September 30, 2011
Since I pushed away the rock I was under a couple years ago and discovered Commander, my goal has always been to build as many optimal Commander decks as my collection would allow. Each was to be of relatively equal power level and all were to be constructed with minimum bank-breaking. But even though I’ve been playing and spending coin on this hobby since 1995, once you add up dual lands, costly auto-includes (read: Primeval Titan, Consecrated Sphinx, Bribery, etc.) and the acquisition of the specific cards to finish off a top-tier Commander deck, a collection that used to seem expansive could support only two such builds. And I only got beyond one because I was careful to make sure that each touched a different portion of the color pie with Ghave, Guru of Spores and Numot, the Devastator (sure does suck to invest all your good duals in one five-color deck, although it was fun with the Reaper King while it lasted).
So then I had these two decks. Success! But two problems marred what should have been a highlight in my deck building career: one, after working closely with the collection and trying all sorts of generals, it became clear that I was incapable of building and loving a deck that wasn’t satisfactorily optimized (read: broken, just not “win on the fourth turn consistently” broken; see Aside). Though that is most definitely a personal issue, I’m not sure which is more costly: playsets of the original dual lands, or therapy without union insurance. Which leads us to the second, decidedly more universal problem faced by deckbuilders who seek balanced decks: inevitably running out of certain “staples” in each color as you build more decks, or as it’s otherwise known, “why the hell did Wizards cook up Modern right when Commander/causal interest was at an all-time high?”
Aside: I love the “It’s cool if you run out of certain staples among your decks because it gives you a chance to try different cards you wouldn’t otherwise use” thing. Love it. Can’t do it. Again, therapy. And in order to decrease my douche factor in settings outside my playgroup, I tried to build suboptimal decks to decrease the power level voluntarily, but I just couldn’t “fall in love” with anything I built like that. When you could be playing a deck you are in love with, and instead you’re playing this suboptimal POS, it’s like the difference between getting laid and buying a hooker. Did I mention I need therapy? But I digress.
Really, this second problem just boils down to the goal for every obsessive deckbuilder (or at least for me): to keep building new decks. And I wanted new decks that could play against each other if, say, some friends without decks who like to play Magic want to come over and throw down. So to keep up with Ghave and Numot, I was going to have to pony up some serious cash. As you might imagine, those both sport the optimal landbase with all the fetchlands and duals, of both the old school and shock variety (although I am still missing a Steam Vents DAMN IT ALL TO HELL!!!). It just wasn’t realistic to roll with that kind of manabase beyond the two decks, so I seemed to be looking at either proxying (which my OCD hates, although I must say that Brionne’s article last week opened my eyes on the subject), building sub-optimal decks (or at least with suboptimal cards relative to Ghave and Numot), or working with mono-colored generals (which I just don’t seem to enjoy as much even after piloting a close-to-broken Teferi, Mage of Zhalfir deck for a few fun evenings). Sure, you can say, “well, I didn’t want to play my one copy of Bribery in every deck with Blue in it anyway,” but in all seriousness….you probably do want to play that Bribery in every Blue deck. The expense associated with that reality was a disappointing prospect, because I thought one of the allures of a singleton format was that you didn’t have to worry about obtaining a playset (or more) of every playable.
What finally pushed me to look for a way to take a little break from Commander without leaving the format entirely is something I know I’m not alone on. Who else is tired of seeing that damn Consecrated Sphinx? If an opponent sees an opening hand of something like two in-color sources, Sol Ring, Bribery/Consecrated Sphinx/Primeval Titan or any number of other broken cards, who do you think is likely either (1) well on their way to winning or (2) at least dominating the early and mid-game to the extent that the other players are playing catch-up, and thus likely diminishing their enjoyment in what’s supposed to be a social format? Seeing Sol Ring + Stupid in your opening draw isn’t skill, or even good deck building (duh, play Sol Ring, Bribery and Prime Time); I’ve been that player, and never once did I take the same satisfaction a usual Commander experience affords in a game where the keys to domination were handed to me by the very nature of the format.
So in my search for evenly matched, less broken decks that could still be “optimized” within format constraints, my course was charted for me when Andy and the guys at CommanderCast pimped Pauper EDH on an episode from last season. Listening to Donovan and Co. speak so passionately about their twist on the format was very compelling, as were the rules they suggested (which in all fairness were not universally accepted by the panel, and I guess hard-and-fast rules for Pauper EDH do not exist). They convinced me to take a vacation of sorts from the format I love so much, and prompted this far-too-long article to chronicle the journey into Pauper.
The Rules: “General” Consensus?
In sum, the rules framework those panel members proposed would be to choose any general you want and play the game just like regular Commander, but that your deck would have only 99 commons. While their ground rules on the contents of the 99 are crystal clear, a lot of discussion centered on General legality. Looks like there are at least three schools of thought out there:
1. Any uncommon creature (boo, hiss! Commander is all about your legendary creature leading your army, right?)
2. Only legendary creatures printed at common or uncommon (limited to a pool primarily from Kamigawa block and Legends that include such stalwarts as Chandler, Lady Orca and Brothers Yamazaki; but, on the bright side, Ramirez Del Pietro does have first strike!)
