9/19 Pauper B&R Update

Good Morning Magic, I’m Gavin Verhey from Wizards of the Coast. In addition to making Magic cards, you might recall I’m a member of the Pauper Format Panel – or PFP – the group making recommendations about the Pauper ban list. Today I’m representing the whole panel as we have quite an update for you. I want to talk you through not only some changes to Pauper that we have unanimously agreed on, but also what we think about where the format is right now – including some of what we’re thinking about the future.

There’s a lot to cover, so let’s get started!

Pauper is a format where only commons are legal – but that doesn’t mean it isn’t powerful. Counterspell, Lightning Bolt, and Brainstorm are cards you can expect to find here. But the gaps in what exist, and the solutions to fill them, are part of what make the format interesting. And when it comes to cards that generate advantages over time, the format doesn’t have much in the way of value engines. Things like Planeswalkers, which reward games for going long, don’t show up at common. But one of the biggest value engines has been the monarch, since it debuted in Conspiracy: Take the Crown.

Though designed as a multiplayer mechanic, in one-on-one play at common it lets you have your own personal Howling Mine – well, provided you don’t get attacked of course! This has historically unlocked some decks that are truly unique to Pauper, like Boros Monarch. And though that deck is less played now, it’s still very memorable.

But it’s a very careful line to walk. When Commander Legends came out, with it came Fall From Favor. This three mana removal spell gave you the monarch – and ended up becoming ubiquitous in the format. It absolutely had to be banned. Many would say there’s something cool about having monarch, but certainly not cool when it’s as strong as Fall From Favor.

Flash forward to Commander Legends: Battle for Baldur’s Gate. The set showed up and had the initiative mechanic. This functions in a similar way to monarch, with a different path of rewards. Immediately, because of Monarch’s pedigree, it caught Pauper players eye! While it wasn’t available on Magic Online right away for logistical reasons, it started up showing up in real life events and the feedback was generally positive about the mechanic. Several cited it as potentially even more fun than the monarch.

Eventually, after enough notes from players and enough evidence it would be a piece of the format, the MTGO team – hats off to them – managed to get it into Magic Online. This was about two and a half weeks ago.

Now up until this point, things were pretty positive about the Initiative. However, one thing about appearing on Magic Online is that the cards get pushed to their limits practically overnight. It goes from appearing in some local Pauper events around the world on the weekends to Leagues running around the clock. And in Initiative’s case, that meant going from something new and cool that showed up a little… to something that showed up a lot.

I’ll cut to the chase: over the past two and a half weeks, the Pauper format has grown an Initiative problem. The mechanic has shown up all over the place. It appears as a cornerstone not only in decks that have been established for years – for example, Faeries adopting both Aarakocra Sneak and Vicious Battlerager – but also in new “turbo initiative decks” that play four copies of each of those plus four Underdark Explorers.

And it’s not just casting these cards fairly on turn four. As I mentioned earlier, all commons can still be very powerful – and decks have begun playing Dark Ritual and Lotus Petal to get these out as quickly as possible. Many decks aim to land an Initiative card on turn one, and use that alone to ride the mechanic to victory. With Monarch, you just drew additional cards. But Initiative does more proactively, both growing your creature quickly, dealing an additional 5 damage, and then eventually getting you another huge creature. Those are all factors that let this mechanic snowball fast.

The fact that UB Faeries, a deck which has remained pretty consistent in core and strategy for years, is suddenly sporting 4 Dark Ritual and up to 8 Initiative cards is pretty telling of the state of the format.

Any format where a powerful and widespread strategy is “Play rituals on turn one or two to cast a single card, that card probably wins the game” is likely to have problems – and that’s the case here.

We dug into the League data and Challenge results and analyzed the format, and are banning some of the cards with the initiative mechanic.

There are seven total common cards with Initiative. We have spent a lot of time discussing the fate of these seven cards. Let me walk you through it.

The first point of discussion: should we just ban all seven of these cards?

