What Pauper Needs

In this week’s article, Alex offers up some ideas for how Wizards of the Coast and the Pauper community could improve the commons-only format.

One of the great things about the team that makes Magicis that they’re so darn accessible. Think about how easy it is to reach out to these people who create a game that occupies a special place in our lives. This is something special. Perhaps the most accessible member of Magic makers is Mark Rosewater. MaRo spends quite a bit of his seemingly limitless energy on answering questions from the masses on his Tumblr blog. Every few weeks a cycle of questions appears with regards to Pauper, and it always makes me sad.

The questions all revolve around a certain theme—Pauper needs better cards. Rather, Pauper needs cards that do things outside the realm of "common." The logic is that since Commander gets cards designed with the format in mind, so should Pauper. While this is an interesting (if false) notion, it does prompt a good question. What does Pauper need (and what can it get)?

Let’s start with what Pauper can’t have: uncommons, rares, and mythic rares. This seems intuitive, but when this question comes up, the most popular calls are for cards that do things that only these rarities can accomplish. Commons under the New World Order have to do many things. They have to be attractive to the less engaged player while providing depth for a Limited environment. That doesn’t mean they can’t be powerful—Delver of Secrets is a fine common, but a card like Quirion Ranger likely upsets the New World Order balance by increasing on-board complexity in Limited a significant amount.

Instead, certain players ask for cards that deal with the stack and give instants hexproof. They want cards that cannot be countered and deal with multiple threats for miniscule mana costs. Some players want cards like Hymn to Tourach or Sinkhole "reprinted" at common for Magic Online.

Why are these effects requested? Simply put, because commons from the pre-Modern era are far more powerful on average than the commons printed today. Blue as a color was given a higher concentration of great cards than the other colors, which means the blue cards in Pauper are some of the strongest and without the flashy and powerful spells available at higher rarities, blue comes out ahead. These are all ways to fight the persistent power of Islands.

Short of going back in time and adjusting the power level of cards printed over a decade ago, there is not much that can be done about the power level of old blue cards (there is one solution that I will get to later). Instead, I want to take a look at steps that could be taken both by Wizards and the community to improve Pauper given the current landscape.

Cheap Deck Manipulation

Blue has a stranglehold on this at the moment with cards like Ponder and Preordain. Those cards are above the curve, but in order for the other colors to catch up, they need access to similar cards. Obviously every color can’t immediately get (single color) draw a card, but there are ways to give other colors Ponder like effects that already exist in the color pie. Therosblock provides some great examples of this in cards like Spark Jolt and Gods Willing. I’ve actually grown fond of Viscera Seer as a way for creature-heavy black decks to increase card quality over the course of a game.

It goes without saying that these cards will not be able to match the power level of the Legacy staple blue spells. Given time and enough variations, these cards could approach the current blue crop and give other colors potent options. It’s quite possible to envision nonblue cards that ape Sleight of Hand in a color-specific manner.

Printing cantrips is another option. The Wisps from Shadowmoor are a great example of cheap incidental effects that can be made palatable with the addition of drawing a card. Both Niveous Wisps and Crimson Wisps have seen play in the past. It is not about printing the one card to fix the problem for the other colors but instead achieving the critical mass needed to help them approach the velocity and card selection available to blue.

Strong Enters The Battlefield Effects

Wizards has shown that common creatures can have relatively strong effects upon being summoned. Cards like Satyr Wayfinder, Viashino Firstblade, and Gray Merchant of Asphodel all bear a black expansion symbol. With enough volume, it becomes difficult for a blue deck to effectively stop every threat. When a card like Counterspell is available to only one color, the ability to overload the stopper becomes important. Creatures with spells tacked on, especially those that are cheap, can help achieve this end. Each of these cards can represent two threats and place extra strain on Counterspell based strategies.

Again, this is not about making blue bad but giving other colors a chance to catch up. The reason they have to be on the cheap side is to help negate the UU on Counterspell—anything else and the Island mage still comes out ahead.

Bring Back Unearth

Not the card (although I wouldn’t mind a functional reprint), but the keyword. Much like the creatures mentioned above, monsters with unearth is a problem for strategies based around countering spells. These beaters are able to deal damage despite being stopped and make any trade less desirable. I am biased here since it is one of my favorite mechanics of all time, but I do believe that this keyword is another step toward giving other colors a chance to stop blue’s dominance.

