The May 7 and May 8 are not telling us anything new about the format. Affinity, Boros, and Faeries remain the big players in Pauper and unless there’s a format update that is not likely to change. But instead of digging deep on these early results I instead want to talk about a recurring topic of conversation in the #MTGPauper Discord: play patterns.
More specifically, what play patterns are acceptable and which ones should be excised from the format.
The majority of discourse these days centers around the presence of the Modern Horizons 2 Bridges and how their indestructible status fosters certain lines of play. Prior to the printing of Bridges, Affinity was a “high risk, high reward” decks where it was possible to have a significant chunk of its mana base eradicated via Gorilla Shaman. As someone who played a ton of Pauper in those days I want to be clear about one thing: Gorilla Shaman was not an automatic victory against Affinity.
Mox Monkey did a ton of work, chewing up copies of the Mirrodin artifact lands with gusto. But experienced Affinity players knew what was up and would pivot to a longer game plan where the hate-card was less effective. Sometimes it still mattered in these longer games but it was far from a slam dunk.
Instead, Gorilla Shaman and Dust to Dust both promote similar angles of attack: choke off their resources. And in both instances these cards have limited utility against other decks in their respective fields. The big difference is that you did not need to run Gorilla Shaman in your deck to have a chance against pre-Bridge Affinity and today, it at least feels like you need to have Dust to Dust to stand a chance if pitted against the current iteration. It is this feeling, coupled with Affinity’s overall strength, that has left some players unhappy with the play patterns available in Pauper.
But then again, a lot of play patterns in the format have been less than desirable. Having to play against Spellstutter Sprite can be a misery; facing off against Palace Sentinels and Prismatic Strands can leave players feeling overmatched; when someone taps Axebane Guardian for an obscene amount of mana and hits Boarding Party off Annoyed Altisaur, well, it doesn’t make me jump for joy. All of this is to say there are plenty of lines of play that feel downright depressing to play against if you are not expecting them.
So what makes the Affinity scenario different? I am not sure but I think it is a confluence of a few things. First, that Affinity was not this powerhouse a year ago and a set that changed everything led to several cards being banned also gave Pauper the Bridges. Perhaps they are seen as a mistake that still needs to be corrected.
But I don’t think that’s everything – I think the fact that the Pauper Format Panel exists has also fueled some of the discontent. Full disclosure: I sit on the panel. Because the Panel helps to manage the format and has gone after Affinity twice in an effort to rein it in (not kill the strategy outright) the fact that it continues to put up big numbers might come across as a failure.
The last big piece of this puzzle, to me at least, is that there are lots of other powerful things you can do in Pauper and very few of them have clean answers. Deadly Dispute is an absurd card; Spellstutter Sprite remains a format defining card; Azorius Familiars can take complete control of a game on the 4th turn; and so on. In all these instances there are several things that can be done but there is debate on what should be done. At least in Affinity’s case the answer seems clear: knock down the Bridges.
Speaking outside of my role on the Pauper Format Panel, I would not advocate for that at this time. The format, despite being top heavy, still has a decent amount of play to it. There is a clear top tier but no one macro-strategy is consistently dominant week after week after week. Coupled with this the format now has a suite of powerful cores that deckbuilders can use as the supporting architecture for variant builds. I am not saying the format is perfect, but it is the best it has been in a long time.
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