Welcome to Poor Man’s Treasure! This column will focus on winning in Standard Pauper, with an eye towards theory and exploring the little quirks that make this format so lovable.
Today we will take a look at the card that defines magic. That’s right; there is one card that defines this game, not only pauper magic, but magic in general. Its power has been felt since alpha, and while it is not one of the power 9, its influence is greater than that of any of those cards. Those experienced magicians among you already know which card I am talking about. For the rest of you, the answer lies inside…
Wrath of God is the defining card of Magic. It is the one card that drives Wizards’ design of the game. It has an impact on each other card they decide to print. Therefore, you must understand Wrath in order to understand competitive magic. To explain why, I need to make a little divergence into the design of the game. There are 6 primary card types in magic. Of these, the most common and most important is the creature. Even among the other card types, most of the cards printed are made to effect creatures. Creatures have far more rules associated with them than other card types, and they dominate the play of the game, taking the center stage in each player’s turn. Creatures are required for attacking and blocking, and as such creatures are the primary means of both damage dealing and damage prevention.
Games of magic often revolve around who can get their creatures to stay on the board the longest and deal or prevent the most damage. As such, Wrath of God is the card that defines what makes a good creature. If a creature can survive Wrath, or have an effect on the game before or after a Wrath, the creature becomes much better than a creature who cannot. The first way a creature can do this is by being cheaper than the board sweeper. A creature that only costs one or two mana can get in a few swings before they are destroyed, so these creatures are useful damage outlets. By contrast, a creature that costs four or more mana has a higher bar to cross before it becomes playable, since it can be destroyed the turn after it has been played. This is why creatures like Shivan Dragon and Mahamoti Djinn, while undoubtedly very powerful, rarely see play in constructed magic.
Another popular method for making a creature playable is to make a creature that has an immediate effect on the game. Most often, this means a creature that has an effect triggered by it coming into play. These creatures, called “187 creatures” after the rules section they fall under*, are popular in constructed play because if they resolve they have an immediate effect, followed by the residual effect of being a creature that can swing and block. Trinket Mage is an example of this kind of creature that should be familiar to paupers. These kinds of creatures are especially important in pauper, as they are the most common sources of card advantage or virtual card advantage.
Another method that has been in vogue recently is the death trigger. These are creatures that have some effect not upon resolving, but rather upon going to the graveyard. The Dragon cycle from Kamigawa is emblematic of this philosophy. By forcing your opponent to deal with your creatures yet punishing them when they do, these creatures have an effect on the board that while not immediate is nevertheless inevitable. A good example of this design in pauper is the Haunt mechanic, where these Haunt creatures have a death trigger that causes a death trigger on another creature.
Finally, creatures that have haste have an immediate effect on the board, since they can attack or use tapping abilities the turn they come into play.
In the same way that Wrath defines what creatures are good, it defines what other removal is playable. Any removal that costs four or more has to be taken under serious consideration, because that removal competes directly with Wrath. In order to be played at that cost it has to provide some benefit beyond destroying a creature, since Wrath will take out any creature on the board for the same price. This means that most removal costs less than four, and removal costing four or more has additional benefits such as “Gain 4 Life” or “Draw a Card.”
Finally, Wrath of God determines the critical turn of a game of magic. It is absolutely essential that an aggro player be able to deal significant damage to his opponent before his board is wiped out. It’s also important that he be able to recover afterwards, and finish the game in the face of the threat of more removal or superior creatures. In the aggro vs. control matchup, the critical turn is turn four. Will the control player have the Wrath in hand? Will he have been able to slow down the assault enough to recover afterwards?
In the same way that the presence of Wrath of God defines competitive magic in other formats, its absence defines pauper. Sure, we have other forms of mass removal. Martyr of Ashes is a very good board sweeper in a heavy red deck. Rain of Embers can knock fliers out of the air. Casting Regeneration on a Mortipede gives your opponent no end of headaches. And casting Momentary Blink on a Subterranean Shambler the turn it comes into play is good enough for a win against many decks. But Martyr and Shambler can be played around with Fliers. Attacking will foil the Mortipede plan. And any of these cards can be thwarted with regeneration or high toughness. None of these cards is unconditional global removal.
And that, my friends, completely changes the nature of the game.
Creatures that Wizards created to compete with the infamous board sweeper don’t have that competition in pauper. Combos that aren’t playable elsewhere work here. Overcommitting to the board is often the correct play. Regeneration is much more useful. Toughness boosting effects can be as important as power boosting effects. Expensive, non hasty, non 187 creatures can have an effect on the game before they die.
Magic theory as it applies in other formats doesn’t apply here.
I’m writing this article first because it is so critical to understand what the absence of Wrath of God does to the format. Most of my future pauper theory articles will have to deal with the ramifications of the absence of Wrath, primarily in the form of strategies that don’t work in other formats that do work in pauper. Next week we’ll go over in much greater depth the removal that is available in pauper standard, what that means for the format, and how that influences what creatures (if any!) you should be putting into your deck. Join me again next week dear paupers, when we explore removal without heavenly influence…