Mark Rosewater’s talk “Twenty Years, Twenty Lessons Learned” laid out important rules he learned as a Magic designer. For me, one stood out: “Allow your players to have a sense of ownership.” In this section, MaRo explained how it is important to let players design formats on their own and allow them to take Magic into their own hands. Today, I’ll be talking about a type of Magic that combines two player-created formats: Pauper Cube.
Pauper is a simple format: only common Magic cards are allowed. I first came into contact with Pauper when one of my friends brought a gauntlet of eight all-common decks to my local play group. We chose decks at random and paired up against each other to test out the strategies. I was lucky to get the “Rats” deck, a monoblack control deck that fit my play style: it had hand disruption, removal, and card draw galore! As the matches progressed, I realized that Pauper was every bit as complex, skill-testing, and fun as any other format I’d played. Instead of Dark Confidant and Snapcaster Mage for card advantage, Phyrexian Rager and Liliana’s Specter did just fine. Instead of Remand to set the opponent back and buy time, my deck had the hilarious Chittering Rats. Instead of Thoughtseize and Inquisition of Kozilek to disrupt my opponent’s hand, I had Hymn to Tourach and Wrench Mind.
My friend had even included sideboards! Evaluating card choices in each matchup quickly became one of my favorite parts of this gauntlet. Just like in “normal” Magic, I could optimize my deck to beat my opponents’ strategies after the first game of each match. I took out the dead copies of Disfigure and Geth’s Verdict against the Storm deck and replaced them with Duress and Echoing Decay (to fight Empty the Warrens). Against Burn, I could take out Sign in Blood for Tendrils of Corruption. I was pleasantly surprised that the same kind of archetypes could exist in Pauper as in formats I had more experience with, such as Cube.
Cube drafting is, in my opinion, the best way to play Magic. It has become prevalent online with streamers drafting Vintage, Legacy, Modern, and Legendary Cubes. What many people love about these cubes is playing with powerful old cards and making big, splashy “broken” plays. But what happens when we combine the all-commons aspect of Pauper with a format known for restricted rares and powerful Planeswalkers? You might think a Cube containing only commons would not be as fun. After all, you no longer have access to powerful creatures, draw-sevens, and game-breaking spells.
While a more traditional Cube leads to exciting games and swingy, back-and-forth plays, I believe the lower power level of cards in Pauper Cube can be seen as an advantage. In fact, a lower power level means longer games. Longer games lead to more decisions, which gives an advantage to better players and helps improve strategic planning. As I experienced in the above story, a format of all commons does not prevent players from employing fun strategies and assembling archetypes. In fact, classic Magic themes like White Weenie and Monored Burn translate very well to Pauper. Key cards from other strategies exist as well, such as Counterspell, Hymn to Tourach, and Kodama’s Reach.
A few days ago, I reconnected with my local friends and added my input as they discussed edits to a Pauper Cube they were in the process of building. Mulling over these decisions proved just as interesting as making changes to my traditional Cube. Jackal Familiar for consistent damage or Goblin Cohort for immediate damage? The late-game cycling of Miscalculation or the surprise value of Daze? Weighing the pros and cons of tens of thousands of different cards is a mental exercise like none other, and input from friends helps to think through these tough decisions. Discussing card choices for Cube goes back to MaRo’s wish to allow players a sense of ownership. What gives you a better feeling of ownership than creating a draft pool with your favorite 50-60 cards of each color and supporting your favorite draft archetypes and synergies?
Another rule from Rosewater’s talk: “Restrictions breed creativity” holds true for Pauper cube as well. In a traditional cube with bomb finishers like Griselbrand, Iona, and Elesh Norn, the card Exhume would be a no-brainer. But what kind of reanimation targets exist in Pauper? Answering this question for only common cards completely rewrites the traditional rules of card evaluation and helps us see well-known cards in a new light. For Exhume in Pauper, there are some heavy hitters like Ulamog’s Crusher and Eldrazi Devastator. However, this reanimation spell will more likely grab something like Predatory Nightstalker or Mulldrifter. This brings me back to the advantages of the lower power level of Pauper compared to traditional Cubes. A turn-two Exhume into Iona will often shut one player out of the game and make them be unable to play Magic. In comparison, an Exhumed Mulldrifter will create a solid advantage for one player, but the game will likely continue for several turns, allowing the other player to strike back with a threat of their own.