Community Based

These are a few ideas I was able to generate that fall in line with what Wizards is currently capable of doing at common. It’s not an exhaustive list, and I’m sure that the wise people in Renton have other tools at their disposal. But what about those that actually play Pauper? We cannot rely on a bounty of great commons in every set. Even if we could, it would take a long time to reach the critical mass of cards needed for these changes to take shape. However, the Pauper community could do much good right now.

The best first step for members of the community to take would be to try new decks. Pauper is a low-stakes format, and while the results from Premier Events and single-elimination queues show some homogeneity, there is space for new decks to take root. Even if these decks are not the best, it can play right into the next step of helping Pauper.

This involves players writing about their experiences and decks. Right now there are very few people producing regular Pauper content (in comparison to other formats). If members of the community wrote about their decks and ideas in the format in ways that explain their ideas and card choices, it could provide invaluable insight into different takes on Pauper. Multiple viewpoints are necessary to expand the understanding of any style of Magic, and the more voices, the better. Pauper has a dedicated player base, and if a section of them could share their experiences, it could provide a real shot in the arm.

Banned List Management

The last option I want to present is one I have written about in the past. The banned list is a tool that can shape the format. Previous Pauper bans have been based upon power level. I think that the format is currently at a point where it might see its first ban that is not solely based on strength.

Delver of Secrets is a popular card. Jason Moore alluded to its ubiquity last week, and the numbers back him up. In the past six months, Delver tempo decks have averaged just under 20% of the weekly metagame. If you take the other decks featuring Delver of Secrets (Izzet Control, Mono-Blue Control, Nivix Cyclops Blitz) into account, this number hovers around 30%. This represents a significant portion of the metagame over a sustained period of time. While it may not be the most powerful strategy every week, it is clearly the most played.

Delver of Secrets is a strong card in part because it interacts so well with the history of above the curve blue cards. It does a great job of shrinking the game down to the early turns. Alone this is not a problem, but again blue has access to some of the best (and cheapest) answers in the history of the game. The best way to promote diversity might be to ban Delver of Secrets.

This would not outright kill any of the decks currently featuring the Human Wizard. They would all be able to find other creatures to fulfill the role currently being played by the Kafka pastiche. However, removing this card does not stop the ideal Delver tempo opening of one-drop into Cloud of Faeries with Spellstutter Sprite backup. Indeed, it is likely this interaction that helps propel Delver to the top of the heap.

So what about banning Cloud of Faeries? There is precedent here, as Frantic Search has been banned and is similar in mana generation. Cloud of Faeries is a key card in one of Pauper’s last true combo decks.

Removing Cloud of Faeries from the format could also remove the pure combo deck from Pauper. Conversely, removing Delver of Secrets helps the Esper combo deck (which is incredibly difficult to disrupt) by removing its natural enemy.

What this comes down to is that the Pauper banned list needs some additional attention from Wizards. If the goal is to have a vibrant format where commons are playable, then action must be taken to make sure the widest swath of available cards can find their way into decks. The ever presence of Delver of Secrets is actually a soft ban on dozens (if not hundreds) of other cards.

If Pauper had the banned list examined every set release, it would be enough to help increase the variety of the format. This could force players to build new decks and look for new routes to victory. This is probably the biggest ask since the format is so small, but I feel it’s the one that could have the most immediate effect on the health of Pauper.

What would I ban? I would take a two-pronged approach and ban both Delver of Secrets and Cloud of Faeries. Removing Delver of Secrets forces the decks that once relied on it to reduce the number of effective turns in the game to find less aggressive options. Excising Cloud of Faeries does remove the Esper combo deck from the format, but it also reduces the blue deck’s ability to clamp down on turn 2, giving other decks more time to set up and develop. This could lead to more two-color decks seeing play, as the lack of time is the greatest detriment to lets these decks set up. By banning both of these cards, Wizards would create some breathing room for nonblue decks while only actually killing one option.

I know it seems odd for me to say that Delver isn’t all that good and that it needs to be banned in the same month, but both are true. Delver of Secrets as a card is not so powerful that it needs to be banned. Rather, the ban stems from the fact that it is so present in the format and therefore is limiting the options for deckbuilders. If Pauper is able to get more regular attention, in six months or a year Delver might be able to return to the format (maybe after some sweet new WBRG cards are printed). But these are just one writer’s ideas on how to make Pauper better. And all of them are options well within Wizards and the community’s power.

Pauper isn’t broken yet, but maybe it’s time to fix it. Maybe that’s what Pauper really needs.