Hello! This is Gavin Verhey, Magic designer and member of the Pauper Format Panel (PFP). As a reminder, we're the group that manages and maintains Pauper and its banned list.

While I may be the one writing this article, all seven of us talk all the time throughout every week. We share decklists, talk through event results and the state of the metagame, and share trends we're noticing in Pauper. We communicate online and in person, as our members span five countries. We talk through every decision and what we're seeing to reach a conclusion. So, I'm speaking for all of us here as I share the results of many conversations and thoughts.

Today, we're coming to you with a unanimous decision. We are banning Cranial Ram in Pauper ahead of it being released in Modern Horizons 3.

This is unprecedented and not something players should expect to happen again in Pauper or any other competitive paper format anytime soon. There are a bunch of caveats to this decision. I'm going to break down all the reasons why we chose to do this now, but I really want to begin by stressing the atypical nature of this situation. It is not precedent for any change in how we're handling this format or others. It is a very rare and special exception due to some specific reasons. Additionally, I should note that I'm a Wizards employee writing this for an official channel mainly for visibility. Our ban philosophy for the formats managed directly by Wizards hasn't changed, and bans before release are extremely unlikely in any of those formats. But Pauper is a community-driven format, and we're keeping that in mind as we make this decision.

Okay, with all of that said, let's dive in. First, why are we banning this card?

Cranial Ram

Cranial Plating has dominated multiple formats in Magic history in conjunction with the artifact lands and cheap artifacts. It's very easy for this card to hit hard, and if you can't remove it, every single creature becomes a must-answer threat. It is banned in Pauper.

Much more recently, we banned All That Glitters. This card does close to what Cranial Plating does, and, unlike Plating, can't be reused.

These cards are strong. But on top of that, their play patterns aren't very enjoyable. In the early game, if you can't remove them on an evasive creature, you will quickly lose, and in the late game, you can never tap low because if you don't have a removal spell, you can just die to a huge boost. This makes games very polar.

And that brings us to Cranial Ram. When we last talked with the All That Glitters ban, I said this:

"There is one common from Modern Horizons 3 that has a high likelihood of needing to be banned in Pauper, as it is like a card we have banned in the past."

Indeed, Cranial Ram was that card. The comparisons to Cranial Plating are obvious. So, let's talk about the differences.

The first one is that it's color locked. You must be playing red and black to play it. While this is a restriction, right now the most popular build of Affinity in the format is Grixis Affinity, so it's not much of a cost. It does matter for Hydroblast and Blue Elemental Blast, which is worth mentioning.

The second is that it doesn't have the instant equip. This is somewhat meaningful. If you ever played against Cranial Plating, you know the bulk of the card's power is just in equipping it normally, especially on an evasive threat, but it certainly does come up, especially when pushing through the final batch of damage once your creatures outnumber the opponent's.

The third is the increased equip cost. It's just a little less efficient to use. While it looks minor, this is the most notable ding to me. The difference between one and two mana is gigantic. It makes you a little less explosive, and that extra mana in the early game really does matter.

But it's not all downsides. There's also the tremendous upside that it comes with a creature attached with the living weapon ability. Playing a turn-two Ram is no longer a negative tempo play: it's playing a creature with large power for two mana. This is a tremendous boost.

When you look all of those over, this card is extremely comparable to Plating on power level. While the one additional mana to equip and no instant speed makes Ram slightly weaker, it isn't by much.

So, this card is almost Cranial Plating, and Grixis Affinity is one of the best decks in the format, and we just banned All That Glitters. It was clear this card was very unlikely to be okay. While theoretically maybe the metagame moves enough with Modern Horizons 3 that this card is okay, the odds to survive are extremely low. We built up lists, and it slotted right in as easily as you would expect. So catching a ban is probably not much of a surprise.

Onto the next section. Why the pre-ban?

In general, I am strongly against pre-banning or "emergency banning" cards.

Cards should generally have to prove they are too strong, and it's not great practice to ban cards before people can even play with them. It's important to see if the theory bears out. After all, Magic is a game with a lot of interlocking pieces and an evolving metagame, and it's not always as straightforward as it looks. How many times have you thought a card would be so ridiculous it would need to be banned but ended up being just fine? Almost everybody has been there in making that remark at one point or another.

Additionally, players will always wonder: "Would that card have been okay in the format?" When you pre-ban a card, players often always ask to see it return to the format without proof one way or another—not unlike High Tide. I will note that Cranial Ram is a unique example because it compares so directly to two banned cards, including a recent one—there isn't a lot of mystery around whether it will be strong.

It also sets up dangerous expectations. Once we've done this, we will be asked to pre-ban cards in the future. We have no intention of doing that, and you should not expect it.

Given all of this, why pre-ban a card now?

Given normal circumstances, we would let it run its course and check back in probably two weeks after release once it's proved out. However, there are some major Pauper events about to happen immediately after Modern Horizons 3.

First, on June 15, there is the Magic Online Creator Showdown with Pauper as the format. This is a tournament with $5,000 on the line and will show off the brand-new Pauper format post Modern Horizons 3. It's poised to be a really great feature for Pauper to watch—and one that would likely be dominated by Grixis Affinity decks with Cranial Ram if it were left around.

