Pauper, Magic's premier community-driven format of commons, has been slowly growing in popularity over a number of years. It started as a grassroots movement on Magic Online with friendly games between a few players and evolving into the Pauper Deck Challenge, or PDC. Over time the format continued to grow until eventually Wizards of the Coast themselves took notice.
They soon made Pauper an official Magic Online format, using only cards printed at common on that client, and gave it premier events through Daily Events. These were four round tournaments with six or twelve event ticket entries that would pay out a solid amount of packs for a positive finish. Then in 2015, Wizards scrapped these "dailies" as they became known in favor for eight player single elimination queues. These fired off somewhat more regularly but were risky to play in compared to the Swiss structure of dailies as you could play one round, lose, and then it would be all over.
Players expressed frustrations over this system, not just with Pauper but with other affected formats such as Legacy and Vintage. Even Standard and Modern, formats where players actually were able to still play dailies, stopped playing as much due to concerns over the value. Around the same time, Play Points dropped, enticing players with a new way to play. Lastly, later in that year, we got Magic Online Constructed Leagues, which opened up the floodgates for players to get their Pauper on.
With the advent of these new leagues, players could play whatever they wanted, whenever they wanted, all on their own time as their schedule allowed. The popularity of these leagues along with the fact that players clearly wanted to be able to play older formats at a higher level than just leagues led to the first Magic Online Format Challenges for all non-Standard formats. Standard, along with Limited, got far more support in the form of MCQs and the like so it was a fantastic option for players to be given.
The very first Pauper Challenge had over 90 players in it, an incredible feat in and of itself for a format that began as a small casual idea between a few friends. Just a few years later we got side events at Grand Prixs (now MagicFests) with large attendances as well as massive tournaments like the SCG Con Classic and the Championships at Las Vegas and Richmond. In many of these events, we have as many as multiple hundreds of players turn out to sling some commons and take their shot at glory.
Within the last few months, we even got Competitive Pauper Leagues on Magic Online, opening the door to the Magic Online Championship Series, or MOCS, through Pauper. These leagues, along with the Challenge events, also gave us Pauper Format Points that allow us to compete for a slot at the Mythic Championship online using only commons! Speaking of, we even had a Pauper Mythic Championship Qualifier at MagicFest Los Angeles roughly two months ago.
If it wasn't apparent, Pauper has been on a consistently slow and steady upward trajectory in ways that formats like Frontier or Tiny Leaders could only dream of. There's been growing support everywhere and more people than ever want to play this sweet format. But there's one glaring thing that has consistently held players back: the format is still unsanctioned.
You might be asking how is that even possible? You can, after all, go to many stores and play it locally at actual events. Heck you can even go and play side events for the format at SCG Opens or, more notably, MagicFests. CFB Events may run those, but they're still the largest public events officially sponsored and promoted by Wizards.
I myself attended a decent number of Pauper events in the last year including the SCG Con Classic, the Grand Prix Richmond Championship, the Los Angeles MCQ, and a number of smaller local events. Let me show you how these each look on my Planeswalker Points page, where you can see how many points you've earned over your lifetime.
Believe it or not, this is the SCG Con Classic. No matches were listed, the placement had me at 79th place even though I won the whole event, and most notably I earned no real Planeswalker Points for this event. I only earned one single lifetime point, and the event was listed as a "casual event."
The Pauper Championship at Richmond did a bit of a better job overall, listing a lot more information. While I've removed them from this screenshot, it does also list the opponents I faced like a normal event. There's still one thing prevalent here: only one single lifetime Planeswalker Point was given out for my attendance of this event, even when I made it to the finals.
This is hardly uncommon. Every single event I played at my local shop, CoolStuffGames - Maitland, where we have a consistent scene every Tuesday night, has to be run as a casual event. This is because Wizards' tournament reporting software, Wizards Event Reporter (WER for short), doesn't allow it as an option. A few years back during Pro Tour Khans of Tarkir, Wizards announced that they were opening up Friday Night Magic to all formats, including ones you might not have heard of before:
While for some reason this didn't explicitly include Pauper, it would still be possible to play it under the "Invent Your Own Format" category. What's more, if you scroll down to the very bottom of the article you'll notice this line:
"The changes to Friday Night Magic will begin in January of 2015, but sanctioning for those events is opening up soon."
Ultimately, sanctioning never came, and so all formats except ones listed in WER must be reported as casual events. Doing otherwise, even running it as a Legacy or Vintage event as I've heard some places do, is grounds for revocation of a store's Wizards Play Network (or WPN) status. This is what allows them to run tournaments and enables them to receive certain product allocations.
Because these are run as casual events, however, you only get that one lone lifetime Planeswalker Point. This is such a big deal because it doesn't count to your yearly Planeswalker Points total which grants you all kinds of benefits the more you have. If you have 1300 points in any given year you get one guaranteed bye at a Grand Prix and if you have 2500 points you get two byes instead. These points also used to qualify you for Nationals prior to Wizards nixing that event. Soon, though, they'll also qualify you for local Mythic Championship Qualifiers with 200 points needed per season.
