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By: SteveJeltz, Rev. David Wright
Oct 17 2017 12:00pm
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 Legacy and Pauper


Welcome back, Pauper enthusiasts!, as well as those of you who are new and exploring our beloved format.

I want to talk today about what I believe is the biggest misconception of Pauper, a format of only commons. When we think about commons, they tend to be cards of utility rather than complexion, spear-carriers instead of star players, the filler and the bulk instead of the exciting chase foil mythic rare. 

New World Order

New World Order has contributed to this perception. After the on-board complexity of Lorwyn / Shadowmoor block and the unconventional reordering of resources in a draft environment like Rise of the Eldrazi, Wizards R & D set out to limit the complexity of the common rarity by putting hard line on the number of commons that were allowed to exceed the threshold of acceptable complexity. IF a card's text or play pattern was unintuitive, wordy, or "ungrokable", or it lead to too many decision points by utilizing more than the set's new keywords or evergreen keywords, it gets red-flagged. And only 20% of the cards in a set are allowed to be over-the-line for red flagged complexity.

And yet even in a NWO, we still see relevant commons made today. What was the most instantly playable card to released from Ixalan? Well, that would be the common Opt. And in recent sets we've also had common standouts like Firebrand Archer, Thraben Inspector, and Gearseeker Serpent.

Even though the most staple pauper cards do often skew to older sets, the format gets shaken up every year by new printings, relevant downgrades, and metagame innovations. 

Draft? Standard? Modern?

But what format is the closest analogy to Pauper? Which of magic's constructed format best resembles an all-commons format in terms of power level, sequence of gameplay, length of games, and varieties of strategy?

I believe this to be the most misunderstood aspect of Pauper. On its surface it resembles the power level of limited play. After all, these are the two formats that both most utilize the common rarity. But I would argue that on the axis of the pure efficiency of cards, Pauper isn't just more powerful than Limited, but its also more powerful than Standard, and even Modern. 

Standard is for suckers! Tapping out for a four mana planeswalker or a six mana Carnage Tyrant? Who needs that! The biggest game ending  untap-and-I-win threats in Pauper are two-drops: Atog and Kiln Fiend. Pauper players get to play Counterspell instead of Disallow! We get Doom Blade or even Vendetta instead of Walk the Plank. We get one-mana mana dorks, real, legitimate 2-mana mana rocks, one-mana Lightning Bolts, and yes, even get to play Delver of Secrets.

Modern? Sure, you get to play lots of great utility cards like Kolaghan's Command, Fatal Push, Thoughtseize, and Dismember, but have you also noticed how often Modern players have to settle for the second best of something. Mana Leak? Serum Visions? Isn't it frustrating when you have to play the second best because the real thing is banned? There are 10 common cards on the Modern Banned List. Of those 10, 8 are legal for Pauper play. And 9 of those same 10 banned modern commons are all legal in Legacy. 

Pauper is Legacy 2.0

We get so many Legacy staples that are banned or are far too powerful to reprint in either Modern or Standard, the list is mind boggling: Brainstorm, Gush, Ponder, Preordain, Gitaxian Probe.... So what if they're all blue cards?

But when comparing power levels, what is most remarkable to me is how certain cards have functional equivalents in Pauper, sometimes obviously so, but other times quite subtlety. So our goal today is to compare staples, and we'll show you which Legacy cards translate to which Pauper effects.

1. Powerful Cantrips

Brainstorm Ponder  Preordain 

Pauper retains access to all three of these cards that represent the best card selection spells ever printed. While these cards are only a benefit to blue players, their presence alone is what pushes blue to be the most powerful color in both Pauper and Legacy, the two formats that allow them, and not Modern, the one non-rotating format that does not.

The cantrips make every blue deck better: Combo decks like Sneak and Show or Kiln Fiend; Midrange decks like Leovold or Dimir Flicker; or traditional blue tempo decks revolving around Delver of Secrets.

