For only the second time since the format was sanctioned, cards were added to the Pauper banned list. Not only that but the list grew by 250%, bringing the total from two cards to five. As of February 6th, the Pauper banned list will include:
- Cranial Plating
- Frantic Search
- Empty the Warrens
Change is scary.
Before delving deeper into what this update means, I want to be clear. I did not think anything needed to be banned based on what I believed Pauper to be. When Pauper was first sanctioned, it was competitive Magic with only commons. As the format progressed, the metagame became stagnant for long stretches, marked by one or two innovations when new sets were released. Decks that tended to be stronger in larger formats (combo) continued to get more tools. Unintended consequences happened, like Invigorate and Infect.
However, the format existed in tenuous balance. I and others advocated for no changes because of the fear that pulling on pillar would allow the others to overwhelm the format (let alone two). These fears are largely unfounded and can be chalked up to the natural fear of the unknown. Infect was vital in keeping Storm in check, and Storm kept multiple decks "honest." Removing those two extremes means the deck that does the most "broken" thing is likely those based on Cloudpost. Time will tell if the format can handle this shift.
This brings me to the italicized point above. My personal feelings on the format were based upon my perception of the format. Wizards, as of the writing of this article, has not given a clear indication of how they view Pauper. It is an Eternal format, but it is also a gateway to other competitive play (while being its own competitive community). These bans help indicate the direction they see the format going, but it would be reassuring to me (and others I am sure) if they communicated a clear vision of the format moving forward. The implied direction is away from a format that asks the question "do you have the silver bullet?"
There is another underlying fear in removing cards from the format: the slippery slope. Pauper is a competitive format, and there is a pervasive worry that removing certain strategies will relegate commons-only Magic to something "less than." Pauper as it existed was exciting and full of insane plays. The actualized fear would be akin to Runeclaw Bears against Scathe Zombies.
This is unfounded. Wizards does not ban cards lightly. Removing the cards was not an attempt to "dumb down" Pauper. It appears as though these bans were implemented to inject some life into the format by slowing it down. People can now aim to battle in the middle turns of the game before Cloudpost comes online and dominates the end game.
As for the cards themselves, Grapeshot was the largest offender. The actual answers available were narrow and easy to sidestep. The strategies to defeat the Grapeshot Storm deck largely involved trying to race. This was not a winning proposition. With no effective answer at common, it made sense for Grapeshot to get the axe.
Invigorate was designed and printed before 2000. Over ten years later, Infect made this pump spell something dangerous. Invigorate becomes a free double Fireblast in Infect and helped to facilitate a turn 2 kill. While it was not a consistent turn 3 kill, it was the most consistent turn 3 kill in the format. Like Grapeshot, the answers to it were very narrow—only Curfew was an outright answer, as Infect ran Apostle's Blessing and Vines of Vastwood to negate removal spells.
Empty the Warrens was the most fair kill condition in Storm. It was only fair because every color had an answer to the token army. However, if Wizards is moving away from Pauper being a silver bullet format, I can understand the reasoning behind removing this card.
Are these changes good for Pauper? I am coming around to believing that they will be good in the long term. I have come to realize that a balanced format does not necessarily mean a healthy format and that removing these former pillars will allow diversity in Pauper to grow. These decks were the clocks, and now the format is slower by a full turn (maybe two).
The bans will certainly shake up the format, so where does this leave the Pauper metagame moving forward?
Sacland Storm and Goblin Storm: Dead
These two decks will no longer exist because their kill cards have been excised. While the shells remain intact, there is no point in generating tons of mana with Rituals and throwing away resources to fuel a storm turn when there is no actual kill card.
Mono-Red Storm: Mostly Dead
The strength of this deck was its ability to come at you from multiple angles. Without the option of an Empty the Warrens turn, it becomes either a bad Burn deck or the shell of a Pauper version of All-In-Red (which might be handy in the coming metagame).
If Infect is going to survive, it is going to have to change. The first option is to go full Simic and become a more aggro-control and tempo-oriented deck. This will give the deck access to counters, Blighted Agent, and card draw. The old shell will have to cut some of the all-in cards like Gitaxian Probe and Apostle's Blessing and become more like a two-color Stompy list.
The other option is to abandon green altogether and go full Dimir. Plague Stinger,Blighted Agent, and Ichorclaw Myr give you an abundance of two-drops since Glistener Elf is no longer vital to the turn 2 kill. Unholy Strength and Dark Favor do a decent Rancor impersonation on evasive threats (while Vampire's Bite also exists for more aggressive builds). This deck could supplement its creature suite with better removal and disruptive elements to force through poison.
