Pauper: Where is the ban ?

Magic: the Gathering

Competitive

Pauper: Where is the ban ?

With six weeks since the release of Modern Horizons II, Pauper finds itself absolutely polarized between two decks, and this leads the community to a single question: Where is the ban?

By Romeu, 07/18/21, translated by Romeu, with help from our readers

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Pauper has been in a shambles for the past six weeks, possibly experiencing the worst and most polarized Metagame the format has faced in years. After these arduous six weeks, in recent days we have seen more and more repercussions from the community, a question was repeated several times on social media:

Where is the ban?!

In this article, I would like to spend my time trying to elucidate a bit what is happening with the format today, analyze the solutions and the directions that could be taken, why Wizards is taking so long to present the solution to the problem, and what can (or cannot) be done by the community.

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The Problem

Modern Horizons II brought several interesting cards with a higher power level to the universe of competitive formats, cards that became indispensable for them in some way. Today, it's pretty hard to imagine a Legacy Delver deck without Ragavan, Nimble Pilferer or a Modern Hammer Time without Urza's Saga or a black deck without Dauthi Voidwalker, these cards have become essential for the competitive scenario of the game. As a player of the most diverse formats and as a content creator, I confess that Modern Horizons II was, so far, the most exciting set that came out in 2021, and a wise and very well applied choice by the company to create a set that could impact all eternal formats, while keeping its poster format, Standard, healthy and free of significantly overwhelming strategies. Playing with the new cards, writing about them, doing analysis of an entirely new Metagame, seeing how each format fits and which decks come up with the latest additions to this set was very exciting and overall despite the controversies surrounding Ragavan, Nimble Pilferer and Urza's Saga in Legacy or the heated debate about Mishra's Bauble becoming an even more efficient card with MH2, these formats seem to adapt while receiving the necessary push to make this product a bestseller and a must-have for any player of eternal formats. But unfortunately, Modern Horizons II's impact has been disastrous for Pauper, and the villains behind the format's miserable state today have a name:
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Ever since the card was revealed in spoiler season, everyone knew Chatterstorm would be a problem in Pauper because the mechanics have serious bad precedents in the format to the point that the other cards with Storm that can win the game by itself have been banned for years. As I mentioned in this article, the issue with Chatterstorm is that the format has all the means necessary to make it and any other Storm spells work effectively, with consistency and speed to the point where we see games ending in turn 2. If that wasn't enough, Storm decks are very difficult decks to interact with in Pauper, unless you're playing with Blue-Based decks or Black-Based decks with dedicated slots, any other deck has a better option to simply ignore what Storm is doing and trying to win through the race. However, even if you manage to respond to the first Chatterstorm with Echoing Decay or any other spell, the deck still manages to maintain an absurdly high consistency level in closing the combo over and over again using Galvanic Relay, which allows the deck to essentially “draws” a card the next turn for every spell it casts, allowing it to dig extremely deep and have enough elements to make a second or even a third wave of squirrels.
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On the other side, we have Affinity. Affinity has essentially been present since the inception of Pauper, and has always been a competitor in the format. However, its biggest weakness has always been that playing Affinity was often like playing Russian roulette. The deck contained an inconsistent manabase, which was heavily dependent on cards such as Prophetic Prism and Chromatic Star to function at its best, creating a deck that had the ability to play very fast and set a lot of pressure too early, but it suffered from its inconsistency and often lost “for free” merely because the deck didn't work the way it should.

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In addition, Affinity operated in Pauper similarly to a deck like Modern's Dredge, as a tactic that significantly preyed on the lack of preparation in the opponents' lists to deal with it. So, when opponents started playing with more dedicated sideboards like Shenanigans and Gorilla Shaman, the deck was kept in check because of its extremely high vulnerability to efficient hates. With Modern Horizons II, the archetype gained the new dual artifact lands, lands that allow the deck to build its manabase efficiently and, as a bonus, are indestructible, thus invalidating the main strategy to defeat the archetype, which was by attacking its lands with Gorilla Shaman. In addition, the archetype has gained Sojourner's Companion, an improved version of Myr Enforcer that still allows the deck to

also

fix its manabase if necessary. The consequence of including these cards in the format was to transform Affinity into an extremely consistent, redundant deck, which quickly creates a board position superior to any other deck and has several elements that essentially “cheat” in the game with their reduced mana costs, in addition to also have an efficient combo-kill using Atog + Fling or Temur Battle Rage, cards that are hardly useless separately because they interact very well with the rest of the deck.

