Wednesday, March 7, 2018

pauper: a format review

One of the never-ending questions about “wide-open” formats is whether they really are that open, or whether not enough good players have invested time into solving the format.

I remember the Standard formats that used Ravnica extremely fondly, especially Champions-Ravnica, because of the huge number of different decks, and the feeling like someone could brew up something crazy and new, and there was a decent chance it would be a viable deck. But what if the format just didn’t have the proper amount of tuning? Maybe a deck like Tron, Heartbeat, or Zoo should have dominated the format, but people didn’t realize it?

In the case of that format, it probably was just a good format: tons of pro players put in months testing and tuning, and Pro Tour Honolulu ended up with seven decks in the top eight (the only repeat was Owling Mine, of all things). But this sort of concern is a lot more plausible when it comes to smaller formats like Pauper, ones that don’t have Pro Tours or Grands Prix, and the pros who play the format usually just take a stock list that they think looks good and play some matches (maybe some tweaking here and there).

To be clear before anything else: Pauper is a good format. Making Pauper decks is the first time I’ve been truly inspired to brew up a series of decks in literally years. But part of the reason so many brews are even somewhat viable is that a good percentage of Pauper players are also playing weird brews instead of the top-tier decks in the format.

When I was first looking into really playing in a Pauper, the obvious choice was Elves. The deck was the entire reason for making this blog back in 2010, so it’s a deck I have a good amount of experience with. But I avoided it, because it’s a deck I’ve perhaps played too much, and because it’s already accepted as one of the best decks in the format, and I wanted to see if something new and unique was possible. So I brought a mono-blue control deck to the tournament and scrubbed out. I thought it was due to the deck being unplayably bad, but then the original creator of the deck absolutely stomped me with it, so really the issue is that I’m not a good player.

Then I went home, goldfished Elves like I did when I was a teenager, and went “oh.” It’s absolutely busted.

Elves is one of three decks, along with Delver and Tron, that impose the harshest constraints on other decks. (I almost called it Pauper’s tier one, but I looked it up and somehow Elves gets much less play online than it does on paper around me, and the inverse is true of Kuldotha Boros.) That is, it’s very difficult to build any sort of creature-based synergy deck that isn’t straight-up worse than Elves, just like it’s difficult to build any sort of aggro-control that outdoes Delver, or anything lategame-focused that stands up to Tron.

Additionally, any weird brew is almost certainly going to have an atrocious matchup with at least one of the three: too non-interactive, Elves runs you over. Too dependant on specific spells (eg any combo deck), Delver counters it and beats you down with their remarkably fast clock. Too slow of a clock, Tron assembles their pieces and is casting 15 mana worth of spells a turn while you have six. One of the things about the format that surprised me the most was the lack of any Rock-type deck, the one that plays some interactive spells, some undercosted guys, and 50/50s every matchup. But the nature of the format is to have many powerful linear decks that interact on different axes, so it’s nearly impossible to have one plan to disrupt a wide array of them. Plus, there don’t exist the generally good, non-synergistic undercosted guys like other formats. If you want a 3/3 for two or a 4/4 for three, you have to put in some effort.

While there’s certainly tons of stuff to brew around in Pauper, the format is defined by a key thing it lacks: good mana. There are no painlands, and no viable alternative way to have a dual-colored land that can tap for mana the turn you play it. The closest is Ash Barrens (as of this writing, before the release of Masters 25, a frustratingly expensive “common”) which can make colored mana the turn you use it, but only if you have an extra mana available.

What bothers me about Pauper’s mana isn’t that it’s bad, exactly; it’s that it affects aggro decks way more than it affects control ones. Tron gets to be five color while still playing twelve or more lands incapable of tapping for colored mana, because it can play a dozen ETB tapped lands and some mana-fixing artifacts. Dual- or tri-colored control is almost trivial to build a manabase for, but anything aggressive kneecaps itself in the attempt. There are so many decks that just don’t get to exist because the concept mandates it be both multicolored and aggressive. Powerful cards like Qasali Pridemage and Putrid Leech deserve to be Pauper all-stars, and they just can’t be.

