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By: SteveJeltz, Rev. David Wright
Jun 27 2017 12:00pm
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Like many a magic geek, my favorite format is actually not Pauper, or any constructed format, but Limited. I love good old booster draft and sealed deck and cube, especially when MTGO offers us the flavor-of-the-month flashback and drafts like last year’s “Year of Modern Flashbacks” and most recently the special “Battle of the Planes” sealed deck that we got to experience last week as part of MTGO’s 15th birthday bash. 

But not all limited formats are great. Some formats feature too many busted rares like Fate Reforged-Khans-Khans. Formats that suffer from this rare-heavy influence are often called “Prince” formats since their power is concentrated at the top. Still other formats suffer from lack of color balance, such as triple Battle for Zendikar’s green problem. Others fail the groan test for a lack of good removal such as Avacyn Restored.

But have you ever seen a format that was busted by Commons?

As Pauper players, we’re used to having more powerful cards than players of other formats would realize. I personally think Pauper is closer to Legacy than it is to Standard or even Modern.

Where did these busted Commons come from and what did they look like in the sets where they made their common run?

Today we're going to look at five pre-modern sets whose best Commons were so busted that they warped the whole environment around them.

1.Alpha / Beta / Unlimited

Lightning Bolt Fireball Disintegrate


What if I told you that there was a common removal spell in your next limited format that traded evenly or up on mana with every single creature in the entire format and had the added utility of occasionally being a win condition? Now what if I told you that there were actually three of these spells in the set. And that they were all in the same color. Does that sound balanced to you?

I will admit that ABU limited mostly exists solely in the realm of simulation. These sets released long before Wizards figured out how to seed booster drafting, and the cards pool is so scarce that many of us have never even owned an ABU card. I used to play ABU sealed deck on the old Microprose Magic: The Gathering computer game, the one better known today by the plane it inspired, “Shandalar”. The game, which you can still find and download today as abandonware, had an additional feature where you could build and battle with sealed decks made up of cards from the original sets.

In Alpha / Beta / Unlimited sealed deck, if you open a red X spell or a Lightning Bolt, you as a player do everything you can to fit it into your deck, even if it means splashing off 2-3 mountains. These cards are so much more powerful that the common creatures in the set, most of which are Hill Giants and Craw Wurms. These three cards are so much more powerful than any other common removal spell in the original set, it's silly. Only Terror comes close and that has color restrictions. Yes, you might get lucky and find a Control Magic, Icy Manipulator or a Swords to Plowshares at uncommon, but among Commons, I am always glad to have a spell that trades with your three-drop on my turn three scaling up to hit your turn eight bomb flier in my turn eight. Sure makes you appreciate Force of Nature, doesn't it!

In the Pauper format, Fireball and Disintegrate have been largely supplanted by another spell we’ll see later on this list as the X spell of choice to be a big board sweeper or dual win condition in big mana decks.

Then there is Lightning Bolt. What has that card done? Well it's the most commonly played card to this day in two formats, Pauper and Modern. It is the gold standard for judging cost efficiency not only for removal spells but also whether or not creatures are playable in a format. It remains to this day a format warping card in any limited or constructed format in which it's legal or printed. So much so that in Hour of Devastation we have a functional reprint of Lightning Bolt costed not a R or even 1R such as we saw in the more balanced Searing Spear and Lightning Strike but now pushed all the way up to 2R! If there has ever been a common that has defined a format that card is Lightning Bolt.

2. Fallen Empires

Order Of The Ebon Hand Hymn To Tourach Icatian Javelineers

Like Alpha / Beta / Unlimited, this set predates Wizards development of an intentional limited environment. Mark Rosewater has spoken often about the first organized sealed deck tournaments, highlighting the Ice Age prerelease as the first large scale limited tournament of its kind. Later, Mirage block was the first sets developed with limited play actually in mind.

Have you ever tried to draft Fallen Empires? It's kind of a train wreck. There's a lack of evasion, a lack of good removal, and only a few board stall breaking bombs, albeit overcosted ones with significant drawbacks like Deep Spawn and Ebon Praetor.

But the most glaring problem with the set as a possible limited environment is the color imbalance. Yes, you can make a Thallid salad, but it is glacially slow and the payoff cards much weaker than in Time Spiral or Modern Masters. Blue is unplayable, and red isn't much better.

That leaves you only two options: black or white. The four cards I showed as commons demonstrate just how broken and dominant these colors are with these cards over anything else you can be doing. The pump knights are the best common creatures and are unmatched in combat, save that Order of Leitbur has one weak spot to the single javelin shot of its smaller white friend. Order of the Ebon Hand is immune to even that!

Then on top of these two dominant common creatures in the pump knights, black also gets the best discard spell ever printed, something so powerful that it's a legacy staple and would ruin Pauper if it ever was printed there as a common, the oppressive Hymn to Tourach. What makes Hymn so good is that it is not only two mana but that it is equally a powerful play on turn 2 to knock two random cards out of their hand as it is to play later to hit their last two cards. You can even hit lands!

