I do not want to spend many words on the July 17 and July 18 Pauper Challenges. It isn’t that the results aren’t worth discussing but rather that all that can be said about the current metagame has been said multiple times: Affinity and Storm are miles better than almost everything else in the Challenges and until we see some bans, the metagame is going to remain stagnant.
After four Challenges, this is every deck to make at least 3 appearances in the Top 32 – a 2% volume threshold. It is clear that the metagame is heavily skewed towards the top. This wouldn’t be as large an issue if not for the fact that the metagame today looks remarkably similar to all of Modern Horizons 2 season – the same two decks at the top while Dimir strives to be relevant.
One thing I have done a poor job of discussing is what my ideal Pauper looks like. I tend to get lost in the numbers talking about what is dominant in the field and looking for edges or ruminating on format health. Today, instead of trudging through a well worn path, I want to talk about my vision for Pauper as a metagame and maybe more – as a format.
Pauper is a non-rotating format. Unlike other non-rotating formats it is rarity gated – that is only cards printed at common are legal. Because of the way set design works (and the nature of Magic itself) powerful effects – the same kind that tend to impact formats like Vintage, Legacy, and Modern – are printed at higher rarities. As a result it is harder to “shake up” Pauper with these releases as the cards entering the format are, inherently, of a lower power level.
This has changed somewhat in recent years. As Pauper has become more popular we have seen a slow uptick in the number of commons in non-Masters style sets that see play in the format. These cards rarely make huge waves but as we saw with First Day of Class that is not always the case. Part of the issue with new cards entering the format is that at common we already have many of the best iterations of effects – a better version of Lightning Bolt or Counterspell isn’t walking through the door. More than many other factors this prevents new cards from making waves in Pauper.
The lack of churn can lead to stagnating formats. If the majority of releases do not have a major impact then the competitive games are going to feature the same decks, cards, and strategies over and over. This in it of itself is not bad if there is a balance between the decks. When there are several viable decks – such as during Strixhaven season – then the fact that there may have been a best deck or two mattered less since each deck had reasonable counterplay in the meta and there were several strategies that could succeed given the correct metagame.
That metagame was a direct result of Commander Legends and the addition of Cascade threats to Pauper. Annoyed Altisaur and Boarding Part provided counterplay to both Flicker Tron and Monarch endgames. That in turn made it so that these strategies were regressed a bit, allowing other strategies to emerge given proper metagaming. Compare that to the current state of affairs where it does not matter what deck emerges since it is going to get run over by Storm or Affinity.
My ideal Pauper metagame is one that is dynamic. There can be a best deck or a clear top tier but given the trends in the metagame a player can make the right call and be rewarded. The worst metagames, in my opinion, are ones where this choice is removed.
I understand some people like the current metagame. They like trying to get an edge with specific cards in the established decks. I like that too but I feel that when you’re dealing with a small set of potential options some of that fun is removed from the equation.
To be clear, if Storm and Affinity both had clear counterplay that could limit the efficacy of these strategies week over week, I would be fine with them existing.
But Alex, someone out there is surely saying, this is why Pauper needs more powerful downshifts.
The danger of relying on downshifts to solve the problems is that they are almost always answers as opposed to threats. For these cards to be printed at common there has to be an incredibly specific limited environment that calls for them at that rarity and, like it or not, Pauper has to come after Limited in design considerations. A card like Dryad Militant or Skullcrack would need pretty messed up Limited formats to be viable commons (and yet these are two of the more often mentioned options for downshifts).
I want Pauper to thrive and grow. I want there to be a huge swath of viable decks that, given a reasonable set of circumstances, could do well. I would love to see decks like Tortured Existence and Mono Black Control spike a victory or a Top 8 even if they come less frequently than Delver and Tron.
I know that, as I publish this, we may be less than 24 hours from a ban. I also know that at some point in the not too distant future, perhaps in as soon as two years, we may have a similar problem arise from the next Masters level product. My hope is by then we have a clearer idea of what Wizards wants Pauper to be and then we, as a community, can at least judge the new cards by that metric.