A week later, there are some Pauper events worldwide, the most notable and largest being Paupergeddon in Pisa, Italy. This gigantic Italian Pauper tournament has been as large as around 800 players in the past and is the larger paper Pauper tournament series in the world. It's a very special event for that community.

If we left Cranial Ram legal, it would almost certainly be the deck of the tournament, and instead of letting the dynamic format shine with new Modern Horizons 3 cards, it would become warped around Ram—a card we would likely ban the following week, invalidating the decklists of the tournament.

Now, do I have faith that people could adapt their decks to fight Ram? Certainly. People could start main decking their Cast into the Fires and Hydroblasts and any number of other artifact removal spells. There are ways to beat Affinity if you build your deck in a certain way. Historically, when the entire metagame tries to counteract something, it helps keep the problematic deck in check.

But is that fun? Is it enjoyable for everybody to have to warp their deck around fighting Cranial Ram? No. That's a textbook example of an unhealthy format.

After a lot of discussion, we decided to do something atypical here and ban it early. It's true that we could play it by the book and let these events be warped. But who is that process benefitting? The card is almost a lock to be banned, compares directly to two previously banned cards, and doesn't engender fun play patterns. There's enough evidence to remove it ahead of these critical events.

Now, I once again want to stress—and if it seems like I'm saying this a lot it's because it's really important—this is not precedent. This is not something to expect again in Pauper soon. Asking us to do this for any cards in the future is unlikely to lead to anything. And this is not something you should expect on any other format.

Additionally, because the Pauper Format Panel is a group external to Wizards, like Commander, the process is a little different than normal. While we try to align our updates with the normal banned and restricted cadence when we can, we can go off schedule or do some pretty atypical things where we need to. Nothing is changing in how the formats fully managed by Wizards of the Coast operate.

This is one such time, specifically because of the direct comparison to two banned cards and the two upcoming events. If either of those factors were different, this would not be happening now—and even as it stands, it took a lot of discussion. I can't say enough how this was not done lightly. I know there were people excited to play the card while briefly legal, and to those people, I apologize that you won't be able to have your shining week with this broken card. There were too many compelling reasons to remove it in advance.

Now, a few other topics before we go.

First, I've encountered several questions about why this card was made at common in the first place. After all, shouldn't we have known it was strong?

I have said this before in previous articles, and it bares worth repeating now: each individual set should do what's right for the set, and we will react accordingly. That's the nature of Eternal formats, and Pauper is no exception.

Sets shouldn't be trying to dodge the Pauper metagame, and if the lead designer of Modern Horizons 3 thinks this card should exist for Modern and be common for Limited, that's totally fine. Pauper can ban cards if needed. Pauper's playerbase is devoted but ultimately smaller compared to other formats, and people shouldn't design around us.

The focus on our end is not to prevent the creation of cards but to act to prevent them from being in the format for long if they are harmful. Fall from Favor being printed because it's what Commander Legends needed was okay. It being legal for nearly two months was not. And that's what we're trying to prevent here.

Second, I want to talk about Affinity and artifact lands in general. It's not invisible to us that these cards have caused us tons of trouble and led to many bans. We investigated banning the Bridges and letting Ram stand. We built up some decks in this world, and ultimately, Ram was still a problem if any cycle of artifact lands remained—which makes sense given Cranial Plating was a ban-worthy card long before the Bridges. Rakdos Affinity (what we thought would take over) still looked incredibly strong without Bridges. Additionally, given that we are adjusting the format with two large upcoming events in mind, removing Bridges is a radical change that we'd rather not do right before these events. Let's see the results of these events first and use those to help inform the state of the format and determine whether such a ban may be necessary.

There's another card in the set, Refurbished Familiar, that is slated to be very strong in Affinity as well. (And played strong alongside Ram—another reason to axe the Ram!) We're keeping an eye on it, as it looks to be both very strong in current Affinity decks and alongside cards like Glint Hawk.

Finally, in addition to artifact lands, we have our eyes on whether Mono-Red needs anything touched. But given the gargantuan impact Modern Horizons 3 is likely to have, we want to let the set come out and settle.

If something is incredibly dominant or broken, you can expect us to check in within a few weeks. Otherwise, it will likely be a bit longer as we let the metagame naturally evolve. We want to strike the right balance of stepping in and letting the metagame find answers.

I hope this gives you good visibility into this decision and why we made it. We're excited to see what Modern Horizons 3 does to the format—just without Cranial Ram in the mix.

If you have any thoughts, please feel free to reach out to any or all of us directly. Otherwise, on behalf of the entire PFP, this is Gavin Verhey signing off. Enjoy Modern Horizons 3 and have fun playing Pauper!

Alex Ullman – @nerdtothecore
Alexandre Weber – @Webermtg
Emma Partlow – @Emmadpartlow
Gavin Verhey – @GavinVerhey
Mirco Ciavatta – @Heisen011
Paige Smith – @TheMaverickGal
Ryuji Saito – @Saito_o3