We talked about this a lot. And our conclusion was no… for now. In the same way monarch has added texture to the format, it’s possible a small amount of initiative being in the format actually will create decks and open up strategies. We all even saw this happen in real time: when the format had a small amount of Initiative, when it was only available in Paper, it was generally cited as fun and enjoyable. It wasn’t until it moved online and was pushed everywhere that is became an issue.

However, after today’s updates, we aren’t afraid to come back in and ban more cards, or even all of them, if we need to. We want to strip out the ones we believe are most likely to cause problems and then see what the format looks like. We are hoping Initiative shows up some, but is not everywhere.

So let’s talk about accomplishing that.

We talked a lot about which ones to go, and the appropriate amount of mana to spend to get the initiative. And we decided to draw a line with the mechanic. Our line is this: no initiative creatures that cost four mana. Especially given the presence of cards like Dark Ritual, four is easier to hit, and even in fair decks, that one turn really does make a large difference.

This hit Aarakocra Sneak, Vicious Battlerager, and Stirring Bard. The first two make a lot of sense, and are clearly part of the problem here. Stirring Bard we talked about a lot. As a 0/4 defender, it wasn’t seeing a ton of play yet – though it had seen some.

However, our prediction is twofold. First of all, with the other better four drops gone, people would turn to the Bard – and while it doesn’t attack, it still blocks people from taking your Initiative quite well, much like how Battlerager does. Red is also a color with rituals, where this can be accelerated out on the first or second turn – though admittedly harder than with Dark Ritual. Second, part of the problem is density. We are leaving some initiative cards, and being able to build a deck with lots of them just sets up the higher likelihood this will be an issue.

You’ll note that I said specifically we are banning the four drop creatures. We are leaving Trailblazer’s Torch. While it can go in any deck, it doesn’t give you a body to try and reclaim the Initiative with, nor does it give you something capable of defending. If your deck is built around ritualing out a Trailblazer’s Torch, it’s pretty easy for your opponent to just play a one drop and nab it from you. We will continue to watch this card, but the fact it doesn’t come with a creature is an extremely meaningful difference.

The remaining three cards to look at are the five drops: Goliath Paladin, Avenging Hunter, and Underdark Explorer.

The Paladin has not seen much play yet, and seemed, along with Torch, the safest to leave. It has no form of evasion itself. White is a color which could probably use this effect fairly if it showed up anywhere. We decided to leave this one alone.

Next up is Underdark Explorer. This one has already been a problem, though part of it is a density issue. We talked about if this one should stay or go a great deal. The menace is also very hard to deal with by blocking: even if you have something like deathtouch you can’t deal with this 5/3 that quickly grows into a 7/5 off the initiative. Ultimately though, perhaps the biggest strike against it is that it’s in the same color as Dark Ritual. Any opening hand containing 2 Dark Rituals and this card is likely to just entirely end the game unless they have a Lightning Bolt immediately. Given that part of our goal is to reduce initiative, and these kinds of non-interactive openings, we decided to ban Explorer at this time.

Last up is Avenging Hunter. This is likely the card we debated on the most. On stats alone, it is stronger than Underdark Explorer. But a lot of this card is context. It’s green, not black, so, you need a really phenomenal Lotus Petal draw to get this out on the first turn. Additionally, green midrange is a deck which has had a very difficult time thriving in Pauper. It’s been showing up some, with a recent red-green deck featuring land destruction and cascade, but in general midrange has had a tough time. It’s possible that this is a tool it needs to help exist. Its monarch card, Entourage of Trest, hasn’t really been good enough.

Now, it is in green – a color of natural mana acceleration. Instead of bursting it out on turn one with Dark Rituals, you can seek to ramp it out on turn three of so on the back of Elves or Utopia Sprawls. Is that okay? We decided it was worth giving a try. However, we totally admit that we may have to come back in the not too distant future and axe this card as well. But if we ban it now, we will never know if it could have been good for the format – and running that test seemed worth it. This is unlike Underdark Explorer, where we kind of know where that experiment leads: either it’s not played, or it’s probably accelerated out in black control decks with Dark Ritual.

Finally, I’ll note that of course both the Paladin and Hunter are still susceptible to the Dark Ritual issue: you can play black white or black green and try and land one on turn two. But it takes a lot more setup and deckbuilding cost to make that happen, rather than slotting Dark Ritual and Underdark Explorer into any black shell. And if such a deck does become dominant, we will of course take action.