The Facts

Magic is a game with many personal opinions, everyone has a particular and ideal vision of their favorite format, what cards should be used or not, what should be banned, etc. For example, I'm a person who particularly believes that Pauper, in its pre-MH2 state, needed some significant fixes in several aspects to make the format not so polarized over obvious grind mechanics like Monarch and Bonder's Ornament, but that was an opinion based on my particular dislike of a format where games are unilaterally decided by whoever accumulates the most Card Advantage, creating tiresome states for both players. Likewise, I love playing explosive and/or broken decks that have a “free-win” button or an abundance of interactions that demand high performance with the list to be effective. No wonder some of my favorite Pauper decks include Izzet Drake, Dimir Delver and Jeskai Astrolabe. I've mostly played Storm in the events I played Pauper for the past 47 days, and the “puzzle” elements that the deck offers and the math needed to successively combo with it, knowing when to extend with a Galvanic Relay or not, among other things, are elements that fascinate me in a deck. But it's not because I like playing an archetype or because I don't like the format in a specific way that means my opinion is a fact. So, let's present the facts that prove the problem, and for that, I'll be using the statistics presented by the website Mind Gears regarding the Pauper Challenges of June 2021 :
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Together, Affinity and Storm average 35% of the June's Challenges Metagame, with an average winrate of 53 to 55%, followed by Dimir Faeries and Dimir Delver, with 20% of the Metagame and a 52% winrate . The other decks appear in a significantly smaller amount, essentially making Pauper a 3-archetype format, with other decks occasionally appearing in the Top 32 or Top 8 of the events, but in no significant numbers. Now, take a look at the Metagame of one of the most important events that took place in June: The ManaTraders Series.
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The event registered a Metagame where 65% of the format was composed of one of the two archetypes. And if we just look at the Top 32 of the Challenges, the story isn't much different. Below (written, since I'm not good at producing graphics) the percentage of both archetypes in the Top 32 of the Challenges since the launch of Modern Horizons II:

June 12

Affinity: 21.88% Storm: 9.38% Boros Bully: 15.62% Dimir Faeries: 15.62% Others: 37.48%

June 13:

Affinity: 28.12% Storm: 12.50% Dimir Faeries: 15.62% Jund Cascade: 9.38% Others: 34.35%

June 19:

Affinity: 37.50% Storm: 25.00% Dimir Delver: 15.62% Grixis Cacade: 9.38% Others: 12.48%

June 20th:

Affinity: 31.25% Storm: 31.25% Dimir Delver: 15.62% Others: 21.85%

June 26:

Affinity: 40.62% Storm: 25.00% Dimir Delver + Dimir Faeries: 21.88% Others: 12.49%

June 27:

Affinity: 9.38% Storm: 28.12% Dimir Delver: 21.88% Others: 40.58%

July 3rd:

Affinity: 28.12% Storm: 21.88% Dimir Delver + Dimir Faeries: 15.63% Jeskai Ephemerate + Jeskai Metalcraft: 12.50% Others: 21.86%

4th of July:

Affinity: 31.25% Storm: 28.12% Burn: 9.38% Others: 31.23%

July 10:

Affinity: 34.38% Storm: 18.75% Tron: 9.38% Dimir Delver + Dimir Faeries: 9.38%

July 11:

