Let’s start by saying I was not expecting to write this today. Normally the posts I release at the start of the week go over the Challenges from the previous weekend and talk about shifts in the metagame. But I saw this tweet from Pauper regular Raptor56 and it got me thinking about the format and the perception of Pauper both from within and without.
The part that stood out to me was this: “I really wish the bridges did not have the artifact subtype. The format has revolved around then, and it’s gotten quite stale.” Now this is a pretty common refrain from people who play Pauper a ton and is something that I’ve observed, but I wanted to see if this sentiment was held by a wider population and not just those who are heavily engaged with the format. And so I posted this, and more than a day later my notifications continue to explode:
Before I continue, I want to be as crystal clear as I possibly can:
The following opinions are mine alone and do not necessarily reflect the feelings of the Pauper Format Panel.
And if that was not clear enough, here’s another tag line:
Just because I write something here doesn’t mean that it is going to happen. Chill the Eff Out.
With that out of the way, let’s get down to business.
First, there were a ton of responses the hearkened back to the glory days of the past, when Pauper used to be good and you could win a game without your opponent taking meaningful game actions – when you could Daze their first play and Spellstutter Sprite their next one or use Invigorate on Glistener Elf to kill them on turn two. In this era Pauper had an identity as a powerful format but it was incredibly punishing and the choices boiled down to bringing the right deck. A format where most of the decision making has to take place outside of the actual game leaves little to actual gameplay and that’s a bad time (this is a knock on the current iteration of Pauper for what it’s worth).
Another suite of responses focused on Pauper’s inclusion of all commons. Strixhaven Championship winner Sam Pardee opined that the Monarch and commons from other supplemental sets undercut the ethos of the format by taking some liberties with the nature of what a common can do. The fact that common is a completely arbitrary delineation wholly contingent on the limited environment and not intrinsically tied to individual power level does create some issues.
Pardee’s sentiment is echoed by Bryan Gottlieb and Gerry Thompson in this episode of the Arena Decklists podcast where Gottlieb advocates for Pauper to move to the Modern cardpool, eschewing the outliers from before Eighth Edition as well as the nonsense caused by sets such as Conspiracy, Commander Legends, and going back as far as the Magic Online Masters Editions which fudged the rarity of cards for limited concerns. While I disagree about cutting out everything that didn’t first pass through Modern, this gets to the kernel of the issue brought up by Raptor in their post that inspired this exercise.
Supplemental sets, whether they be focused on Modern or Commander or whatever, have different needs than sets that have to go through Standard first. Because of this they tend to feature Commons that are outside what many would consider an appropriate power band. To me this alone if not a reason to exclude these cards as the format still contains Lightning Bolt and Preordain. Rather it is when these cards are geared towards formats with more than two players that things start to get dangerous. The other time when these supplemental cards cause issues is when they prop up existing archetypes in a way to wallpaper over their weaknesses. We can look at two case studies here in the Monarch and Bridges.
The Monarch, as it was released, was not designed for two player games of Magic. Here is where people point to articles from Mark Rosewater that describe how the Monarch was borrowed from Ixalan design when it was called The Edge and gave a bonus. We don’t know a lot about The Edge; we do not know if the benefit was a card every turn or if it would even make it out of what was then called development. Because of this it creates an imbalance when brought into games where there are not a requisite number of players to help balance out its benefits – in a four player game, each turn cycle means two “free” cards for the Monarch and three “free” cards for their opponents. This is one reason why I am cautious around Initiative and the Undercity.
The Bridges, on the other hand, were designed for a specific limited format and have done a number on Pauper. Affinity is a broken mechanic and taking away one of the archetypes main weaknesses – its fragile manabase – has shown Pauper exactly how busted the machine can be. The result is that in an effort to return Pauper to some semblance of balance, many believe the Bridges have to go. The issue with this stance is that it doesn’t actually address the issue of Affinity as a mechanic and leaves the door open to more things going wrong in the future (but I’ll get to this more later).
In order to ensure Pauper’s continued success, I believe there needs to be both short term decisions and long term action. I think the Pauper Format Panel is well set up to handle the “thousand yard view” that the format needs. I am an advocate for more aggressive use of the banned list to deal with problem cards but I also am happy this is not the stance everyone holds as it forces us to explore problems from multiple angles. That being said I think in order to move past the current morass, some cards need to be examined.
First up, the Monarch and upcoming cards with Initiative need a good, long look. Cards designed for multiplayer games that scale, like Encore, Myriad, or Melee, are fine in Pauper since they check the number of opponents before granting a benefit. Monarch and Initiative do not care about the other players in the same way and as a result have the potentially to completely throw off the balance of the game.
Second, and this is contingent on the third point (I’m going out of order for a reason, I think) is to examine ways to weaken the Faerie/Ninja core. The core game plan of cantrip into Spellstutter Sprite into Ninja of the Deep Hours is extremely powerful and if the other steps laid out here are taken, could exert a ton of pressure on the format at large in a way that makes blue the undisputed ruler once again.
As for Affinity, here is where I’m veering off course. I do not like the Bridges, but I think they do one thing exceptionally well: the encourage decks to play more expensive cards. The interaction between these lands and Cleansing Wildfire encourages decks to play more expensive cards and build towards a long game. This should not be discounted as otherwise the format would follow the trend of other large card pool formats, as Gottlieb and Thompson pointed out, towards 0, 1, and 2 mana spells. Being able to buck this trend is important for diversity in my opinion.
Rather, I think the time might be nigh to come for Pauper’s low-threshold one mana-draw twos. If you remove Thoughtcast from the equation, Affinity loses a key way to keep chaining draws for cheap. I also think that time has shown Deadly Dispute might just be too good for Pauper as it also effectively costs one mana and has a low threshold towards including in a deck. Unlike Reckoner’s Bargain it leaves behind a Treasure and unlike Village Rites it can be fueled by material that might be extraneous. Of One Mind is probably safe since it requires far more specific deckbuilding restrictions than simply “include artifacts”.
Supplemental sets are not going anywhere and they provide an opportunity to give Pauper some cards that might otherwise be out of the format’s reach. However when they do get released, action needs to be taken to identify problems they might cause and decisions need to be made about what to do.
But of course if you’ve been following me for any stretch of time, you already knew that’s where I stand.
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