Temporal Storm: Winner, But Watch Out
- 1 Archaeomancer
- 4 Cloud of Faeries
- 1 Mnemonic Wall
- 3 Mulldrifter
- 4 Nightscape Familiar
- 3 Sea Gate Oracle
- 4 Sunscape Familiar
The "other" Storm deck does not use the broken mechanic to win outright but rather clears the way for creatures to do the dirty work. While it is capable of turn 3 wins, it usually starts going off on turn 4 or 5 (which appears to be the speed of combo Wizards wants in Pauper). Temporal Storm is robust and is capable of going off multiple times in a game to help facilitate victory. Moving forward it will have a huge target painted on its head, and it has some very real vulnerabilities (such as Stone Rain and graveyard removal). I expect this to become the go-to combo deck in the format, but it won't reach the level of dominance Storm once had.
Cloudpost: Big Winner
If there is one deck that made out like a bandit in the wake of the bans, it is Cloudpost. Storm and Infect were this deck's worst matchups (although Auras was not a cakewalk). With those two decks no longer viable, Cloudpost becomes the default best deck. It can also stop devoting main and sideboard slots to narrow cards that answer the departed decks, making it stronger against the field.
Like Temporal Storm, becoming the clear best means that everyone will be gunning for it. Expect Stone Rain, Spreading Seas, and even Contaminated Ground to start seeing play as a way to neutralize Cloudpost. Creatures will trend back towards resilient instead of focusing on damage output as a way to fight the removal present in many versions of Cloudpost Control.
The fear is that the dominant end game of these decks will make running any other strategy questionable at best. The hope is that there are enough decks that can win faster than Cloudpost decks to keep the format vibrant.
Delver: Alarmingly Neutral
Delver ends up in a very similar position to where it was before. It loses one of its worst matchups in Infect but is now missing out on the chance to eat Storm counts with well-timed counters. Cloudpost is a tough matchup, and decks kept down by Storm (White Weenie, Stompy) have fair to good matchups with the former king of Pauper. All this points to Delver having a harder time in the new format.
What can it do? In my opinion, Delver has to lean more heavily on Frostburn Weird. This card is key in stopping early attacks and can do wonders in blunting the assault from aggro decks on the rise. Calcite Snapper is a viable alternative that also is a true pain for Cloudpost decks thanks to shroud.
Stompy / White Weenie / Goblins: On the Rise
These three aggressive decks all had one thing in common: tough Storm matchups. While all these decks had answers to Empty the Warrens (and White Weenie could pack Benevolent Unicorn to blank Grapeshot), it was still a case of "do you have it?" With Storm out of the picture, these decks are viable options once more. Stompy and White Weenie can fight Delver, and Goblins is no slouch if it packs Death Spark. The issue is Cloudpost, which can gain quite a bit of life with Glimmerposts. Goblins has access to Mogg War Marshal (and perhaps Myr Sire) as a way to blank removal. Guardian of the Guildpact saw play before and is good at avoiding removal. Finally, Stompy packs numerous ways to play the control game, with Vines of Vastwood and Gather Courage to keep their army alive.
Affinity: Still There
Affinity is largely unchanged by the bans. The deck relies more on its own draws than anything else. It gets better in theory because two bad matchups left the format, but it does not dominate any of the new players.
Aura Aggro: Sleeper Pick
Is this the new Infect? Aura Aggro has a good matchup against Cloudpost and has a built-in resiliency to Temporal Storm. It can race the other beatdown decks and is the best option to bypass traditional axes. All that being said, the deck is still fragile, and if removal adapts, it can kill this deck entirely.
Rats: Gnawing Away
Black control decks have been ever present, much like their signature creature type. With the demise of Storm, these decks can start moving toward overload-style discard (Wrench Mind, for example) to help combat Cloudpost. This is also the archetype most likely to rely on the sideboard, with viable land destruction and graveyard hate options.
Make no mistake: Pauper has changed. Wizards has demonstrated that they are interested in promoting interactivity and want people to play Magic with their commons. This new format has far more undiscovered deck design space, which I know I will be exploring.
And, after mulling for a few days, I think these changes are for the better. Yes, Pauper is different, but the format has had a huge restriction lifted. Decks will now be given time to develop on board, not just in hand. The format has not been dumbed down—it has been slowed down. I, for one, am incredibly excited to be part of Pauper moving forward.
Keep slingin' commons-
SpikeBoyM on Magic Online
The Colors of Pauper:
I am Golgari. Maybe it's because I loved watching people play Recurring Nightmare and Survival of the Fittest side by side or someone beat down with a Blastoderm while removing a blocker with a Snuff Out (free, thanks to Bayou). Maybe it's because I love eking out every ounce of value from my cards. I'm Golgari through and through and will always look for a way to play my Swamps next to my Forests (and find the best serving of vegetarian brains out there).