MTGO Pauper Primer
Magic the Gathering is a game of endless possibilities. There are literally thousands of cards from which to choose. In order to make the game less overwhelming, there are different formats, with each having various set and card restrictions.
There is one format, however, that has a unique angle on how to limit the card pool, Pauper. Much like Vintage, every set online is legal to play. Rather than having a restricted list though, Pauper allows only cards that were printed at the "common" rarity. This means that for a card to be legal in Pauper it must have been printed as a common in a Magic Online set. This is important because a card like Chainer's Edict doesn't have a common printing in paper, but was printed online as a common in Vintage Masters. Because of quirks like this, pauper is primarily a Magic Online format, but it is perfectly possible to play this format in paper (and the paper community is growing as pauper increases in popularity!)
Before investing in any format, it is important to know what you’re getting yourself in to. The biggest draw of Pauper is that it is a cheap format. By sticking to common cards, availability is almost never an issue. It is possible to build entire decks for less than the price of a single draft. While it is true that there are some Pauper staples that have gone up in price due to the popularity of the format, this is more due to their scarcity than their importance to decks. For example, Daze costs 24+ tickets, but it is only run in a few builds of certain decks. In large part, the price is due to how few of them are available online. It is very possible to build a gauntlet of tier 1 Pauper decks without ever needing to play one of these expensive cards.
So if it is understood that Pauper is cheap, must playing with only commons limit the diversity of strategies available? No. And believe it or not, the opposite is actually true. The fact that only commons are allowed means that there are very few oppressively powerful cards that could even potentially be legal, and the banlist takes care of the ones that are. This means that there are a wide variety of fair strategies that battle it out in intricate ways. There are no decks that are inherently good against everything or linear strategies that can just ignore what the opponent is doing. Interaction is very important in Pauper.
The ban list that balances out some of the more powerful strategies can be seen at http://magic.wizards.com/en/gameinfo/gameplay/formats/pauper - amongst all the commons from Magic’s history, there are only nine cards on the list!
As mentioned before Pauper is primarily an online format. The idea of playing with only commons, however, is certainly doable in paper Magic. The most important thing when playing in paper is to be clear on the rules, as there can be variations such as only being allowed to play cards that were physically printed at common or requiring that you play with the actual common editions of cards. Normally the format is just the same in paper as it is online but always be sure to check to make sure you aren't infringing on a particular playgroup's set of rules.
On the other hand, Pauper on Magic Online is very straightforward. The rules are consistent and there are multiple options on how to play depending on your desired level of competition and budget. Once you have a deck, the cheapest way to play Pauper is for free through the Constructed Open Play area of Magic Online, through player run events, or just playing with friends. If you want to play for stakes it is possible to join Leagues. You should not enter 2-person pay-to-play queues since Leagues are much better value and don't cost that much more. If, however, you don't want to be committed to the same deck for 5 rounds but still want some tougher competition, then playing in the 2-person queues is fine.
In Magic, there have traditionally been three overall archetypes: combo, control, and aggro. The health of many formats has been judged on whether there is a good mix of these three. Pauper passes the initial test in that there are tier 1 decks that can go into all three archetypes. Additionally, there is no archetype that is definitively more powerful than the others. That means it is possible to play any type of deck in Pauper and it will be viable. So, does this mean that you can go into a Pauper tournament with any 75 cards and expect to do well? The short answer is no. There are decks that have been worked on for years and still aren't optimized. The good news is that since these decks can't be optimized, there is room for personal touches when building decks, and especially sideboards. In addition to this, there is such a wide array of playable decks that it is unlikely one will miss the ability to brew their own decklists. In the following sections, we’ll talk about a few different types of decks. Check out http://www.mtggoldfish.com/metagame/pauper#online to get an idea of what is run in the specific lists.
Wizards has been careful about the combo decks they allow in Pauper. Non-interactive combo decks have an inherently negative effect on the format. To quote the January 18, 2016 banned and restricted list announcement in reference to Cloud of Faeries being banned, "It pushes the metagame to the imbalanced state where blue is heavily overplayed." This is because blue is the only color with counterspells that can interact with any spells. That means they're the only decks that can stop combo decks without sacrificing too much in other matchups.
So where does this leave combo in Pauper? Combo in Pauper needs to be vulnerable to interaction. This means having creatures and an inability to refuel quickly. The Izzet Blitz deck is the primary combo deck in the format. While it can certainly win by just attacking with creatures, it primarily operates more like a storm deck does in other formats. The main goal is to untap with a Kiln Fiend or Nivix Cyclops and play enough spells to make it lethal in one turn. Pauper also has a Reanimator deck with the goal of using Careful Study to get a large creature in the graveyard (such as Ulamog's Crusher) and using Exhume to bring it back to the battlefield, sometimes with Dragon Breath for haste. The most non-interactive combo deck in Pauper is Burn, with the combo being "cast enough spells to win the game." Even then, other decks can be faster or have incidental life gain.