By not getting those points from events like these, players who would normally be filling the seats at local events don't want to show up. It's better for them to play online where they can accumulate better value or else just save their time and money where they can attend events that help them get these byes and qualifications. This, combined with a false idea of low power level and another piece I'll get to shortly, makes people not want to play. That causes events to fail or turnout to be low, especially when Standard is in a better place than it's been in years.
This leads me to the last event I want to talk about: the Mythic Championship Qualifier in Los Angeles.
Here's where things get somewhat dicier and is what ultimately made me want to discuss this topic. This event was sanctioned, offering seasonal Planeswalker Points for both participation and wins. How was this possible when WER doesn't offer Pauper as a format that can be sanctioned? If you look closely, you'll notice one important section says "Format: Standard."
There are a ton of problems with this. The most glaring one is that the event was run as a Standard event and not a Pauper one. I don't fault CFB Events themselves, as this could have come about due to any number of reasons from human error to being mandated by Wizards themselves. However, the fact that my local shop, like many others, can't run their events as another format without risking their ability to run events or purchase product is nothing short of alarming. If one should be able to do it, it should be allowed elsewhere as well.
The other point has to do with the Planeswalker Points. I got 55 for my yearly amount from this event. That's great. More than great, actually, when it's more than many make in a few weeks of Friday Night Magic. The problem is that just a few weeks before, I attended a local event for practice and got no points. Future events I go to will have no points. I don't even get to play events to nearly the degree I did in the past but not getting those points on the one weekly event I can reliably attend feels awful when I know they could be allowing me to get byes for the few Grand Prixs I attend in a year.
This isn't about just myself either. I've had plenty of people tell me how excited they are at the idea of trying a sweet new format only to balk at the idea that they can't earn any of these coveted points in the process. Players, especially the hardcore grinders, want to constantly improve across all fields of the game and use every opportunity to advance themselves to be the best they can be. Giving them another pathway to get there will allow more of them to show up, fill seats, and be an overall benefit for the game of Magic as a whole. How we do so has been its own mode of contention for a while now.
What has often been seen as the format's biggest hurdle for sanctioning is the weirdness of how format legality is defined. As of now, the format is defined by what was printed at common on Magic Online and not what was printed at common. This has led to some particularly noteworthy cards that were in Magic's early sets at common, like Hymn to Tourach and Sinkhole, aren't legal in Pauper. In the case of those cards, it's probably fair as they're ridiculously powerful.
There are plenty of others, though, that aren't quite as good but still make up this weird divide thanks to how sets like the four Masters Edition sets and Vintage Masters were put on Magic Online. These sets were developed to bring the essential old cards to Magic Online for formats like Legacy and Vintage without bogging down Limited environments with low powered cards and awful gameplay.
What we got were solid sets and a lot of great cards, but they're the cause of many of these issues we see in Pauper today. Hymn was made uncommon and Sinkhole was a rare. Many more faced similar odd upshifts and downshifts, though most of the downshifts - with a few exceptions such as Chainer's Edict and Battle Screech - barely made an impact on the greater format.
Take a look at these few cards and see if you can guess without looking which of them are legal in Pauper:
Virtually none of these cards are particularly great or memorable, even if a few have been playable in the past. Of these nine cards, only four are not currently on Magic Online and are commons in paper. These include Tarpan, Feint, Pestilence Rats, and Elvish Healer.
Tarpan really isn't that great of a card period, so it's not particularly relevant, but Feint is actually a pretty neat combat trick. It might not win games, but it's something that would be worth having in your arsenal. Elvish Healer is silly and a bit of a meme in some circles, which made it surprise me more when I discovered it isn't even legal in the format. Pestilence Rats is one I've actually seen people try to play in a deck at paper events before. It's certainly not a great card, but goes well with Rat Colony and Relentless Rats, so people try to make that deck work. It's extremely awkward having to go up to a player as a judge and tell them cards in their deck aren't legal and need to be replaced with basic lands for the remainder of the event.
Each of the others is available at common online and makes it legal in the format. It gets weird for some of them though. Did you know that Aeolipile was a rare in Fallen Empires? Did you also know it's on the Reserve List, that list of cards that will never be reprinted ever again in paper? Kjeldoran Pride, along with a handful of other cards, is legal only because it was printed in the Coldsnap theme decks as a direct reprint from Alliances and was never included in a Masters Edition set.
Two even more notable cards that aren't legal in the format are the original ABU Blast cards. These cards were printed at common in paper, had common promo printings online, and have nearly identical cards in the form of Hydroblast and Pyroblast. The problem lies that while they were commons as promos, they weren't in an actual dedicated set, thus causing them to not be legal. If there's one thing that is a constant headache for judges of all kinds when it comes to the Pauper format, it's these two cards right here, as players frequently assume or just outright believe they're legal.
These aren't the only issues when it comes to legality. In fact, the legality aspect gets really weird in a lot of places. MTGGoldfish put out a great article about this very issue back in January titled "Sorry We...Don't Know What Pauper Means." Give it a quick read through. It's almost dizzying the various issues with this situation. While a number of these make sense to me as a long time player, it's difficult to explain to a new player. There is one thing that baffles me, however: Battlebond.
