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To Ban or Unban in Pauper

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This upcoming Monday - October 7, 2019 - is the next Banned and Restricted announcement. While most formats are arguably in a somewhat reasonable spot - especially after the last announcement that saw both Modern and Vintage heavily impacted - Pauper is in a bit of a tougher spot.

You see, Jeskai has been putting up quite a bit of a strong showing lately. It's not winning too many events necessarily (although it did win the Magic Online Pauper Challenge this past weekend) but it's showing up a lot nonetheless. It's become very common for the deck to take up half of the Top 8 and even the Top 16 of events. This has become concerning for a number of players, although some say it's still fine. Aggro decks can beat it, as seen by decks like Bogles, Stompy, and Elves coming out on top over Jeskai in a number of events, but the overall numbers still lend to concerns of format health.

There are those who would like to see certain cards banned from the deck to take it down a notch or else get it out of the format completely. These days, the ban discussions revolve around two cards: Arcum's Astrolabe and Ephemerate.

Arcum's Astrolabe
Ephemerate

It's hard to say anything with regards to Arcum's Astrolabe that hasn't been said at this point. In July I wrote a piece talking about the issues with the card in the context of the Pauper metagame and I still stand by everything in the article. Since then, numerous other writers and content creators have given their thoughts on the card. Some want it to stay, some want it gone, others are on the fence or else wouldn't mind either way. The discussions about the issues with the card extend even past Pauper, with talks of it being too good in Modern and Legacy. Even renowned hall of famer Luis Scott-Vargas tweeted about how the card is a mistake.

So as not to repeat myself too much at this point, I'm instead going to mention Ephemerate. What's causing the issue with this card and why is it such a big deal? When people first saw the card, most thought it was neat that we were basically getting Cloudshift with rebound, but most players didn't think it would see much play. Cloudshift saw and still sees zero play after all, and if you really want to be flickering then you should probably be playing Ghostly Flicker.

As it turns out, one mana is much better than three, even if it's slower to play out. You can use this extra mana to hold up countermagic, removal, and more, allowing you to play a much longer, controlling game. It also only needs one creature on the board, meaning you can create a loop with one Mnemonic Wall or Archaeomancer to get back non-Ephemerate spells, unlike Ghostly Flicker which requires two Walls/Archaeomancers. In addition, there's some really silly plays with Ephemerate, such as casting it on an evoked Mulldrifter and then rebounding it onto that same creature, giving you a 2/2 flier and six cards for only 2wu.

All of these plays lead to some really intense card advantage that makes it hard for players to battle back. The reasons aggro decks have been having some success against these decks are two-fold. The biggest is that they go under Jeskai before it goes off and locks down the game. The other thing that has helped is the new tools that these decks got. Goblins put up some numbers for a hot second and it's no surprise given that the deck had Goblin Grenade added to its repertoire. Stompy got the arguably bigger addition with Savage Swipe - both a pump spell and removal all in one!

So what should happen? Ultimately I do believe something should be banned. Nothing good can come from having one deck repeatedly perform in such high numbers week after week. While I personally feel both should go, I think there's a reasonable claim that it might be fine to just hit Ephemerate first and see where things land - even if the homogenizing effects of the Astrolabe aren't great on the format. Either one is fine by me, but I think at the very least it's time Jeskai got knocked down a peg.

That having been said, there is also a pretty sizeable portion of the community that wants to see cards unbanned in Pauper instead of banning cards. The argument here is that giving the format access to old powerhouses might take down the big decks a peg or two while still being somewhat manageable to battle back against. As such, I'm going to take a look at every single card currently on the Pauper ban list and explain whether or not I think it's safe to unban. Let's have a look!

Cranial Plating (Banned December 8, 2008)

Cranial Plating

Pauper was officially noted as a format on Magic Online in the December 1, 2008 B&R announcement and the first card listed as being banned in the format was Cranial Plating. The reasons for this one having been banned should be pretty obvious to anyone who has seen Affinity in action not only in Pauper but in Modern, Legacy, and its original Standard forms.

