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Sorry We... Don't Know What Pauper Means

Pauper's going to be a real competitive Magic format. Great! What exactly is Pauper? No one seems to know...

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Hey all, I just wanted to say upfront that this article is more of a "real" article and less of a "I make fun of terrible cards" article. Just to minimize the number of, "boy, this is the least funny article yet" comments. So, you know, you'll just have to find amusement in my poor sentence structure and disjointed clauses. Such as this one.

Anyway, I wanted to talk about Pauper. As a huge Magic Online player, I've played my share of the format, though not too much recently. I'm certainly not here to analyze the Pauper metagame and comment on what should be banned/unbanned, I'll leave that to Alex Ullman and others.

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No, what I do feel qualified to talk about is the card legality structure of Pauper. Because Wizards has a major problem in this area, something that I've talked about before and has been widely known and discussed for years. And the problem's roaring into the spotlight with the recent launch of Magic Arena and the recent announcement of a Pauper Mythic Championship Qualifier (what used to be known as a PTQ) taking place in March at MagicFest Los Angeles (what used to be known as a GP). Geez, these new names are going to take some getting used to.

Pauper started as a "home-grown" format on Magic Online that eventually attracted enough players that Wizards made a legality filter for it, and it grew and grew from there until now it's a legitimate paper tournament format. (Way to go, those who championed it, pat yourselves on the back!) Before the official filter, Pauper was played casually as essentially "any online card that showed up as common in the deck editor." Wizards more or less adopted this stance when they added the filter, but has never paid that much attention to it. Without resorting to saying "stuff available on Magic Online." the current set of cards that are legal in Pauper can be summed up as:

Cards that were printed at common in paper draftable sets PLUS cards printed at common in online-only Masters Edition 1-4 and Vintage Masters and Tempest Remastered PLUS cards printed at common in the Coldsnap starter decks PLUS cards printed at common in the starter extensions of 8th/9th edition PLUS cards printed at common in Duel Decks BUT only until they stopped bringing them online PLUS cards printed at common in the online-only Mirrodin Pure Duel Deck PLUS cards printed at common in Planeswalker decks and Welcome decks PLUS cards printed at common in whatever the Global Deck Series is PLUS cards printed at common in Commander/Planechase decks PLUS cards printed at common in Battlebond, even if they're not common online or even online at all yet PLUS cards printed at common in those weird Magic Online Legacy decks that they did for a while BUT NOT cards printed at common in Archenemy decks BUT NOT cards printed at common in either Conspiracy set BUT NOT cards printed at common as Magic Online promos EXCEPT if you have no head or are a chicken ALSO EXCEPT for promo cards printed at common in Treasure chests, which are legal.

And I'm sure I've forgotten a few. Some of them don't add anything "new" to the format anymore, but according to the filter, they all count and all could do so.

Here's some of the absurdity of the Pauper-legal list, and the random Magic Online decisions that have shaped it:

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  • All the new commons from Commander sets are legal, except for C15's Thought Vessel. This is despite the fact that Command Tower, Opal Palace, Commander's Sphere, Path of Ancestry and Forge of Heroes are legal to play in Pauper even though they're (almost) blank pieces of cardboard in the format. Among the two that actually do stuff (the other being national treasure Ash Barrens), Thought Vessel isn't legal while all the do-nothing ones are. Why? Well, I'll tell you why. When it was released in 2015, Wizards decided to put that Commander set into the "Legendary Treasure Chests" (PZ1). And they upgraded Thought Vessel to uncommon so opening it would "feel more Legendary". And that's why you haven't been able to play with Thought Vessel in Pauper for the past 3 and a half years - because they didn't want someone to feel bad opening a Common in a 2015 promotion that ran for 3 weeks.