Because of the absence of true fetchlands as free shuffle effects, oddly the comparative power level of these three cards in Pauper is reversed from their pecking order in Legacy. Preordain is the best of the three in Pauper and sees the widest play, while Brainstorm, the ubiquitous Legacy staple, only reached into the realm of playability recently with the printing of Ash Barrens.

2. Free Counterspells

Force of Will Daze Mutagenic Growth

Force of Will has been repeatedly described by Wizards Development as "The Glue that holds the format together". Free counterspells are sometimes the only cards that can prevent early turn combo kills. Or they can be the same cards that enable these early turn combo kills. But more importantly, the threat of these free counters changes the way the game is played. When you need to consider if the opponent is able to counter your reach play for free  when you overextend, it greatly adds an element of conservation around risk to the pace of play.

While Daze is not currently as essential to Pauper as Force of Will is to Legacy, it once was a $30 common, and still sees fringe play today.

3. Lock Pieces

Chalice of the Void Counterbalance Spellstutter Sprite

For those of you unfamiliar with the play pattern of Faeries, the card Spellstutter Sprite maintains most of its power not because it regularly counters opponents' spells but because it can threaten to do so. Rarely does one walk into a Chalice of the Void or an active Counterbalance lock and then act surprised that their spell was countered by its triggered ability. Similarly, in Pauper, when playing against blue Faerie players, there is a constant threat that two untapped lands on the opponent's side represent not just a counter, but a value counter that can dramatically swing the game as a tempo play. Having UU up doesn't just mean Counterspell, it means 1-mana spells can get Faerie-d. With one extra Faerie Miscreant in play? Now its like you're playing into a Chalice of the Void set on two. And so forth. Entire sets of turns go by where you can't play your one, two, three or even four mana cards out of fear of them being countered by the Spellstutter Sprite, until you know you can either burn a spell allowing them to counter it to play a second, or you have enough answers to kill the sprite on the stack and prevent the counter.

TL;DR: Spellstutter Sprite, like Chalice of the Void radically changes the pace of what you can safely play.

4. "Sol Ring" Lands

Ancient Tomb City of Traitors Seat of the Synod Great Furnace

Banned in Modern, the 5 colored artifact lands break the rules of the mana curve, allowing the caster to easily play 0-mana 2/2s, 2-mana 4/4s, and 1-mana Divinations. If this sounds like the same sort of shenanigans you have to deal with when an opponent drops a turn-2 City of Traitors, into overpowered Eldrazi, you're right.

There's a long-standing theory that the only reason we allow Affinity to exist in Pauper is because it's only because its easy to hate out--probably easier than any other strategy. And the biggest culprit to the raw power of Affinity, the best aggro deck in Pauper, are the broken artifact lands.

5. The Most Efficient One-ManaThreats

Delver of Secrets Gurmag Angler 

There is a longstanding tempo strategy of "Protect the Queen", where you play one efficient threat and then do everything you can to keep your board position one step ahead of your opponent's ability to respond, effectively preventing them from ever stabilizing. This strategy is alive and well in Pauper. There are three different Delver decks: Blue / Red Delver, which mixes traditional blue tempo and selection with efficient red removal and sideboard cards; Mono-Blue Delver, an even more efficient tempo deck, albeit one that has a harder time dealing with resolved permanents on the opponent's side; and Blue / Black Angler / Delver that utilizes cards like Thought Scour and Mental Note to fill the graveyard as a down payment on your Gurmag Angler with the hope that you can both resolve your threat and keep up counter magic on the same turn. And just in the last few months we're even seeing a new variation that adds Striped Riverwinder as another hard to deal with efficient threat and tries to cheat mana using Exhume. That's a lot of different tempo strategies revolving around these two efficient threats! 

Comparatively, Delver of Secrets and Gurmag Angler sit as the #3 and #7 most commonly played Legacy creatures and both see play in a variety of tempo strategies, aka "fair" decks. Now if only we could get Deathrite Shaman bumped down to common... Don't hold your breath...

