Evaluating Post-Ban Pauper

On Monday, July 13th, Expedition Map and Mystic Sanctuary were banned in Pauper.

The goal of both of these bans were to hinder decks with powerful endgame loops. Brian DeMars does an excellent breakdown of these loops in his pre-ban article here so I won’t rehash these points. Rather I want to look forward and I’ll say this: I believe Pauper is in a better place today than it was before these bans.

Let’s get the easy one out of the way: Mystic Sanctuary created game states that were redundant and hard to stop. Being able to consistently rebuy Deprive or Tragic Lesson meant that a Mystic Sanctuary deck would almost always have access to the right spell for a given situation. Mystic Sanctuary was also difficult to stop thanks to the fact that its effect came staple to a land and that blue is the best color in the format. Taking Mystic Sanctuary out of the equation weakens the late game of blue decks and removes the potential for loops.

That brings us to Expedition Map. Unlike in Modern, Tron is not currently used to power out singular game ending threats in Pauper. While Pauper Tron used to be about resolving Mulldrifter, Fangren Marauder, and Rolling Thunder ahead of schedule, the recent builds leverage the mana to use Ghostly Flicker and Mnemonic Wall to get additional enter-the-battlefield triggers from Mulldrifter and Dinrova Horror. To achieve this endgame it runs a suite of Moment’s Peace and Stonehorn Dignitary to take away the opportunity for an opponent to pressure Tron’s life total.

These decks could routinely set up their defenses by turn four, if not turn three, and essentially lock the opponent out of meaningful action. The goal of banning Expedition Map, therefore, is to delay Tron by a turn or two, hopefully giving aggressive strategies a window of opportunity.

Let’s take a step back for a moment. Pauper has some very powerful aggressive strategies. There are go-wide beatdown decks powered by Burning-Tree Emissary – Stompy and Red Deck Wins – which can easily win on turn four. There are also multiple decks that seek to go tall with a singular threat, whether it is pumped by Ethereal Armor or naturally grows like Kiln Fiend. The format lacks reliable board wipes. The best ones either hit one toughness creatures (Electrickery, Suffocating Fumes) or are conditional (Swirling Sandstorm).

Black has powerful board control elements in Crypt Rats, Evincar’s Justice, and Pestilence, but these are only so good against the aggressive decks. Crypt Rats can be used on turn four but could just as easily deal the caster a lethal blow; Evincar’s Justice is bad against a card like Kor Skyfisher; Pestilence needs you to untap with it on turn five. So the best way to achieve a control end game is by rendering attacks obsolete through Fog effects. Tron is just the best deck for this at the moment.

The Expedition Map ban seems to indicate a worry about the aggressive decks in the format but also the various Monarch midrange decks. Monarch is a powerful effect in two-player Magic wherein one player gets a free card every turn if they can prevent combat damage. The easiest way to protect the crown is not attempting to remove every opposing threat but rather to simply stop them from dealing combat damage (sounds familiar).

One of the natural checks on these decks is Tron. Tron’s ability to go over the top with ease lessens the impact of the free cards from the Monarch. Looking at the Expedition Map ban it seems that the decision makers wanted to weaken Tron decks without removing them entirely. This quote Senior Magic Designer Gavin Verhey provided me only helps to verify this line of though: 

“One thing you learn very early in game design is that tiny differences can go a LONG way. Weakening a single card, removing one option, can be what makes a difference on the razor’s edge between too strong and not strong enough. Tron has been a popular and powerful deck in Pauper for a long time. It’s also a deck with a lot of knobs to fine-tune. We always try to be careful about bans, especially in Eternal formats, if that ban would completely remove a headline decks. Tron has its detractors, yes, but there are also a lot of people who love Tron, put time and effort into getting the cards, and have played it for a long time. We would rather make a change and see how it impacts the format, then evaluate again. Our goal here was not to remove Tron from the format, more like knock it. Banning Map certainly weakens the deck, as a switch over to Stirrings, Preordain, or otherwise is not trivial. By how much? Let’s see what happens.” 

Slowing down the deck a turn (at best) may give aggressive decks the opportunity to deal the final points of combat damage or find the lethal piece of reach. Giving aggressive decks a small boost could in turn give midrange decks the opportunity to come back into the fold as a check. The risk with this line of action is that it places a lot of the pressure to contain Tron on the aggressive decks’ fourth and fifth turn. This is compounded by the fact that Mystic Sanctuary decks were one of the few that could match Tron in the latter stages of a game.

The same things that made Mystic Sanctuary problematic for much of the format – the end game loops – helped it to keep pace with Tron on cards and tutor for the right potential answers. The advent of Bonder’s Ornament made it harder for Sanctuary decks to keep pace but they still had a chance. Now they do not exist in the same capacity, removing one of Tron’s potential weaknesses.

I have spent a decent chunk of this article talking about what is going on around Tron, but how does Tron itself change? Expedition Map helped Tron keep more opening hands. One land plus a Map was very reasonable as the chances of hitting a second land in two turns was quite high. Two lands and a Map was an automatic keep.

Expedition Map has no direct analogue but cards like Ancient Stirrings, Crop Rotation, Impulse, and Preordain are all vying for the chance to come off the bench. All of these have merits but they all put additional tax on the opening hand. Ancient Stirrings requires early green mana while Crop Rotation does the same while also access to more than one land to prevent immediate mana screw. Preordain requires early blue and Impulse means you cannot keep a one land hand as easily.

I’m not Frank Karsten but I imagine the deckbuilding cost of any of these changes to be rather low. So were these bans good? I think so. I think they nudge the format in the right direction. That being said I worry that taking away Expedition Map will not do enough to knock Tron and that the incidental damage of removing Mystic Sanctuary could create more opportunities for Tron.

That being said, time will tell and we’ll know more in a few weeks. 

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