Giving such a dramatic buff to your creatures for very little investment can be backbreaking, especially for a deck like Affinity that already throws out one heavy hitter after another. It wouldn't be hard to swing in once with a creature that has Cranial Plating on it and connect for lethal. It even makes Fling better since you can throw any creature and unlike with Atog you don't need to lose your whole board and risk it getting hit with a counterspell, damage prevention, or similar.

Verdict: keep it banned.

Frantic Search (Banned June 29, 2011)

Frantic Search

The second card ever banned took me a little digging to find the ban date. Most of the cards on this list were listed on the MTG Wiki page with sources attached. The Cranial Plating one took a bit to find in the mix here, but I was able to spot it. Frantic Search is harder, as it was banned during the point when all these updates were made on the Magic Online Community Blog - a now defunct site. I asked on Twitter and got met with a couple sources. These included a MTG Salvation forum thread, a Wayback Machined link to the original announcement, and an older article by format expert Alex Ullman.

So what caused Frantic Search to be banned in the first place? When Urza's Legacy was added to Magic Online in 2010, Frantic Search was just one of many powerhouses to enter the format. Search, however, was downright broken in Storm. The deck was so dominant that Wizards wanted to knock it down a peg without fully killing the deck, much like how they've famously handled the archetype in Modern. As I'll get into in a moment, that ultimately didn't pan out, and Storm outright dominated the metagame for another year and a half before being removed from the format.

That said, let's take Storm out of the equation for the sake of this article. Would Frantic Search be fine to unban? It's often going to be a free Careful Study most of the time and as such is better than even Faithless Looting even if there's no flashback or anything here. The selection it would give would be too effective and would also likely be extremely problematic with decks like Tron and Familiars, as you could generate absurd amounts of mana and possibly even go infinite with the right combination of cards.

Verdict: keep it banned.

Grapeshot and Empty the Warrens (Banned February 6, 2013)

Grapeshot
Empty the Warrens

With the loss of Frantic Search, Storm decks had to change their builds. The best performing ones went all-in and worked with a cycle of lands from Invasion that you sacrificed for 2 mana. It was slow and risky, but the payoff was real. You may have even seen something like this today with the deck known as Fishelbrand or Epicure Storm. They both look very similar to these old Storm builds of yesteryear without these big nasty payoffs.

The classic Storm deck, however, utterly dominated the metagame. Other decks could be viable and sometimes put up a fight. Delver, Affinity, Cloudpost, and Infect all quickly come to mind from that era. This time period was my very first foray into the format and I assure you that while these decks did show up, it was nothing compared to the dominance of Storm. The deck was everywhere and mirrors often came down to who could pull the trigger first. It wasn't fun or healthy for the meta at all.

That said, while Grapeshot shouldn't even be close to the table where we discuss unbans, there is some arguable merit to unbanning Empty the Warrens. The card would both create new archetypes and give existing decks a way to go get a big board. These creatures won't be attacking the turn they land so they have a little more play.

There's something else worth noting too. In case you didn't notice, both of these cards were banned mere months after Return to Ravnica was released and there weren't many Red decks around the format. I personally don't recall many, if any, copies of Electrickery in the meta at the time. It may actually be fine to at least attempt an unban and see if countermagic to stop any combos and board wipes to keep the creatures in check makes an impact on the meta without being unhealthy.

On the other hand, however, it could still be too much with cards like Mnemonic Wall and Archaeomancer all over the format. It may just be that it's far too broken in the grand scheme of things and isn't worth sending the format down the drain on accident by trying to unban this one. That call will ultimately be up to Wizards.

Verdict: Keep Grapeshot banned, cautiously explore a possible Empty unban.

Invigorate (Banned February 6, 2013)

Invigorate

Invigorate was banned due to the high speed of play that it allowed Infect decks to have. In this article at the very bottom, Erik Lauer explains that it's too easy to protect your creature for free or go in for ridiculously easy wins. Infect wasn't the biggest player at the time, however, as Storm was far and away the most dominant archetype, but there was definitely concerns about its power in the wake of Storm being removed from the format.

