Why You Should Play Pauper

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For the past few months I’ve been deep in the Pauper tank. Every week I pick a new deck to learn and work on, and have essentially played my way through the metagame. All things considered, my Pauper experience has been rich in fun.

Today I want to take a moment to reflect on what I’ve learned. If you haven’t taken the dive into the format yet, here are a few reasons to consider getting your feet wet:

The Price is Right

From a pragmatic point of view, Pauper is the most affordable format in Magic by a wide margin—an obvious upside of an all common format.

The fact that decks are much cheaper than other formats makes the format a lot more “playable,” in the sense that people can play whatever they want and then easily switch and play something else without having to shell out hundreds of dollars.

The fact that nearly every deck can be fully assembled for between $40-$100 makes it very reasonable for the average player to own multiple decks.

The advantage reaches beyond just being cheaper than other formats. The fact that players can be flexible about what they play means that there is a much more fluid metagame. In other formats, the average player picks a deck and is often beholden to sticking with it simply because the cost of changing decks is burdensome.

Local Metagames are More Dynamic

If your local game store doesn’t offer a weekly Pauper event yet, consider trying to get the ball rolling. It only takes one player with a little bit of motivation to light the spark.

Last week I wrote about how one enthusiastic Pauper fan, Jon Wilkerson, built a Pauper following that culminated in a 106-player event!

The upside is high because Pauper creates fun and diverse LGS metagames, and I see this phenomenon as being directly linked to the low cost of entry to the format.

For the cost of changing a single expensive card in a Modern or Legacy deck, a player can simply buy another Pauper deck! As an example, at my LGS, most of the regular players own between two and five different decks. It makes showing up and playing a more dynamic experience, since even though I might face off against the same 25 players, I’m not playing against the same matchup week in and week out.

I’m a big fan of Modern, but I’ll admit weekly events have become a little stale for me. It’s always the same 20 players and they always play the same twenty decks. It’s a constant rehashing of the same matchups. It’s a consequence of players only owning one, or sometimes two decks at the most.

Pauper offers a ton of flavors, but the price makes it reasonable for players to sample and enjoy the diversity being offered.

From a Playability Standpoint, Pauper is Without Equal

I would not hesitate to say that I believe Pauper to be the best format in terms of the quality of games it provides. It’s not that other formats are bad. Rather, it is praise for a format that I think is truly superb.

I’m biased toward Eternal formats, and I love playing with the old cards. It actually took me a long time to admit to myself that enjoy games of Pauper more than Vintage or Legacy.

In two months, I’ve played about 20 different decks and played against at least three times that many unique decks. If you enjoy formats that offer tremendous diversity, like Modern, Pauper has that characteristic in spades. But unlike Modern, which has tons of extremely polarized matchups, Pauper is largely unwinnable-matchup free.

Sure, there are favorable or unfavorable matchups (Tron versus Tireless Tribe, for instance) but even the worst matchups in Pauper don’t feel as lopsided as Affinity versus Jeskai or Midrange versus Tron.

What does that mean? It means that every time you sit down against an opponent you are likely to get a legitimately good game of Magic.

I don’t want to spend too much more time discussing matchups, but long story short, my experience with Pauper leads me to believe that it has the best ratio of games that felt like they were interesting to blowouts compared to all other formats by a wide margin.

When I sit down to play Magic I want to play good games, and Pauper gives me the most bang for my buck.

Old-School Magic

So, why are the games so good?

It’s a function of the way the format works. In a format of only commons, what has been omitted? Notably, absurdly powerful rare and mythic rares.

Rares often provide the most powerful and flashy finishers.

Commons provide the basic building blocks of the game—primarily cards that are meant to define Limited formats.

Basically, what Pauper lacks is what makes it so great. The absence of busted finishers forces players to play “fair” Magic. There are certainly “unfair” decks that create combos through synergy, but there is a consistent baseline for what individual cards can accomplish.

