Commander Legends is nearly upon us and with it come a bevy of new cards that utilize the Monarch mechanic. Originally released in Conspiracy: Take the Crown, the Monarch is a game piece that gives the wielder a free draw at the beginning of their end step. There are two ways to steal the Monarch piece: either deal combat damage to the holder or play your own card that makes you the Monarch. Since its release the mechanic has been one of the defining pillars of Pauper. It has had a massive impact and is part of the problem keeping aggressive strategies from thriving. Today I want to spend some time talking about what impact the Monarch has on deck design and game play, and what these new cards mean for Pauper’s health moving forward.
The Monarch is a fantastic multiplayer mechanic. I’m sure I’m not the only person who has ever sat down to play Commander and had several open attacks, only to pass through combat for fear of angering an opponent. The Monarch mitigates this by encouraging the game state to move forward. If you have the Monarch, it makes sense to attack you for some amount and in turn, it then makes sense to attack me. In this way the Monarch is balanced in part by the number of players in a game – if one person accrues too many resources then they paint a target on their forehead.
In Pauper, the Monarch has the exact opposite effect. Without additional opponents the Monarch becomes a mechanic that encourages protecting the piece at all costs. This means leaving blockers up and playing a ton of defensive spells – typified by pairing Palace Sentinels with Prismatic Strands. Think about it this way: in a four player game of Commander, for every two cards drawn naturally by the Monarch the table draws three cards naturally; in a two-player game, the Monarch draws twice as many cards as their lone adversary. This is a huge advantage and one worth defending by any means necessary.
The result is that games involving the Monarch become solely about the Monarch. The presence of powerful removal and good Fog effects means that often the best way to become the Monarch is to play your own piece rather than trying to deal combat damage. This was somewhat mitigated by the fact that the Monarch cards available to Pauper before Commander Legends cost four (Palace Sentinels, Thorn of the Black Rose) and five (Crown-Hunter Hireling, Entourage of Trest) mana. The high cost gave aggressive strategies a window to apply enough pressure early that they could deal the final few points late before combat became a forgone conclusion.
Monarch does play an important role in the Pauper metagame. It has helped midrange decks keep pace with blue tempo builds on card economy. Delver style decks leverage powerful cantrips like Preordain alongside Ninja of the Deep Hours to keep the cards flowing. They rely on relatively small creatures to pressure the opponent – creatures blanked by Kor Skyfisher and cheap removal. Monarch decks can keep parity with cards while trying to defend their crown. This is risky and the Monarch-Delver matchups can often hinge on a few key plays, giving them the potential for intricate and exciting games.
Monarch also acted as a countermeasure to Tron decks. Tron has long been able to leverage their mana abundance into an excess of cards thanks to the interaction of Ghostly Flicker with Mulldrifter and Mnemonic Wall. Even as Ghostly Flicker gave way to Ephemerate, one way to keep up with Tron was to slam a Monarch and ride the card advantage to victory. Sadly this is no longer the case thanks to Bonder’s Ornament as Tron can more easily convert its mana to cards.
Before I go any further, I should be honest: I believe that for the long term health of Pauper, both the Monarch mechanic and the Tron lands need to be banned. Or rather I thought this leading up to Commander Legends spoiler season and am now less sure. This has to do with two of the revealed Monarch cards (at the time of writing): Fall from Favor and Staunch Throneguard.
Staunch Throneguard can come down on turn three in Tron and has a big enough backside to absorb most attacks. Five toughness is large enough to survive Savage Swipe from Stompy and Galvanic Blast. While Abrade and Cast Down both work, chances are good that if they are casting a removal spell on turn three they probably don’t have a good ground force, to say nothing of Tron having a Moment’s Peace and Prophetic Prism at the ready. Tron decks would occasionally run their own Monarch engine but Throneguard makes it even easier to do so.
Fall from Favor is the cheapest Monarch card yet. While it is not attached to a creature it can easily slot into blue tempo decks by simply enchanting its own creature. Then if you happen to Ninja of the Deep Hours the creature back and the aura falls off, oh well. Fall from Favor is also a fantastic removal spell, potentially shutting down a lone attacker and making it easier for these decks to hold the crown. At three mana, it also sets up lines of play where you hold off on Fall until turn five and leave up Moment’s Peace or some other Fog effect.
There are some small benefits to adding these cards. Every color now has access to a reasonable Monarch card. Adding Monarch cards could also give rise to more decks that seek to win outside of the combat phase via unique combos.
I don’t know about you but I don’t want to pin my hopes on Drannith Stinger.
Here are the main issues I see with adding more Monarch cards to Pauper.
What if you couldn’t kill a Planeswalker?
Formats outside of Pauper have had additional game pieces for more than a dozen years. Planeswalkers were introduced in 2007 and have been part of Magic ever since. They are permanents that can generate a persistent advantage if left untouched. Planeswalkers can be attacked and removed and as of late there have been more cards printed to specifically kill Planeswalkers.
Unlike Planeswalkers, both players cannot have access to the Monarch at the same time. You cannot kill the Monarch – once it is in the game it is there until a player loses.
For better or worse, Planeswalkers have added a layer to strategic game play. You have to make choices about whether or not to attack an opponent’s Planeswalker and leave your own vulnerable or simply ignore it and try to reduce a life total to zero. The Monarch has no such tension. Instead, once a player has the Monarch attacking becomes nearly useless as these decks are built to maintain their advantage. Rather than a give-and-take, the Monarch player will accumulate enough resources to easily win the game, albeit several turns down the road. The safety valves that should exist for good Planeswalker gameplay simply cannot exist in a way to combat the Monarch.
2 vs. 1
The Monarch is a multiplayer mechanic. As discussed previously, the factors that make the mechanic interesting for free-for-all Magic break down in a two-player scenario. If your opponent is drawing two cards a turn to your one, they are going to eventually overwhelm you on cards alone. The power level of Pauper resides at a level that there are very few cards that can keep up with this advantage; even Mulldrifter has a hard time keeping up with the unchecked Monarch.
When there are multiple opponents all teaming up on the Monarch this is hardly an issue. Players can use their own engines to keep up on resources. While there are some engines capable of doing this in Pauper they are mana intensive and barely hold a candle to a free card every turn.
The Tron Conundrum
Tron is already a problematic engine and as I said I believe it should be banned. However, Tron does help keep Monarch in check. These cards make it more likely that Tron needs to remain legal in order to prevent the format from becoming Monarch or bust. The end result of this would be the near total death of viable aggressive strategies. Tron decks already lean on Moment’s Peace, Stonehorn Dignitary, and Weather the Storm to survive to their end game. If even more decks can access the Monarch, damage prevention effects will become more prevalent.
So what does this all mean? Given that Pauper is about to experience an influx of Monarch cards I don’t see them getting banned anytime soon. Similarly I can’t imagine Tron getting the axe in the immediate future. Instead I believe Pauper is going to have to adjust to the presence of the Monarch and accept it as a problematic bug. Players can load up on Slither Blade and cards like Looter il-Kor or bring decks that do not care about attacking and instead try to combo off.
In my ideal world there is a way to get rid of the Monarch. Monarch has created play patterns for a Planeswalker like game piece that does not actually exist on the battlefield. You cannot force a player to discard it or attack its loyalty; you cannot use Vampire Hexmage or Dreadbore to remove it and Oblivion Ring is just as useless. If the Monarch is allowed to persist there must be an answer.
I do not see this happening any time soon. I am not a fan of adding wide swaths of cards to the ban list but if Pauper becomes Monarch: The Format, something will need to be done. Given the current strength of Monarch, adding these cards makes that outcome rather likely.