You see, Battlebond in its entirety was programmed into Magic Online. The problem, however, is that only some of these programmed cards were put online. Some of the reprints weren't even made available yet still count. Enter these two cards:
If you look closely enough at the above screenshot of Magic Online, you'll notice Peace Strider and Pierce Strider were both included. This particular screen grab was of a portion of the commons from Battlebond which depicts the two cards, however browsing through sites like Cardhoarder and Goatbots shows this printing of these cards was never made available online. Yet if I try to register a deck with these cards from Mirrodin Besieged, I'm allowed to play with them.
You might also notice looking through those same lists that these cards mentioned in the MTGGoldfish piece aren't there either:
These cards, along with the other Assist mechanic cards, aren't available on Magic Online. Now make no mistake - these cards are really bad. You have no way to properly take advantage of the mechanic and their effects and stats are relatively mediocre. They do beg the question though: because they're not available online, but are programmed into the system - which also allows a pair of downshifts to be used - does that make them legal in Pauper?
According to Scryfall, each of the Assist cards is not legal in Pauper, as seen by clicking on the cards. Peace Strider and Pierce Strider, however, are despite never having been printed common anywhere else besides Battlebond. Even other new cards like Stadium Vendors, an actually reasonable option, is listed as being Pauper legal. While they have it listed this way, there's simply been no clarification from Wizards themselves, which can make it even more confusing for stores, judges, and most importantly players who try running Pauper events at their stores.
These legality issues have largely been cited as one of the main reasons Pauper hasn't been sanctioned officially yet. The author of the MTGGoldfish piece, caliban, makes a suggestion for legality, but it's ultimately swapping one complicated list for another. Although it's a sincere suggestion, it most likely won't work much better than what we already have.
So then, how should Wizards approach this in order to make it sanctionable and bring more people into the format? These would be my personal suggestions:
Make Pauper searchable on Gatherer
Gatherer still doesn't allow players to search for Pauper legality, despite including an actual casual format in the form of Commander and a largely dead format in Brawl. Players want to figure out what they can play in Pauper so you know how they end up searching for their cards instead? They search by rarity. Searching by commons shows cards not legal in Pauper, including the Elemental Blasts, Pestilence Rats, and even Forked Bolt which was downshifted in Duel Decks: Zendikar vs. Eldrazi, a set not released online.
By enabling players to search for Pauper legal cards, the confusion at local events becomes minimized. Yes we have Scryfall, which is ultimately superior, but in the end your average player will go to the official page as their primary resource. Start here by making it so that players can know what they can play with and not get upset when they find out what they thought was legal actually isn't.
Sanction the format now, worry about legalities later
Ultimately I feel that the legality issue will lead to players and Wizards of the Coast squabbling to find an answer for some time. If nothing else, we already have a format with an established legality and metagame. While players may not have perfect knowledge of legal cards out of the gate, it would be best to simply sanction the format with what we have now and then work on a fix to properly align the legalities between paper and Magic Online over time.
We have already seen new cards get added to the format that weren't previously online at all like Brainwash, Flood, Cemetery Gate, and Pit Scorpion thanks to Treasure Chests. Some others may come in the future thanks to sets like the Masters sets and the upcoming Modern Horizons. It may take time to implement, but it's worth it in the long run.
In the meantime, it seems unfair to punish players who want to play a format already available to them by not giving the same benefits as other formats. After all, Pauper is a great way for returning players and new players to get their feet wet playing Magic again and can help them build into other formats where they might utilize byes for Grand Prixs and the like.
Gavin Verhey, a fantastic representative for the game from Wizards and a fan of the format himself, has been heard discussing the matter with notable format representatives Tolarian Community College and Color Commontary about this legality issue. In both, he states that Wizards is hearing us and trying to see what can be done, but that ultimately the more people that play the format, the more likely they'll be to figure something out. If the format was simply sanctioned as is, I promise you'd see a greater number of players turning out to play, and thus the incentive grows to figure out a proper legality system, as well as a more appropriate ban list.
I've talked at length in the past about current format health and what I feel should be banned, especially after some alarming recent events, but that's not what I mean here. If the format had a properly unified legality list, it would open the door for extremely powerful commons like Hymn to Tourach and Sinkhole, as mentioned earlier, but also High Tide, Goblin Grenade, and Merchant Scroll. Most, if not all of these, would almost certainly be too powerful for the format and would need to be removed accordingly.
The whole legality issue would take time to resolve, but ultimately it would be worth it. Just give us something we can work with in the meantime.
In closing, I think Pauper is in a better place than it has been in years. The support by the community is stronger than ever and the desire to grow it is massive. We have more events than ever, and have even sent one fantastic player to a Mythic Championship simply by playing the format at MagicFest Los Angeles.
Yet we need Wizards to take one more step for us and make the format official. It's absolutely within the realm of possibility and wouldn't be difficult to implement, provided they do it right. A meeting or two, a bit of reprogramming in WER, and a formal announcement and that would be it. Let's make it happen Wizards. It's time to officially sanction this amazing format. Hopefully we see it soon and make the format better than ever before.