Last week, friend of the show Alex Ullman penned (Typed? Ugh. I can't pretend to care about the distinction), in Ullman tradition, an earnest, full-throated endorsement of the Pauper format, as if anyone that follows his weekly column, Twitter, Facebook fan page, and personal Facebook would have any doubt where Alex Ullman falls on the Should You Play Pauper? spectrum.
These are his arguments for Pauper, as he lays them out:
-Magic is expensive. Pauper cuts a lot of the costs out.
-Pauper is a good stepping stone to competitive play.
-The low power level of the cards cuts out a lot of the variance.
I won't argue with the first point. In his short-lived return to writing about wizard squares, Geordie Tait often alluded to a dystopian hellscape where the cost constructed Magic soared over the years to a point where it priced everyone out. Suffice it to say that Magic's not there yet. However, Constructed Magic's still expensive. Pauper helps mitigate that.
Full Disclosure: we have a Pauper League at TCGplayer HQ. Each one stretches over a couple months and hits a lot of sweet spots. It allows for some competition and camaraderie, it fulfills some people's (read: mine) need for a basis upon which to talk some trash, and the cards are relatively cheap. Yeah, buying Oubliette is annoying, but there are plenty of decks that don't play it.
This is the end of where Ullman and I agree on Pauper. These are the reasons why you shouldn't play Pauper:
Brainstorm is Legacy's most powerful card. It is a common from Ice Age. Ponder and Preordain, two cards restricted in Vintage, are also common. Cranial Plating's common. An inordinate amount of historically overpowered blue cards, including Delver of Secrets and Counterspell, are common. Most of the burn spells in Burn decks and the elves in Elves decks are all common. Magic is ginormous, and for all of its inertia, the game carries 25 years of design and development errors. This isn't to condemn the game or gloss over the fact that designing and developing cards is hard, it's to call out the fact that calling a format "commons-only" does not speak to its gameplay. When players hear "commons-only format," their intuition tells them the gameplay should and will look akin to a game of Limited. That's not what Pauper is, and a failure to acknowledge the format's color imbalance and Magic's nonsensical early stance on rarity divides does no one any favors.
At the risk of being a total hypocrite, here's the Affinity deck I'm playing in our work league:
This is my friend Billy's deck. Billy's something of a savant, and while we don't keep in touch much anymore, I still get to creep on him via what he's playing on Magic Online. To be clear: this deck is broken in half. It is absurdly good, fully capable of turn-four kills. It has plenty of hosers, however. Gorilla Shaman and Ancient Grudge are both legal and capable of ruining this deck's day; that's not so much of a point in Pauper's favor as much as it is simply an observation that Pauper's closest analog is Modern, a format that's only en vogue right now because Standard's best deck plays four Aetherworks Marvel. On a normal day, you don't want your format to get compared to Modern.
Affinity isn't the only Modern deck that exists in Pauper. Burn, Elves, and Bogles all port cleanly to Pauper, and they all happen to be linear decks that rely on synergy. That's a condensed way of saying that all four decks have lots unbeatable draws as well as plenty of draws that fall flat on their face and do nothing.
Ullman's claim is that a flatter power-level among cards reduces variance in games, claiming there are fewer cards like Arcbound Ravager that win games no matter how bad their controller plays them, which… has he ever played against Armadillo Cloak? Games of Pauper, especially sideboarded games, hinge on a small amount of cards in each player's deck that perform really well in different matchups. Affinity's trying to avoid Gorilla Shaman. If a Burn deck gets two Lava Spikes countered, it's toast. Elves would rather not see Electrickery or Evincar's Justice. And everyone's trying to fade Armadillo Cloak. The "fairy godmothers" are there, they're just less loud than Gideon, Ally of Zendikar or Aetherworks Marvel.
So all the decks are just trying to get to a specific card. What kind of decks have an advantage in an environment like that?
There are an awful lot of cards that see regular play in Legacy and Vintage in that deck. Gush was recently restricted in Vintage and has been banned in Legacy since time immemorial, but here it is in Billy's list, in all its glory. Ullman says this about Pauper's suite of restricted blue cantrips: "An argument can be made that Ponder is a hair too good for Pauper but when the cards you are digging for are all of a similar power level it is less likely that Ponder is going to break anything." This is a mild misunderstanding of how Magic works. When you have better card selection than your opponent, all other things being equal, you are favored to win the game. That's even ignoring that Ponder and Brainstorm often set up Delver of Secrets flips, as if they weren't powerful enough already.
