The Problem With Pauper

With the ban list announcement on the horizon, Alex talks about possible changes and the direction he’d like to see Pauper move in.

The world of Pauper is eagerly awaiting the release of Theros. Not only are common mages excited about the new cards showing up, but there exists a very real chance of cards getting banned. This article lays out the rather stale current state of Pauper and cites Temporal Fissure as the lead offender. Who would have thought a card that wipes away the opponent’s board would be unfair? This article directly led to me tracking the published Daily Event results on my page. What I found is that Temporal Fissure decks consistently make up around 20% of the winners (3-1 or 4-0) metagame. I also found that Cloudpost decks (both those with Temporal Fissure and without) make up over 25% of the same metagame.

History time: back when Pauper was first sanctioned, the good people at Wizards had accidentally used an old form of the player-generated banned and restricted list. After a brief back and forth (spearheaded by yours truly), the correct list of verboten cards was put into place, and through a process I do not quite recall, I was given the title of Pauper Community Liaison. This is a fancy way of saying when Pauper players complained, I was able to be a point of contact to reach Wizards. In the years since Pauper has been sanctioned, I have used this role sparingly: once to opine about the damage Frantic Search was doing, once to try to defend Grapeshot Storm combo, and recently to illuminate the issues surrounding Temporal Fissure and Cloudpost.

In order to understand the current issues with Pauper, we have to look back to January. The format was incredibly fast with Grapeshot Storm, Empty the Warrens Storm, and Invigorate powered Infect decks dominating the format. Both Grapeshot and Invigorate represented threats that were nigh impossible to interact with on a Pauper metric. The very nature of commons cards make it a challenge for mistakes from the past to be corrected with new printings, so if there is no answer to history’s mistake in the annals of Magic, one is never likely to exist.  Empty the Warrens had answers in every color in the form of mass removal and was the least offensive. Grapeshot had only one natural foil in Benevolent Unicorn, and Invigorate made Pauper a game of "have it or no." In February, Empty the Warrens, Grapeshot, and Invigorate got the banhammer.

This only unleashed the kraken. In this case, the rapid-fire kills of these decks were the main safety valve preventing Cloudpost and Temporal Fissure decks from taking over the metagame. Cloudpost control decks need time to set up, and by removing the incredibly quick clock that Storm and Combo presented, control players have been able to bypass worrying about the early stages of the game to the same degree as they had to in the past. Sure, Stompy and Affinity still exist but their threats can be blocked effectively or Flame Slashed.

Cloudpost is strong, but the Hulk towering in the corner is Temporal Fissure.

As discussed in earlier articles, Temporal Fissure creates a game state where only one person is actively playing a game of Magic. Having Storm makes the card incredibly difficult to interact with on a meaningful axis. Temporal Fissure decks establish a hard line in the format, making it so a deck would either have to be able to win before Temporal Fissure wipes away their board or risk playing the entire late game stalled on one or two lands while Mulldrifter slowly eats a life total. Since the February 2013 Pauper bans, Temporal Fissure and Cloudpost combined have defined the Pauper metagame.

In the wake of the Crossroads article, a call went up to remove Temporal Fissure from the format. I added my voice to that cause until Seth Burn pointedly asked me if it was the problem. Seth does not play Pauper but is a numbers man (we worked together on last year’s summer metagame analysis) and encouraged me to look at what was actually the problem. While Temporal Fissure decks consistently put up numbers, Cloudpost decks were even greater offenders. While the cards often go in the same deck, Cloudpost still topped 25% of the winners metagame with regular frequency, while Temporal Fissure decks "languished" at around 20%. This got me thinking that maybe Pauper has more than one problem card.

The case against Temporal Fissure is not one of numbers but rather one of that horribly arbitrary metric: fun. Personally, I detest playing against Temporal Fissure. I do not like the feeling of having to vomit my hand onto the board to have a reasonable chance of winning. In these games, my decisions have already been made for me—I just have to win before they do. And if I don’t, then I never have a chance to make another decision. I know that the dreaded fun is not a good measure of what should and should not be banned, especially when attendance for the format is up, but at its roots Magic is a game and current Temporal Fissure is a deck that prevents one person from playing said game.

