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By: CZML, Cassie Mulholland-London
Jan 23 2017 1:00pm
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It's no secret that Magic players like to complain. To find evidence of this, simply visit any of the Magic subreddits. We often whine, kvetch, and rant about a card or deck being too dominant, about how Wizards mishandles MTGO, or about how a given format is warped or unhealthy. And although it comes from a place of love--we care so much about Magic that we can't help but draw attention to a perceived flaw, hoping we can have some impact on the situation. Unfortunately, because few of us are influential Magic writers for large websites such as Starcitygames or Channelfireball, our complaining often just amounts to us shouting into the void and creating a lot of futile internet argument. Even though I have a platform here at PureMTGO, I often end up feeling the same way: my grievances simply don't reach enough people to matter. And for the most part, I don't mind. Today's article is along that vein: I'm going to talk about some things that may seem like complaining, but I'm going to try to frame them in a positive way and maybe convince a few of you who haven't thought about Pauper to come try it. It really is amazing.

I'm going to start with a caveat: every format has its benefits and its flaws. I will try to present a logic-based viewpoint, but--as should be obvious from the title of this article--I believe that the logic leads quite convincingly to a specific conclusion, which is that the current iteration of Pauper has fewer flaws than the current iterations of any of the other formats. This article will focus exclusively on Standard, Modern, Legacy, and Pauper. Sorry, Frontier fans--I'm sure your format is great, but I just don't have enough experience with it to be comfortable discussing it, and PureMTGO does focus primarily on MTGO. As far as Commander is concerned, the reasons people have for playing it vary wildly and I have almost no experience with the current state of the format. I also lack any experience with Vintage.

In order to make any relevant comparison, I first need criteria to compare. In my opinion, for a format to be the best, it must meet three overall criteria. It must be diverse, it must be skill-testing, and it must be financially sustainable. The final criterion is the most subjective, but it is also the criterion for which Pauper obliterates all of the other candidates, so I don't find it particularly necessary to debate financial sustainability. So, we're down to diversity and skill-intensiveness.

Let's focus first on Standard, as it is Wizards' flagship format and as the Pro Tour is coming up soon. As I write this article, the top 8 for SCG Columbus features three decks with the Saheeli Rai/Felidar Guardian combo and three GB aggressive decks of various flavors. This isn't the most diverse metagame, but it isn't the least diverse ever, especially because there is some variation within the GB decks and the Saheeli decks. Standard is reasonably diverse, especially for week one where the Copycat combo was the most obviously powerful build-around. Whether the Pro Tour will retain this diversity (or even expand upon it) remains to be seen.

As far as how relevant players' skill levels are, Standard is again moderately successful. Sometimes players just lose to infinite 1/4s on turn four (sound familiar?). Sometimes players get mana screwed by the format's awkward mana. Sometimes players draw an obvious curve of cards and don't have to expend much effort to win the game. In addition, while Standard is almost always skill-testing in the areas of tuning and positioning, it is quite rarely skill-testing in the area of execution. Timing spells is usually easy and there is rarely interaction on the stack. However, deck tuning and both deck and in-game positioning are the bread and butter of Standard, and those skills are very influential in determining players' success in the format.

Modern is the next most relevant format, and before the bannings and the printing of Fatal Push, it would likely only be slightly better than Standard in terms of diversity. Sure, there were a lot of decks, but most of them fill the same roles: proactive creature-based aggro-combo decks. Yes, many of them require different strategies to defeat correctly, but many of them don't. Infect, Suicide Zoo, and UR Thing in the Ice--as well as Affinity to a certain extent--all create similar play and sideboarding patterns. While there was a reasonable amount of diversity, it wasn't enough to make Modern feel open. After the bannings and the printing of Push, the pendulum may swing too far back toward midrange and control decks, again limiting (to a certain extent) the diversity of the format.

