“a full belly is little worth where the mind is starved.” ~ Mark Twain, The Prince and the Pauper
With apologies to Errol Flynn and Mark Twain, welcome to Pauper Week! For a few days we are going to take a look at a very unique format of our game. It is one that is beloved by a large number of casual players, while getting next to no love from Wizards of the Coast. It's a format that only lives "officially" in the Aether - as it is only sanctioned in Magic Online. It lives in a weird plane of semi-existence despite being the most affordable and approachable format the game has to offer. Let's take a look!
Buying in at the quarter bin.
We all know how much I love the quarter bin at the local card store. I can spend hours digging for hidden gems, and in this format the quarter bin is the gateway to greatness.
Pauper is all about common rarity cards. Here's the "golden rule" of the format: "if a card has ever been printed at common rarity it's legal". With the exception of this single rule change and a tiny banned list, deck construction and play are identical to the core game. There are many, many competitive, playable decks in Pauper that cost under $20.00 - even if you have to buy every single card. Decks tend to be easier to pilot and understand - especially when being built with newer cards as the New World Order keeps complexity low at common. Affordability. Simplicity. The perfect intersection for new players or casual playgroups who want a meta-game that is full of fun without the burden of cost. Pauper takes the "Magic arms race" out of the picture; there is no need to constantly purchase expensive cards to "keep up" with the table... because there are no high dollar albatrosses. Pauper strips the economy from the game and returns it to its roots where fun is unencumbered by your wallet.
Origins and openness.
I wish there was an amazing history to the format, but it is pretty cut and dry. Pauper became an officially sanctioned online format when it debuted in Magic Online on December 1st, 2008. It was a hit with casual players that had trouble acquiring the digital collections necessary to be competitive. On MTGO, commons are super cheap, so it was quickly embraced as a great gateway format for new and casual players.
Eventually the format bled out into the real world, with players calling it "Paper Pauper" to differentiate it from its online cousin. A robust community of players developed - from YouTubers to websites, it quickly became a player favorite and ingrained itself in the community. I have found Pauper players to be pleasant and helpful and you could do far worse than to pick Pauper as your Magic of choice. As a entry point, /r/Pauper is a great gateway to the the format. The community is very active and there is quite a lot of content to consume.
While there was a time that banned lists differed from store to store and playgroup to playgroup, most have come to standardize on the online list for the sake of consistency. This has proven t be problematic, as the card pools do differ between digital and paper. Because of this, some of the leading minds of the format - such as The Professor at Tolarian Community College recommend a small list of additional cards be appended to the banned list for Paper Pauper.
These are all cards that exist in Magic Online, but at an uncommon rarity. The sets they were printed at the common rarity were never released online, and they were only made available digitally when they were included in newer paper sets as reprints. Confusing? For sure. Infuriating? Definitely.
Which brings us to the "Pauper problem"....
Why Wizards, Why?
Magic players that are not knowledgeable of the ins and outs of the format might not see a need for Pauper to be sanctioned in paper by Wizards; after all its just a kitchen table format. The problem with this mindset is that Wizards doesn't make design choices based on an unofficial format. Look at how radically different the design of legendary creatures is today compared to when Wizards didn't officially consider Commander an official format, and the weakness of this strategy becomes obvious.
There is no better example of this problem than the recent printing of Peregrine Drake in Eternal Masters. This card, originally printed in Urza's Saga at Uncommon was downgraded in rarity for Eternal Masters. When R&D play tested the set's draft environment, they found no problem with the card's frequency (what they term "as-fan"); but when the card dropped into Magic Online all Hell broke loose. At the height of the craziness, 70% of all winning decks ran the card. In the words of Mark Rosewater, it was "Bah-roken".
On November 3rd of 2016 Erik Lauer announced the emergency banning of the card via the mothership's website. It went into effect two weeks later. The format was saved, but its players were rattled. Many had dropped out of play in frustration. This is the kind of mistake easily preventable if Wizards would just acknowledge Pauper as a format. This "shadow world" the format exists in does no one any good.
Pauper is a beautiful thing. Its restriction breeds creativity and a diversity of game play. It is THE format Wizards should be promoting to new players and casuals. A set of pre-constructed decks or a "Pauper Deckbuilder's Toolkit" is the perfect product for big box stores. Reprints have no financial implications on the secondary market and none of the card pool is hamstrung by the dreaded Reserve List.
I get it, I really do. It's not the full Magic experience. It doesn't have the depth or complexity of the larger game. It loses some of the collectibility aspect. Wizards looks at that and throws the format into the corner. Here's the thing though - that's exactly what the game needs to pull in new players. Wizards has a barrier to entry problem and they are not going to solve it with "Intro Packs" or "Planeswalker Decks". The price point of those products is still too high for the amount of product they contain. Pauper is the format for new players - and one Wizards could design a product for that delivered card quantity without infuriating the card sellers that hold them hostage. How cool would a box set the size of a board game box (think Ticket to Ride size) filled with some pre-constructed decks, 1000 additional deck building cards and some starter play scenarios be for casuals? I'll answer my own question - it would be awesome. At a $39.95 price point, sitting on the shelf among the other modern "board games" it would also be highly profitable. Like I said, everyone wins.
Sanctioned Paper Pauper is important for the health of the entire Magic community, and Wizards needs to step up to the plate. Just as I banged the drum in my Magic Online article - we are one community and one game and Wizards needs to act like it.
Join me on Wednesday as we continue Pauper Week and focus on one of the format's best decks!
...And now a message... from The Professor....