Affinity: 25.00% Storm: 31.25% Dimir Faeries + Dimir Delver: 12.50% Tron: 9.38% Others: 12.50% What we see is that, except for the first week, and an event where Affinity was down or not doing impressive results, these two archetypes together make up

over 50%

of the Top 32 Challenges consistently, while the only deck that can consistently compete against them are the Dimir decks, mainly because they include great maindeck responses against Storm like Echoing Decay and Echoing Truth, and good removals against Affinity like Snuff Out and Cast Down. Other decks manage to show up in a consistent amount, but definitely not in the same proportion as these three archetypes and, most importantly, as Affinity and Storm do. As a comparison, when Peregrine Drake was banned from the format on November 16, 2016, the archetype was making up about 22% of the Metagame. And while none of the decks have exactly this number, they don't show a significant difference, as Affinity makes up an average of 19.5% of the format's overall Metagame, and Storm an average of 16.5%. With two decks making up over 35% of the overall Metagame and over 50% of the Top 32 of virtually all Challenges, I think it's obvious to conclude that the format is broken, polarized and defined by two decks, with a third having some success to answer both, while the others struggle to have some position in Pauper.

The Solution

The harsh and cruel reality is that there is only one way to solve this problem:

Ban

. I'm a person who often advocates against bans, mainly because I believe the Magic community has gotten used to more frequent banning and is now looking to ban anything they dislike. Most of the community did not understand exactly how the nature of the banlist being a regulatory tool works these days, so I always try to stay at the forefront of “avoiding unnecessary bans” until it is factually and statistically proven that the cards/decks in question are problematic for the format. However, given the facts presented above, it is undeniable that Storm and Affinity need to be weakened in some way, and the only viable way to do this is to ban cards from both decks.

Storm

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In Storm's case, the choice is obvious: Chatterstorm needs to be banned. There's no way to weaken the archetype without banning five or more cards that make up the deck, cards that would pay the price for another newer card that simply should never have turned out as a common to begin with.

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It's already been proven that Pauper has a too efficient a base for the archetype while having little or no way for decks to respond to Storm in time, as it is a fast, consistent, and redundant deck most of the time. With the vast majority of decks failing to respond in time and needing to bet on a plan to try and win the game before the opponent, it is clear that Chatterstorm or any other Storm card that can win the game alone should not exist in the format.
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Although it's not a card that wins the game alone, it's possible that banning Galvanic Relay is a possibility, but I would never choose to ban it instead of Chatterstorm. Galvanic Relay is essentially a powerful card advantage engine for decks that can play multiple spells in a single turn for a very low cost, and this can create dangerous situations where other decks abuse the card to generate an absurd amount of value in a single turn. On the other hand, Galvanic Relay would enable other “Storm” decks that would possibly not be as overwhelming as the Chatterstorm decks because they are easier to respond universally, like decks using Serpentine Curve, Kiln Fiend or Firebrand Archer.

Affinity

The case of Affinity is much more sensitive and complicated, as its predominance is not just because of a card, but a complete set that makes the deck a real machine to win games that often seems to have become unfair to play against, as its position will always be superior to any other aggressive deck of the format, and its advantage card and combo lines give the archetype too many angles to attack.
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Let's start with Sojourner's Companion. If this card is banned, Affinity loses the redundancy of having eight 4/4 creatures that can enter the game for free, this would cause the deck to lose some of its explosive turns, players would substitute Sojourner's Companion with other options like the return of Frogmite, Etherium Spinner, or Gearseeker Serpent, or even some other lesser used card like Somber Hoverguard. The deck would be less explosive, but it would still retain all of its consistency and would only need a few changes to continue to dominate the Metagame.
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What if we ban the artifact duals, or at least Silverbluff Bridge? If the duals were banned, other decks would be harmed. We've seen lists using these lands to create some interactions with Cleansing Wildfire and Geomancer's Gambit, making them some of the most efficient ramps in the format and giving great maindeck utilities for cards that are great answers for Big Mana decks like Tron, or decks that use Utopia Sprawl. If we ban only Silverbluff Bridge, the archetype is easy to splash other colors, and can only replace the blue and red land with a number of lands of other color combinations to sustain a more efficient splash. So, maybe it's time to look at some older cards or specific card combinations?
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Atog is a card that has been present in the archetype forever and therefore shouldn't be a problem now, right? Wrong. Atog is a card that gives Affinity the opportunity to have its "free-win" button at absolutely different points in the game, and it's a threat that you need to respect and need to respond to as soon as it hits board, or it can win the game alone when you don't interact with it, and its combo with Fling or Temur Battle Rage allows the deck to come back from various unfavorable game situations and create a frustrating feeling for the opponent, since with the right number of artifacts on the board (and Affinity is a deck that obviously can do this in just a few turns), this combo works like a Splinter Twin.

