The other day I posed a question on Twitter to the wide Magic playing audience about what sort of Pauper content they would like to see and this reply from Sierkovitz got the old gears turning. In the wake of my new content plan, such series seemed very well suited for this very site. This is not to say that such a topic would seem out of place under the big banner or does not allow for the more nuanced and granular approach I want to take on my Patreon, but if I have to start somewhere. With that being said…
When people ask me the biggest difference between Pauper and other forms of Magic there are a few canned responses. The first is Planeswalkers and their absence, which has had a profound impact considering how much the past decade of design has taken these cards into account (and a corollary to this is the presence of Monarch and more recently, Initiative). The second is the absence of catch-up mechanics, typified by sweepers. While today’s Pauper features more sweepers than every before, and better ways to catch up thanks to an increased emphasis on material and reliance on Deadly Dispute, it can still be hard to overcome deficit. But if there is one area where the difference is still glaringly stark it is in mana bases.
Forget for a few minutes that the mana in Pauper is the best it has ever been. Forget that there are a bevy of lands that produce two colors of mana and have additional upside. Instead, take a moment and compare these two Dimir decks – one from Pauper and one from Legacy:
Despite all the new toys in Pauper’s mana pool, there are still some heavy limitations on what can be done with its mana base. First and foremost, it lacks dual lands that enter the battlefield untapped. This, in turn, has a massive impact on how decks are constructed.
The lack of two color untapped lands means that any deck that dips into multiple colors almost always trend towards midrange. It is not that you cannot build a more aggressive deck that touches a second color, but instead of leveraging multiple high power one and two-drops, (a la Zoo), the decks have to instead look to their second color for something specific and something that is not needed early in order to ensure it can matter. As a consequence, most aggressive strategies are either one color or, in the case of Bogles, uses Utopia Sprawl and Abundant Growth to help smooth things out.
There is a secondary cost as well, coming with double colored spells. Take the Pauper deck above – it is majority blue and as such it can run Counterspell with ease. It can also run Chainer’s Edict in the sideboard and reasonably expect to have the correct mana for it late. However the same deck would likely struggle to run a card like Choking Sands since it would require a secondary double color early to be most effective. Compare this to the Legacy deck which can run Delver of Secrets, Thoughtseize, Ponder, Hymn to Tourach, and Murktide Regent while still have space to run three Wasteland. In Pauper it can be much harder to cast your spells, even if you have plenty of lands.
An aside: This is one reason I am not a fan of Radiant Fountain in most two color decks. The card might enter the battlefield untapped but it comes with a very real cost in that it cannot cast key spells early.
The second big difference between Pauper and other non-rotating formats are the different “Fetch” Lands. Evolving Wilds and Terramorphic Expanse have to get basic lands – not lands with basic types. On top of that the retrieved cards enter the battlefield tapped, adding another tempo cost on top of the ones that already exist from running tapped dual lands. This gates the format from plays commonly seen in Modern and Legacy (most notably the Brainstorm shuffle trick). These additional costs are almost all tempo focused which also pushes multicolored decks to be a turn or two slower than their Eternal counterparts, which in turn pushes the format as a whole to be more of a grind.
To be clear this is not to say that Pauper is just a grind-fest these days. Rather there are several strategies that try to capitalize on decks that take a few turns to set up (like the Kuldotha Red list that follows), and the entire Initiative mechanic can punish opponents who take turns off in an attempt to get their mana under them.
There is a third element at play with mana in Pauper that does not appear to be nearly as universal as in other formats. More and more these days, the mana base is an active part of a deck’s engine. The most obvious execution of this principle is in Affinity where each land helps to turn on Metalcraft synergies while serving as additional fodder for Deadly Dispute and Makeshift Munitions. But the Bridges also serve a purpose in other decks that lean on them to accelerate with Cleansing Wildfire. More recently we have seen decks turn to Basilisk Gate as a way to push through damage, leaning on various other Gates to cast spells and speed up the clock. Even the current crop of green based ramp decks use an Arbor Elf engine – namely needing to pack their deck with Forests (including Highland Forest and Wooded Ridgeline) to help facilitate their jump from development to endgame.
None of this is new. For years many top Pauper decks leaned on their mana bases as a form of backup engine, from Islands and Spire Golem, to Swamps and Corrupt, Cloudpost and Tron, and the various engines built around the Ravnica Bouncelands and cards like Cloud of Faeries – mana bases have been integral parts of Pauper game plans. Given the (compared to Legacy and Modern) lower power level of the format, it makes sense to try and extract value from cards that are going to be in your deck anyway.
The mana in Pauper is the best it has ever been and is only going to get better. However if looking at Pauper mana bases compared to other formats there are a few things to keep in mind:
- Pauper mana bases are slower and come with a tempo cost
- This tempo cost pushes multicolored decks towards midrange
- Mana bases can be leveraged as part of a deck’s core engine
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