It took a couple of years longer than I thought it would, but Pauper has finally begun to catch on in the world of paper Magic. I'm not sure we can safely say that paper Pauper has "arrived," but things are certainly heading comfortably in that direction.
In case you've been too wrapped up in Standard and Modern recently to think about anything else, Pauper is an Eternal format (non-rotating, Alpha to present day) much like Vintage and Legacy. The biggest difference is that you can only play cards that have been printed at common. You can play any version of any card that you own, but it has to have been printed at common at least once.
Not only does this prevent Pauper from getting too expensive, it manages to give us a format that contains 25 years' worth of cards while dodging the reserved list almost entirely. Every Pauper-legal card (with thirteen mostly-useless exceptions) is eligible to be reprinted at any time. Neat!
Up until very recently, Pauper was almost exclusively an MTGO format. There have been Pauper side events popping up all over the place over the past few months, though, especially at Grand Prix in January and February. As a result, many local stores are branching out and running their own Pauper tournaments, too. The transition of a beloved format from MTGO to paper hasn't escaped the attention of the speculators, of course, so we're currently in the middle of a run on many of the format's key staples.
While it's possible that paper Pauper will go the way of Frontier and Tiny Leaders, there are a couple of key factors that make me believe that this format has some real staying power. For one, Pauper has had a healthy and robust metagame online for years-there's very little risk of things becoming top-heavy or unfun due to the discovery of some stupid deck that obliterates the nascent format at just the wrong time. Second, the format is absurdly cheap to play. Want to build a couple of Pauper decks? All you need are some commons and you're good to go. It's an Eternal format that everybody can afford to play.
To that end, I feel a little bad writing about Pauper in this column at all. Part of the reason that the format exists at all was to create a way to play Magic that was somewhat untethered from financial concern. But after all the Pauper price spikes over the past few weeks, it would be irresponsible for me to stay away for much longer. The market is going to keep moving no matter what I do, so I'd like to at least help all of you understand Pauper finance (and lock in a couple of sweet decks!) before things get even crazier.
Examining the Inconsistencies
Before we get into the nitty-gritty of spiking cards and rising prices, let's talk a little about the issues that have sprung up as the format transition from MTGO to paper. You'd think that the list of cards that are legal in Pauper should be easy enough to figure out, right? There's an MTGO banned list with ten cards on it, and beyond that, a card simply has to have been printed at common in at least one Magic set.
Unfortunately there are three problems that have emerged during this transition:
First, there are a couple of cards that were downgraded to common for online-only reprint sets, like Tempest Remastered and Vintage Masters. Key cards that fall into this category: Arrogant Wurm, Battle Screech, Brindle Shoat, Chainer's Edict, Circular Logic, Shield Sphere, and Tangle.
Second, there are plenty of cards that were printed at common in paper but have either been printed only at a higher rarity on MTGO or haven't made the leap to MTGO at all. Since Pauper began as an MTGO format, these cards aren't a formal part of the Pauper metagame right now. Cards like Goblin Grenade, High Tide, Hymn to Tourach, Mishra's Factory, Red Elemental Blast, Sinkhole, and Strip Mine would massively shift the format were they to be made legal.
Third, once you get into determining rarity for Magic's earliest sets, things get weird. Not only weren't those cards marked with rarity symbols, but you start getting into the differences between cards printed at C1, C2, and C3 versus cards printed at U2 or U3. For example, Mishra's Factory and Strip Mine each had a C1 printing and three U2 printings during Antiquities, which I guess makes them a common, unless we're only counting cards printed at the lowest rarity, but Antiquities had cards at C4, C5, and C6, so at a certain point it all kind of becomes kind of subjective.
At this point, there is no consensus on how to handle these discrepancies. I asked my Twitter feed for help, and it seems like most TOs are sticking to MTGO legalities and the MTGO ban list, which means that Battle Screech is legal (despite never being printed at common in a paper set) and Sinkhole is not, despite being printed at common in Alpha, Beta, and Unlimited.
Pauper speculators seem to believe that this is the future of the format. Tangle, Battle Screech, Chainer's Edict, and Circular Logic have all seen major price spikes over the past couple of weeks. This makes sense: in a format where almost every card has only been printed at common, the tiny handful of cards that were only printed at uncommon should be among the metagame's most valuable.