Where Modern encounters problems is in how skill-intensive the games are--or aren't. Now, in many situations, Modern rewards tight, precise play and careful management of your resources. But the issue with Modern lies in how many games aren't games at all. Oh, your opponent has a turn one Glistener Elf and you don't have a Lightning Bolt? You might just be dead to Blossoming Defense on your two-mana removal spell. Opponent gets to Dredge 15 on turn two off of a Cathartic Reunion? You might just be dead to a swarm of Rally the Peasants-powered Bloodghasts and Prized Amalgams. Opponent has a turn one Goblin Guide into turn two Eidolon of the Great Revel? You might just be dead on turn four--and casting spells only helps it happen. Because of the high number of linear aggro and combo decks in Modern, the format's diversity actually works against it by preventing players from preparing for a significant majority of decks that will likely show up. This means that tuning your deck for a Modern tournament involves a significant amount of rolling the dice regardless of your skill at predicting metagames (the format's up-front financial investment doesn't help metagame predictions either, but that's a discussion for another time).

Legacy has better diversity than Standard and comparable diversity to Modern, even if you consider how many Brainstorms and Force of Wills are present in the top tiers of the format. Legacy manages a good diversity in deck types--if you want to play grindy controlling decks, you can play Miracles, Death and Taxes, or Lands. If you want to play spell-based combo decks, you can play Storm. If you want to play single-spell combo decks, you can play Reanimator or Sneak and Show. If you want to play ramp decks, you can play Elves. If you want to play midrange/tempo decks, you can play Sultai Delver or Sultai Leovold. The only things absent from Legacy are true aggro decks, which have been supplanted by Delver decks. The big knock on Legacy's diversity is the continued dominance of Miracles and Sultai Delver, which have put up excellent results for a long time and together hold quite a high metagame share.

As far as skill-testing formats go, Legacy beats Standard and Modern hands down. Brainstorm requires tremendous skill to execute properly, as does Sensei's Divining Top. Playing around Daze, Force of Will, and Wasteland are all important considerations. That being said, sometimes Legacy does have non-games in the form of getting stormed out on turn one or two or getting locked out of the game by two Wastelands or Top into Counterbalance. But all in all, the presence of Brainstorm and Force of Will ensures consistent games where skill matters quite a bit.

Pauper has the best diversity of any current format. Tempo offerings include Mono-Blue Delver and UR Tempo. Aggro includes Affinity and Mono-Green Stompy. There's a Burn deck. There are big-mana Tron decks. There's a control deck built around locking your opponent out of the game by using Ghostly Flicker to blink Archaeomancer and Chittering Rats. There are midrange decks in Kuldotha Boros and Mono-Black Control. There's a tribal ramp/combo deck in Elves. There's a Sprout Swarm tokens deck, a Nivix Cyclops deck, and even a Tortured Existence deck. Overall, if you want to play a given type of Magic, there's a competitive or semi-competitive Pauper deck that will let you do it.

In terms of being skill-testing, Pauper is significantly worse than Legacy but far better than Standard and Modern. Sequencing and timing matter quite a bit, and there is both combat interaction and stack-based interaction. Pauper also has very few non-games, as there are few enough hyper-linear decks that you can prepare to some degree for all the relatively popular ones. Overall, the format requires a fair bit of skill and contextual knowledge to play well, and the decisions you make matter more often than in Standard or Modern.

Based on this analysis, it's clear that Legacy and Pauper are the top two formats in terms of overall play experience at a competitive level, with Pauper taking the trophy based on significantly increased diversity and a drastic difference in cost. However, those two formats dodged the latest bannings and are least affected by new cards because of the sizes of their card pools, so there is a solid chance Standard and Modern will get better after several events with Aether Revolt. Right now, though, Pauper is definitely the most stable, enjoyable format out there. If you still aren't convinced (shameless plug incoming) you can watch me stream it at 5pm Mountain time at twitch.tv/tikipanda.

Thanks for reading!