Checking in on Pauper

Alternative Title: Alex Prepares for Hate Mail

I didn’t write a weekend check in for this week. I wanted to, I even completed the spreadsheet entry for the Challenges that took place on October 3 and October 4. But I didn’t feel like writing a summary, mostly because I have been playing a lot of Pauper. And to be honest: I’m not enjoying it a ton right now.

Zendikar Rising season through 7 events; only decks with a Top 8 finish featured

The incentives in Pauper are out of whack and right now the majority of games come down to a slog of card economy. The power of Monarch and Tron mean that prolonging the game and simply exhausting your opponent’s resources (and potentially their will to play). The other option is to be as aggressive as possible and try to end the game in the first five turns. There is a scrum in the middle, but those skirmishes tend to take place between decks that are trying to fight for long game advantages. None of this is new and Pauper has been trending this way since the release of Modern Masters 2017. (Note: I originally got the release wrong, these cards came in 2017, not 2015)

Modern Masters 2017 saw a number of key additions to Pauper. It gave the format Augur of Bolas, Burning-Tree Emissary, and Dinrova Horror. It’s release also coincided with the addition of Palace Sentinels and Thorn of the Black Rose to the Magic Online pool of available cards. You will be hard pressed to find a Pauper regular who can point to a more impactful release than that one. Shortly after the set hit, Stompy rose to prominence on the back of Burning-Tree Emissary turns only to be unseated by Boros Monarch leveraging free cards and Prismatic Strands. Not too long after, Dinrova Horror endgame Tron decks came into being. Along the way a bevy of blue cards got banned (Cloud of Faeries, Daze, Gitaxian Probe, Gush, and Mystic Sanctuary). These bans were needed to keep blue in check (and blue is doing just fine), but now Pauper is locked in a battle between an early knock out and a 12-round slog.

The incentives in Pauper are broken. The addition of Burning-Tree Emissary to the format made one-for-one removal a risky proposition. Your Lightning Bolt is very good at handling one threat but doesn’t do nearly as well when it trades with half of your opponent’s second turn. Stompy was dominant early in the Modern Masters 2017 on the back of incredibly strong BTE turns. That is until Boros players figured out how Palace Sentinels worked with Prismatic Strands. Now midrange decks had a way to stay alive when faced with pressure while also drawing into more removal. It is a lot easier to clear a board when you’re drawing two cards a turn.

This was a major inflection point. As running answers became less important and more decks were relying on damage prevention effects (and as these effects became better) it became easier to survive until simply drew enough answers or ended the game. (Note: the next section is edited to update for the correct timeline of events)Pulse of Murasa came in 2016 and made pushed for a major shift in Tron decks.. Until that point, Tron decks were largely focused on resolving large threats early and ending the game with Rolling Thunder or Ulamog’s Crusher. In order to survive, the deck ran Expedition Map, Chromatic Star, and Chromatic Sphere in concert with Fangren Marauder. Pulse of Murasa gave Tron a way to buyback dead Mulldrifters while also bolstering a life total. Mnemonic Wall getting back Pulse was backbreaking and bought tons of time. These Tron decks eventually gave way to builds that added Ghostly Flicker and the modern Flicker Tron decks were born. They only got better with the addition of Ephemerate and basically, every set since.

Pauper games currently trend in one of two directions: you’re dead before you can do anything or games drag on for several turns and the individual who drew more cards wins. While there are fun and interesting moments in these games, the games themselves (at least to me and surprisingly, several other regular players) are not fun. I suppose it’s a testament to how much we all love the format that we all continue to play it despite things being kinda meh.

If I had to look at a root cause, it would have to be things that are too good on rate. Current card design (January 2019-September 2020) seems to be pushing how much a single card can be worth. We are seeing this in other formats but the philosophy has trickled down to Pauper. Burning-Tree Emissary is “free”; Monarch provides free cards; Tron makes mana trivial. I am not sure the best way to make Pauper more enjoyable for more people, but here is where I would start:

  • Ban Tron: At this point there is no reason these cards should continue to be legal as they’ve proven time and time again to be too good. Go ahead an unban Expedition Map while you’re at it.
  • Ban Monarch: A Monarch is a cool mechanic but in reality a free card every turn is too good in a two player format.
  • Ban Burning-Tree Emissary: If you remove late game incentives, you have to also remove draws that overrun control decks with ease and removing BTE takes some pressure off slower decks.
  • Ban Ephemerate: Ephemerate is basically the Monarch when paired with Mnemonic Wall or Archaeomancer except it’s also a tutor; removing Monarch but leaving this engine will create the same problems.

These are drastic steps and will cause a massive change in the format. More than that, these will render several cards unplayable and for players who play tabletop, that is a real cost. That being said I think these changes can open up Pauper. I do not think these change the incentives but rather unlock additional things to play towards.

I don’t think unbanning cards (aside from Expedition Map) is the way to go. Adding powerful options back to the format don’t open up new pillars but rather rebuild old ones. The changes proposed above are just one set of options and I’d like to hear what other regulars have to say.

Published by Alex Ullman

Alex Ullman has been playing Magic since 1994 (he thinks). Since 2005, he's spent most of his time playing and exploring Pauper. One of his proudest accomplishments was being on the winnings side of the 2009 Community Cup. He makes his home in Brooklyn, New York, where he was born and raised.

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