The case against Cloudpost is on the opposite end of the spectrum and supported entirely by numbers. Cloudpost is the most played winning strategy. I tracked every 4-0 list from July 2nd to August 18th and found that Cloudpost decks made up nearly 29% of those lists. The hated Delver deck clocked in at 21.6%, and Temporal Fissure (including those decks running the Cloudpost engine) had "merely" 18.22% of the metagame. On popularity and power, Cloudpost is an offending force in Pauper. One only needs to look at the other viable control lists to realize that there are none. If you want to play Pauper control, it is Cloudpost or nothing because the mana engine is so powerful it invalidates other options.

This had been a major topic of discussion in Pauper circles for the past month, and then on Monday, September 9th Lee Sharpe posted this on Twitter:

The responses came from streamers, pros, and Pauper fans alike. The majority of responses dealt with the format focusing largely on monocolored strategies due to the paucity of fixing. Entrenched Paupers commented on the prevalence of both Temporal Fissure and Cloudpost. Some people advocated for no change.

In my opinion, Lee’s statement means that Wizards is going to do something about Pauper during the next ban list announcement. A similar tweet was sent out by Lee just prior to the February bans (at that time I was vehemently against any such bans; I have since come around). This could do much to inject some vibrancy into the forma,t especially with a new set coming out that will ask players to invest along different angles than before.

There are many different actions Wizards could take with Pauper. Each action has its own list of pros and cons. What follows are different lines available to Wizards with my perception of the ramifications.

Ban Temporal Fissure

Banning Temporal Fissure deals with the current spout of choice of combo decks. Gone would be the feel bad of having your board wiped. Storm would remain, but winning with Astral Steel is far harder than winning with multiple free Boomerangs. Removing this card would allow decks that take longer to develop their game and play largely on the board to come back into the metagame. White Weenie is a deck that relies on Squadron Hawk and Kor Skyfisher to generate card advantage, but it has been relegated to the bench thanks to Temporal Fissure. With Fissure gone, a deck that plays out its hand is no longer punished to the same degree.

Temporal Fissure was almost axed during the February round of bans. At the Community Cup, Matt Watkins brought up the issues surrounding Pauper on August 30th. It came out that Temporal Fissure was originally on that list but left alone to allow for a quirky (I read this as Overgrowth / Fertile Ground based) combo deck. Look how that worked out.

Removing Temporal Fissure also removes combo as it is known from the format. While Elves straddles the combo line, it is not the same. Taking out Storm might kill combo in Pauper entirely or might allow otherwise fringe strategies to come to the forefront, including Midnight Guard and Presence of Gond or Ivy Lane Denizen, Rendclaw Trow, and Carrion Feeder.

I feel that removing Temporal Fissure is a net positive for the format, but at the same time I do not want combo to be dead in Pauper. Regardless, this card prevents one person from actually playing Magic, and that is a bad thing.

Ban Cloudpost

Taking Cloudpost out of the picture would signal that Wizards wants to shake up the format. With Cloudpost gone, there would be a vacuum where there used to be a dominant control deck. People would be able to try out using the Urzatron to fuel their big mana decks or try making Mono-Black Corrupt decks a thing again. Removing Cloudpost as an engine would increase the variety of control decks.

Conversely, banning Cloudpost could make aggro a bit too good. One of the reasons Cloudpost is so successful is because Glimmerpost helps to offset the early hits taken while setting up mana. If Cloudpost goes the way of Grapeshot, it would make sense that control decks would need to bias themselves more towards early threats, which could have opposite the desired effect of promoting diversity. Rather, control decks would all resemble each other in a palette swap. Taking out just Cloudpost would also allow combo to live on in the Sunscape Familiar or Overgrowth version of Temporal Storm. That deck, while strong, is not nearly as oppressive as the Cloudpost version.