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Obviously, it wouldn't do to think about banning Fling or Temur Battle Rage, as there are cards with similar, or even equal, functions in the format. Finally, an important point to note is that, in more traditional versions of the deck (Izzet), the game plan promoted by an Atog without Fling is significantly counterproductive to what the rest of the deck tries to do: you want to increase the number of artifacts on the board to have more interactions and ways to cast your spells for free, and Atog, outside the combo, technically tells you to do the opposite, and use your artifacts as resources. The same claim cannot be made for Grixis Affinity, as it takes advantage of Atog's interaction with Disciple of the Vault to gain more reach in the game, as well as preying on the mirror match. Therefore, banning Atog is a viable option, as it would remove from the deck the possibility of a combo that wins the game on its own, often without considering the game's situation or the advantage the opponent might have against you.
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I've seen some players mention the possibility of banning Thoughtcast to remove its constant Card Advantage stream, as the card operates as a pseudo Treasure Cruise for the archetype. While the idea sounds interesting, and I could see Thoughtcast being banned to weaken Affinity, I don't think just Thoughtcast would be enough to weaken the archetype, as the deck could use One of Mind to keep the cards flowing or Preordain to improve consistency.
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This would be an interesting option, since you take away from the archetype its free-win button and its advantage card flow, but still keep it in its consistency of having explosive games with multiple 4/4 creatures, which in a way standardizes the way you need to deal with the archetype and would open up the possibility for decks to use specific sideboards efficiently as the deck would now only have one viable angle of attack (or two, if you still use Disciple of the Vault and Makeshift Munnitions), and fewer opportunities to recover. What's not good about this angle? I could easily see Affinity maintaining an efficient game plan with lots of free spells, and the deck would continue to create situations where you play multiples 4/4 for little or no mana, making it even an Aggro deck that stands above the rest present in the format.
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This would be a more viable option, taking away from Affinity its main free spells and the cards that make the deck so explosive is an option to make up for the added consistency the deck received with Modern Horizons II. This would force Affinity to reinvent itself, needing to invest real mana in its most impactful cards, significantly reducing its speed and forcing the deck to play according to the rules of the game. Of course, the deck would still have cards like Frogmite, Somber Hoverguard, Gearseeker Serpent, and Steelfin Whale, with a significant portion of these cards not being artifacts, which means that they wouldn't interact as well with each other as Myr Enforcer and Sojourner's Companion do, significantly delaying the deck's game plan.
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Another decision that would potentially remove the speed with which Affinity operates would be to ban the original artifact lands, similar to what happened in Modern in its conception.

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Forcing Affinity decks to play only tapped lands would significantly reduce their explosive plays, to the point of perhaps making the archetype absolutely unplayable, as you would need to play with a manabase that technically works like a bunch of Guildgates, relying only on Darksteel Citadel as a source of untapped mana. This option is, for me, the most extreme measure and possibly would take the archetype to the confines of the Tier 2 or Tier 3, as it would become too slow to play well against the Midranges and Big Mana decks of the format, while making room for other decks to interact much better against it, as well as possibly becoming too slow to play against other decks like Stompy.

What should be banned

Taking all these options into account, considering the current state of the format, these would be the changes I believe Wizards should make:

Banned

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I believe the ban on Chatterstorm is obvious. The card is too powerful for the format, Pauper doesn't have the means to handle winconditions with Storm. We don't have cards to efficiently delay this deck's game plan, and by this point the format is in too miserable a state to expect a downshift from Vryn's Wingmare, Deafening Silence or other cards that delay its game plan. (If we were to wait, we already awaited the release of Adventures in the Forgotten Realms) As explained, the case of Affinity is more delicate because it is an archetype that has gained an absurd consistency, and it is a deck present in the format for so long that it would be shameful to simply kill it, but it is also necessary to remove parts of the archetype that are important enough to weaken it and slow it down, and in this case, I believe that removing its explosive and consistent starts is the best angle to attack Affinity without completely damaging it, while also not harming other archetypes by removing cards that have good interactions in other decks, such as artifact lands.