As for Pauper play, the two white cards featured are staples of white weenie decks as specialized cards to battle two of their classic foes: Delver and Mono-Black Control. Icatian Javelineers is the cheapest pinger we’ve ever seen printed and in a color that doesn't deserve the effect, and Order of Leitbur is a great way to punish single colored removal. Today, with a shift towards red removal, the two cards filling its role are Guardian of the Guildpact and Crimson Acolyte, but the lesson is to not underestimate protection as a keyword ability, especially in an environment filled with mono colored decks.

3. Tempest

Rolling Thunder

Do you remember this card from Battle for Zendikar? Development managed to balance the set that this wasn't an overwhelming bomb due to the high toughness of creatures and the giant creatures that would often act as finishers. And yet still, with a bump up to uncommon and a balanced environment to handle a card this strong it was a windmill slam first pick.

Now imagine this card as a common. Yes, a X spell sweeper printed at common. A card so powerful that it dwarfs Fireball in every application except being less splashable. Do you think that would wreck limited? Of course it did. This was a format where small evasive creatures could end games quickly. Even a turn 5 Rolling Thunder had a reasonable chance of being a 2 for-1 or a 3-for-1. And later in the game it was almost assuredly a one-sided board wipe at worst or a win condition on its own. Wow.

The Pauper deck that exemplifies the power of Rolling Thunder is Tron. While today's Murasa and Dinrova Tron decks usually win with a Ghostly Flicker based combo finish, the classic RUG Tron decks would build up an obscene amount of mana which could then be funneled into the most powerful cards in the format. The finisher in these decks was usually Rolling Thunder to the dome, though in a pinch it could be used to sweep a board of smaller creatures once the proper Tron lands were assembled.

4. Urza’s Saga

Pestilence Befoul Corrupt

Urza’s Saga was another example of how color imbalance can warp a format. Black was so powerful in Urza’s Saga that it could support 4 drafters at a table. And as you can see from the example above, this was a format where about 4 of the top 6 Commons were all of one color.

I saved discussion of the card until this set even though it also appeared in ABU, but can we all reflect on how Pestilence is an absurd magic card? There is no reason this needed to be a common while Timber Wolves and Elvish Archers were rare except that Richard Garfield wanted to represent color exceptions at higher rarities. Pestilence takes over games. It's a selective, repeatable board sweeper. There's even a way to get around the bury at end of turn clause by putting that trigger on the stack and activating the enchantment during the end step to ensure it stays around for one more turn, giving you a chance to play a creature to preserve it, or alternately deterring your opponent from playing a creature on their turn.

Today Pestilence has found its Pauper home in Orzhov Monarch, a deck that looks to eliminate or negate the opponent's threat of attacking by combining removal with Prismatic Strands and the monarch twins of Thorn of The Black Rose and Palace Sentinels. Meanwhile Pestilence plays double duty as a repeatable sweeper and inevitable win condition thanks to its positive interactions with Wall of Hope and Circle of Protection: Black.

While Corrupt sees occasional play as a finisher in Mono Black Control, I've yet to see a Pauper home for its Urza’s Saga buddies Befoul and Expunge. Both are excellent utility cards so I've wanted badly to find them a home but have yet to be successful.

5. Onslaught


Magic has had a long line of pingers tracing all the way back to blue’s Prodigal Sorcerer in Alpha. While dabbling into other colors such as the aforementioned Icatian Javelineers in White and Cuombajj Witches in black, R & D rightfully put the color in Red where it belonged.

The baseline cost for such a direct damage dealing creature was 2C seen on cards like Prodigal Pyromancer. But occasionally we'd see less expensive pingers with a drawback in Red such as the 1R Fireslinger.

Eventually the idea was hatched to design a card that could be a multi-pinger, either doing multiple damage to the same creature or acting as a Gatling Gun to mow down creatures should a specific condition be met. That card was put in the set Onslaught as the rare Goblin Sharpshooter.

But in the very same set, there was a second Goblin Gatling Gun printed all the way down at common. Both cards were pingers that could take down larger creatures if their specific condition was met. Now tell me, which of these conditions is harder: needing creatures to die in order to untap your pinger or just having a bunch of goblins in a tribal set!?!

Enter Sparksmith. This card is just unfair. For two mana you get a worse-case Fireslinger that only hits creatures, aka pay 1 life and tap to ping a creature. Now if I offered you to pay 2 life to do 2 damage and tap or 3 life to do 3 damage and tap, would you take it? Of course you would! That's a ridiculous power level for any two mana creature. And it's a common.

Today Sparksmith gets to ride again with all its little red buddies in the Pauper deck “Goblins”, or its present metamorphosis, Red Deck Wins. It serves to clear the road so that it's pilot can come crashing in with undercosted 2/2s while maximizing every point of red mana on every turn. There isn't a lot of drawback to spending as much as 10 life over three turns to activate the Sparksmith. In fact, knowing that your two drop got to take out three creatures with no extra mana cost or card resources except life payment and tapping is what I would call living the dream.

That's it for this week. I'll return next week with five more Commons that totally overpowered their respective formats but we’ll be switching over to modern sets.

Thanks as well for all the wonderful feedback on these Pauper articles.

Keep having fun out there.