In case you've been offline in the last twenty-four hours, the Pauper Format Panel announced this Monday an update to the format's banned and restricted list - Aarakocra Sneak, Stirring Bard, Vicious Battlerager and Underdark Explorer are banned!
I'll leave the video here in case you want to watch it, and also because the ideas shared on it will be essential to building my perspective on the format and bans in this article.
Without further ado, let's get straight to the point.
To the Pauper Format Panel: Communication is essential
If you follow me on Twitter, you have probably seen me on more than one occasion criticizing some PFP members in relation to their posts on social networks to present their interpretations of the format and what postures and methods the community should take regarding Pauper — to the point of asking one of them "why waste time on Twitter posts instead of making an official announcement", to which I was answered that these posts represent the opinion of the member and not the view of the PFP as a whole. Which, although valid, is still an issue for a few reasons.
First, Twitter is a social network powered by engagement and discussion. It's designed to get people trading and rebutting each other's arguments to spend as much time there as possible — there are political science studies that point out that social polarization dramatically increased after the 'retweet' button was launched in 2011 — and by their nature to instigate discussion, most arguments are closer to sarcasm, irony and/or personal attacks rather than a real, tangible debate of the issues at hand.
So, when a member of a committee as important as the PFP brings this debate to the social networks, there is a lack of clarity in the available information caused by the limited number of words, and this will often lead to misinterpretation (or even intentional misleading) of the audience in relation to what was said. And it doesn't help a bit when some of these members' arguments are similar to the famous catchphrase get good, as it just demonstrates unnecessary arrogance.
I can easily imagine how exhausting being on the committee of a community as vocal and — given the competitive structure — as aggressive as Pauper must be. But when you're a part of what defines what should stay or leave the format, I suppose there's a decorum to maintain, even if to just avoid further backlash. That's why Twitter seems like the worst possible place to post your thoughts regarding the format and the work you do to regulate it.
"What do you suggest then?"
Exactly the kind of announcement made by Good Morning Magic: a clear audiovisual speech (and preferably with an alternative to reading), which demonstrates with an argumentative and analytical basis its points and its vision about Pauper in a unison and which manages to express the panorama they envision for the format — This should be more frequent.
By making these statements a common occurrence that happens once every X months (for example, from one Standard release to another), the Pauper Format Panel links to the community's incessant feedback while presenting the reasons why they don't think certain actions or bans are required. In addition to also ending the hate speech that "they don't care".
Communication is the most important part of Magic: The Gathering—in and out of the game—and understanding why something isn't banned is just as important as understanding the reasons that lead to a ban from another card or strategy. The PFP apparently has the autonomy to do so, and could organize and mobilize in a more uniform way to establish a clear and objective link with the community.
This sort of thing would be much better and more productive than words-limited posts by its members on a social network designed to trap us in an endless spiral of debates.
If one of the Panel members eventually reads this article, I hope you might consider this humble advice from a media student.
The bans' target was Turbo Initiative
As Gavin himself stated in the video, the reasoning they used to define which cards with Initiative should be banned was basically how easy it is to cast them too early in the game, like turn 1 or 2.
Therefore, all four-drops with this ability were banned, as well as Underdark Explorer as it is easier to cast through Dark Ritual, while the ones that remain - Goliath Paladin and Avenging Hunter - are less susceptible to this shell due to difficulty in accessing fast and explosive mana on turn 1 or 2 with its colors.
That is, they don't want to kill off the mechanic on Pauper, but they want to make it an attrition feature rather than a game state that wins on its own because it was cast too soon.
Of those that remain, the most dangerous is probably Avenging Hunter: it's reasonably costed in a color with easy access to mana acceleration, but whose ramps are permanent and timed rather than a sudden jump in the mana curve: Arbor Elf and Utopia Sprawl and/or Wild Growth will give you access to it on turn 3 at best, and open up a lot of space for opposing interaction — either by destroying the enchanted land with Cleansing Wildfire, or with Counterspell, or dealing with Arbor Elf, etc.
There is a lot of room for interaction if we elaborate on the strategies that Gavin proposes for Avenging Hunter. But what about non-traditional means, as was the case with Turbo Initiative?
With a more diverse availability of colors and having as their only four-drop an artifact that does nothing on its own, I suppose that Turbo Initiative is unable to operate with the same consistency as it now demands more manafixing than usual.
This is an easy thing to get around with Lotus Petal and Manamorphose, but the risk-reward ratio of resorting to three or four colors to abuse the mechanic consistently, since you need more than four copies of the enabler to be worth building a deck based on it, is so risky it seems like a bad idea.