Blue-red Delver, a version that eschews Spire Golem for Lightning Bolt, Skred, and a slightly worse manabase is the preferred Pauper deck at the moment, so ubiquitous that Luis Scott-Vargas, a hall-of-famer not known for his Pauper prowess but never a man to turn down value, ran the deck through a league on Magic Online and crushed it to the tune of a 5-0 record. Despite how it sounds, this is likely the healthiest Pauper's been in a long time. Cloud of Faeries and Peregrine Drake dominated Pauper for a while, acting as engines for a Mnemonic Wall / Ghostly Flicker deck whose primary function was to make their opponents question their existence as you slowly built mana to kill them somehow via Ghostly Flicker loops. Before that, Treasure Cruise got the banhammer, just like it did everywhere else, and before that, blue-red Storm was an easy way to grind old Daily Events for a profit on Magic Online. Are you starting to see a pattern here? All the damn decks are blue! This is less of a Pauper problem than an Eternal problem, but it should be acknowledged all the same.
Our work Pauper league is played in paper. This comes with its share of headaches; Pauper was originally conceived as a Magic Online-only format, and its banlist doesn't account for very old commons than don't exist as commons on Magic Online. The most noteworthy of these are Sinkhole, Hymn to Tourach, High Tide, and, oddly enough, the best of all of them, Goblin Grenade. Hymn to Tourach is a high-variance nuisance and High Tide can do some cool stuff, but Goblin Grenade is truly busted. Sinkhole is a fine sideboard card but Pauper decks are largely too fast for it to be very effective. This also works in reverse; Thermokarst is one of the rare cases where it's common in Masters Edition Whatever but appears as an uncommon in Ice Age, its only paper printing.
Imagine explaining to someone that started playing during Revised that they can't play Goblin Grenade in a commons only format. Here's how it goes:
YOU: "Hey, you can't play Goblin Grenade."
THEM: "Why not? Pauper's all commons, right?"
YOU: "Yes, but…"
THEM: "Well, Goblin Grenade is a common."
YOU: "I know, but…"
THEM: "So is it a commons format or not?"
YOU: "Look, it is, but Pauper was originally designed to only be played on Magic Online."
YOU: "And there's no common version of Goblin Grenade on Magic Online, so you can't play it. Sorry."
THEM: "Let me ask you a question."
THEM: "Are we playing the games on Magic Online?"
THEM: "No, we are not. We are playing the games in the real world, and out in the real world, Goblin Grenade is a common."
At this point, any appeal to format design intent just seems mealy-mouthed and pointless. Peregrine Drake, for example, was recently downgraded to common to predictably stupid results - the card was banned a couple months after it became legal.
If these sound like poor reasons to not play Pauper, it's because they are. Pauper's not perfect, but no format is, and it really does serve as a good entryway to see what competitive Magic's all about and whether or not it's for you. My issues with Pauper lie more in the overarching player perception of it as some quaint, silly format when in reality it's busted in half. It's only friendly to new players insofar as it allows them to taste competition without investing tons of capital; the decks aren't simple and brewing is generally a fool's errand. This lines up perfectly with any other Constructed format that's ever existed. It's not unique to Pauper. It's still Magic.
I played Logan Nettles' blue-red Control list from the MOCS at a PPTQ last Saturday.
Last time I took a Nettles deck to a PPTQ, I won the tournament. I went into this PPTQ hoping to keep the streak alive.
It feels important to note here: If I had really wanted to win the tournament, I would've played a deck that had four copies of Aetherworks Marvel in it. Blue-red Control is more of a metagame call than anything else, but there were a few factors behind my deck selection:
-I've wanted to play Torrential Gearhulk since Pro Tour Amonkhet.
-I thought the deck was well-positioned — strong against the establish metagame and powerful enough to beat random nonsense
-The tournament was in Corning, NY, home to a badass glass museum. Scrubbing out meant that I got to watch some glass get made — not too shabby.
The PPTQ's only five rounds, but since the tournament started at 1:00 (tournament organizers: please, please stop doing this), I mentally prepare myself for a long day.
I'd played one matchup with blue-red Control going into the PPTQ, but I'd played it a lot — I got in tons of reps against my coworker Yonathan's Jund brew. Him and I play Standard during lunch almost every day, and he can be depended on to always being some red/green/X midrange deck of his own creation to the table. So I got in a lot of reps against that, and was left to theorycraft about other matchups.
My intuition on the zombies matchup was that it's not as good for me as it looks on paper. A Lord of the Accursed into a Liliana's Mastery render my Sweltering Suns useless, and all the Negates floating around my deck in game one felt very poor. If a Zombies opponent got a good start and I was unable to use all my mana every turn, a loss seemed inevitable. Drawing multiple Magma Sprays seemed like an obvious enough "key" to the matchup.
