A Rant About Tweets

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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May 14-15 Pauper Weekend in Review

We had our normal Saturday and Sunday Challenges, as well as a Showcase Challenge that ran on Saturday. While there were plenty of decks that performed well the story of the weekend was one that has been told time and time again over the past several months: Affinity, Boros, and Faeries are all jockeying for position with decks like Azorius Familairs and Goblin Combo making their presence felt. But three weeks into New Capenna season, here is what the big three archetypes are doing in the Winner’s Metagame:

I am not here to say whether or not this is a good thing or a bad thing – this is just the way Pauper is right now, with the best decks consistently making up over 50% of the winner’s metagame. Both Boros and Faeries encompass several sub-archetypes while Affinity is overwhelmingly made up of the Grixis variants. Still, having a metagame so dominated by these decks is something to watch, especially as we get ready for the next release in Battle for Baldur’s Gate.

Multiplayer focused sets tend to do a number on Pauper. Conspiracy: Take the Crown introduced the Monarch which reshaped the format and Commander Legends brought with it Fall From Favor, which broke the format for several months. There is already concern about Initiative, which mashes up the Monarch with Forgotten Realms‘ Venture Mechanic.

While we do not have all the cards with this mechanic, our first look is one that generates about a cards worth of value on each step of the Undercity Dungeon. Pairing the Sneak with Ephemerate will put you fairly far ahead for only five total mana and if there are any Initiative cards that are cheaper than four, Pauper could be in for another tempestuous series of events.

However that is not set in stone. Fall From Favor took one of the best strategies and made it significantly better while also providing counterplay for Faeries against Monarch decks in preboard games. Fall From Favor also came out when the format was at a lower power level. Since Fall From Favor was banned the overall strength of the decks in Pauper has gone up. Also, without knowing all the cards it is hard to contextualize how they will fit into the format at large. So for now I’m taking the “wait and see” approach and hope rather than adding more fuel to the existing engines, Initiative provides incentives to build new decks.

But there’s a very good chance I’m wrong and that by the time we reach July something will have to change.

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May 7-8 Pauper Weekend Recap

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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April 30-May 1 Pauper Weekend Recap

The April 30 and May 1 Pauper Challenges were the first to feature Streets of New Capenna. A grand total of three cards – Tramway Station, Jewel Thief, and Inspiring Overseer- made it into the Top 32 decks on the weekend. It is still too early in the season to draw any conclusions, but once again, Faeries is setting the pace of the field.

But today I don’t want to talk about that. Where I live – the United States – just saw the hint of what is to come in our future. A leaked document from our Supreme Court is looking to overturn a previous decision and endanger the health and welfare of anyone who can bear children, denying them healthcare regardless of circumstance or potential harm. It has the horrible potential to turn humans with wombs into little more than just that: wombs. And if this decision comes to pass several states already have laws on the books that will make abortion illegal.

Just as worrying is the language used in this decision, which is structured as to roll back rights for marginalized groups. Rights that should be inherent but due to the structure of this country had to be won in hard fought battles.

So forgive me today for not talking too much about Pauper. Instead I encourage you to donate to an abortion fund. Organize and protect your friends and neighbors – protect other humans. And as I posted to Twitter earlier, if you’re reveling in this decision and what it means for the people of this country, I want nothing to do with you.

Normally here I’d put a plug for my Patreon. If you were going to sign up this week thank you, but donate that money to an abortion fund instead.

Neon Dynasty Season Wrap

The April 23 and April 24 closed the books on the Kamigawa: Neon Dynasty season. Seven weeks after the most recent format update Pauper is ready to turn the page to Streets of New Capenna. There are plenty of stories to tell about the past two months, but if there is one overarching theme it is one of change.

First, I think it is fair to say that there are three macro-archetypes at the top of the standings: Affinity, Boros, and Faeries. As I said earlier this week if you asked me to pick a “best” strategy it would be Faeries but I think Affinity is the one that does the most to define how the format is played currently.

It’s hard for Faeries to not be the best. It has access to the best hand sculpting in the format as well as the best answers in Counterspell and Spellstutter Sprite, and two fantastic card flow engines in Ninja of the Deep Hours and the Monarch. It can vacillate between red, black, and blue to pick the best potential supporting cast for a given weekend and its cards have a significant amount of “play” to them, that is they are not prescribed. The cards in Faeries provide you with a bounty of options and reward making the correct choices in a given moment. Compared to other decks, Faeries has additional opportunities to use the same game pieces to make hugely impactful plays.

