Arcum's Astrolabe Pauper

Does Jeskai Snow Need a Ban in Pauper?

Nothing gets Magic players fired up like a good B&R discussion! The reason these conversations become so heated is that we care and believe we know what’s best–the tension arises because every player values something different about a format and gameplay, which means each player will have a different approach for best fixing the problems. Today, I’ll be sharing my thoughts on the state of Pauper and its dominant best deck, Jeskai Snow.

What do you Prefer?

  • Some players are rigid that metagame percentages should dictate bans.
  • Some players want more and greater diversity of strategies.
  • Some players want dynamic change.
  • Some players want no change.
  • Some players hate Tron and want it to die.

I don’t think any of these preferences are correct or incorrect, but rather reflect a specific point of view for how a format might be improved. The best correct answer is the most accurate sum of all perspectives. Magic has taught me time and again that there is no rigidly applied insight that doesn’t break down into dysfunction under the right circumstances.

The last Vintage B&R is a great example. Metrically, the format looked perfect. There was diversity and no deck was dominant. Unfortunately, the diversity and parity was rooted in horrendously one-sided game play that left even the format’s biggest fans frustrated beyond belief.

The DCI doesn’t have rigid criteria for under exactly what circumstances exactly which card will be banned. Ultimately, their approach is touch and go and we’ve seen many different criteria used over the years. With that in mind, it makes sense not to be limited in how we approach a problem as complex and abstract as “fixing the metagame.”

My Perspective

What I most value when I play any game are having choices that impact the outcome. In Magic, I want a format that gives me as many options as possible: type of deck, tuning, sideboarding, and gameplay. I know it’s asking a lot, but when I shuffle up I want to feel like I’m playing the game and not the other way around!

I don’t like formats where my choices are boiled down to only a few. For instance, I don’t like formats where I’m forced to pick between Rock, Scissors, Paper and the largest factor is random pairings. I’m not naive enough to suggest I’m grail questing after a format where variance or matchups are nonexistent, I’m saying I like formats that maximize the impact of my game moves.

When a person says a format feels stale, they are often expressing that their choices feel arbitrary compared to the relevance of factors they can’t control. Pauper is my favorite format because I believe it gives me the most choices to guide my fate.

Should the DCI Go Ghostbusters Against the Bogeyman?

There is no doubt Pauper has a dominant best deck:

Jeskai Snow

Kazaner3000, 3rd MTGO Pauper Playoff

4 Ash Barrens
2 Azorius Chancery
2 Evolving Wilds
1 Snow-Covered Forest
7 Snow Covered Island
2 Snow-Covered Plains
1 Snow-Covered Mountain
3 Archaeomancer
4 Kor Skyfisher
4 Mulldrifter
2 Spellstutter Sprite
2 Brainstorm
4 Counterspell
2 Dispel
3 Ephemeral Shields
1 Flame Slash
1 Lightning Bolt
4 Preordain
1 Pulse of Murasa
4 Arcum’s Astrolabe
2 Journey to Nowhere

Sideboard
2 Electrickery
2 Hydroblast
2 Leave No Trace
2 Lone Missionary
3 Pyroblast
2 Relic of Progenitus
2 Standard Bearer

Metagame numbers are always fuzzy because they are a projection of what has been that informs what might be. In the past month, Jeskai Snow has grown from 9% of the Winner’s Metagame to 14% in the two-month rolling sample size. In actuality, in order to grow 5% Jeskai’s representation in the Winner’s Meta would need to be approaching 20%. Absurd.

The eyeball test confirms what the fuzzy numbers suggest. Jeskai has dominated Top 16s of the highest profile MTGO events. It has been standard operating procedure that between 3-6 T8 slots will are Jeskai. In last week’s Pauper Playoff over 50% of the Top 16 was Snow. Yesterday, my fellow “Paup It Like It’s Hot” Podcasters and I had fellow CFB writer Alex Ullman on the cast discussing the B&R. He asserted that Jeskai Snow accounts for over 25% of the overall meta.

These are basically Splinter Twin numbers and the deck is still picking up steam! On numbers alone, there is a strong case for a ban.

One the other hand, there’s also a case to be made for banning nothing. The format is in a much better place than it was before the “Free Blue Bans.” Jeskai isn’t even close to dominating the format as badly or extinguishing diversity like Gush and Daze did, nor does it create the same kind of one-sided gameplay. While Jeskai has been epic at stacking bodies into Top 16s, it’s been relatively pedestrian at winning the big events. How common is the narrative: “4x Jeskai in T8 and the Trophy goes to… SOMETHING ELSE!”

How is it possible for Jeskai to stack so many decks on the top and always end up behind the eight ball in the finals? Well, Jeskai has solid coverage against the field but it can’t cover all its bases against every deck all the time. Jeskai pilots are forced to make decisions about how and where to hedge. Do they need more cards for Elves this week? Bogles? Tron? Whichever way they load up, it’s at the cost of spreading thin somewhere else. On the other side of the coin, the other decks overload for Jeskai because at 25% of the meta they are incentivized to do so.