My starting hand for game one is four lands, a Magma Spray, an Essence Scatter, and a Pull from Tomorrow. That's a borderline hand, but my opponent's deckbox said ZOMBIES on it. Generally speaking, stuff like that is just noise and should probably be ignored, but I don't ignore it and get to Magma Spray their turn-one Dread Wanderer. A drawn Sweltering Suns kills a Metallic Mimic and a Diregraf Colossus (thank you, Magma Spray!), a second Magma Spray kills a Relentless Dead, a Glimmer of Genius keeps the spice flowing, and pretty soon a Torrential Gearhulk's putting my aggro opponent on the back foot. I get to Negate a desperation Liliana's Mastery and play a Pull from Tomorrow for three on my opponent's turn, and suddenly my opponent's at ten life, staring down a Torrential Gearhulk, and I have two Disallow, a Harnessed Lightning, an Anticipate, and a bajillion mana.
In essence, my draw lines up perfectly against theirs. My game one win had less to do with my playskill and more to do with the fact that I got really, really lucky. Sideboarded games get much better for me; a turn-two Thing in the Ice flips in two turns, and Awoken Horror plus Wandering Fumarole end the game in two turns.
When determining who goes first, I prefer to use a six-sided die and have someone call even or odd. Even/odd is an old trick Wizards' R&D uses to save time when playtesting cards, and I figure if R&D does it, it's good enough for me.
My opponent pushed back on this, preferring to use a high roll with two six-sided die. When asked why, they claimed it was because "there's more variance." This is not true — more outcomes don't change the odds (unless you count ties, which even/odd is specifically invoked to avoid) — but what can I do here? In the interest of good manners, I agree to roll two six-sided die and promptly win the die roll.
To be perfectly clear: all you need from your mechanism of determining who goes first is a 50/50 chance at both outcomes. This is satisfied by an even/odd die roll and has the added benefit of eliminating ties. So the phrase "more variance" makes no sense.
As someone who struggled in high school math classes and whose grasp on concepts of statistics and probability can be most generously described as "intuitive," it feels bizarre to be on the outside looking in at faulty math premises. On the other hand, I'm sure my opponents were never fed faulty logic by someone with a PhD in applied mathematics since their teenage years, like I was.
Example: My friend Brad, the dude with the aforementioned PhD in mathstuffs, has known me since I was an overconfident teenager, and he reveled in feeding me faulty premises, knowing full well they were false and that my lack of curiosity meant that I'd accept them as true. The one that sticks out the most is when he told me that, when pile shuffling, seven piles is the optimal amount of piles. Years later, when I figured out that pile shuffling wasn't even randomization, I asked Brad what all that "optimal piles" crap was all about. He just laughed. Jerk.
Early on in game one, my Marvel opponent tips their hand by making a turn-three Whirler Virtuoso and immediately throwing six energy into it. Guess there's no Aetherworks Marvel there! I happen to have a Sweltering Suns and my opponent has no pressure past that. They miss land drops, and copies of Glimmer of Genius chain into each other while my opponent does nothing. My advantage in cards gets so absurd that I'm able to respond to a hardcast Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger by Disallow targeting the cast trigger and Essence Scatter targeting the creature.
Late in the game, they activate a Lumbering Falls into a billion open mana and attack. I cast Torrential Gearhulk to block and my opponent responds to its enters-the-battlefield trigger with Harnessed Lightning on my Torrential Gearhulk, dealing three damage. This leaves them with seven energy. Guess they have an Aetherworks Marvel now!
I resolve my Glimmer of Genius and look over at my life pad — I'm at 16 life.
I shrug and take three, down to 13.
In their end step, I cast another Torrential Gearhulk, flash back another Glimmer of Genius, and close the door completely.
Game two, they're stuck on three lands the entire time. Considering Temur Marvel boards into a more controlling version of itself, and control mirrors are typically decided by who makes all their land drops, the game was not competitive.
Game one, their sequence of plays (going first) is Attune with Aether into Longtusk Cub (which I kill with a Harnessed Lightning) into Lathnu Hellion into Lathnu Hellion. I die to this quickly!
HIM: "You're at TCGplayer, right?"
HIM: "Do you know Mike Egolf?"
We both laugh. Little does he know that I've written about Egolf before.
ME: "Yep, I know him. The Lathnu Hellions make more sense now." Egolf loves aggressive red decks. My opponent also had Azorius-themed sleeves on his red-green deck, which, with all due respect, is Peak Egolf. It is literally the most Egolf thing I can think of.
