War of the Spark is absolutely packed with powerful commons. The lengthy Quick Hits article for War of the Spark, even after paring down repeatedly, demonstrates that the newer design philosophy of “powerful commons are ok” leads to many more decisions than in recent updates. After testing with some friends in Boston the other weekend, and it really hit the range of players and styles perfect for feedback.
— Omar H. (@ITOmarHernandez) May 5, 2019
For now, here’s what made the cut from War of the Spark for this update.
|7||0/0 Zombie Army||Aven Eternal, Callous Dismissal, Lazotep Reaver, Toll of the Invasion, Herald of the Dreadhorde, Grim Initiate, Honor the God-Pharaoh||Add|
While Un-cards have always been contentious, the most contentious of silver-bordered cards are those that require rolling dice. GO TO JAIL is a one-mana removal spell that can even pull a few tricks in white-blue decks, but ultimately hasn’t been as satisfying to play with given the way the randomness of die rolling works out. Law-Rune Enforcer isn’t exactly necessary, since we have two other one-mana tappers in the cube already, but does conveniently fit into a similar role and plays well with established strategies. Plus being a 1/2 is quite relevant on the first turn of a game!
The biggest strike against Seeker of Insight is that is isn’t Merfolk Looter. The second biggest strike is how difficult it could be to use. A 1/3 body for two mana is well-appreciated for slower decks, and Erratic Visionary‘s fixed cost to use plays out much smoother than the Seeker’s play sequence. Control and ramp decks alike will appreciate this upgrade.
Makeshift Mauler was a relic of days gone by for the Pauper Cube. While it isn’t strictly a “graveyard matters” card, the Mauler struggled to find a home in most blue-based decks. Aven Eternal puts a reasonable flying body into play with the upside of even more power on the ground. Tempo and control decks both will enjoy the efficiency of this Eternal.
During the live War of the Spark Q&A, an argument for Thunder Drake as a payoff for spells decks was offered. Unlike Soul of the Rapids, which featured (annoying) hexproof and (counterbalancing) low toughness, Thunder Drake could easily scale up in size and survive most of red’s burn spells. Slower decks and blue-red spells can easily set up casting two spells in one turn, and swapping a hexproof flier for a “fairer” finisher wasn’t hard to talk me into.
With Blink of an Eye in the Dominaria update just over a year ago, we’ve had three “pay four mana, bounce something and draw a card” effects in the cube. Leave in the Dust was the worst of them, which made it an easy swap for Callous Dismissal (or miniature Man-o'-War for our purposes).
Kasmina's Transmutation shuts down some truly obnoxious creatures, though it doesn’t do it in quite the same way as Waterknot. Being easier, and less mana, to cast is a nice step up in power but splitting the difference between Water Knot and Claustrophobia is arbitrary. I’d prefer to have some consistency between these kinds of blue auras that are removal, but for now we’ll avoid adding yet another silver-bordered card.
I’ll be blunt: I like durdling with Pit Keeper much more than I should. The idea of looping Pit Keeper, Driver of the Dead and Gravedigger for some nominal loop of grinding recursion is exactly what keeps me playing my favorite Commander deck. However, the truth is Pit Keeper’s conditional recursion is often more troublesome than payoff. Judging by the utility and power of Lazotep Reaver in both War of the Spark Limited and the Boston testing session, this swap is a net consistency upgrade for several archetypes in the cube. I’ll miss my signed, foil copy of Pit Keeper though.
Over the years, powerful discard effects have been cut from the cube, notably both Hymn to Tourach and Okiba-Gang Shinobi. Ripping two cards from someone’s hand, random or not, felt unfun for many even if (as part of a larger group of strategies in a card game) if wasn’t a focus for decks to inflict. I’ve been looking to weave back in some discard effects for control decks, knowing that the ability to take a key card away from an opponent can make or break winning a game. Toll of the Invasion is a combination of effects that play well for the Pauper Cube: the control player gets to choose what card is discarded (which can’t be a land) and creates a token creature to interact with. Defensively, an extra blocker matters for slow decks and fuels some of the sacrifice payoffs already in black.
As mentioned above, Driver of the Dead can be a fun and powerful card. However, the limitation to return a two cost creature could lead moments where it didn’t get anything. Herald of the Dreadhorde simplifies this by just giving you a 2/2 on the way out every time.
Soulstinger can be a tricky creature to deal with. Killing it might backfire onto your own creature, or with the right circumstances instead be a two-for-one in your favor. Sacrificing a 1/1 token to have a 4/5 for four wasn’t bad for black, but the challenge of using the Soulstinger compared to more obviously powerful cards left this on the sidelines more often that I felt it should have. Tithebearer Giant costs more mana, but come down at just the same optimal size and draws a card to boot. For the top-end of a slower deck this feels right at home.