For me personally, in Magic or in any other game or sport, what matters most is a hard-fought, balanced, and exciting game. Pauper Cube archetypes are weaker than their traditional counterparts (Pauper Burn does not have access to Sulfuric Vortex or Eidolon of the Great Revel, for example) but opposing cards will naturally be weaker as well (a burn player doesn’t have to worry about facing Lightning Helix, Kitchen Finks, or Thragtusk).
Besides the cards that win the game on their own (see Griselbrand), one aspect of a traditional cube involves powerful combinations of cards like Tinker and Blightsteel Colossus or Deceiver Exarch and Splinter Twin. Assembling these combos help shape archetypes and guide draft picks. Pauper, however, has its share of powerful combos too. Discussing possible cards to add, my friend mentioned the sweet interaction between Midnight Guard and Presence of Gond. I couldn’t believe it was possible to make infinite creatures using only two common cards! What’s more, Pauper offers no shortage of ways to find combo pieces, such as Commune with the Gods or Heliod’s Pilgrim. You can also protect your Midnight Guard with Vines of the Vastwood or Apostle’s Blessing. A deck like this could really be the all-commons version of a traditional Cube deck that uses a Dig Through Time to find the Twin combo and protects it with Force of Will.
Restricting the cards in a Cube to commons, which are often lesser-known, makes synergies more difficult to discover and more rewarding to achieve. Just as there is the all-commons version of the Twin combo, there also exists a common version of the Melira combo, with Ivy Lane Denizen playing the role of Melira and Safehold Elite or Aerie Ouphes playing the role of Kitchen Finks. Sometimes common cards that look underwhelming on their own can be essential in conjunction with another combo piece. For example, my friend was thinking about cutting the innocuous card Nightshade Peddler, but we discussed the game-breaking possibility of pairing it with cards like Vulshok Sorcerer and Ghitu Slinger.
One advantage of Pauper that cannot be overlooked is the exceptionally low financial cost of the cards. While creating and playing with a Cube is one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve had in Magic, much time and money needed to be invested in building a draft pool replete with expensive uncommons, rares, and mythics. Collecting one of each fetchland, shockland, and two-color creatureland as well as cube staples such as Noble Hierarch, Liliana of the Veil, and Mana Crypt can certainly get quite expensive.
With a Pauper Cube, however, you can have all the benefits of personalizing a draft pool, discussing card choices with your Magic friends, and playing strategically complex games, all without having to break the bank. I made a virtual Pauper Cube for fun, and after checking off the cards I already owned, I realized the entire pool would only cost me around $60 (less than a Liliana of the Veil!) Besides spending a few dollars here and there for Sinkhole, Lotus Petal, and Chain Lightning, most cards in a Pauper Cube will be less than 50 cents apiece.
You can view my Pauper Cube list here.
In light of the upcoming Amonkhet release, a final point is that Pauper Cube gives you a fresh way to evaluate and appreciate cards from new sets. With Mutavault, Mishra’s Factory, and the Zendikar creature-lands in my traditional Cube, I was disappointed that there were no common man-lands allowed in Pauper Cube. (Khalni Garden doesn’t really count!) So when other players were excited about the new Gideon and brewing with Drake Haven, I was happy to see Cradle of the Accursed make its appearance as the first common creature-land in the history of Magic.
1. Pauper is every bit as exciting as formats with cards of other rarities.
Lower power level → longer games → more interesting decisions → good players are rewarded and all players improve. Pauper retains many traditional archetypes in both Constructed and Cube.
2. Creating a Cube is a great way to add a personal touch to Magic, engage in interesting discussions with friends, and improve your skill evaluating card strengths and weaknesses.
3. Adding the Pauper restriction to Cube can be a breeding ground for creativity, as it gives you a chance to work with lesser-known cards and look for unexplored combos.
4. A Pauper Cube is significantly cheaper to build than a traditional cube — you can probably build an entire Pauper Cube for the price of one or two fetchlands.
5. A Pauper Cube can give you a new lens to view upcoming cards.
Thanks for reading!
Let me know what you think about this format in the comments section. Did I miss any amazing commons in my Cube list? What’s your favorite all-commons combo?
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