What might interest me this first week will be attempts to mix Monarch with Initiative and see how far this can go. Conspiracy's mechanics are often best applied to reactive propositions and/or for those that establish a powerful board position to then get recurring value with an extra draw per turn, so trying a "Turbo Monarch" might be a horrendous option given that you'll have more difficulties keeping the crown and/or establishing an irreversible short-term advantage with it in that shell, but I suppose the next step of these abilities has something to do with trying to merge them on a single deck.
Nothing good will ever come from Rituals, but we shouldn't ban them
Magic: The Gathering has nearly thirty years of history, and a lot has happened in that time — even preventive bans like Memory Jar — and a hundred lessons were learned both in the competitive landscape and event organization, as well as in card designs.
One of those lessons is that free mana for a low cost is a problem — so there are no longer Rituals with the same standards as those that emerged in the game's first and halfway of the second decade.
If we look at more recent rituals, we see a significant cost increase and/or a limitation on the card type, or the amount of spells you can cast in the same turn.
And even in a case like Irencrag Feat, players are looking to use it for broken ends, like casting and activating Goblin Charbelcher in a single turn, or playing Muxus, Goblin Grandee as soon as on turn 3, as both spells usually win the game on their own.
So, when we talk about Pauper, which has access to some of Modern's banned Rituals, like Rite of Flame, as well as combo staples in Legacy like Dark Ritual and Lotus Petal, it's safe state that absolutely nothing good will be done with them in the format, just like in any competitive Metagame where they are legal — they will be present in archetypes like Storm, or in mechanics that win the game on their own as was the case with Turbo Initiative, or they will speed up mana for Infect if it ever becomes more consistent, and so on — simply nothing healthy will come from their existence in Pauper, and no fair strategy is interested in its use.
That said, I agree to avoid banning them yet. Unlike Gavin, not because I believe Dark Ritual and the like are an iconic piece of what makes the format what it is, but because outside those occasions normally created by new spells and/or broken mechanics, rituals are either bad or appear in unique and fun archetypes like Cycling Storm.
Depriving a portion of the combo-loving community of decks that aren't consistent enough today by banning their enablers to preserve cards from more recent releases that are the real problem and threat to the format isn't an admirable proposal to deal with an unbalanced Metagame — and yes, the same goes for the Bridges.
Affinity: There was a lack of clarity and data
It's easy to say that currently the most hated Pauper archetype is Affinity. Since Modern Horizons II came out, it has become the absolute best deck in the format, has endured two rounds of bans while still held its title as the best viable strategy in the Metagame despite a barrage of hate from the rest of the format, such as the inclusion of four copies of Dust to Dust + Hydroblast on Sideboards.
In summary, it is the best midrange in Pauper today and accumulates tons of Card Advantage for few mana, while establishing one of the best clocks, and all that coupled with a consistent manabase which allows it to play with three colors without suffering so much for this decision, allowing you to access the best draw in the format today (Deadly Dispute), the best removal (Galvanic Blast) and still work with a consistent Sideboard plan for each matchup in addition to taking out Aggro decks with Krark-Clan Shaman. Therefore, the community longs for a ban on what made Affinity what it is: the Bridges.
As mentioned a dozen times, Bridges give Affinity access to the perfect manabase while limiting the main means of interaction against it by being indestructible — there are no Gorilla Shaman or Shenanigans that can save us now, and the best options available currently are Dust to Dust and Revoke Existence, both intended to directly attack mana consistency as according to the community, other means of fighting it doesn't work.
Gavin mentions that they decided not to take any action against Affinity this time because, despite it being one of the most popular decks in Pauper, its winrate isn't out of step with other strategies in the Metagame and isn't much above 50% — and despite it might be because other players are adding too many hate pieces to their Sideboards, the same is true against many other top decks.
About Winrates and Metagame representation, I would very much like the Pauper Format Panel and especially Wizards of the Coast to be clearer about the numbers to then create a solid argument for how this is happening, and it becomes even more difficult to defend this stance when we have community members doing this analysis on Leagues and Challenges matches to capture those numbers.
It's been years that the Banned and Restricted announcements come with just a few paragraphs of ready-made text explaining the reasons for the bans and unbans rather than a full article with details and argumentative underpinnings — if you want an example of what a good announcement would look like and/or a report on ideal winrates, this January 2018 B&R for Standard is an exemplary work of argumentation about what should or shouldn't be banned so that there is no doubt about the logic they chose to follow.
For example, on our Pauper Metagame page, which only counts winrates from Challenges and of the tournaments on our events platform, Affinity appears with just over 10% representation and a winrate of 51.2% on the past six months. And if we delve deeper, we see that it seems to have a positive winrate against good part of the format, being exceptional and/or bad against few.
So, the first argument to not take action against the archetype seems solid, but a published analysis of the context they looked at and the numbers they present with an in-depth analysis would be preferable and would help us shed some light on what is working and what isn't against Affinity.