This ban completely neutered the Infect archetype, relegating it to roughly a tier 3 status. It got a bit of a bump thanks to the format unification giving us Unstable Mutation, but even that hasn't really been enough. Given that the format is so heavily focused on damage prevention, big removal like Skred, or even hard removal like Doom Blade, there's certainly a strong argument to bring this one back. It is worth noting that Infect's best draws - such as Forest, Glistener Elf, x2 Invigorate, Apostle's Blessing, and Mutagenic Growth - can kill as early as turn two.

There's certainly pros and cons with unbanning this card, but I feel there's at the very least enough of a case to unban that it should be looked into.

Verdict: Explore the possibility of an unbanning.

Cloudpost (Banned October 2, 2013)

Cloudpost

Cloudpost was banned alongside Temporal Fissure in no small part due to being part of a powerful combo deck that allowed for the generation of absurd amounts of mana and loops much like we see today. Cloudpost specifically was banned because the mana it generated was arguably too great - especially with untap effects like Cloud of Faeries being in the format at the time. You would also gain tons of free life just by playing Glimmerposts with it as well.

These days, the two Post cards have been replaced with the Urza lands (Urza's Mine, Urza's Power Plant, and Urza's Tower). The deck they're played in - known as Tron - has consistently been one of the meta's top contenders for some time now and has had players argue for those lands to be banned as well. Given the controversial state of those lands and the fact that these ones are better by a significant amount, I think it's safe to keep this one locked away.

Verdict: keep it banned.

Temporal Fissure (Banned October 2, 2013)

Temporal Fissure

When Grapeshot and Empty the Warrens were banned, Temporal Fissure was left in the hopes that there could still be a competitive Storm option within the meta. Unfortunately, with the mass amounts of mana that you could generate with the likes of Cloudpost, Cloud of Faeries, Familiars, and more, this card often turned into a one-sided Upheaval. It set games back dramatically and made things terribly unfun.

While we don't have the same level of easy mana that the format had access to back then, this would still be very much of a one-sided Upheaval sort of card in both modern-day Tron and Familiars. Dinrova Horror, Snap, and Capsize already do this quite well and are notably less efficient than Temporal Fissure.

Verdict: keep it banned.

Treasure Cruise (Banned April 1, 2015)

Treasure Cruise

In pretty much every non-rotating or eternal format, Treasure Cruise was basically the second coming of Ancestral Recall. The same is true for Pauper and I see absolutely no reason why such a card should re-enter the format - or any format - again.

Verdict: keep it banned.

Cloud of Faeries and Peregrine Drake (Banned January 27, 2016 and November 16, 2016, respectively)

Cloud of Faeries
Peregrine Drake

For a period following the above bans, Familiars was dominating the metagame. Cloud of Faeries was one of the key cards at the center of the deck that allowed for the generation of absurd amounts of mana when combined with the likes of Snap, Ghostly Flicker, and the mana reduction abilities of Sunscape Familiar and Nightscape Familiar. It also saw a lot of play in Delver decks as you could play this and then hold up Spellstutter Sprite. This created a problematic and unhealthy metagame and the card was banned.

Unfortunately, the card Peregrine Drake was already slotted in the then-upcoming Eternal Masters set which had already long been sent to the printing presses. Wizards waited to see how things would play out with that card and, despite the bigger mana cost, the effect was largely the same. If allowed today, I firmly believe these effects would be just as warping as they were then and possibly even more so given how major Flicker effects still are in the metagame.

Verdict: keep them banned.

Gush, Gitaxian Probe, and Daze (Banned May 20, 2019)

Gush
Gitaxian Probe
Daze

The bannings of Gush, Gitaxian Probe, and Daze are still very fresh in players' minds. Many still feel these cards were unjustly banned and indeed, they've been some of the most commonly discussed. Ideas have formed that cards like Arcum's Astrolabe and Ephemerate were designed with a Gush meta in mind and that may be why they're comparatively so strong.