3. Any legendary creature (leader in the clubhouse)
Although the panel discussed the issue in greater depth and clarity, let it suffice to say that the main pros for camp 3 were the ease of fitting into existing Commander games online and in person, and that with such a limited card pool, a strong general was necessary to “fill in the holes” of the deck. A couple choices the panel suggested were Rhys, the Redeemed and Niv Mizett, the Firendmind, certainly two of the best generals out there.
While I certainly understand the allure to power up, and agreed with just about every other suggestion the panel made, I couldn’t come to terms with the “any general you want” theory in a format defined by commons and thus denied access to tuck effects. I think so-called “crap” generals, the ones that sit for years in the rare binders at your local store, should lead Pauper armies, partly because they are consistent for the spirit of the format, but also to decrease the chance that deck will over-rely on a general that could virtually win a game on its own with only common cards to oppose it. This is especially true if you have a Pauper playgroup; I suppose an OP general would give a Pauper deck a better shot against regular Commander decks, but even the “crap” generals can “fill the holes” in this format, and my playgroup was able to establish some ground rules for picking a general to lead your Pauper army that I wanted to share.
One option, of course, would be to propose a ban list of some sort, but I think it is blatantly obvious that the likes of Zur, Jhoira, Arcum Dagsson, etc., are not welcome. We found that a more subjective approach, utilizing guidelines rather than rules, works pretty well in a social format where you’ve gotta figure your friends will simply ask you to stop playing any general that seems overpowered for Pauper.
With that out of the way, let’s define what we mean by “crap” general. Seeing as this is Pauper, it seems appropriate that the first consideration should be cost. For example, if you want to play Pauper G/W Elves, and Rhys, the Redeemed costs $6.00 and is out of stock on SCG, you probably shouldn’t play him (to say nothing of the fact that in my testing, he was capable of basically winning the game ON HIS OWN). Especially when Tolsimir Wolfblood checks in at $0.99, is an elf, makes tokens (if not as well as Rhys), and there are 40+ in stock at SCG (love or hate SCG, it is helpful in some respects to have “industry standard” pricing to guide trades and bullshit articles like this one). Arbitrary or not, that price tag brings us to the conclusion that Mr. Woolfblood and his ilk are indeed the sort of droids we’re looking for to lead a Pauper deck.
This begs the question, “is it viable to simply limit the Pauper generals to the ones who go for less than a buck on SCG?” It would be a relatively simple matter to determine if the general were legal by searching the site every so often, which is miles easier than applying such a concept to every card in a Pauper deck to exclude things like Rhystic Study that cost actual tickets (and that school of thought is out there). That works, right?
Well, it turns out that cost cannot be the only barometer for determining a fair general. Case in point: I wanted a place to put my Damia, Sage of Stone, but at $2.99 she was 6 times the cost of Vorosh, the Hunter ($0.49) at SCG. Thinking it would be “fairer” of me to use Vorosh instead due to his unquestioned budget status, I proceeded to crush the table with a 24/24 Vorosh (a card that can inflict the requisite general damage in a format with no rare fliers to clog up the skies is a little broken). Although in that instance my opponents were short on removal at an important time, it would be a simple matter to pack such a deck with shroud/hexproof effects like Shielding Plax or Trollhide and pretty much win as soon as Vorosh hits the table.
Thus, in my constant struggle to battle my inner douchebaggery, I replaced Vorosh with Damia, and went on to have fun, constructive games (putting me squarely in the “Invasions and Planar Chaos dragons are inappropriate as pauper generals” camp). And though it seems the new generals in Wizards’ Commander decks are rarer than most based on the sheer limited number of Commander box decks, it is telling that Damia has fallen from $4 to $3 in the couple weeks I’ve been kicking around this article. Despite that relative rarity, and although Damia’s card drawing capability is quite nice in a format bereft of the best card drawing engines, her cost and stats made for a balanced general in our testing. Looks like she found her home after all.
Finally, the best reason to play a particular legend as the commander of your Pauper deck is the reason to play EDH generally: a chance to use a card otherwise would be collecting dust. A classic example of this in my group is Borborygmos (AKA “Big Boy”), something I haven‘t taken from the box its been in since about, oh, when Guildpact came out. A second look revealed that he’s freaking huge and tramplly, two things that are highly relevant in this format. Add to those the fact that he boosts his army in a roundabout way in a format that relies on damage for removal, as well as his $0.49 price tag on SCG, and now we’re looking for a foil copy.
So if you’re trying to enforce some kind of social contract when picking a Pauper general, you might want to consider whether the card is less than a buck at SCG; the number of that card in stock at SCG (i.e., is it underplayed?); and whether you can take the Pauper opportunity to play a general you otherwise couldn’t. If, like Damia, there are over 100 in stock and she can’t make the cut ahead of “The” (AKA The Mimeoplasm) as a general in those colors in regular Commander, a case can be made that she is underplayed enough to eventually fall in value and justify Pauper general status despite costing over $0.99 at the moment.
With those thoughts on general choice in mind, our group built a gauntlet of decks to assess the power level and fun potential of Pauper EDH. We’ll get into those, as well an in-dept look at the aforementioned Damia, Sage of Stones build, next time here at Peasant Rebellion, where we fight to keep Magic fun!