The past month has become an elaborate metagame of “keep away from Jeskai.” The Snow decks bring the hate for what won last week and are beaten out by whatever angle they shaved from to make room. While it’s been a fun month of musical meta chairs, I have concerns:

  1. How long can this go on before Jeskai finds a stock configuration that covers enough bases to put it over the top?
  2. Even if Jeskai can’t cover its bases, how long can a dominated metagame go before it gets stale?

The Ban Candidates

Let’s talk hypothetical ban options. There are two strong, obvious ones and one sneaky dark horse.

Arcum’s Astrolabe

Arcum's Astrolabe

It’s the most commonly played card in the format. It appears in 42% of decks and is the lynchpin of the best deck. Removing Astrolabe breaks up several key synergies and would force a complete shakeup of the archetype:

Kor Skyfisher

Kor Skyfisher

As excellent a threat as Skyfisher is, it’s an even better blocker, and the fact that Astrolabe turns it into a value creature puts it over the top. Astrolabe’s true power lies in all of the incidental synergies it facilitates, and Jeskai is Astrolabe synergy pushed to the max. It also counts as snow, which makes Skred better. Oh, and it fixes mana. The other upside of Astro-ban is that it takes Tron down a peg.

Ephemerate

Ephemerate

Ephemerate has a big role in Jeskai and banning it would considerably weaken the strategy. It counters removal, blinks creatures with ETB abilities, sets up an unbeatable soft lock with Archaeomancer, and unfairly abuses the evoke mechanic–and all at the unreasonable rate of one mana.

You’re not going to like the third option:

Mulldrifter

Mulldrifter

I can already hear the cascading boos. Mulldrifter is a beloved sacred fish, elemental, cow. It is also the most-played creature in Pauper, appearing in 31% of decks. It’s also, shockingly, the most-played card in Pauper behind only Arcum’s Astrolabe.

Since Gush’s exodus, Drifter has become the default card advantage spell in Pauper. I believe it would have adopted this role with or without the help of a broken interaction with Ephemerate. I do think banning Ephemerate would make Mulldrifter fair again. Other than Snow-Covered Island and Arcum’s Astrolabe, Mulldrifter is the only card that both Tron and Jeskai Snow agree is a must-have 4-of. That tidbit speaks volumes about the role of Drifter in the format.

Given the three options, I’d prefer an Astrolabe ban. I don’t believe Astrolabe has created the diversity it was designed to achieve. In fact, I believe it has done the opposite in facilitating a single three-color “good stuff deck” and laundering Tron’s colorless mana.

Personally, I would ban nothing, for a couple of reasons. The primary reason is that I’ve noticed Wizards has been on a mission to print new cards and downshift old cards to shake up Pauper. Throne looks like a strong set and I’m inclined to believe it will include cards meant to impact Pauper. I think there’s a legit chance new cards from a strong set will matter.

The second reason is that despite having a dominant best deck, I view Pauper as a relatively healthy format. I’ve been able to flex my range as a player over the course of “Snow Summer,” by staying a step ahead of the Jeskai horde. I also don’t take issue with the type of gameplay Jesaki creates. The games are close, fun, and interactive and there are legit choices to be made all over the place on both sides. It’s not even close to the miserable one-sided games against Delver’s cavalcade of free spells. As far as dominant decks go, Jeskai is among the tamest I can remember.

On the other hand, I just don’t respect the Jeskai deck itself nearly as much even though they are impressive. When I play Jeskai, it feels like most of my matchups are either coin flip mirrors or linear decks looking to take advantage. In a sense, Jeskai has bullied most of its strongest matchups out of the metagame.

The fact that Jeskai has made black decks virtually nonexistent is a strong case for considering a ban, or an unban…

Hymn to Tourach - Foil

Here are the current cards that are banned in Pauper. Take a look. Do you notice anything?

Cloud of FaeriesCloudpostCranial PlatingDazeEmpty the WarrensFrantic SearchGitaxian ProbeGushInvigoratePeregrine DrakeTemporal FissureTreasure CruiseHigh Tide (Tucker)Hymn to Tourach (Wolf)Sinkhole

Yesterday, Ullman pointed something out to me that I found interesting. Nearly all the cards on the banned list are there because they break how mana works in a fair format. Plating is on the list for a good reason.

Hymn, on the other hand, I believe is on the list because of the reputation it garnered in a distant, nonexistent context. I don’t see any reason to believe Hymn would have a bigger impact on the format than any number of things already going on: Tron, Drifter, Astrolabe, Stompy, focused Burn decks, etc. In addition, unbanning a card like Hymn exhausts Jeskai’s already thin sideboard slots with yet another powerful type of strategy it must account for that at present it beats hands down.

I actually think all of these options would be viable solutions to breaking up the Jeskai logjam at the type of the meta, yet each one has a different overall impact. I enjoy Pauper as-is and I would continue to enjoy it regardless of which change was implemented. Personally, since unbanning Hymn would add choices, and I value choices, it would be my pick. What do you think? What do you think should be done?

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