When we last spoke in January, I ran through not just our bans, but our rationale for them and thoughts on the health of the format. At the end, I said this: "If there are more changes to be made in the short term, you would most likely see them in March as we look at how the metagame after these bans has settled and whether Kamigawa: Neon Dynasty has impacted the format at all."
We're there: we've seen both the impact of the bans and the large impact of Kamigawa: Neon Dynasty.
First of all, I want to say that we on the Pauper Format Panel (PFP) are overall quite happy with the last round of changes. We've been monitoring the format every week and have been happy seeing increased player numbers and diversity in Magic Online Leagues, Challenges, and anecdotally, from the limited real-world play opportunities there are right now. With Mono-Black Control, Mono-Green Stompy, and everything in between, it's been an exciting time to be a Pauper player.
However, with the release of Kamigawa: Neon Dynasty, there's a new deck to address, and we've had enough time to watch things develop to make some other changes. Today's banned list update reflects these decisions.
Let me walk through them.
Storm cards have a long and storied history of getting the axe in Pauper. When Modern Horizons 2 hit, all eyes were on its new storm cards—and it didn't take long until Chatterstorm and Galvanic Relay were tearing up the format.
After the ban of Chatterstorm, Galvanic Relay was a powerhouse without a strong enough home. However, the introduction of Experimental Synthesizer in Kamigawa: Neon Dynasty (especially when backed by Deadly Dispute) was the missing piece to reopen this can of worms. In short order, Black-Red Storm has climbed to the top of the format.
Now, I want to say that we on the PFP don't believe storm existing in the format is inherently a bad thing. Decks like the Reaping the Graves-based Cyclingstorm, or the Weather the Storm combo decks with Marauding Blight-Priest, have seen success—Bryant Cook won a Magic Online Challenge just a few weeks ago with the former. These are decks at a power level that is more reasonable and have additional avenues for interaction—for example, graveyard hate against Cyclingstorm.
However, the problem comes when the deck is quick, powerful, and difficult to interact with. This new Black-Red Storm deck is all of those and has been boasting a win rate accordingly. Looking at the data from Magic Online Leagues, it has the highest win rate in the format by a large margin, at a whopping 60%, ignoring mirror matches. That may not sound like much, but for context, dominant decks in Magic history often sit in the high 50% range somewhere—60% is quite high, and far above what both Affinity and Tron were last time. We gave it a little time for the metagame to settle and see if people found a solution, but that doesn't seem to be the case at this point. It was clear action needed to be taken.
While Galvanic Relay was the obvious card to ban, it's important to investigate all the options.
The first is the ritual package—Rite of Flame, Dark Ritual, Cabal Ritual, Lotus Petal, and so on. These kinds of cards are almost always up to no good. You could argue that banning them and cutting off storm entirely is something that would save the format substantial grief over time. While it is an interesting discussion, a lot of people enjoy these cards for that "Legacy feel" Pauper often has and, as mentioned above, having access to less powerful storm decks we think can be fine for the metagame and attract players.
Second, we looked at the new card that broke Galvanic Relay's back here: Experimental Synthesizer. This card has seen play all over the place in Pauper in a short amount of time.
Experimental Synthesizer is strong, but it's also enabling some strategies that look healthy and fun, like a red-white aggressive deck that uses it alongside Glint Hawk and Kor Skyfisher. While it is a card we have our eye on and wouldn't be afraid to ban if it got too ubiquitous, the fact remains that all that really does is send Galvanic Relay back to being just one card away from a problem. Banning Experimental Synthesizer means that every time a new card gives Galvanic Relay the juice it needs, we'd need to axe that card. We don't think it's right to try and play Whack-a-Mole with this one.
Finally, you could talk about waiting even longer to see what happens and if the metagame develops ways to counter the deck. However, at this point, all signs point to this deck being dominant. We'd rather nip it in the bud proactively before it causes Pauper health to become stagnant. As such, Galvanic Relay is banned.
Disciple of the Vault
Before banning Atog, there was a lot of discussion on the PFP around whether we should ban Atog and Disciple of the Vault, or just Atog. Eventually, just Atog won out, with the understanding that we could wait and see what happened and then see if we needed to act on Disciple of the Vault. It was hard to predict what shape and results Affinity would put up.
After watching the metagame evolve, it was clear immediately that Affinity was far from gone without Atog. It was still the most played deck and one of the best performing in Leagues and Challenges. In fact, even right now, Affinity remains the most popular deck in Leagues by close to twice the next most popular deck of Black-Red Storm—although Black-Red Storm's win rate is substantially higher.
Affinity remained strong throughout the post-ban, pre-Kamigawa: Neon Dynasty period, then with Kamigawa: Neon Dynasty, picked up access to both Experimental Synthesizer and Reckoner's Bargain. While neither is crucial to the strategy, they are two additional pickups that certainly benefit the deck, both providing additional draw power and, in the case of Reckoner's Bargain, stabilization against other aggressive decks.
Affinity is a deck we like having in existence. It's a popular deck. It's also great for metagame evolution: since it is so easy to hate against, Affinity being strong causes a natural metagame evolution from week to week depending on how much Affinity hate people are playing. However, we think it's at its best for the format when it's attacking with discounted creatures and grinding out long games with its array of card advantage, as opposed to having access to huge swaths of burst damage.