So why do I say that Affinity does the most work to determine the field of battle? It is a collection of the most powerful cards and requires specific hate to combat. While it is somewhat less flexible than Faeries in execution of cards, it is more flexible in composition, with several possible builds all finding success on the back of the potent core of Deadly Dispute and material.

The Big Idea

If there is a narrative for this season it is that cards that generate material are much better than they look on the surface. Wire to wire, any card that could put stuff on to the board mattered in Neon Dynasty season. While this may have started with Deadly Dispute needing fodder it ended with a land destruction strategy topping their curve Imperial Oath.

If this paradigm shift persists it means taking a long hard look at any card that brings something along for the ride. Whether that’s a reemergence of Mogg War Marshal or a deeper appreciation of Wakedancer, cards that bring along friends are poised to be incredibly important.

Weirdly enough I think the color best positioned to take advantage of this potential change is green. Cards like Scion Summoner, Kozilek’s Predator, and Yavimaya Sapherd have been bringing material to bear for years before Deadly Dispute became a thing. If Casualty picks up steam in the form of Dig Up the Body then a Saproling token might be worth about as much as a Blood token, which is saying something.

Running the Streets

So what does this mean for the first days of the new season? Ignoring Faeries and Affinity seems like a mistake and cards like Dust to Dust will remain a premium inclusion, but so will cards that can effectively trade up with Faeries. We also cannot ignore the late surge in the popularity of Azorius Familiars. So if I were trying to attack this metagame, I would be trying to find a shell for Pestilence or Crypt Rats that also had redundant pieces of graveyard hate and enough life gain to buy time against Affinity.

If you enjoy my more dedicated Pauper content, consider supporting my work via Patreon. Rewards start at just $1 and every little bit is appreciated!

April 16-17 Pauper Weekend Recap

We are in the home stretch of Neon Dynasty season. There’s one more weekend of events before Streets of New Capenna his Magic Online. While the next set looks to be of a lower power level it still has within it the capacity to impact the metagame. But that’s looking to the future and this is about the here and now.

The April 16 and April 17 were something of an anomaly given the recent trends in the format. Dimir Faeries put up a middling performance while Affinity and Boros were barely a factor. Instead the big winner out of the Big Three was Izzet Faeries, which used three Top 8 finishes on Saturday to propel itself to the best weekend out of any archetype, with 16.67% of the winner’s metagame.

The other big winner on the weekend was Rakdos Blood Burn. This deck has been gaining ground over the past several weeks and it deserves some attention. Leveraging the material generated by Crimson Vow‘s Blood Mechanic, as well as Blood Tokens’ ability to discard for Madness, and you get a deck that excels at mining every ounce of value from its cards. It is reminiscent of the earliest builds of Boros Bully in that regard which would use Faithless Looting to dump Prismatic Strands into the yard to be used later. Rakdos Blood Burn is not using Looting in such a defensive matter, instead using it to stick copies of Kitchen Imp or throw Fiery Tempers at the opponent.

But what about the format at large? These two decks accounted for almost 30% of the winner’s metagame over the weekend. The real story was how the Big 3 decks of the current moment played out:

While this week saw the Big Three chew up the least amount of the winner’s metagame, Faeries came out swinging with its second best weekend this season. Out of the Big 3, Faeries accounted for nearly 70% of their top finishes – far and away Faeries biggest share of this season.

Taking a look at the above chart we can see a trend of Faeries performing somewhere between “good” and “excellent”, while the other major plays vacillate between “above average” and “great”. For all the press Affinity gets for its busted cards and Boros gets for Experimental Synthesizer, Faeries continues to be the most consistently good performer in the bunch.

Why does Faeries seemingly get away with it? Perhaps it is because Affinity has only had its new toys for a little under a year while Boros only just got Experimental Synthesizer this year. Faeries, despite arguably being better than either of these archetypes, has always been near or at the top of the metagame. It also does not do anything that appears broken, instead playing relatively fair Magic compared to some of the other nonsense in Pauper. And yet it is likely the best strategy in the format right now.

None of this is to say action needs to be taken. In fact, the format looks relatively robust and healthy (outside of Faeries one weekend spike). While it does look rather different than Pauper before Modern Horizons 2, the format still appears to be in a good spot overall. And with Streets of New Capenna around the corner ready to rough things up, I think we’re poised for an interesting, and fun, summer.