Game two, I draw two Thing in the Ice and my opponent dies easily.
HIM: "I hate losing to that card."
ME: " Thing in the Ice?"
HIM: "Yeah. I hate losing to it."
ME: "What do you think's worse to lose to: Thing in the Ice, or Lathnu Hellion?"
HIM: "Hm. Probably Lathnu Hellion, but it's close."
Game three, he mulligans to five. This is the hand I keep, but it's likely too bad:
The only things out of his deck that Magma Spray deals with are Voltaic Brawler and a Longtusk Cub that has no energy in the tank. Glimmer of Genius and Gearhulk are literally uncastable. I need early-game interaction to stay afloat — this hand is a mulligan, I think. I'm still not 100% sure.
His turn sequence (he's on the play) is turn-one Greenbelt Rampager, turn-two recast the same Greenbelt Rampager, turn-three Rhonas the Indomitable (which I Essence Scatter), turn-four Bristling Hydra, turn-five Glorybringer. It is a good mull to five, to be sure, but I should've mulliganned. One spell per turn is something this deck can deal with easily; I simply didn't give myself the best chance to win the game.
This match is a humdinger. Neither game is close. It seemed as though all of their cards messed me up; I lose game one to a combination of Rattlechains, Selfless Spirit, Spell Queller, and Negate. It's a miserable matchup for me. Game two is somehow worse; I die to double Masoleum Wanderer and get blown out by an Essence Flux on a Selfless Spirit in the meantime. I had seen the deck in passing all afternoon and was hoping to dodge it. My spells are so much more expensive than theirs; tapping six mana for a Torrential Gearhulk at any point is just asking to get dunked on. Here's how I'd probably sideboard against it in the future:
+2 Dragonmaster Outcast
+2 Essence Scatter
+4 Thing in the Ice
-1 Commit // Memory
2-2, probably out of contention
Between rounds, standings are posted. I have best breakers of all the players at 2-2, so if I win my match, I likely make top eight on breakers.
If W/U Spirits was one of the tier-two decks I have no game against, Mardu Vehicles represents the "real" deck that my deck struggles with the most.
Again, my opponent this round insists on using a two-d6 high roll to decide who goes first, again citing the "more variance" argument. Whatever.
Game one, I die very quickly, putting up no resistance.
The back two games work out a lot better, and are won by sideboard cards. Game two, I'm able to stabilize behind a Dragonmaster Outcast after casting both sideboard copies of Release the Gremlins, closing things out with a bunch of dragons. Game three, on the draw, I sideboard differently, cutting Dragonmaster Outcasts and bringing in Thing in the Ice, allowing me to bring Sweltering Suns back in without fear of it killing my own creatures. This pivot is quickly rendered irrelevant; my opponent's stuck on three lands the entire game and that's that.
I make the top eight on breakers, as expected. I'm the seventh seed.
Game one here goes a lot like game one of round five, but worse because I'm on the draw this time. They swarm me with undercosted creatures, and a Negate on a Gideon, Ally of Zendikar is a small consolation prize for losing the game in a landslide.
Game two almost looks like the second game in round five. I'm pinched on land while my opponent's totally flooded. In the midgame, my opponent's got two cards in hand and their only source of pressure's coming from two Thraben Inspector, so I cast Dragonmaster Outcast and say "go."
They cast Fatal Push, and I deadpan, "you weren't supposed to keep that card in," eliciting polite laughter from the other seven top eight competitors. I Negate the Fatal Push, forcing a mainphase Unlicensed Disintegration with no artifacts in play.
At four life, I finally decide to tap out of my hand of countermagic for a Torrential Gearhulk, to block. On their second mainphase, they cast a nonlethal Cut on my Torrential Gearhulk, with enough mana to Ribbons me for exactsies while I was tapped out.
The deck was fun to play — casting Pull from Tomorrow for crazy amounts in games you've already won feels great — but the Mardu Vehicles matchup is a legitimate issue. Ceremonious Rejection isn't good enough since it doesn't even answer Scrapheap Scrounger permanently. Blazing Volley is an interesting idea against the Veteran Motorist builds, but I'm not high on it. Finding the right mix of Negate and Essence Scatter is probably one of the keys to the matchup.
It was good to play a PPTQ again. For an FNM enthusiast like myself, PPTQs are pretty great, and a lot of fun. Are all LGSes created equal? Absolutely not, but PPTQs are a great way for FNM heroes to level up. If nothing else, they're a good excuse to hear about the topic of "more variance."
I have an RPTQ this Sunday. It's Amonkhet Sealed. Wish me luck, preferably in the form of two Glorybringers.