Pauper: Shaken and Stirred by Bannings

Monday, May 20th, 2019 was a big day for Pauper. I wasn’t expecting to see changes to any format during this cycle, and so I wasn’t even anticipating such a big, bold move. Nonetheless, big and bold is what we got!

Banned in Pauper

Gitaxian ProbeGushDaze

Here’s a link to Ian Duke’s announcement on the WotC page where he discusses the thought process behind the format shakeup.

In the past, bannings have typically come to formats where the player base is doing a lot of complaining and threatening to quit playing. While it’s certainly true Pauper experts are aware of what is going on in the metagame, I never got the sense that players were specifically upset with the format or the decks.

I’ve been critical of the fact that WotC has tended to wait too long before addressing obvious problems. Today, I have to give the DCI a lot of credit because not only do I think they got this 100% right, but because they got out in front of a problem instead of letting it continue to escalate.

In addition to solving a problem that actually existed (I’ll get to this next), the ban is a nice precedent setter that informs what Pauper is or isn’t about. All three of these spells are “free” blue spells that are essentially “worth a card” in value.

No More Free Lunch

The format, going forward, is not about trading a card (without paying mana for it) for another card. There are still “free” spells, but they tend to be much more conditional in their ability to net a card.

Street Wraith

Wraith is similar to Probe and so it’s one to watch as a potential problem. To be fair, it’s a free “cycle” and not a spell. It doesn’t trigger “whenever you cast a spell” abilities like Probe. Probe’s alternate mode, U: Draw a card is better than 3BB for a 3/4 swampwalk.

Mutagenic Growth

It makes 2-toughness creatures survive Lightning Bolt. It combos with infect creatures. It’s another one to watch.

Gut Shot

Only kills 1-toughness creatures for free. It’s a reasonable rate and a fine card for now.

Foil - Foil

Trading three cards for one of theirs is a fair rate.

To me, the banning signifies that a fundamental tenet of the format has changed. Historically, Pauper has been defined by free blue spells like Gush, Daze, and Probe, whereas now, it is a format specifically rid of that type of game play.

Why This Needed to Happen Now

Two months ago I wrote an article about some of the trends I was observing in the Pauper metagame.

While that’s primarily a guide designed to teach players the nuts and bolts of what the top decks look like and how they match up, I made a theoretical argument that I believed I had seen a similar metagame dynamic in Modern: Splinter Twin vs. Anti-Splinter Twin. Only in this case it was Dimir Aggro (Splinter Twin – dominant deck) and Boros Monarch (Jund – good deck geared toward beating the best deck).

It’s not that Dimir games use a “Twin combo,” or Boros Bully plays like a “Jund deck.” The similarity I saw was in how they impacted the other decks in the metagame. Essentially, these two decks continued to rise in metagame representation as they cannibalized other decks’ metagame percentage. Last month, Pauper expert Alex Ullman published a metagame analysis that suggested the dynamic had only been exasperated in the meantime.

The final piece of the puzzle was Ian Duke’s claim that Blue Aggro was boasting a 55% win percentage against the field on MTGO. Players merely speculate about this stuff, but WotC gets to see way more data than we do. Duke’s revelation that Blue Aggro did, in fact, beat the field confirms what I had suspected and theorized two months ago. Blue decks, as was the case with Twin, were simply dominant against the metagame and the other powerful deck with a slightly favored matchup.

Short of new cards being introduced and breaking up the gridlock, I believe the format would have continued to bleed diversity and continued down the same path. I kind of assumed we’d potentially see spicy Pauper includes in Horizons that would aim to free up the log jam, and we’d get a banning if things didn’t change this season.

I love the fact that the DCI made the move now and didn’t wait for a couple of reasons. First, whatever cards they printed would have to be good enough to unseat a dominant deck built around a bunch of insane free blue spells, like Gush, Daze, and Probe. Actually, it’s not a bunch of reasons—just one really, really great reason.

Predicting Future Trends

The Banned & Restricted announcement will have a profound effect on the format. How could it not? The change essentially dismantles the dominant strategy that has defined the metagame for years.

The Clear Presumptive Losers

Tireless Tribe

Let’s start with Tribe, because I think the deck ceases to be playable without the free cards, specifically Gush, which added +4 cards to the hand on the turn it went off. I’m not saying nobody will play the card, but this went from a deck that always terrified me to play against to one I’ll likely be able to beat without having to try.

Delver of Secrets // Insectile Aberration

Delver of Secrets and other Blue Aggro decks clearly lost a big piece of their identity. Blue Aggro still has the tools to survive and be a viable strategy. The difference is that now it doesn’t have the ability to boast 55% against a metagame that is primarily mirrors and hate decks!

The free spells clearly made a specific type of blue deck too good and there was no way for the metagame to balance it out. With that being said, while the banning does target a specific type of blue deck, I fully expect blue decks to continue to be great in the format moving forward.