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  • Promo cards don't count for Pauper legality, unless you are Headless Horseman or Zodiac Rooster. Then your promo printings do count. Blue Elemental Blast has a common promo printing as well, but it doesn't get to join the format. Why? Well, I'll tell you why. The only online printings of Headless Horseman and Zodiac Rooster are these promos, while Blue Elemental Blast has other online printings, and that's the difference. Well, we can ignore all that, because the Pauper filter will just tell you which promos are legal, right? Not so fast, because for some buggy Magic Online reason, even when you set qty = 0, no promo printings show up in the Pauper filter, even the ones that are legal (Lightning Bolt promo, etc.). Unless you actually own the headless dude or the chicken, the filter won't even show you that they're legal in the format. So if you really want to know what promos are Pauper legal, you have to find a list of all common Magic Online promos then MANUALLY LOOK UP EACH CARD to see if it has other online printings (in which case it isn't legal), unless one of those other printings is at Common (in which case it is legal). I did this for this article, and I *believe* it's just these two. I do not recommend doing so.

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  • Speaking of common promos, in the most recent Banned and Restricted Announcement, they snuck in this little gem. "In addition, Hada Freeblade, Spatial Contortion, and Circle of Flame will be banned in Pauper to correct a format issue where they are currently legal in the format despite only appearing at Common as promotional cards." Which is part of what spurred me to write this article (along with the Pauper MCQ), because I believe it's the first time that they acknowledged that there's any kind of problem with Pauper legality, much less the major one they have. How long were they legal in the format? Are you sure you even got them all, since the Pauper filter won't find them for you? If you continue to use "anything common-ish on Magic Online, but mostly not promos" as the defining metric for Pauper, how many more times is this going to happen? Without an actual definition of the format, are you 100% sure these shouldn't be legal? Because I'm not 100% convinced.

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  • These three cards have no business being in a "Common online" format. Gorilla Shaman is not a Common, much less a recently $20 one. It was printed at Uncommon in Masters Edition 2, and that's how you could draft it. But then it was "printed" at Common in a Coldsnap theme deck, even though there was only 1 copy per theme deck, so he was exactly as "rare" as the rares in that deck. They took his paper rarity and ported it over and slapped it on for some reason, despite that having absolutely nothing to do with being a Common online. Same thing for Serrated Arrows, which was printed as a one of "Common" in a Duel Deck, but was a rare (a TSB purple super-Rare, even) when drafted online in Time Spiral. A Rare! That they shoved it into pauper based on its paper rarity from 1994. Same thing for Night Soil and Commander 2013, Uncommon when drafted online but Common in paper. So if paper rarities do count, I'd like to start playing with Hymn to Tourach and High Tide and Blue Elemental Blast, please. And if they don't count, what the heck are these non-Commons doing in the format?

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  • Also, these six terrible cards from the Coldsnap theme decks are also legal in Pauper. These also don't show up in the Pauper filter unless you own them, so you just have to "know" that they're legal if you want to play with them. Why do Coldsnap theme decks count so strongly when promo printings don't? No one really knows, both arbitrarily slap rarities on things that are in no way correlated with "being Common online". I imagine if you looked at total copies, the Common promos have way, way more copies available online than Coldsnap theme decks, but the lesser one counts while the more "common" one doesn't. And I bet the same is true of many other "fixed set" cards like Planeswalker decks, there's a lot more Common promos than the Planeswalker Commons online.

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  • The 8 "assist" Commons from Battlebond are legal in the format according to the Pauper filter, despite not actually existing online. So... could you bring them to the paper Pauper event or not? I doubt anyone at Wizards could tell you with certainty, because again, we don't have a definition of Pauper legality.

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As much as I love Magic Online, with the launch of Magic Arena, it's clear that Magic as a whole is moving away from Magic Online being a defining pillar of Magic. Having a paper format tied intricately to a bunch of very random legality decisions that only apply to Magic Online is not viable in the long term. In 10 years, is anyone going to remember Masters Edition 2, much less what was in it and what's legal as a result? I played more of that format than anyone, and it was absolutely terrible, but I did it anyway, and off the top of my head I can't tell you any cards that were in it except that stupid tie-dyed flying horse Phantasmal Mount. I think there was lots of banding? If someone shows up with a random Ice Age or Portal common, how on earth is an opponent or venue supposed to know if it's one of the Pauper legal? Not to mention all the Rares and Uncommons they downgraded to Common for those sets.

