is where Pauper is lagging. The incentive to try new things is low as success, especially in the League, rewards the tried and true. I also think that while there are still underexplored strategies, there is a huge impediment to the sustained success of new ideas.
Aligning the Rules
When you sit down to play Pauper at a ChannelFireball Grand Prix side event you are playing with the Magic Online rule set—cards released as common on Magic Online are legal with the exception of the banned list. The Rags to Riches tournament series—perhaps the most popular streamed paper Pauper event—uses a modified version of the Online legality list that allows certain cards not printed at common online to be played. The biggest offender is Desert. I am not here to have a debate about whether Desert would have an impact on the metagame (I think it would be a net negative), nor am I here to stump for Hymn to Tourach and Goblin Grenade to suddenly become legal in the Pauper League.
In order for Pauper to experience continued success, Wizards of the Coast has to come out and say that online legality works on paper as well. While this may leave some cards out in the cold it would allow the format to move forward with the weight of data. Pauper was put through the crucible of Magic Online and the data from all of those games are important. Being able to base a format upon data can go a long way toward fostering a healthy metagame.
What about the excluded cards in question? What happens if it is decided the format needs Hymn to Tourach? Wizards has a way to introduce high power cards into the common slot by way of Masters sets. That leads me to my next point…
Reprint sets are fantastic for Pauper as they often provide effects otherwise out of reach of common. Downshifts tend to serve the Limited environment first and Pauper second but I think that needs to change. Wizards needs to explore options for improving Pauper while not compromising the Draft environment. While I am not expecting every reprint set to be as important as Modern Masters 2017 I would like to see more new commons from these releases make their way into competitive decks.
The cost is time. It would require additional testing from Play Design (or another entity) and person hours in monitoring the Pauper metagame. I think this is a vital step since it is much harder to introduce a high impact Pauper card in a Standard set. Standard sets have to serve Limited where a Pauper powerhouse could make for months of a miserable Draft experience.
The next section is absolutely the most controversial. I’ve talked around this before but it’s time time just let the cat out of the bag.
(Special thanks to Eric Easton, Jason Sirichoke, and Joe Spainer for their help on this section.)
If you take a look at the ten most commonly played cards in Pauper, seven are blue. If you look at the list of creatures that see the most play, seven of the top eight are blue and the only one that isn’t, Gurmag Angler, might as well be since that color can easily dump cards into the ‘yard as fuel for delve.
*Retrieved from MTGGoldfish on March 28, 2018
Pauper is a nonrotating format, which means that blue is the best color. It’s not a surprise that a color with access to the best card filtering and draw, as well as some of the best threats, would be on top. What has come to light in the past year is how much better blue is than the other colors. It is not just that blue is best—the new tools Pauper gets almost universally benefit blue above other colors.
Let’s look at Ash Barrens as an example. Ash Barrens is a fantastic card that can conceivably go in any deck. But no color can make use of Ash Barrens as well as blue. Blue can Brainstorm into the land, put two dead cards back, fetch a splash color, and shuffle away chaff, all for 2 mana. The result is that blue decks, specifically blue control decks, get access to every color at minimal deck building cost. The presence of Ash Barrens in cantrip decks has allowed blue decks to add removal (like Lightning Bolt) or combo spouts (Tireless Tribe) while still being able to run a powerhouse like Gush.
Blue isn’t one color in Pauper—it’s all the colors.
Ponder, Preordain, and Brainstorm make it so blue sees more cards than other colors, which in turn gives the decks access to more powerful effects. The data presented above come from League results and the Top 32s of Pauper Challenges. While it draws on an incomplete data set, it shows a bias toward blue decks at the top of the format. Even the normal foil to blue—green creature decks—are struggling. While it is not blue’s fault entirely (more on that in a bit) the ability of blue decks to easily run Skred and Lightning Bolt means that creatures have to have an absurd rate on power and toughness or generate value.
The issue with blue does not stop in the color itself. The other top deck of the moment, Boros Monarch, has to run suboptimal cards like Prophetic Prism in order to keep the cards flowing. While Boros Monarch has managed to turn this into an advantage with cards like Glint Hawk and Kor Skyfisher to keep seeing new cards, and Galvanic Blast to capitalize on running excess artifacts, the package still takes up a significant portion of a deck. Unlike blue, this package does not effectively shrink a deck but rather forces valuable slots to be dedicated to consistency at twice the cost of a Preordain.
Blue decks are exerting undue pressure in the format and not only in the standings. Blue decks can keep risky hands on the back of Augur of Bolas and Preordain. One land and Preordain with an Augur of Bolas means that you are likely to find another piece of filtering. Two lands and an Augur means you can likely find a Preordain to get you some gas. Other decks need to either be laser focused on redundancy (like hexproof) or skimp on lands to mimic the consistency experienced by blue decks.
In my opinion Pauper needs to see increased diversity among the most competitive decks. While there might be a broad variety of archetypes, there is a distinct lack of color diversity. The preeminent tempo deck, combo deck, and control deck are all blue. The only nonblue deck in the top is Boros Monarch. Aggro? While there are decks that can take on the aggro role, there is no true top aggressive deck.
The mana does not help the issue. Pauper relies on the Khans of Tarkir gainlands for two-color mana bases, as well as Prophetic Prism. Cards like Terramorphic Expanse and Ash Barrens also see play but they work better when there is a core color and a splash. Because of this bias toward simplistic mana bases (unlike those we see in Modern and Legacy), the dominance of a color becomes more pronounced.
So why a ban? As mentioned before, it is very hard to add impact cards to the format due to the needs of a healthy Limited format. The best way to manage the format is to remove problematic cards. What should get the axe? The way I see it there are a few options.
Ponder and Preordain
While Ponder does not see as much play as Preordain, banning Preordain and leaving Ponder would still leave a powerful option. Removing these two from the format would reduce the consistency of blue decks while not neutering them entirely. Doing this would hopefully allow other decks a chance to keep up without library manipulation. Ideally it would also allow Tron to become a slightly larger player to help keep Monarch decks in check, while also not letting the big mana deck emerge as a dominant metagame force.
I’ll be honest—I do not want to see Gush go. While the card’s power cannot be denied, banning Gush would more or less kill the Tireless Tribe Combo deck and would significantly weaken the Nivix Cyclops deck. More than that, banning Gush would leave the Monarch cards—Entourage of Trest, Palace Sentinels, and Thorn of the Black Rose—as the best way to draw cards in the format. A ban of Gush might mean taking these cards out of the pool as well.
Augur of Bolas
Augur is an interesting choice. It, in conjunction with Preordain, have allowed blue decks to run incredibly smoothly in the early turns at minimal cost. It also has a body that completely shuts down any 1-toughness attacker and does a fine job of negating the format’s multiple takes on Goblin Cohort. Augur of Bolas would also reduce the consistency of blue decks and could open up an avenue for the sustained success of aggressive strategies once again.
Pauper is at a turning point. The format is more popular than ever and with more people playing it the time is right to take steps to improve the format’s long term health. These are my ideas, but I want to hear yours. Let me know how you feel about the current state of Pauper on Twitter by using the #MTGPauper tag. I look forward to hearing what you all think.