As of now, the same has not happened for Sinkhole, High Tide, or Hymn to Tourach. While I expect the paper format to stick close to the online metagame for now, and I don't see WotC disallowing cards like Battle Screech from paper events, I also don't hate the idea of snagging a playset of Sinkholes just in case. You can get them dirt cheap thanks to Eternal Masters, and I doubt it'll be reprinted anytime soon. The only thing better than being an uncommon in a sea of commons is being a rare-especially a Masters set rare.
Searching for Value
Let's take a moment to talk about why Pauper speculation differs from, say, Modern speculation.
In "normal" Magic finance, a card can be valuable either because of low supply (Runed Halo) or high demand (Vraska's Contempt). That's not to say that there's no demand for Runed Halo, of course, only that Runed Halo would be a $2 card if there were as many copies of it running around as there were copies of Vraska's Contempt.
In Pauper finance, demand works differently. If a card is reprinted, or was printed in a recent set, it doesn't matter how many people are playing it - there are enough copies to go around. A card still needs a certain level of demand to create a rising price in the first place, of course, but demand in and of itself is not enough.
This means that the stars have to align for a card to become valuable in Pauper. We're basically looking for cards that were printed once, maybe twice if that second printing was early or small enough. If a card was printed at any point during the last five years, I'm not interested (unless it was in a Commander set).
We also don't want to spend too much time thinking about cards that are also good in other formats. Those cards are almost certainly maxed out already. For example, Lightning Bolt is one of the best cards in Pauper, but it's also one of the best cards in Legacy and Modern. It'll be years, if ever, before Pauper demand ever matches Legacy and Modern demand.
Even after we winnow our list down considerably, it's important to recognize that Pauper isn't a great format for speculation unless you get in on a card really cheap or you're okay with buylist-style margins. You might snag a hundred copies of a five-cent card that'll buylist for $2, or a hundred copies of a $1 card that'll buylist for $3, but Pauper has very few cards that have a prayer of breaking $5; most of the cards that do have already spiked past the point where it's worth investing. If you're going deep at this point, you're either hoping to cash out on an undiscovered gem or you're hoping that Pauper continues to surge in popularity. Both outcomes are possible, but neither is guaranteed.
If you're investing in Pauper, then you're going to need to know your outs. Buylisting is one, but it requires excellent margins. Long-term holding is fine if you really believe that Pauper is the next big thing, but don't forget that there's no reserved list to fall back on. I haven't tried this myself, but I suspect you might have some luck packaging and trading full Pauper decks as the format continues to take off. Right now, most decks in the format have a retail value between $50 and $100, so you could try to buy the staples cheap with a goal of trading them into Modern or Legacy staples. This is an especially good option if you've already got a bunch of the better Pauper (Gush, Preordain, etc.) cards laying around your room doing nothing.
Analyzing The Pauper Staples That Have Spiked So Far
Let's take a look at the cards that have been the movers and shakers in Pauper so far. Some of them are valuable staples that should hold onto almost all of their gains. Others? Not so much.
Ash Barrens (Delver, Inside Out) - $8
Most cards in Pauper are easy to get, but not Ash Barrens. This is one of the "rarest" commons out there since it was only printed in Commander 2016. It's sold out at $8, and true retail is probably a little closer to $10. Ash Barrens will probably remain one of the most expensive cards in the format until it's reprinted.
Chainer's Edict (UB, Mono-Black) - $10
$10 is another sold out price; the true retail on Chainer's Edict is probably closer to $15. This card sees play in most of the black control variants in the format, and it was only ever printed at uncommon in paper. It should remain $10+ for as long as Pauper remains popular.
Cho-Manno's Blessing (Mono-White Heroic) - $0.25
Again, the sold-out price tag here is pre-spike; this is a $3-$4 card right now. That's how fast things are moving in Pauper!
Cho-Manno's Blessing is only really played in one deck: Mono-White Heroic; but the deck is only about $30 total right now and the next-most expensive card is Mutagenic Growth. That makes this a solid budget option. Cho-Manno's Blessing is a seven ticket card and rising on MTGO right now, which says something for where the paper price is going to go if Pauper continues to gain popularity.