Absolute power corrupts absolutely. In the case of “free blue spells,” not only did decks like Dimir Delver oppress decks of other colors, it also forced out other types or styles of blue decks. Blue has an extremely deep bench in Pauper, so don’t expect blue to suddenly “go away.”

The Clear Presumptive Winners

First and foremost, the players and fans of Pauper are the big winners here. While it’s always a little sad to see iconic cards removed from a format, all of the data suggested we had reached a sticking point.

A deck that was constraining the format has been removed, and it’s a brave new world that players should be excited to explore and innovate in.

Let’s talk specific cards and strategies.

Grindy Midrange Like Boros Monarch

Glint Hawk

In the short-term it makes sense to start with Boros Monarch as a winner since it was unclear to me whether it might have been the best choice before the bannings, especially because it was viable against Delver.

Obviously, the deck has lost equity, since being good against decks that no longer exist doesn’t matter. On the other hand, these Boros decks are good and grindy in the abstract, and become the default deck to beat. People are going to play these decks until there is a reason not to.

The Return of “Real” Control

BrainstormPonder

I can’t say that Brainstorm decks get better as a result of losing Gush, Probe, and Daze but I do believe that Brainstorm and Ponder become even more important to blue’s identity. That isn’t to say they weren’t important before, merely that they must now carry an even greater load.

Anybody making the claim that the DCI hamstrung blue decks clearly doesn’t understand the impact that these cantrips have on games of Magic. Don’t worry, blue will still be a contender for the iron throne even without infinite free spells, and it’s precisely because these cards remain in the mix.

The free spells that blue lost have impacted the metagame in a specific way for years. The spells we lost allowed blue decks to get underneath most strategies and consistently play with momentum because of tempo generated from doing things at critical points in the game without having to pay mana.

Probe generated perfect information, netted cast triggers, and helped with delve. Daze was leveraged in decks with a super low curve and punished opponents for trying to cast “quality” spells with higher CMCs. Gush provided tangible card advantage as a free “draw two” but also allowed blue decks to repurpose extra lands with Brainstorm and Foil.

I think Gush is the most significant loss that will have the biggest impact on how the format looks and plays. The synergy created between Gush and Brainstorm simply created too much upside at too small of an investment cost.

I’ve played so many games that “felt” close with regard to everything that had happened for the first several turns. Both players have a couple of cards in hand and something going on in play.

The blue player draws for the turn, floats UU and bounces two of their five lands in play, then casts Brainstorm to draw three. As they are deciding which two cards to put back on top it occurs to you that they are suddenly making decisions based on 10 cards in their hand and you can’t possibly win anymore.

It was such a common and broken play pattern that isn’t easy to replace!

I assume that the loss of Daze to punish spells with CMC > 2 and Probe to facilitate quick bursts slows the format down. The loss of Gush means blue decks will have to look elsewhere for their card advantage.

MulldrifterMystical TeachingsAccumulated Knowledge

I fully expect blue decks to hunker down and become more controlling. I can’t blame blue mages for defaulting to doing free stuff when given the option, but these are likely some of the next best options left after the banning.

Big Gains for Big Mana

Urza's Power PlantUrza's TowerUrza's Mine

Blue Aggro was also a major predator of various slow, clunky Urza Tron control decks since it could get out ahead on the board and counter its haymakers. Slowing down the format certainly improves the abstract position of Tron in the meta. It’s also worth noting that Tron decks are fantastic against Boros Bully midrange, which I’ve suggested as a predictive frontrunner deck in the format.

Blue-based control of various flavors, specifically Tron, are decks I’ll be looking to play moving forward.

Soft Locks

Moment's PeaceSpore Frog

I also think these soft “fog locks” improve in the metagame for a couple of reasons.

The first is that there are a lot of random creature decks that people like to play in Pauper. When you consider people continued to play these decks in a collapsing metagame with a dominant deck, I have no reason to believe they will be pushed off them now!

Tortured Existence

I’ve always thought these graveyard prison decks were built on a solid premise, and provided a lot of power and options in the hands of a savvy player. I can’t imagine that removing a dominant deck makes them inherently worse.

If the metagame slows down and becomes more about who has resources left over than about tempo plays, a deck that can loop two-for-ones and generate various types of soft locks such as Spore Frog negating the opponent’s ability to win through combat has a lot of upside.

The second reason I’m suggesting “more fog” relates to my “Boros Monarch is still tier 1: change my mind” meme. Fog lock is extremely effective against token decks. As is playing a Tron deck. If players gravitate toward these kinds of strategies, it certainly diminishes Boros’ abstract value.

Speaking of strategies that diminish Boros’ value…

Pestilence

It’s good against Boros. It’s good against creatures. It provides an out to fog locks. It’s a recurring source of damage. And, we are no longer punished for playing CMC 4 enchantments by Daze.