6. Protection from Everything

True-Name Nemesis Progenitus Guardian of the Guildpact

Another Legacy staple, True-Name Nemesis represents a unique style of threat: unblockable, virtually immune to interaction, and the epitome of an inevitable clock.

Could you believe me if I told you that Pauper has virtually the same card in Guardian of the Guildpact? While their stats and text boxes aren't exactly the same, the reality is that multi-colored spells in Pauper are virtually non-existent. The only two removal spells that interact with Guardian of the Guildpact are Terminate and Curse of Chains, both of which see very fringe play. Both can be answered with a Diabolic Edict, which by the way, is a utility box card both in Legacy and Pauper of course, since both formats also have to deal with a number of unfair strategies like Sneak Attack, Kiln Fiend and Slippery Bogle.

7. Draw 10s

Glimpse of Nature Distant Melody

Yet another deck that has major overlap between Legacy and Pauper: Elves! While Legacy gets better Elves than Pauper, the strategies are remarkably similar. You can go tall into a Craterhoof Behemoth or with the help of a Timberwatch Elf. You can go wide with cards like Elvish Visionary and Lys Alana Huntmaster. You can draw 10 cards in a single turn with Glimpse of Nature or Distant Melody, rinse and repeat. Both decks let you spam out unlimited single G creatures for free if you get out enough Nettle Sentinels, Birchlore Rangers or Heritage Druids.

If you have always wanted to play Legacy Elves, but you can't afford Gaea's Cradle, give Pauper Elves a try. Priest of Titania will still take your calls.

8. Brutal Attrition Engines

Liliana of the Veil Smokestack Raven's Crime

One of the obvious gaps between Pauper and every other format is the lack of Planeswalkers. But if you ask a midrange Pauper player, they will note that the printing of the Monarch mechanic has back-doored the incremental advantage one usually gets from Planeswalkers straight into our format. 

So imagine a Pauper Planeswalker that had one ability. Zero: Draw a card at the beginning of your end step. If you receive combat damage, your opponent gains control of Pauper Planeswalker. That card is Thorn of the Black Rose and Palace Sentinels attached to a body! Better yet, even if the body dies, you still get to keep Pauper Planeswalker! Combine this effect with other attrition cards like Raven's Crime or Last Rites and you've got yourself a Pauper Liliana of the Veil

9. Getting to Replay Your Best Spells For Free

Snapcaster Mage Archaeomancer Ghostly Flicker

Snappy is often referred to as the best creature ever printed. I would be hard to argue. But Pauper also has cards that let you replay your best spells in powerful ETB creatures Archaeomancer and Mnemonic Wall. Combine these with recursion effects like Ghostly Flicker and Pulse of Murasa and you can get back virtually any card in your graveyard as many times as you want: land, creature, instant or sorcery. Pauper Tron players know this all too well. Even with a graveyard nuke on the stack from a card like Bojuka Bog, you still can reclaim you best cards at instant speed!

So, no, you can't Bolt-Snap-Bolt. But given enough mana and enough recursion and that single Lightning Bolt might be the only card you need. 

10. The Most Efficient Spells You Can Play

Lightning Bolt Pyroblast Counterspell Spell Pierce .

It amazes me just how many of the best, most efficient spells ever played are commons. We already listed above 6 of the most played cards in Legacy that all see regular Pauper play. Add these five more as well.

Commons can be brutally powerful. It's funny to me that the one Pauper card banned not for its  specific deck or combo potential but its raw power also had to be banned in Legacy: the notorious Treasure Cruise. And we don't even get fetch lands to fill the graveyard for free!

Before you knock Pauper as a playpen or inferior to Standard or Modern, consider the cards we've listed get to play with. It's obvious to Cube players: just think of how many times you first picked a Mind Stone, a signet or a Mulldrifter. And those cards only see fringe play! 

There's a whole world of rich strategy using some of the most powerful cards ever printed right here available at your budget.


Keep having fun out there.