Circular Logic (Inside Out) - $5
Circular Logic only really sees play in Inside Out Combo, which isn't a huge part of the metagame right now. It's got some long-term potential based on its relative scarcity in paper, but the price spike here was buyout-related and has already begun to erode.
Curse of Chains (Delver) - $1.50
Curse of Chains is in the process of spiking, and I expect this to be a $3 card by the time you read this article. It's only a sideboard card, but it's a three-of in Pauper's most popular deck. Since it was only printed once, in Shadowmoor, it might be able to sustain a $4-$5 price tag.
Flaring Pain (Burn, Boros, Bogles) - $0.79
Flaring Pain is about a $2 card right now and looks like it'll stabilize closer to $1.50. It was only printed once, in Judgment, but it's a sideboard one-of or two-of in most of the decks that run it. I'm not expecting this one to end up over $2-$3 at any point soon.
Gleeful Sabotage (Elves, Stompy) - $3
Here's one that's still very much on the rise. Gleeful Sabotage is a 3 or 4-of sideboard card in Elves (very popular) and Stompy (slightly less so). Much like Curse of Chains, I think this one can end up in the $4-$5 range without much effort.
Gorilla Shaman (Tron, Delver, Affinity, Boros, Bogles) - $2.25
Gorilla Shaman is one of the most important sideboard cards in the format, and it hasn't been printed in paper since Alliances. There's no reason why this one can't break $5 and keep going.
Gush (Delver, Inside Out, Izzet Blitz) - $7
Gush is one of the key cards in Delver, which is a big part of why it spiked from $2 to $7. Even more importantly, the spike happened about a month ago and it has proven fairly sustainable-the price jumped to $9, sunk back to about $5, and has started to slowly rise again. This is fair market value for the card right now, but it could keep rising if Pauper keeps gaining momentum.
Moment's Peace (Elves, Tron) - $3
Here's another one I kind of like. There hasn't been a Moment's Peace buyout yet-the card just slowly continues to climb. It was only printed once, in Odyssey, and has been worth $1-$2 for a while simply due to casual interest. My only issue is that it's kind of a fringe player in Elves and a 2-of in Five-Color Tron. I'm not sure it sees enough play to sustain a $5+ price tag, but its profile is great otherwise.
Needle Drop (Burn) - $1.50
Needle Drop is a 4-of in Burn, always a popular casual deck. Interestingly enough, it looks like this was bought out, the price spiked to $5 and has since dropped off to about $4…only the folks who did the buying out forgot to check StarCityGames (or wanted higher margins). The result is that SCG still has plenty of copies for $1.50. At any rate, this one is in the same boat as Gleeful Sabotage and Curse of Chains, which means that it could easily end up sticking around the $4 range.
Oubliette (Mono-Black Control) - $35
If Oubliette were actually a major part of a key Pauper deck, I could see it hitting $100+. It was only printed once, in Arabian Nights, which means that the sky is the limit. Oubliette only sees play in Mono-Black Control, though, which is firmly a third tier deck. Oh-and some versions of Mono-Black Control eschew Oubliette entirely. This card might spike again if that changes, but this spike seems more greed-based than anyone actually buying it for their Pauper deck. I'm gonna leave it well enough alone.
Prismatic Strands (Kuldotha) - $1.50
I guess you can call this a "spike" because the price jumped from $0.25 to $1.50. Yeah, sometimes that's what passes for a huge gain in the world of Pauper.
At any rate, Prismatic Strands is similar to Moment's Peace in that it's an older card that was only printed once but it's mostly just a sideboard two-of right now. It might rise a bit at some point in the future, but its price chart looks pretty stable right now.
Quirion Ranger (Elves) - $5
Visions was a long time ago, Elves is a popular deck, and Quirion Ranger is a four-of in Elves. I'm not sure how much further this one can climb since it was a $2 card last month and it seems to have stabilized nicely, but it should hold onto its new price tag for a while.
Standard Bearer (Heroic, Boros, Bogles, Inside Out) - $3
Standard Bearer was bought out, spiked to $10, and has more or less stabilized at $3. I could see another jump if the card became a bigger part of the metagame, but it's just a sideboard 2-of in a couple of decks right now. $3-$4 is totally reasonable for that.