With Atog down, people have begun to even use cards like Krark-Clan Shaman, really leaning into combining that with a couple Disciple of the Vaults to kill your opponent in one fell swoop. (You can repeatedly activate Krark-Clan Shaman before the first ability would kill your Disciple of the Vaults.)
We took a look into the data, and in addition to what I mentioned above about it being the most played and one of the best performing decks, there was another concerning factor: it was actually disadvantaged against the storm decks.
The fact that the deck still had a high win rate, despite the next most popular deck being an unfavorable matchup, is both meaningful and concerning: without that deck around, that's one less unfavored matchup to worry about. While decks can reclaim sideboard slots to fight Affinity with Galvanic Relay storm gone, it's not clear that's enough.
So, we on the PFP reopened the discussion. We talked about Bridges again. We aren't afraid to ban them—but reached a similar conclusion to last time. They're enabling one of the format's only viable control decks thanks to their synergy with Cleansing Wildfire, and if we tried doing a surgical approach of banning just one or two bridges, there's no guarantee that would actually solve the problem. The untapped artifact lands are another similar surgical approach, plus those are cards that actually do open the deck up to hate, like Gorilla Shaman.
The largest discussion came around Deadly Dispute. This card has been incredible in Affinity, providing additional draw power, an artifact back, and even lets you sacrifice your Experimental Synthesizers. The raw card advantage the deck has right now is impressive.
However, we are okay with long game card advantage. It's not problematic to continue to find creatures to keep stable in the long game. It is more problematic if you're using all the draw to dig for your game-ending Disciple of the Vault turn. Deadly Dispute remains on our radar as something to watch, given both its strength here and how it's shown up in other decks.
Additionally, to borrow a term I picked up from Patrick Sullivan, Deadly Dispute has a low value over replacement—meaning that there are a lot of other cards that do similar things. Maybe you just switch to the full set of Experimental Synthesizers and Reckoner's Bargains, for example. It's not clear touching it does as much.
On the other hand, Disciple of the Vault has a high value over replacement. It's unlikely you're going to see an effect like this again at one mana, and there isn't a good substitute. To make a meaningful impact, it makes a lot more sense to hit Disciple of the Vault.
When we banned Atog, people speculated it would kill Affinity. However, in reality, it wasn't even close to dead—and took almost no time to recover, putting many copies into the very next challenge. This time around, with Disciple of the Vault gone, I wouldn't be surprised if we saw a similar trajectory. It is certainly a big ding to the deck, but the deck has so much in the way of card advantage and access to other discounted creatures like Gearseeker Serpent, Carapace Forger, the ability to play additional Experimental Synthesizers, and more, that it should be able to rebuild and still be a contender—just not at the same play rate as before.
Speaking of large creatures, one last thing to touch on. When it comes to Sojourner's Companion, unbanning it is on the table if it looks like Affinity needs the help in the future, as it does play into this creature strategy well. (Though we have to be careful given the addition of Blood Fountain, which is very good at discounting expensive affinity spells.) However, there's a good chance Affinity won't need the help. For a long time, Affinity in Pauper didn't play Disciple of the Vault, and we look forward to seeing what it looks like next without this card.
Disciple of the Vault is banned.
And now for something different: an unban!
Last time around, we banned Bonder's Ornament and Prophetic Prism, targeting the Tron decks. Overall, we've been very happy with this. Reducing Tron's power has really opened up the format, because the pressure to win quickly or Tron will crush you under its mana and card advantage is no longer present. We would rather live in this strength of Tron than the previous level.
However, we would also be happier to see a little more Tron than we do now. Constant threat of Tron at the top the metagame is not ideal, but knowing that it's there and you could face it is something we believe to be healthy. We don't want to touch Bonder's Ornament or Prophetic Prism, as that's too much, but thought Expedition Map could come back. If it gives Tron a small boost, great. If it doesn't impact Tron's play numbers, then we don't expect to do much more.
When Expedition Map was originally banned, its impact on the Tron deck ended up being minimal. This unban is a little more important in a post-Prophetic Prism and -Bonder's Ornament ban world, because Tron can also search for colors they need to help cast their cards—a minor, but relevant, gameplay detail.
We also think that with this improving people's ability to hit Tron early but without the mana fixing of Prophetic Prism and Bonder's Ornament, it might help us see different Tron decks than we did before, such as two- or three-color Tron decks.
Finally, Affinity's reach with Disciple of the Vault had been a problem for Tron in the past because of how much it relied on Moment's Peace. By knocking Disciple of the Vault, that helps Tron as well in conjunction with this unban.
Timeline and Other Cards
Before ending, I want to note that these were not the only decks we looked at. We looked at everything, especially decks that picked up new tools in Kamigawa: Neon Dynasty.
Moon-Circuit Hacker was a card we were initially worried about. While it still has our attention, Faeries does not appear to be a problem currently. It's a solid deck to play, but nothing that necessitates action at this time. Similarly, the red-white decks on the back of Monarch continue to be powerful, especially with the pickup of Experimental Synthesizer, but we don't see enough evidence to touch Monarch at this time.
That said, these bans and unbans will change the format and the viability of these strategies. We'll be watching closely in the next several weeks. Barring anything that feels like an emergency, if there are any additional changes to the format, you can probably expect them sometime after we see the results of adding in Streets of New Capenna.
If you have any thoughts or questions, you're welcome to reach out to me or anybody on the PFP. Thanks for reading and have fun with Pauper! We'll be following the Challenges this weekend to see how the format looks—I know I can't wait.
Gavin, on behalf of the Pauper Format Panel: