Addicted To Fair Things

What does it meant to “play fair” in Pauper? Jason discusses the notion of fair things and looks for ways to overcome his addiction to them.

Long live Pauper!

So I’ve got a problem.

It’s a problem I didn’t even know I had but has cost me countless Pauper matches over the past two years. My problem derives from the very essence of how I view the game and how I try to play it. It begins on turn 1, whenever I cast Icatian Javelineers, Foundry Street Denizen, or some Guildgate. Don’t get me wrong—there’s nothing inherently bad about those cards. And yet they all have one blatant commonality. They’re all so disgustingly fair.

I’m very sick. My name is Jason Moore, and I’m addicted to fair things.

Hi Jason!

Hi. Where do I even start? Fair things are all I’ve ever known. From deckbuilding to analyzing the Pauper format, my thoughts have consistently glossed over the truly degenerate cards and interactions, acknowledging their existence and yet having little interest in exploiting them myself.

Have a looksee at the truly degenerate—the cards that were deemed too nasty for Pauper and thereby given the boot.

The “Banned Camp

Cloudpost Cranial Plating Empty the Warrens Frantic Search Grapeshot Invigorate Temporal Fissure

How many of these cards did I ever play on a relevant basis when legal? The answer is one. Of all these cards—cards that were recognized components of unforgiving and undeniable winning strategies (though Infect is debatable here), I only ever played Cloudpost. Granted, both Cranial Plating and Frantic Search were axed long before I entered the Pauper arena, but as far as the rest are concerned, I have no excuse. And Cloudpost? A card that connoted some of the slowest decks in the format and arguably may never have been banned if it weren’t for its eventual alliance with Temporal Fissure? Yep, that’s about as unfair as I ever allowed myself to get.

But what does any of this even mean? What makes a card or a deck “fair,” and why does it matter? What does the idea of fairness have to say about the Pauper format and the cards it’s comprised of? I’m hoping that through today’s article we’ll be able to find out.

Fair Is Fair

Once I was able to identify my addiction, I knew that I had to go deeper. Not only was I adverse to trying out unfair strategies, but I could barely even define them. I started to do some research. Articles, forum posts, decklists, anything that had to deal with the topic of “fair” and “unfair” Magic.

SCG compatriot Alex Ullman pointed me in the right direction, namely Legacy (since much has been written about the degenerate nature of that environment). Like Pauper, Legacy is an Eternal format where players largely sleeve up whatever decks they feel like. One article in particular written by Carsten Kotter was quite illuminating. Here is Carsten’s definition (from the article) of fair Magic:

“Both players play their spells, drop their creatures, and combat happens, and each player tries to get ahead, either by dominating the board or eking out a win before the opponent has managed to stabilize.”

Ah yes, fair Magic. How I love it so! Perhaps I should throw in Merriam-Webter‘s two cents while we’re at it:

“Agreeing with what is thought to be right or acceptable.”

Conversely, it’s my opinion that an unfair deck seeks to in some way exploit or circumvent (or should I say transcend?) the conventions of the game. How this occurs will be explored a bit later. Ullman himself wrote an article on Pauper unfairness and defined it as such:

“Unfair is when you just know that you have the best . . . Decks can be less fair, but cards is where unfair lies. Unfair cards have to break the rules of the game more than a normal card.”

All of the above definitions are certainly helpful, but they could be considered a bit broad. How does the notion of fair versus unfair hold up when dealing with Pauper specifically? Let’s take a stab at answering that question.

Commonly Deceptive

It is sometimes assumed that a format comprised of “just” commons is purely budget, casual, and devoid of degenerate elements. Yes, Pauper can be enjoyed on a budget level and purely for the sake of having fun. On the flipside, plenty of powerful commons have been printed over the course of the game’s history. Don’t believe me? Here’s a list of Pauper-legal cards widely considered to be viable in Legacy!

Ancient Grudge Brainstorm Crop Rotation Counterspell Daze Delver of Secrets Diabolic Edict Duress Exhume Gitaxian Probe Lightning Bolt Lotus Petal Oblivion Ring Ponder Pyroblast Spell Pierce

My knowledge of Legacy is quite limited, but I do know that there are a number of other Legacy-caliber commons being played as well. Now, some of the above cards can be considered unfair, while others can’t. I’m going to elaborate further on why that is in a moment, but I’d like to keep our focus on the Pauper format for just a second here. Note how nearly all of the blue cards listed either have been or are currently being employed in Pauper’s Mono-Blue Delver (which just so happens to be referred to as either top tier or flat out the best deck).

Here is a Delver list taken from a Pauper event on Magic Online earlier this week.

Is this deck unfair? The argument can be made that in some ways it is. That takes us to our next order of business.

Identifying Unfair

Identifying unfair is sometimes a hard thing to do because there is a reasonable level of subjectivity involved. Your input will be very helpful in clearing up some of the murkier waters of this exploration.

Let’s begin by imagining there was a card printed along these lines:

Dead on the Spot – B


Dead on the Spot can’t be countered by spells or abilities.

Target player loses 20 life.

The beginning is the end.

Ridiculous! Completely unfair! And yet through this absurd example we can determine why a card is unfair and how Wizards actually scales “power level” back in order to make cards acceptable and appealing. Dead on the Spot is so unfair that it ruins the game, and it does so by declaring that there was no “game” occurring to begin with. Opponents would end up frustrated beyond belief because nothing they did actually mattered. Interaction, competition, strategy and problem solving are all highly enjoyable facets of Magic, and to an extent they determine what is or isn’t tolerable.

With a card like Dead on the Spot, Magic wouldn’t even be a game. It would just be stupid. But through our imagining of Dead on the Spot’s ramifications, we’ve uncovered part of what it means to be unfair within the context of Magic!

Let me put it this way. For our cards or decks to be fair, our opponents must at the very least have a chance to answer what we’re doing (or to follow through with what they are doing) in an attempt to win the game. If they don’t, then surely we are not “playing fair.” I want to make a few key assertions backed by Pauper examples to go even deeper here.

Decks That Win Way Too Quickly Are Unfair

Harnessing this knowledge is how I’ve begun to stray from my addiction to fair things. Pauper is capable of turn 2 kills. That means on the draw when the opponent plays a Guildgate they’ve already lost. We may as well have resolved a Dead on the Spot.

There’s only one fastest deck in Pauper, and I think it looks something like this:

Note that I didn’t say best, most popular, or most viable. I said fastest. Sleeve this deck up for a few matches like I did and you’ll get a lesson in unfair. A big reason for this is the card Lotus Petal (a “fixed” version of perhaps the most broken card ever). Petal navigates around a few basic conventions of the game (here’s a hint: they involve how much mana and what colors a deck can generate per turn). The result? Turn 1 Rot Wolf with protection backup, the previously stated turn 2 kill, and a sinful sense of joy that I’d forgotten was even possible.

What other assertions can we make from here? How about this one:

Creatures That Are Drastically Above The Curve Are Unfair

War Falcon is an undeniably fair card (did I fool you for a second?). But why? Because War Falcon is slightly above the curve with a downside that can’t be ignored. We move closer to the realm of unfair when we start playing with this:

Even further above the curve, with the only “downsides” being that it starts as a 1/1 and requires an adequate home. There’s a reason that Delver of Secrets is the namesake of format-defining decks in Pauper, Modern, and Legacy (not to mention Standard when it was legal). The card itself isn’t unfair in my opinion, but decks that abuse it get pretty darn close.

Okay, so what do we think about this guy?

That sure is drastic. A 4/4 for zero mana that just so happens to synergize with metalcraft cards, Atog, and Disciple of the Vault. And don’t think I forgot about Atog! The biggest creature in the format for a lowly 1R? But back to Enforcer and his numerous other affinity pals.

Take this sequence, which I once pulled off in a Daily Event (remember those?):

Turn 1

Turn 2

Turn 3

By Pauper standards, this has got to be unfair. I knew by turn 3 that I was winning the game because my opponent would have no answer to seventeen damage worth of guys. Granted, he had a full three turns prior to disrupt me, but failing to do so condemned himself to a miserable fate (in this case being crushed by obese robots).

The whole brokenness of affinity in general leads me to my next assertion:

Decks That Like Doing Stuff For Free Are Unfair

Affinity creatures. Alternate casting costs. Phyrexian mana. Blue cards printed in Urza’s Legacy. In other words, a bunch of stuff that doesn’t cost a thing! What does it mean when delverd00d13 resolves two Cloud of Faeries and a Frostburn Weird on turn 2 and then casts Daze to nuke FaiRBeaR’s two-mana whatever spell? Are the typical notions of what can be achieved on two lands not totally shattered? One guy resolved three dudes (seriously) and stopped the other guy’s play. Which end of that equation would you want to be on? 

Your Turn

I’m hoping that by writing this article I can conquer my addiction to fair (and often inferior) things. This doesn’t mean I’ll give up playing fair or only dream of one-sided Pauper brutality, but it will widen the range of decks I consider adding to my repertoire.

Please let me know if this exploration of fair and unfair things has been at all helpful or informative. I now open the floor to all of you: what is your definition of “fair” and “unfair?” What elements of Pauper (both past and present) do you connect with those definitions? I’m hoping for a spirited (and possibly addictive) discussion.