The Watchlist

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While my opinion of what should be banned includes only three cards, there are two cards that, I believe, could also be banned and/or that Wizards should keep an eye out after the first ban. Players will definitely try to find ways to break Galvanic Relay, and I think it might be interesting to see them try, as cards that can be abused with it are easier to respond to than Chatterstorm. Atog is still an efficient combo-kill and creates for Affinity a play option that can be extremely frustrating to your opponents and forces them to over-respect the creature, a play style that Wizards has definitely been looking to avoid in recent years.
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One point that became clear in this period is that the Blue-Based decks, especially the Dimir decks were the only archetype that managed to maintain good numbers within this consistently polarized Metagame. This has to do with the fact that this color combination includes some of the best responses to deal with both strategies, but Dimir Faeries was already the format's most prevalent deck before the release of Modern Horizons II, and maybe it's a good time to consider whether the archetype is also a step above other decks. Personally, I don't think so, but I've seen players arguing about this point, so let's elaborate on them a little. Snuff Out has been mentioned because it's a free spell that invalidates virtually any creature in the format, offers a significant advantage to decks that can use it, and the 4 life price isn't usually an issue when you're responding to a Vines of Vastwood, killing a Myr Enforcer or Annoyed Altisaur, or responding to a Spellstutter Sprite trigger, etc.

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Spellstutter Sprite is the card with the highest potential for abusive effects in the Faeries deck, and a card that particularly offers too much value for such a low cost. She is, at the very least, a Snapcaster Mage with a Mental Misstep attached and only gets better when your board position improves. When Pauper was a more low-curve intensive format and Cascade decks didn't exist, casting a Spellstutter Sprite seemed almost unfair when you were countering a Vines of Vastwood, a Delver of Secrets or any other spell of mana cost 1. Today, the format's curve has gone up, which presents itself as an important counterpoint to Spellstutter Sprite. There are cards that are on my personal watch list, like Bonder's Ornament, but I think it's imperative to see how the format would behave after the first bans before we aim our weapons at the next target.

Why is taking so long?

This is the question many have been asking for some time: Why is it taking so long for Wizards to act and ban what needs to be banned? With the company taking quick, almost immediate action on formats like Historic (where it took less than a week to ban Time Warp when the archetype became the format's best deck, and two weeks to ban Thassa's Oracle) and Standard 2022, where it took exactly six days to ban The Book of Exalted Deeds, we are left wondering why the company hasn't moved on Pauper in six weeks of a format that's obviously broken and polarized. At this point, we would have expected at least Chatterstorm to be banned, right? Well, not exactly. The first thing to consider is that both bans directly affect only Magic Arena decks and formats, without necessarily affecting IRL competitive formats or Magic Online formats as a whole, and therefore they are artificial bans. That is, the banning of these cards in Historic or Standard 2022 do not directly affect the formats of the real world and do not directly affect the sale of the product or the economy of the game itself, in addition to being Magic Arena poster formats, the platform that Wizards has sought to promote ever since. Another point to consider is that recurring banned and restricted announcements are a bad image for the company, as a ban announcement, especially in a physical format, resonates much more on the Internet than a ban in Historic. Yes, I agree that keeping a format withering for six weeks when something is already clearly breaking it and making it less fun for the community is a pretty bad decision for the players and the Pauper community, but announcing so soon the ban of a card from a “premium” product like Modern Horizons II is a commercially bad decision. As an example, Wizards took over two months to ban Hogaak, Arisen Necropolis from Modern, and Hogaak's situation was significantly worse for Modern than the situation we see with Pauper today. In addition, the company was never very agile in banning cards from Pauper: The card that remained in the format for less time was Fall from Favor, which remained in for just over two months until it was banned nine days earlier of a large tournament, the Magic Online Qualifier, which would have several professional players playing the format for a spot in the Mythic Championship. Other bans took longer: Arcum's Astrolabe took over three months, the famous Blue Munday, which was officially occasioned by the release of Foil on Ultimate Masters, took about five months, Peregrine Drake also took five months, and was banned via an emergency announcement.