But there's a lot of additional issues if you just say "every card ever printed in paper at Common is legal". That leads to needing to ban things like High Tide, Strip Mine, Mishra's Factory, Goblin Grenade, Sinkhole, and Hymn to Tourach, among a few possible others. It leads to weird, controversial issues with Arabian Nights and Antiquities and other early sets where there wasn't a clear rarity structure or 15 card packs, only "Common" and "Uncommon" sheets. It also makes the entire format way, way more expensive if all of the early sets are legal, and Pauper is a format where the barrier to entry SHOULD be lower than other formats. Plus, with no color-coded rarity symbols, it's really hard to remember what's a Common or Uncommon from those early sets.

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Pauper is unique in that it's the only format in Magic where rarity is a concern for format legality. And that's tricky, because understandably Wizards doesn't love talking in great detail about rarity. What actually determines rarity from their perspective? In the modern era, rarity is assigned primarily because of draft. When determining whether a card is Common or not while designing and developing them, drafting is their number one concern, far and above anything else. To say it another (probably more confusing) way, Commons are really only "common" because they're drafted at common. Being Common means you're drafted in a pack with 10ish other commons.

So here's my proposal for a cleaner, more sensible way to define Pauper legality that doesn't involve Magic Online as a key component, but does jive with the way rarity is viewed today. 

Pauper consists of every card printed at Common in a DRAFTABLE paper set, plus a list of ~25 additional cards "grandfathered" in.

Magic started making "draftable" sets with Mirage and 6th Edition. (I'm only 90% sure on 6th Edition. I know 7th Edition was drafted a lot, and 5th Edition was not designed for draft, and in fact was impossible to draft unless you were a severe masochist - I wrote a whole article about that. 6th Edition is in my "Magic gap" of 1997-2001 where I wasn't actively playing, so I'm not sure if it was designed to be drafted, and the interwebs were less helpful than usual, but I believe so.) Note that there still would be a small amount of Pauper cards without the proper rarity color coding from Mirage block and Tempest, but that would be it. This definition would be very similar to Modern's definition, picking a starting point and including everything from then on.

So every Common in an expansion set from Mirage forward, and every Core set from 6th Edition forward would be legal. That's the bulk of the format. Also legal by definition are Commons in paper Masters sets, Conspiracy sets, and Battlebond, as all were drafted. It would exclude weird early sets with weird rarities and difficult to find cards, and it would clean up all the weird exceptions and clauses on Magic Online that hide a bunch of legal cards. If you want Gorilla Shaman and Serrated Arrows to be legal, just put them on the additions list. Then people can easily look it up and check what's legal. You wouldn't have to change the definition of Pauper each time you do a new product - if it's draftable, it's in, otherwise it's not. It also would free you to reprint cards in "fixed" sets (which don't really have true commons) without affecting Pauper.

Pauper is currently about 6500 cards, though Scryfall and MTGO disagree on whether it's 6490 or 6508 or 6516 or somewhere in between. It's actually really, really hard to figure out the exact number of legal cards in the format, because of all the exceptions listed above. That alone should be a sign that the format needs a better definition.

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What would Pauper lose? 333 cards total (minus the 25ish on the additions list). Here's the complete list, as best I can figure it. Pauper would lose Masters Edition 1-4, Vintage Masters, Tempest Remastered, and a whole bunch of weird exceptions. (Did you know you could play Fractured Powerstone, for example? Roll them Planar dies!) Of course, any card that's actually useful in Pauper should be put on the additions list. Don't think that I want to upend the format by soft-banning stuff like Chainer's Edict and Chain Lightning, both of which would be there. I'm not proposing to change the format, and I hope that there would be no difference in results the week before or the week after the format legality changed. I want to make Pauper legality make sense and be consistent so it can be played the next 50 years without dying in a complicated morass of no one knowing exactly what's legal in the format because it's based on random decisions made for an online program created in 2002. That you can't even play anymore on your Disney-branded holographic eyeballs. The future is weird, man.