Banning Cloudpost would remove Pauper’s dominant strategy. Something would fill that void, but there is also a chance for an increase in new decks to come forward.

Ban Cloudpost and Temporal Fissure

What happens to a format when you remove its two biggest cards? If the February bans were any indication, one can expect a whole lot of new and old decks to come back into the spotlight. It would also give the format time to try to perfect new strategies. One of the downsides of the past six months is that Cloudpost and Temporal Fissure helped stifle otherwise promising decks from being tuned because it was just more profitable to take something to battle that was a known quantity. In this scenario, Delver likely becomes the best deck, but its predators (White Weenie and Rats) both return to the metagame to mitigate its damage.

Ban Nothing

If this happens, the format will remain largely unchanged aside from a few new Theros cards seeing play. However, given the recent statements from Lee Sharpe, I believe something will happen.

Other Options

The Pauper community chimed in with other ways to help fix the format.

Cloud of Faeries: Another incredibly powerful card. I have this as the third most likely card to get banned since not only is it free but if Temporal Fissure and Cloudpost both get banned Delver is likely to be on top. Removing Cloud of Faerie hurts Delver without actually neutering it.

Ghostly Flicker: In conjunction with Mnemonic Wall and Cloud of Faeries, this can generate tons of mana. Ghostly Flicker and Mnemonic Wall combo with every enters the battlefield creature, which is quite a bit of Pauper. Removing this card would do more to hurt deck variety than help it. If Fissure goes, this can stay.

Glimmerpost: One Locus generates tons of mana and one gains life, and you want to ban which one again?

Unban Empty the Warrens: Empty the Warrens would provide combo decks with another Storm outlet. Unlike Grapeshot and Temporal Fissure, Empty the Warrens has answers in every color. That being said, I do not think they would return this card to the format right away.

Unban Frantic Search: I do not understand people who think this card is fair. Careful Study is a good card, and casting for free at instant speed seems insane. With any cost reducers in play, this becomes bonkers. Leave this one on the sideline.

Unban Invigorate: This is why we can’t have nice things.

In the notes I sent to Wizards, I made my opinions known (and have replicated many of them here). In my opinion, regardless of what the numbers say, Temporal Fissure has to go. Similarly, banning Cloudpost is reasonable given its current level of dominance. My caveat with both of these is that I only have access to one Daily Event per day, while Wizards has far more data. The people at Wizards are good at crunching numbers, so I fully believe whatever course of action they take is the correct one.

I did suggest one other potential avenue to take.

The Modern Approach

Pauper has some serious issues. First off, it has access to some of the most powerful spells in the history of Magic, including Counterspell and Rancor. Thanks to various concerns, answer cards to some of the problems will never enter the format. Unlike other Eternal formats, there are no safety valves like Wasteland or Force of Will. And don’t get me started on the mana. One solution I proposed is adding a Modern filter to Pauper and starting with a completely blank slate. Preordain, Rite of Flame, Ancient Den—all fair game. However, I also suggested this new format be tested internally and then released with a provisional ban list.

The negative of this move would be to fracture the player base while also hurting the value of certain Classic-only cards like Crypt Rats and Serrated Arrows. The ban list for such a format could grow large, and the format could be solved with greater ease. However, Modern Pauper would allow new cards to shine since the power level of commons post-Mirrodin is much flatter than that of Onslaught and back. Sound off in the replies—do you think that Modern Pauper is worth pursuing? Do you have a different solution?

Pauper is indeed at a crossroads. In a few days, the format is going to be changed. I have a feeling that both Temporal Fissure and Cloudpost are not long for this world. I am prepared to be wrong, but if I’m right, I’ll be the first one in the deck editor brewing up new lists.

Keep slingin’ commons-


SpikeBoyM on Magic Online




An Introduction to Pauper

The Colors of Pauper: W U B R G

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