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So, what's actually happening is not that, by standards, Wizards is taking a long time to act, but that two things are happening at the same time: 1) The Metagame is so obviously broken, so polarized and so disgusting to play for most players that we can't understand why Wizards is taking so long to at least ban Chatterstorm, a card that would obviously break the format from the moment it was revealed. 2) Meanwhile, we see Wizards take quick and assertive actions in other formats, especially in Magic Arena, which brings us enormous frustration and a feeling of abandonment towards Pauper at a time when it is in the worst state we have witnessed in recent years, and the worst state it's been in for many players. So, although we are within common timing for a format like Pauper to receive a banned or restricted update, this combination of factors creates in us the desperate feeling of urgency so that we can enjoy a healthy format again. And I'm not trying to take away the legitimacy of these feelings and this collective force so that actions can be taken as soon as possible, as it has become clear in these six weeks that there is no other solution to deal with the format

on this particular occasion

. I'm just presenting that the timing is still within what we usually see for the format in recent times. Which, unfortunately, may mean that we will have to wait a few more weeks, or even months, to have a Pauper that can be fruitful, healthy, and fun for the community.

What can we do about it?

The truth is, as a community, although we are large, we are powerless. And this has nothing to do with the format, it's a fact that is presented to us all the time, even to professional players. As I mentioned in this last year's article, we can have a voice in the community, but it is Wizards that makes the final decision, our reach and power over the decisions the company makes is very limited and too little influential. What we are experiencing today is a situation similar to what Pioneer went through last year, where the format went from January to August living a fully polarized Metagame, composed of three decks on top of the format and making thousands of strategies unfeasible, while the games became frustrating for players because the opponent often won with a combination of cards that didn't care about the game state and which operated as a "free-win". It took all this time

despite

constant requests from the community to fix the format,

although

the Challenges weren't getting enough quorum. And the same could easily happen with Pauper. Perhaps, we could take Pioneer as a lesson, and play fewer Challenges, play fewer Leagues, take actions that openly demonstrate our dissatisfaction with the current state of Pauper and, who knows, make this a request to speed things up to fix the format as soon as possible. However, this tactic doesn't seem like an effective option to me, and it even seems much more harmful for the format than for Wizards. Today, the best attitude I can think of is to talk about it openly, demand it on social media, in articles, in lives and wherever else any action is taken towards Pauper. I'm sorry, I would like to present more practical and effective solutions, but I have a sense of our place in the game, I have a notion that we are a screw in a large gear that runs very well with or without us, it's no use promoting boycotts or anything else similar attitude because our power over the game and the decisions made relating to it are minimal.

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The final decision is not and will never be ours. And it's not even of those who behave like “the voice of the format” either.

Conclusion

That was my analysis of the current state of Pauper, and the crisis generated in the competitive scenario by the inclusion of cards that would obviously break the format. Just to be clear, I admire the courage it takes to push the boundaries. I greatly admire the courage it takes to break taboos and not allow everything to be written in stone. The inclusion of Chatterstorm was, though probably unintended for Pauper, a brave move by Wizards for the format. The inclusion of artifact dual lands in Modern Horizons II was a gigantic taboo break with Modern itself, where the original artifact lands are banned. I really believe that this kind of attitude and the limits to be pushed in game development to widen the space for creation and innovation is great, and I highly encourage the idea that more bold steps in card design are taken. But while I encourage this attitude, I also demand that these decisions are monitored and that, when they go wrong, assertive and efficient actions are taken quickly when statistics and data show that something is really wrong. A card was banned this week, being six days old, from a Magic Arena format for creating a lock-combo that gave the opponent a negative feeling. It was the right decision (kind of, given Standard 2022 is a Bo1 format). But waiting six weeks, or more, with a format having 50% of the Metagame in the competitive landscape composed exclusively of two decks, is a very wrong decision. And despite having presented here that this timing is natural and that there are reasons for it, I must ask at the end of this article:

Where is the Ban?

Thanks for reading.
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Romeu

Writer and translator for Cards Realm. Plays virtually Magic: The Gathering competitive formats. Pauper Masters' Organizer.

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