Tangle (Elves) - $4.49
Tangle is in mid-spike right now, so this could be a $5-$6 card by the time you read this. It's also just a sideboard two-of, but it was only printed at uncommon in paper so there's more upside here. I could see Tangle ending up in the $7-$8 range at some point soon.
What Might Spike Next?
I'm lumping these cards together because they're all solid pick-ups right now. Elves is one of the two or three most popular decks in Pauper, and nearly all of its staples are slightly older and haven't been printed in forever. Any one of them could end up jumping in price over the next couple of weeks. A few of them almost assuredly will.
Choking Sands (Mono-Black) - $0.59
This is a four-of from Mirage, so it's got some room to run if someone presses the issue. Mono-Black isn't the most popular deck in Pauper, but if Chainer's Edict is a $10 card, then this one is $4-$5 easily. You might want to consider Crypt Rats and Chittering Rats here as well.
Fireblast (Burn) - $2.50
I'm a little iffy on this one since it has been printed in quite a few supplemental sets and its demand is mostly due to Legacy Burn. It also seems like a strong possibility for Masters 25. I've already started to see the price chart wiggle around a bit like it might jump, though, so I'm including it here anyway.
Great Furnace (Affinity, Boros)- $2
You need Great Furnace for Affinity and Kuldotha Boros. It's also solid in Commander and No-Banlist Modern. Plus, if they ever axe a piece from Modern Affinity you better believe people will start speculating that it's time to bring the artifact lands off of the Modern ban list in response. So yeah, this is a nice low-risk spec.
Capsize (Tron, UR) - $1.50
Casual demand provides you with a solid floor here as well, and Tempest is almost twenty years old now. The MTGO price has climbed a bit in recent days, but the paper price hasn't followed yet. I'd snag a set for sure, though be aware that most Five-Color Tron builds only run one or two copies of this.
Shadow Rift (Inside Out) - $1
Skred (Izzet Delver) - $0.99
It doesn't get more low supply than Coldsnap, at least for Modern-legal sets, and you've got the added bonus of hedging your bets thanks to Skred Red. Put simply, we know this card is good.
Tireless Tribe (Inside Out) - $0.35
If many of the fringier cards from Inside Out Combo are going to spike, why not this four-of that was only printed once, in Odyssey? Easy $3-$4 potential here.
This Week's Trends
Let's start with Standard, where things have remained fairly consistent from last week. Vraska's Contempt and Rekindling Phoenix were the big winners last week, and both cards continue to climb in value. I didn't expect Vraska's Contempt to be a $15-$20 card, but that's the world we live in at the moment. Field of Ruin, Hazoret the Fervent, Carnage Tyrant, and Search for Azcanta are all small gainers too. Black and red are dominating the metagame right now, and you have to go through the top eleven(!) decks on the MTG Goldfish list before you find a list that doesn't run at least one of those two colors.
Over in Modern, things are absolutely crazy. Jace, the Mind Sculptor is obviously the biggest winner of the week, but we've seen double-digit gains from Disrupting Shoal, Blackcleave Cliffs, Snapcaster Mage, and Celestial Colonnade. Liliana of the Veil, Kolaghan's Command, Entreat the Angels, and Tarmogoyf are all up at least $5. If you want an explanation for any of this, check out my article on the unbannings from the middle of last week.
I'm honestly not sure where the Modern market is going to go next. People are very excited about the unbannings, and the next few weeks should be full of great spec opportunities as new decks emerge. It'll take the metagame a little while to settle in, and this is the best time to buy. Beyond that, anything could happen. The metagame might look pretty similar to how it did before Jace and Bloodbraid Elf, but I'd bet that things will end up being quite a bit different. Cards that are good in whatever decks can no longer compete-Humans, perhaps-will start to tank. And if the metagame is less diverse, people will start to complain, which will lead to softer overall prices. I'm certainly not betting against Modern, a format that has proven both fun and resilient for years, but if you're a risk-adverse long-term speculator, you might want to consider selling during this current hype window.
During WotC's latest announcement day, we learned that there are going to be a couple of new products this summer, including Commander 2018 and a two-headed giant expansion that will be taking the Conspiracy/Un-set slot. They're also giving us a new $20 planeswalker product that will be replacing (hooray!) the From the Vault series. There's not a lot of financial action to take here yet, though you can expect the two-headed giant set to have a bunch of casual reprints and a couple of interesting Legacy plants.