While Gush is certainly a big problem card with the likes of Foil and now Mystic Sanctuary, discussions linger about Git Probe and Daze. Probe is pretty innocuous and was fairly okay in decks like Inside Out Combo and Izzet Blitz where players would check if the coast was clear. It became more problematic when it started showing up in decks like Burn and of course Dimir Delver and started to show a lot of the same design flaws that got it banned in every other format.

Daze was and still is somewhat of a head scratcher, and is probably the one people feel most strongly should be unbanned. Indeed, I definitely think there is merit to this argument, as it wasn't a card that was overly dominating the format as a whole. Wizards has made their stance clear on these cards, however, and said they feel both getting this spell for free and removing a "shields down" element isn't good for this particular format. Like Gush, it also gets tremendously better thanks to Mystic Sanctuary and honestly we're probably best off with it gone as a result, even if players still want to see it back.

Verdict: keep them banned.

Hymn to Tourach and Sinkhole (Banned June 27, 2019)

Hymn to Tourach
Sinkhole

Hymn to Tourach and Sinkhole were banned with the officialization and unification of the Pauper format. There are a number of players who feel we should've gotten an opportunity to play with these cards rather than just up and banning them. The question really becomes what good will come from allowing them into the format?

Sinkhole just creates situations with too easy and too much land destruction, an effect Wizards has tried moving away from for some time. It's just simply unfun and bringing it back wouldn't add much to the format itself so I think it's fine being gone. We have a reasonable Mono-Black Land Destruction deck as is, after all.

Hymn to Tourach just rips apart players' entire strategies. Sometimes it can take an entire game from them even. It's not a stretch to believe that we could see decks go Swamp, Dark Ritual, Hymn and rip away all of their opponent's lands before they even get a chance to play a land. There's been comparisons to Wrench Mind, but with Wrench Mind you both get to choose what you discard and can discard less provided you ditch an artifact. The randomization aspect of Hymn isn't healthy or fun and thus is the reason it's banned and should stay banned.

Verdict: keep them banned.

High Tide (Banned June 27, 2019)

High Tide

Alongside Hymn and Sinkhole, early Magic powerhouse High Tide was also banned. In the lead up to the unification, I tested out what it might look like were High Tide to ever enter the format. As some readers may know, one of my favorite Legacy decks is High Tide and I was curious to see how it would work if it were to enter into the format. My initial list with no sideboard looked something like this:


Does this list look somewhat familiar to you? If you've ever played with or against Familiars, then you'll probably notice it looks very similar to the shells with that deck. The difference here is that rather than using Sunscape Familiar and the Ravnica bounce lands, we're using High Tide and a bunch of Islands. It's not super expensive and is something you can easily throw together and solitaire a bit.

What I found is that the deck is actually kinda slow and clunky, often requiring you to use upward of three High Tide activations to really be able to go off with the deck. It's also much more narrow, as decks like Familiars could also gain lots of life with something like God-Pharaoh's Faithful or prevent attacks with Stonehorn Dignitary. Because of all this, I actually thought for a bit that High Tide might very well be safe for an unban. Ian Duke even said in the stream announcing the format unification that this ban largely came from theorycrafting rather than actual testing.

A recent preview changed my mind, however:

Mystic Sanctuary

Mystic Sanctuary really pushes this deck a lot. The bonus effect is virtually inconsequential to hit in this kind of deck where every one of your lands is an Island. It makes it so you can hit or else replay every one of your combo pieces with ease and thus would likely contribute to making this deck a bunch bigger problem than it might otherwise be.

Verdict: keep it banned, but unban it if Mystic Sanctuary ever leaves the format.

So there you have it, all told I think the only two cards worth discussing right now are Empty the Warrens and Invigorate. Even then, those two cards are very, very strong and have massive potential to warp the metagame around them. Time will tell, however, and this next Monday will bring either nothing or a big heaping change! What do you think? Will something be banned, unbanned, or are we going to see no changes once again?