The second point is where things seem to be flawed.
While it is true that we usually have Pyroblast and Hydroblast present on our Sideboards for years, they are more comparable to Revoke Existence in flexibility than Dust to Dust: they have a specific target in mind, such as Faeries or Mono Red Blitz, but double or even triple in utility compared to other archetypes, and historically, it has always been that way.
Where exactly does Dust to Dust fit into? It is excellent against Affinity, relatively useful against Boros Synthesizer, and not worth the slot against Jeskai Wildfire (which might change thanks to Kenku Artificer).
Dust to Dust, Gorilla Shaman, Shenanigans and the like are very linear means that deal with one thing and only that thing - Artifacts - and therefore rarely appear as more than two copies on Sideboards unless the deck they are matched against is too prevalent, then resort to these hates for a certain period so that the deck's position drops, and the Metagame stabilizes again. With pre-MH2 Affinity, it was like that.
This hate category is closer to spells like Patrician's Scorn / Leave no Trace against Bogles, or Circle of Protection: Red against Burn: they are excellent in these specific games, they can be used at other times, but are too targeted against a particular archetype to be worth more than a slot or two on the Sideboard, let alone have room in the Maindeck in a healthy Metagame — something that happens with Dust to Dust, although its maindeck slots are usually on Boros Bully, which can turn them into discard fodder with Faithless Looting and Thrilling Discovery.
One way to interpret this is that Affinity is such a force in Pauper that we need linear answers in abundance to deal with it. Another way is to consider that players care so much about this archetype that they bet too much on targeted hate to have a decent matchup.
But at this point, more than a year after MH2, I think that if there were more efficient means to improve this matchup without having to resort to 4+ hate pieces, players would have already developed the Metagame to the point where this deck would become just another one among the main competitors, without the need for so many spells dedicated only to it.
That said, Monastery Swiftspear's downshift seems to have made some difference to Affinity's dominance in Pauper because it greatly increases the clock for strategies that seek to win by playing under, and archetypes like Rakdos Madness also have some success against it. Maybe there's a light at the end of the tunnel that doesn't involve more bans, but who knows?
It would still be preferable to understand how exactly the PFP believes Affinity should be dealt with, and/or what the data actually shows them about good and bad matchups for that archetype.
To the community: The Pauper you knew no longer exists
In closing this article, I'd like to comment on some of the "shared backlash" I've seen on Twitter and other social media regarding yesterday's bans and the PFP's thoughts on Affinity, Monarch and Monastery Swiftspear.
People have this habit of wanting to ban everything they don't like and/or that makes their favorite strategy unfeasible in tournaments.
I really believe that this is a long, serious, complex subject that deserves its own article explaining my point of view and what exactly this means for the format, but let's address it objectively here: Power creep happens, and whatever deck you miss playing, it won't come back anytime soon.
You can't expect to play Elves in a Fiery Cannonade world without Imperious Perfect. You can't expect to play Stompy in the same universe where Myr Enforcer and other low-cost drops with high power exist if there isn't an increased impact on your threats. You can't expect your linear pet deck to work in a value and interaction oriented Metagame. You can't expect Tron to come back to what it was because the Metagame has improved without it having easy access to any color.
Pauper has changed, and no matter how much you loved the format in 2016, 2018, or early 2020, it's gone. This is true for all competitive levels of Magic. And if you want to get back to playing that strategy you love so much, your best bet is to wait for future downshifts and new cards to power them up at some point.
I have a saying that goes, "We should accept things as they come, not the way we would like them to be. It saves you a lot of stress and disappointment." — maybe, one day, your Elves deck, or your Stompy, or until your Tron gets a new inclusion that makes it a great competitor in the Metagame again. But today, we see an entirely different Pauper from that time when your favorite archetype shone in tournaments, and that happens. Power creep is a reality in any game.
The same goes for Modern, Pioneer, Legacy and even Standard. Nothing in Magic is forever, and if you don't feel good about these changes, just don't play the format. There are thousands of amazing ways to play MTG, some of them not even going through tournaments and just having fun with your friends, so why cling to the format like you own it?
Things happen outside our existence all the time, and it's no different with Magic: The Gathering. Releases will keep coming, powerful new cards will be available, and looking at these things through nostalgia glasses isn't going to help anyone understand what's really going on and how fast the game is changing. And your only options are to accept things as they are even if it means you don't want to play Pauper or Magic anymore, or live in a denial that will only make you gradually more frustrated — There's no going back to a glorious time that exists within your mind.
The sooner we accept that this is the Pauper and Magic we know in 2022 and that it will continue to evolve and change with new cards in 2023, the better our judgment will be in assessing how healthy our relationship with the game is.
That's all for today.
Thanks for reading.