This is most obvious when looking at the two variants on Pauper’s most popular deck, Delver. The mono-blue version is worse in almost every way, other than getting to play Spire Golem (and often less than four)... but it has more consistent mana than its more interactive variant, UR Delver. With four Ash Barrens and a couple Terramorphic Expanse, it accepts that it’ll get to cast its Bolts and Skreds late, if at all.

Arguably, that’s the sort of trade-off that should be necessary to play powerful, low-mana-cost multicolored decks like that. But Delver is practically the only deck that gets to have both, because playsets of both Ponder and Preordain mean that your hands are several times more consistent than their opponents’.

Here’s my big concern with Pauper as a format, if its popularity not only keeps increasing, but tournaments and prizes get larger: UR Delver is just the best deck. I don’t mean that it’s necessarily the one that’s most likely to have the highest win percentage at my local card shop, but that in the hands of pro-quality players, it probably doesn’t actually have bad matchups. Ponder and Preordain are some of the most skill-testing cards ever made, and many players without top-tier skills are going to throw it away on the first turn as a spell that draws a card for U. I’m not smugly saying that everyone other than me is bad at those cards; I’m definitely even worse than the average Pauper Delver player. But I know that better play is possible. A deck that has tools to deal with just about anything, and has the card selection to see so much of its deck, gets better so much more in the hands of top-tier players than other decks.

This is the classic casual vs competitive dilemma that any game somewhat balanced around competitive play has to deal with. In League of Legends, it frustrates players when they want to play something like Rengar or Kalista, and because they’re so strong in the hands of professionals, they have to be tuned to a level where they’re nearly unplayable for the average player.

If Pauper stays at the level of focus it’s currently getting, then it’s pretty much perfect. It’s fun to create new stuff in, going to a tournament shows a huge diversity of decks and styles, and the games are interactive. But with more serious attention, those metagame-defining decks would be played by a larger percentage of people, and all the weird brews would get crushed in their first two matches playing against Delver. In a sufficiently developed metagame, Delver itself might need a ban; it’s a testament to the deck’s power that this would only somewhat weaken it, not actually kill it. It’s thought of as a bad card in plenty of matchups anyway.

Speaking of bannings, the banned list compared to a format like Modern seems relatively restrained. All of the banned cards are more than justified, with a couple outrageous combo decks like Infect and Storm needing to get kicked out of the format. (I do find it funny that they banned the best storm card, then that wasn’t enough, so the second-best storm card, then the third-best storm card, the previously-obscure Temporal Fissure. Storm is strong.) I’m honestly worried that, with additional attention from Wizards, they might feel the need to ban a card from like five different decks in a way that lowers the general power level of the format.

My favorite thing about Pauper is the most obvious: it’s cheap! This affects my decisions and my experimentation more than I thought it would. In the past, building decks for other Constructed formats, if you build a deck for hundreds of dollars, you’re kinda stuck with it. It’s not trivial to trade an entire deck for another one, or to just abandon it and start over if the metagame shifts. This made me a lot more hesitant to build decks, or even attempt brewing up new things. In Pauper, I had an idea for a UG Madness deck, so I just… bought it (well, almost all of it). A couple proxies, and I had a deck to play against a gauntlet. If I want to practice playing against Tron, I can just get the actual deck. If a friend needs a deck, or wants to try something different, I have two or three extras. It’s wonderful.

I’ve talked before about how ridiculously skewed our perceptions of value in games are as Magic players, compared to other games or hobbies. Paying $60 for one deck instead of $1000 is shocking, despite the fact that entire games sell for way less than $60.

It still saddens me that Magic is so finance-oriented that even the all-common format is still somewhat defined by its prices. This is my idealism shining through, but I’d like to see attempts at decommodifying large swaths of the format. Many of the most important cards are so, well, common that stores or players could keep a dozen decks on hand for whoever wanted to show up and use one.

If you’re reading this and somewhat thinking about trying Pauper: you should try Pauper. It’s different here in Seattle, where there are multiple places with large Pauper tournaments on a regular basis, but if a store near you has any sort of Pauper thing going, it’s well worth your time to play at least a couple times. It’s not a perfect format, but it’s the most fun I’ve had with Constructed Magic in many years.


Post a Comment