I know Magic has changed over the past years but it was never so clear to me how the game has changed as when I started playing Pauper. The pace of the games was slower because the threats don’t end the game as fast as they do now and so there was a lot more back and forth and I had more decisions to make.

Nowhere was this more pronounced to me than when I was playing Standard last weekend. I played Grixis Midrange and my deck was basically constructed as follows.

1/3 Land
1/3 Efficient removal
1/3 Busted rare/mythic rare threats that run away with the game if I get to untap with them.

I played against a few different decks and most of them were using a similar blueprint. I crushed the decks that beat down and got crushed by the decks that used Search for Azcanta. Good old rock, scissors, paper…

It was a team event, which means that I could have asked my teammates for help with any tricky in-game scenarios. I didn’t have a single situation come up in a game where that even felt necessary. The cards are so individually powerful that at the end of the day, tactics can only carry you so far. You can’t outplay The Scarab God very often. You either had an answer or you didn’t.

In Modern Magic, threats are more powerful and efficient than answers, but this was not always the case. Individual cards don’t just run away with the game as soon as they hit play because there was a cap on how much a card can realistically do. There are no turn-3 Karns because cards that have such a dynamic impact on the battlefield simply do not exist at common.

It is also significant that very few cards have the “planeswalker effect,” where they continue to generate traction or card and board advantage on the battlefield outside of dealing combat damage.

There are certainly some cards that have this effect available (Ninja of the Deep Hours and Ulamog’s Crusher, for instance) but these have a cost and don’t just go into a every deck that can produce mana to cast them like Glint-Sleeve Siphoner or The Scarab God.

Here’s what I’m getting at: In Pauper, when my opponent plays a creature and passes the turn, I have multiple options about what I can do next. 90% of the time, I’m not going to lose on the spot for not having an answer to a threat in my hand on turn 2 or 3.

I’m not saying that “answers > threats” is inherently better than “threats < answers.” In fact, I think that the threats and answers have a nice power level balance in Pauper. A lot of the creatures have ETB abilities that replace themselves.

Even the best generalist answers can line up poorly, which is why proactive cards are more flexible than reactive cards.

Decks full of great reactive cards still need to win somehow and that there are no Sphinx’s Revelations or Dragonlord Ojutais as payoffs for playing a ton of cheap removal and taking a defensive posture.

The games go longer in Pauper, which I really enjoy. Having the upper hand in the game on turn 4 doesn’t have nearly as high a conversion rate as it does in formats where rares are legal.

If you told me that you like the games where each individual play impacts the game more, I wouldn’t tell you that you were wrong for thinking that. If you told me that you liked playing with broken cards, I also wouldn’t tell you that you were wrong. My other favorite format is Vintage, which has lopsided games and broken cards by the boatload.

I appreciate each format for the ways in which it is unique. I give Standard the business from time to time, but I still play it and I’m happy it exists and has improved. With that being said, there are a lot of unique attributes to appreciate in Pauper:

  • It has the lowest cost of entry of any Constructed format.
  • There are a ridiculous number of competitive decks to choose from.
  • The low cost of entry allows more players to switch or own multiple decks.
  • Despite the presence of tons of archetypes, the format doesn’t suffer from tons of polarized matchups.
  • The metagame is dynamic because players are more able to change decks.
  • A lack of “busted threats” leads to more games being determined by what you did as opposed to what you drew.

As far as lists go, these are all pretty high on my list of positive qualities for a format and so it is not surprising it has become my favorite in such a short amount of time.

Pauper is still a casual format in terms of tournament play, meaning that all events must be run at casual REL. I’d love to see that change. It’s such an accessible, fun, and skill testing format, all rolled into one. It is really shocking to me that WotC hasn’t realized this and run with it the way that other large tournament organizers have. It’s the kind of format that would likely draw gigantic Grand Prix numbers and have super stacked Top 8s for coverage.

If you are not Paupering already, give the format a shot. Based on my experience (and talking to other players who have jumped in since it started booming in popularity), it’s probably more likely you’ll be hooked than disappointed.


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