So, to summarize: we are banning Aaracocra Sneak, Vicious Battlerager, Stirring Bard, and Underdark Explorer. We are leaving Avenging Hunter, Goliath Paladin, and Trailblazer’s Torch.
None of this is necessarily forever. Our hope is that this will create a format with a little bit of initiative, but in a far less polarizing way. However, we won’t really know until the bans take place and the new format starts. We will be paying close attention to what this does to the format. If playing these initiative cards everywhere continues to happen, we will take additional action, likely by the end of October.

I have two other things I want to talk about today, while we’re here giving an update.
The first is Affinity. We’ve banned multiple cards out of this deck in the past year, and it continues to show up in considerable numbers. I know in the community, there have been a lot of requests for us to take a look at this deck.

So, we did. We looked into how it was doing, and if we should ban a card. We looked at the data of not only the current format, but also the pre-initiative format as well – since initiative has certainly skewed things.

And what we found is, while it is one of the most popular decks, it doesn’t have a win rate out of line with other successful decks in the format. Its non-mirror win rate isn’t even much above 50%! Now, we do respect that some of that could be, in part, because many players are packing hate cards for Affinity to keep it in line. However, the same is true for several other top decks. We are not taking action at this time, but we will continue to watch Affinity closely and see how it looks going forward. We know it’s a highly-played deck, and a major topic.

Finally, there’s one more thing I wanted to bring up to the community. It’s a little atypical to bring you as closely into a future banning discussion as I’m about to do, but I feel it’s very important to understand how the community feels and really wanted to open up the discussion.

The initiative has some problematic pieces on its own, yes. But perhaps the biggest problems were it coming down early off a ritual and completely ending the game.

If you look at Magic history, there was a point where we spent years not banning Dark Ritual and banning other cards instead. But, in the end, it was pretty clear the issue wasn’t all on those cards – it was on Dark Ritual! In 2000, Dark Ritual was eventually banned in Extended for enabling cards much too quickly.

You might notice that when talking about the Initiative, Dark Ritual came up a lot. In fact, that’s a big reason why Underdark Explorer is banned while Avenging Hunter stayed.
And if you look at Pauper over the past couple years… rituals have fueled other bans, like Galvanic Relay and Chatterstorm.

During this discussion, we talked about banning Dark Ritual. But we held off for two major reasons.

First, it was clear Initiative has problems outside of Dark Ritual. Even when played fairly, it was very strong. We didn’t want to couple them together.

Second, for many people, I believe Dark Ritual being legal in Pauper is important. Cards like this, which are commons that are extremely powerful and reminiscent of high strength formats are a cornerstone of what makes this format what it is. You get access to all these powerful spells, many of which are nostalgic and beloved. Lightning Bolt, Brainstorm – and yes, Dark Ritual. I do think it’s cool when decks like storm show up some… as long as they don’t show up too much, anyway. Banning Dark Ritual would be a HUGE deal, as it’s a semi-foundational card in the format.

But we cannot deny the impact leaving Dark Ritual – as well as potential other cards like it – legal has on the format. This will not be the last time we end up having an issue because of ritual effects.

So, we wanted to open it up to the community. What do you think? Should these kinds of effects be legal in Pauper? Do you like them existing, or is it frustrating that they can create non-games or cause cards like these to get banned? Please let us know in the comments down below – it will really weigh in on our future thinking for the format.

So there you have it! The changes we’re making to Pauper – and a couple updates. I’m excited to see what leagues look like after these changes. And if we do need to make any more short-term updates involving the Initiative, you should hear from us by the end of October. I’ll also note this isn’t in lieu of any changes being investigated to other formats – the team at Wizards is still monitoring those formats as usual, it’s just that the PFP runs on their own cadence.

When can you expect them to show up? Well, these changes will go live TODAY on Magic Online, around noon Pacific time. So dive in and start battling!

Thank you for all your feedback on the format, and I’ll talk with you again soon. And until then, have fun playing Pauper! You got this!

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