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What would Pauper gain? 43 cards total. The second tab has that list, as best I can figure it. The Conspiracy sets and 6th Edition would join Pauper in full. The good Conspiracy content has already made it online, and 6th Edition doesn't have much that hasn't been reprinted in some Core set or another. Maybe Pyrotechnics is playable? This isn't trying to go Masters set and adding a bunch of new effects at Common. This is about cleaning up the definition so the format can continue to grow into the future.

After spending a lot of time to figure out exactly which cards would be leaving (again - way harder to do than it should be) and doing a lot of research on competitive Pauper events, here's the 25 cards you'd need on the "additions" list.

Ash Barrens, Atog, Battle Screech, Chain Lightning, Chainer's Edict, Circular Logic, Cuombajj Witches, Death Spark, Dust to Dust, Gorilla Shaman, Holy Light, Hydroblast, Icatian Javelineers, IcequakeNight Soil, Oubliette, Pyroblast, Serrated Arrows, Songs of the Damned, Tangle, Thermokarst, Tinder Wall, and Urza's Mine, Urza's Power Plant, Urza's Tower.

That's all you need to recreate the last ~6 months of competitive Pauper events, and several of those only showed up once. Though I personally feel that Gorilla Shaman, Serrated Arrows, and Night Soil cheated to become part of Pauper by using their paper rarities, they're part of the format now and should be preserved.

If you really wanted to cover all the bases, you could add 9 more cards that, according to my research, are rarely but occasionally played competitively these days: Arrogant WurmBeetleback Chief, Bottle Gnomes, Fyndhorn Elves, Order of Leitbur, Order of the Ebon Hand, Portent, Shield Sphere, and Whispers of the Muse.

I would definitely recommend leaving out the 13 Reserved List cards that are currently legal in Pauper. No one wants to deal with that going forward. Yet another reason to actually define the format and exclude early sets.

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We've already heard rumblings from stores that want to hold Pauper events, but don't know what the format "is" exactly. Most of them go by the Magic Online legality list, but some of them have been forging their own legality lists that includes more paper cards. If Magic doesn't do something soon to define what "Pauper" is, exactly and precisely and in a way that's future proof, the Pauper community could fracture over the difference between Magic Online and paper rarities, and soon you'll have 7 different definitions of Pauper, and you'll need to start specifying whether you're running "online" Pauper in paper, or "paper" Pauper with one of six different legality lists.

And I'm not saying stores won't continue to run casual Pauper events that include older cards. Sure, they can run whatever they want as long as they specify the format. But Pauper needs a real definition if it's going to be a competitive format in paper that awards major prizes. And it'd be great to have a set definition so players from out of town can "drop-in" and play at a local FNM without bringing banned cards or not realizing they *can* bring Hymn to Tourachs. Defining Pauper as "common-ish stuff on Magic Online" just isn't going to cut it anymore.

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After spending a year arguing that Magic Online should bring 150 mostly terrible older cards online, including some for the Pauper format, I find myself in the strange position of arguing that Pauper should instead *remove* ~300 mostly terrible older cards from their format. Those articles were written before Pauper really started gaining traction outside of Magic Online. I love old sets and old Magic cards more than anyone I know, but I still feel that for Pauper to leave the nest of Magic Online and spread its wings to success in the paper world, it needs to drop these cards and simplify its format a bit with a consistent definition. And as much as I love playing with the older cards, I probably wouldn't take anything not on the list of 25 above to an actual Pauper tournament, and I can play casually with them all I like already. Even if they don't adopt the definition above, Wizards really should do something here, and I hope this article spurs some movement on this issue.

Everyone have a great time playing Pauper in Los Angeles! Talk to you again soon, probably with more bad cards and terrible puns.

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