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April 9-10 Pauper Weekend Recap

The April 9 and April 10 Pauper Challenges start us on our second four week tour of the format in the wake of the latest round of bans. The Top 8s from these events were fairly diverse, with 12 different archetypes making it to the single elimination rounds – Grixis Affinity and Dimir Faeries each had three Top 8 finishes across the weekend. Even if you group macro archetypes (Affinity, Boros, Faeries), you get ten different stripes in the Top 8 on the weekend.

I think it goes without saying that the biggest three decks in the format currently are Affinity, Boros, and Faeries. While other strategies can (and do) succeed, these three are the best, and this is due in no small part to their flexibility. Affinity can run the best cards and cheap threats while Faeries can shift colors to best meet the metagame. Boros has at least five different builds that can be tailored for most fields.

This chart looks at the top strategies in Pauper and their chunk of the Winner’s Metagame, week over week. The most volatile of these appears to be Affinity, which has fairly large swings week over week. Boros tends to be somewhat more consistent, but still can get caught off guard. Faeries had a fantastic week one (which can be expected in a new metagame) but has since settled into a consistent pace. I believe that Faeries is the best deck in the format right now and is benefiting immensely from the format discourse.

Depending on where you get your information, Pauper is either in a great place or is a format where decks are trying to race past one another, not that these are mutually exclusive phenomena. However I think that there are some greater issues at play.

These three decks are all fantastic at generating card advantage while also pressing a tempo advantage (Affinity through cheating mana, Boros through producing multiple threats, Faeries through a flash game). This in turn creates a landscape where other decks struggle to fight on both these axes. The result is that a lot of the decks outside of the top tier end up being hyper-linear decks that are focused on enacting their gameplan. There are exceptions to this – Jeskai Ephmerate and Dimir Angler spring to mind – but for the most part if you venture outside the top of the metagame you are doing to see a bunch of go-karts zipping past each other. None of this is to say that interacting is a fool’s errand but rather you have to decide how you are going to interact. Given that these decks can just draw more cards than you the best way appears to be trying to play a tempo game.

So what does that all mean for this week? Considering how popular aggressive red strategies have been the past two weeks I would expect a decent amount of life gain to rear its head. But Poison counters do not care about your life total and I would be trying to find the best Infect deck to try and steal a win or seven.

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April 2-3 Pauper Weekend Recap

Four weekends have passed since the last round of bans. There have been countless words written about the state of Pauper so today I want to take a slightly different approach. The chart I am presenting today takes into account the eight challenges and one qualifier that have taken place on Magic Online since the Pauper Format Panel’s last round of updates. It does no include the (amazing) Paupergeddon event that took place this past weekend.

This chart is broken up by the different weeks and it measures each archetype’s volume of the winner’s metagame, defined as share of wins at X-2 or better. So X-2 counts as one win, X-1 is two, and X-0 is three. It does not take Top 8 records into account – only Swiss. It also breaks up macro archetypes (Affinity, Boros, Faeries) into their sub-components.

Bold black numbers represent the deck with the largest winner’s meta share on that weekend; red numbers is the largest drop off from the week prior; green numbers represent the biggest gains (for week 4, the same deck had largest winner’s meta share and biggest gain).

Phew! With all that out of the way, let’s get to the chart!

I’m eager to see what folks think of this information, but here are some tidbits I’ve pulled from this information:

  • Outside of the first week, the best deck on any given weekend makes up about 15% of the winner’s metagame. That first week, the best deck had nearly double those numbers.
  • No micro-archetype has had back to back weekends where it was the best deck.
  • Azorius Familiars, Dimir Faeries, are Grixis Affinity are the most consistently “good” decks.
  • Boros as a macro archetype is a solid choice but rewards you for picking the best Boros build for a given weekend – just look at that drop-off for Kuldotha Boros.

Let’s talk about the macros for a moment. Here is the week over week for Affinity (Grixis, Kuldotha, Rakdos), Boros (Bully, Kuldotha, Metalcraft), and Faeries (Delver, Dimir, Izzet, Mono Blue):

This is an interesting tidbit – from week to week, the best choice changes. That indicates that the Pauper metagame is more dynamic than stagnant, meaning it trends towards change. That is a drastic change from the format in the past, where a best deck was not only clearly the best deck but tracking these shifts was a fool’s errand since some deck (whether it was Tron or Tribe or Chatterstorm) was going to be at the top of the heap.

So what can these trend lines tell us? Faeries should trend down slightly next week, as should Affinity. Boros could make a surge but that depends on whether or not people pick the right suite.

But what do you see in this data? What questions are left unanswered? What deck could be next week’s Burn?

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