There isn’t anything wrong with Ob Nixilis's Cruelty. It’s a fine removal spell that performs similarly to Rend Flesh and other three mana removal spells. But, both the live Q&A for War of the Spark and two of the Boston testing drafters, feedback around “removal that can exile things feels missing” gave me pause after running my first round of changes. The tipping point came after the Q&A when Omniczech put one more wrinkle in the card:
Given the shape of removal in Limited Magic for the past 8 or so years of sets leads me to believe that “slightly worse removal overall” lends itself to better drafting than “slightly better removal overall” in most cases. Yes, sets like Avacyn Restored and Theros will have a few too many clunky, expensive removal spells. But nudging the Pauper Cube towards “still very good but not absolutely the best in all scenarios” removal is more likely a net positive for the cube.
Haste has long been red’s flavor of “evasion” in the cube. Tenement Crasher is big, and fast, and can help close a game out in a hurry. But at six mana it never felt like it hit as hard as the mana sunk into it would have to wanting. Grim Initiate moves the need back the other direction, adding another useful one-drop to red’s arsenal (add some equipment for more value) and playing into black-red sacrifice themes.
Menace is surprisingly effective in the Pauper Cube. Good removal can keep a path clear longer, and it’s a great complement to haste in keeping damage and combat math difficult for opponents. But red has plenty of great creatures so making room for more blue-red support with Burning Prophet wasn’t easy. Goblin Trailblazer hasn’t been bad, but something in the two-drop slot had to give. Burning Prophet should delight anyone looking to cast a lot of spells, whether they’re burn or card filtering or bounce.
Would you pay six mana for 2 damage? Skirk Marauder used to be on the cutting edge of powerful red creatures, a natural two-for-one that represented what “old school morphs” could do. Today, six mana to Shock a player and trade with a 1/1 token isn’t enough. Raging Kronch, yes, is a bit awkward on the attack. But blocking as a giant 4/3 for three is huge on the third turn, and it’s easy enough to pair with tokens or flying to attack on the next. Whether “4 or more power matters” will become a theme is a much larger question, but on its own the Kronch overperforms expectations.
If Raging Kronch is good enough, isn’t it by default that Brazen Wolves should also suffice? After all, the Wolves can attack as a 4/3 without hindrance and still block as a 2/3 if needed instead. The difference is the texture of what attacking with red creatures can do: Ahn-Crop Invader gets first strike when attacking (well, “on your turn” which is effectively the same here) and provides a red payoff for the black-red sacrifice theme. I’m concerned that having to pay one mana for each sacrifice if a recipe for blowout, but the absurd potence of 4 first strike attacking is an attractive payoff.
Red’s clunky, larger creatures have been a little awkward for some time. Taking an opportunity to refine many of them away for more compatible cards, that support specific archetypes and play styles, has been a major theme of the War of the Spark update. Changing so many cards at once in a color is always a risk, but in the vein of adding Ob Nixilis's Cruelty above, Pillar of Flame checks off many of the same boxes. Making room for a “super Shock” is tricky, but shaving one of red’s larger and least-flexible creatures seems appropriate to start.
There’s no Dragon in the cube (outside of some tribal card corner case) so reading Sarkhan's Rage on its surface was “deal 5 and take 2” as a five mana instant. Heartfire is a similar amount of damage but at a far reduced mana cost. The “catch” is you need to sacrifice a creature, and doing that in response to a chump block or removal spell from the opponent isn’t outlandish. Drafting every burn spell you see is still possible in the cube, but it’s much more difficult and takes more thought going forward.
If Tenement Crasher could go, it’s weaker and even less exciting forerunner could as well. Thundering Giant paled in comparison to recent red creatures, while Honor the God-Pharaoh will play nicely with blue-red spells as well as any deck that’s looking for a card filtering effect. Creating a token pushes this effect to work alongside a fleet of existing archetypes.
When random discard is king, Basking Rootwalla feels great. Even paired with something like Honor the God-Pharaoh it seems like excellent value. The fact is, however, that Rootwalla creatures (those you pay mana to pump, typically once per turn) have underperformed as the baseline power of common creatures rises. Leaving mana open to pump, or attacking for one with “the pump available” works for a little chip damage but Basking Rootwalla was outclassed faster and faster. Vivien's Grizzly is the kind of mana sink that still isn’t very good in my book, but drawing creatures and amplifying an advantage an ramp decks (or any other late-game situation where drawing creatures matters) makes a great story for the Pauper Cube. (Plus like half the Discord loves the Grizzly anyway.)
I never minded Wild Instincts. Getting the guaranteed +2/+2 to swing away with a creature never felt bad for me, and often led to the same sort of “pump and fight your one blocker, then swing through for more” gameplay that makes green fun. But Band Together is an instant, deals damage by not fighting, and is a little easier to cast. It’s a change that was resoundingly recommended by the Discord. (And they haven’t been wrong… yet.)
The Next Steps
Modern Horizons is on the actual horizon as the next Magic release, and it should continue to power up the Pauper Cube. There are plenty of differences in philosophy and cards to review, and feedback around increasing the power level of the cube is the theme so far in the Pauper Cube Discord.
For now, it’s time to enjoy this sweeping set of cube changes. It’s just over a month away from making even more!