While there’s a ton of work on archetypes, exciting new commons in Ultimate Masters and plenty of ways to improve the cube, there’s one oft-returned topic that’s always a little touchy: What are the most expensive cards in the Pauper Cube… and what can replace them?
A Word About “Budget”
When the word “budget” gets tossed around in Magic communities there’s a few implicit assumptions about its use:
- Budget means less expensive than the baseline expectation. (For the Pauper Cube, it’s “budget” as a default in comparison to typical rare-filled and powered cubes.)
- Budget means less expensive cards as a requirement for the player. (You’re going for the “lowest reasonable cost” and not finding premium copies of cards.)
- Budget means something can be just as effective, and it should often be so. (Building a budget deck isn’t meant to necessarily take away from it’s ability to be fun and win games of Magic.)
I used a lot of quotation marks and italic formatting for a reason: The nuance and range of what “budget” means to players makes it a divisive topic. What’s a “budget” Modern deck, a deck that’s $100 or $200 or under $500? Is it simply the least expensive deck among those in the upper reaches of the metagame? Is it a less-played deck that’s less expensive to build as a function of its lack of popularity?
I don’t propose an answer for budget in broader Magic, but for the Pauper Cube specifically I’m going to focus on the cards in the cube that are colloquially more than $2 by TCGplayer Market Price. When players ask about these cards it’s because they’re often much more expensive than the others. Tracking down a $3 cards feels strange when you’re probably getting 30 or more other cards in the cube for the same amount.
So let’s hit it.
Strip Mine is contentious as one version of the card was printed on the common sheet of Antiquities, but it’s generally classified as an uncommon. I like pushing the boundaries of cube eligibility (such as adapting Magic Online-exclusive legality from sets like Vintage Masters before the broader paper community jumped on board) but the impact of a Strip Mine in a game is pretty tame without powerful dual lands and things like Dimir Aqueduct to punish.
Just cut Strip Mine. I’m planning to do it with the next update anyway given the overwhelming feedback in favor of that.
Chainer's Edict is an amazing piece of removal that’s a staple in Pauper Constructed. Its received a few promotional reprints over the years, but still carries a healthy (unhealthy?) $7+ price, and even higher if you want a foil flavor. But, lucky for you, it’s about to be reprinted in Ultimate Masters at uncommon which will definitely make it more accessible.
However it’s also a fairly easy card to swap out. There’s no other “flashback Edict” to use, but Cruel Edict has been printed in several sets, as a textless promo and in several supplemental releases like Duel Decks. For about $1 you can even get a nice foil copy.
Predatory Nightstalker is a once-printed common from Portal: Second Age, a long-ago “beginners” Magic product with low product numbers and circulation. Nightstalker is actually an Edict effect (see above) under current rules text, but functionally it’s a removal spell stapled onto a creature. At over $6, and rising rapidly over time, finding something else can make sense.
With so many black removal spells it isn’t hard to find reasonable alternatives. Zombie Assassin is conditionally stronger, but makes you wait a turn and exile itself to work. Heartstabber Mosquito is evasive but requires a lot of mana to get the full effect. One of the strongest contenders for replacing Nightstalker is Violet Pall which targets to destroy what you want, gives you a flying creature and does it all for an easier mana cost in comparison. The “nonblack” rider, like many of black’s older removal spells, can lead to rough spots but at a cost of $0.10 it’s totally fine.
And before you slam the newly downshifted-in-Ultimate Masters Slum Reaper let’s be real: It’s probably making the main cube list on its own merits anyway.
Battle Screech is the first challenging card. It’s been printed once (and I have my fingers crossed for Ultimate Masters to come through for us with a reprint) but its effect is truly extraordinary. Four mana to make two 1/1 flying Birds, then tapping those birds and another white creature to make two more 1/1 flying Birds is a play sequence that catapulted this card to staple status.
There really isn’t anything quite like it in elsewhere in Magic.
The closest cards can provide some flying and tokens, such Eyes in the Skies and Emissary of the Sleepless or even Spectral Reserves. You don’t “need” to make flying creatures with this slot, as a serviceable four-drop like Aven Liberator (from morph mode) or Mistmoon Griffin or even Tah-Crop Elite will work well.
Preordain is an iconic card offering the best one-mana card selection in a format with few shuffle effects. Long ago, Brainstorm was in the cube but I mathed out that the lack of shuffling means it was fairly weak in comparison: If you drew three bad cards (lands) you were just stuck, versus scry which could send thema way or Ponder which could at least shuffle before replacing itself.
The hard part about replacing Preordain is that most of the comparable cards run a similar price point. Serum Visions and Ponder both command prices in the $2 range, and Sleight of Hand is even more. My humble suggestion is the overlooked Portent which is a “slower” Ponder but does similar cantrip and card selection lifting for around $0.50.
Lightning Bolt is among Magic‘s most iconic cards. It’s been reprinted several times and is the baseline of burn efficiency all burn spells are measured against. Shock is almost Lightning Bolt, and would serve a similar role in replacing it in a cube, but the difference between 2 damage to any target and 3 damage to any target is huge. Shard Volley means losing a Mountain, but that’s probably okay if you really need the Lightning Bolt effect in full.
Crypt Rats is Pestilence but on a creature. It’s the only common creature in Magic that’s also Pestilence. Both Crypt Rats and Pestilence are the closest effects to Wrath of God in the Pauper Cube, and as such as among the best cards to build a control deck on.
Crypt Rats is another fairly irreplaceable card in the cube. While you could cheat and add a second copy of Pestilence (a helpfully inexpensive card) there’s no real replacement for it in similar terms. In a pinch, Mephitic Vapors or Nausea could function as a sweeper against token decks, but it’s really not the same as dealing 3 damage to everything.
Ash Barrens is another unique card in Magic (Starting to see a pattern yet?) that helps fix mana in any deck. Basic landcycling is an amazing ability, and Ash Barrens is a Pauper staple because it’s just that good. All of the best common mana-fixing lands are already in the cube, and while I won’t be cutting this anytime soon you can just skip picking up your copy if saving $2 is what you need to do.
Prismatic Strands is, well, another unique card cut from the same cloth that Battle Screech was. Blanking a ton of damage, not just to you but your creatures too, normally isn’t exciting for cubes (see Fog) but the fact it can be both one-sided and cast from flashback without any mana makes it challenging to battle through.
Effects that grant protection from something are similar enough in role and playstyle that you could grab something from there to fill in. Feat of Resistance and Emerge Unscathed are two stronger options that might work, but if you did want a white Fog then I suggest Angelsong as it can be cycled away (as it often will).
Some cards are easy!
Searing Blaze isn’t quite a unique card, but the certainty and consistency of its effect is way better than alternatives (and Lash Out is already in the cube). Here, a utility burn spell like Lightning Strike or even the somewhat conditional (but still quite useful) Thunderbolt will get the job done.
But Wait, What About…
There’s always a fine line for someone’s budget. Maybe stretching for a staple like Lightning Bolt is fine but not Nature's Lore (which surged about a full $1 since I added it to the Pauper Cube earlier this year) or Capsize. Maybe you want to set hard limit at “only cards you can find for 10 cents.” Ultimately, your budget is up to you but I can guarantee that the awesome Pauper Cube community on Discord will find clever cards to suggest if you really need to replace something.
Good luck and happy drafting!