Mail Bag: Pauper

The Pauper community occupies a multitude of spaces. The format is largely played online but has devoted paper followings in a number of countries. The decentralized nature of Pauper means there is little communication between the groups. So every so often I reach out—via Facebook, Twitter, and Reddit—for questions to share with the wider Magic community. In the course of collecting these inquiries, a few major themes began to emerge. Today I want to address some of them.

The Unification of Pauper

A great many questions focused on the difference between the paper and digital world of Pauper. Pauper was born and tested on Magic Online with the proliferation of paper events being a comparatively recent development. The online metagame has been stress tested over multiple years of premier events, weekend challenges, daily events, and Leagues. Yet there exists a small number of cards, which include Sinkhole, Hymn to Tourach, and Goblin Grenade, that have not been released as commons on Magic Online.

Most paper tournaments—including the Pauper events run by ChannelFireball at Grand Prix—use the Magic Online legality list. Card Kingdom, which runs the successful Rags 2 Riches series, uses a modified list that has banned many problem cards but allows other exceptions like Desert.

Why hasn’t Wizards released an official rule set at this time?

Beats me.

If it were up to me I would use the online legality list and call it a day. At the same time, I would make an effort to bring cards not yet printed online at common into the fold, provided they were of an appropriate power level. I don’t think Desert and Sinkhole are safe for the format. High Tide is right out and Goblin Grenade is probably too powerful. Hymn? You have no idea how much I want to cast Hymn to Tourach in this format.

But it is well above the curve.

So that gets me into another series of questions. How do you introduce these cards to the Magic Online economy? Treasure Chests—the way cards like Ash Barrens and Palace Sentinels have been introduced—create a problem of scarcity and as such drive up the cost of what is supposed to be an accessible format. I have a creative solution that I’ve floated before but want to talk about again.

With the introduction of specialty Cubes on Magic Online I would like to see the implementation of a Pauper Cube. These drafts would continue to be Phantom—that is, you do not keep the drafted cards—but I would have this Cube reward special prize packs that contain Pauper cards. Six slots: three for hard-to-find cards and three for cards not in regular boosters.

Downshifts

This topic comes up a lot. If you visit /r/Pauper I can guarantee that you will see a new variant of “what uncommon would you like to see printed at common” every week. Why? Pauper is in many ways defined just as much by what it lacks as it is by what it contains. It is the only format restricted by rarity and because of that has multiple effects that have been deemed off-limits. These threads are the first steps of wish fulfillment that may never see the light of day.

It is not that discussing potential downshifts is bad, it’s that it isn’t productive in the short term. These threads pop up whenever there is a perceived issue in the format or the metagame is seen as unhealthy. The requests are either designed to patch  the problem or bolster fan favorite archetypes. It is the hope of downshifts coming in the future that can stall conversations of what needs to be done today.

A corollary to these discussions is that the current crop of Standard release commons are not strong enough to complete in Pauper. This gets blamed on New World Order, a design directive intended to keep complexity down at common for the sake of Limited, for keeping the card pool weak. That argument completely discounts the high barrier for cards trying to make headway in Pauper. A card better than Lightning Bolt isn’t walking through the door anytime soon.

Downshifts are nice to think about, but the fact is that they are not the cure for what ails the format if you are of the mindset that the format needs fixing. With all that being said, I have thoughts on what sort of cards Pauper could use to improve overall format health.

Over the Hill?

A few months ago Pauper was a hot topic of conversation. In the intervening months we have seen attendance at Grand Prix side events surge, come back to Earth, and then hit a steady and healthy stride. Both ChannelFireball and StarCityGames ran marquee Pauper events at their flagship events during the first half of the calendar year. Mark Rosewater has even gone on the record asking what design can do to help the format.

But has the format crested? Is it living on borrowed success?

My answer is a cautious “no.” Pauper remains an interesting and powerful format, even if a significant amount of that power is concentrated in blue. The increased exposure, however, has uncovered some of the cracks in Pauper’s armor.

The format may have a variety of decks but the number of distinct archetypes is not as diverse. Gush and Tron are some of the best things you can do. Tron decks have surged recently, relying more on Fog effects than before as a way to enact their game plan. Fogs are the go-to control card due to the lack of board wipes, so surviving literally means protecting a life total. Yet this polarization is not good for long-term format health as there is almost nothing you can do in between the poles aside from attempt to be the Monarch. Pauper may not be solved, but the more iteration of these decks that sees play, the better and better they become.

So what’s the answer to this problem? I think adding more competitive options would help to shine a light on the issues (if they exist as I see them). A competitive League might split the player base but it would provide more relevant data as to what is actually the best deck. On top of this, having more clear communication from Wizards would do wonders, especially if they could come out with a defined rule set and declare it the “one true Pauper.”

Thank you to everyone for writing in. I wanted this to be a more traditional mailbag column but when I saw the trends emerge I decided to take this in a slightly different direction. I hope you enjoyed the words but I want to leave you all with a question: What do you think Pauper’s next step should be?

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