For the record, I wrote about my experience going deep on black decks a few weeks ago and my experience in the meantime has led me to the conclusion that my black decks were better for being built around Pestilence. With that being said, even bending over backwards I never achieved a favorable matchup against Blue Aggro. So removing one of this strategy’s inherently weak matchups is likely a windfall for MBC fans.

It’s another powerful game changer that likely improves in the metagame.

Linear Aggro

While I’m inclined to believe that removing a whopping three free spells from a dominant deck is likely to slow the format down, that doesn’t mean that the overall correction will be that the only option is to play a Turbo Fog Tron deck…

Lava Spike

Burn is still fast. It’s inherently good against the majority of control builds. It doesn’t crumble to Fog locks. Its value is determined by how much life gain people decide to play in order to hedge against it and other beatdown.

Priest of Titania

Elves is also inherently powerful and one of the few decks I would describe as having the ability to do something “broken” quickly. It’s possible that Elves suppression in the metagame had more to do with Dimir’s inherent strength than Elves’ inherent weakness. I think Elves has a lot of raw power, but also has great vulnerability to specific types of effects like Electrickery, Pestilence, Fog lock, and Evincar’s Justice.

Exhume

I believe Reanimator decks improved. These decks are typically “all-in” on one big, flashy game ending play that takes place in the first few turns. Decks like these hate Daze and were quite bad against Blue Aggro.

Ulamog's CrusherDragon Breath

Executing this combo ends games before they start by locking opponents out.

Slippery BogleBlighted Agent

Hexproof and Infect are linear aggro decks that get to the point and put an opponent’s opening hand to the test quickly. I have every reason to believe that these are fantastic week 1 decks because I’m a firm believer that focused, linear strategies are a wonderful place to be in an undefined metagame.

Don’t deal with everyone else—make them deal with you! I have every reason to believe that the removal of free permission and forcing blue mages to pay mana to draw cards makes it easier for fast decks to make the most of their window to end the game.

Generalizations and Suggestions

The “ban on free blue spells” will open the format up significantly by removing a huge constraint on the metagame: dominant blue aggro decks.

As a general rule, it’s safe to assume the removal of a dominant deck full of free spells will open up space for new decks and slow the format down by default. At the very least, Blue Aggro’s ability to leverage tempo generated by free spells opens up breathing room for slower control decks to become a more viable player.

While I think the format slows down on the whole, the fact that it slows down and forces more decks to invest in winning “the long game” will also open some breathing room for decks looking to force the action early.

It’s Day 1. There’s no actual data. My suggestion is to play whatever you like and see how it goes! The format is by definition undefined, which means it’s a great time to try out those weird and wacky ideas that would have been easily swatted away by Blue Aggro!

My prediction for what will happen next is that Urza Tron is poised to be the new public enemy #1 of the format. It’s exactly the kind of deck people tend to feel compelled to complain about, and in this case it’s the deck I believe had the most to gain from the loss of Daze, Probe, and Gush. It’s textbook addition through subtraction.

There’s still a lot of Magic to be played before that hypothesis can be tested, but I don’t recommend skimping on Stone Rains week 1… I will be trying out a new Simic Tron deck that I’ve been brewing for the last 24 hours and I’m sure lots of folks will have similar ideas!

Durdle Tron

Brian DeMars

3 Island
1 Forest
4 Thornwood Falls
1 Unknown Shores
2 Remote Isle
4 Urza's Mine
4 Urza's Power Plant
4 Urza's Tower
4 Mulldrifter
3 Mnemonic Wall
1 Dinrova Horror
2 Expedition Map
4 Prophetic Prism
2 Simic Signet
4 Accumulated Knowledge
2 Condescend
2 Prohibit
1 Negate
1 Sprout Swarm
1 Temporal Spring
2 Forbidden Alchemy
2 Pulse of Murasa
1 Capsize
2 Ghostly Flicker
3 Moment's Peace

Sideboard
3 Temporal Spring
2 Nihil Spellbomb
2 Dispel
1 Negate
4 Hydroblast
2 Nature's Claim
1 Moment's Peace

By the time you are reading this I’ll likely have stronger insights on how I’d like to further build this deck, and will be happy to share them (as well as take suggestions) in the comments section.

In the spirit of trying new things in an open meta I’ve made a few departures from the conventional wisdom of the more established Tron builds. Primarily, I’m less splashy and more straightforward Simic than 4-color control. I want to be less “all-in” on having turn-2 Prism to cast red and black spells on curve. I also think one of the biggest places that the splash cards earned their value was against Blue Aggro, which I’m much less afraid of now. I’ve also been impressed with Accumulated Knowledge in the control decks I’ve played and am curious to see how it plays in here.

There was a lot of Pauper ground to cover! It’s not everyday that a dominant deck loses three key cards! I’m looking forward to seeing where the format goes from here and I’m curious to hear what the readers are most looking forward to playing in the post banning metagame, so feel free to utilize the comment section to give some love to the decks and cards that you think have potential moving forward.

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