There are also other decks like Affinity and Acid Trip that use combos, but not as primary win conditions. Affinity has Atog with Fling or Temur Battle Rage to win games from out of nowhere. Acid Trip is a deck with many enter-the-battlefield and leave-the-battlefield effects such as Reality Acid, in addition to many cards that return permanents back to their hand for repeated value such as Kor Skyfisher. This is not to mention the endless variety of Tron decks that use the combo of Urza's lands for massive amounts of mana.
As a final note, it’s important to remember that playing combo on Magic the Gathering: Online adds a layer of difficulty that is not present when playing in paper – timing out! Be sure to stay conscious of your clock when performing repetitive actions or executing a combo.
Speaking of Tron decks, they also slot into the control role despite their mana base essentially being a combo. Their goal is to assemble a massive amount of mana as quickly as possible and use expensive spells to get card advantage and eventually end the game. There are many varieties of Tron decks, with it being possible to play almost any color combination, since Prophetic Prism, Chromatic Star, and Chromatic Sphere are staples in almost all versions.
In addition to this, there are control decks that prefer to use bouncelands like Dimir Aqueduct in various blue/black control decks and some Jeskai-colored ones in Jeskai Control. Blue/black control decks typically play the slowest game with the least win-conditions to ensure that they have as few dead cards as possible. On the other end of the spectrum is Jeskai Control, which plays their card advantage engine in the form of creatures that can also beat down.
Finally, there are the mono-colored control decks. The most popular is mono-black. This deck aims to use as many 2-for-1s as possible in conjunction with cheap interaction and a few powerful finishers like Gray Merchant of Asphodel or Gurmag Angler. White and blue also have their own mono-colored decks that often take the controlling role, but overall they are still better classified as the next deck archetype.
To start things off in the Aggro category are the mono-colored decks. On the more controlling end are blue and white, while green and red take the more aggressive spots. The white aggro decks are about swarming the battlefield with creatures and taking advantage of Soul Warden, Soul's Attendant, and Suture Priest to gain enough life to either win with fliers or draw Guardians' Pledge to deal a lethal amount of damage in one turn.
Red and green are typically where the tribal decks are - namely, Goblins and Elves. As always, burn is another flavor of mono-red, and there are stompy variations of mono-green with efficient creatures and pump spells.
Back on the more controlling side of mono-colored aggro decks, there is mono-blue Delver, which is all about cheap creatures and counters.
Speaking of Delver of Secrets, there are even more aggressive variants of Delver such as blue/black, which features Gurmag Angler and Sultai Scavenger as cheap quick-winning threats. There’s also the previously mentioned blue/red deck that plays Kiln Fiend and Nivix Cyclops, which has a very solid "plan B" of beating down with Delver of Secrets despite being primarily a combo deck.
Also mentioned previously is affinity, which is primarily an aggro deck despite having a potential combo finish. This deck plays a lot of artifacts and the best cards with Affinity and Metalcraft on them. The biggest weakness of this deck is that it is very vulnerable to sideboard cards.
Finally, while the topic of sideboards is fresh in your mind, it is important to mention the importance of sideboards in Pauper. Nobody wants to open a narrow sideboard card at a high rarity from a booster pack, and as such, a lot of very powerful hosers ended up being printed at common. Just look at Hydroblast or Pyroblast and try to come to a conclusion other than "wow those cards are really good against certain decks." Also consider cards like Gorilla Shaman that can destroy artifact lands against Affinity for 1 mana each, or Circle of Protection: Red.
The problem is that despite the fact that it is possible to build a sideboard that completely destroys some decks, there are so many decks in Pauper that it is impossible to beat them all. Thus, building a balanced sideboard can sometimes be more important than just jamming the best sideboard cards possible against a few certain decks and calling it a day. This is where knowing what metagame to expect can be very important.
One thing that will be noticed about a lot of Pauper decks is that they play some number of enter the battlefield tapped lands that can be cycled. Knowing when to play these lands and when to cycle them is an important skill. For the most part, these lands want to be cycled away, as it increases the chances of having spells in hand. However, sometimes it is necessary to play them so you don’t fall behind on mana. The best time to play these lands is either as early as possible or on the last turn before they would interrupt tempo. Another important factor to remember is that in decks with ways to return lands to your hand, such as bouncelands, you can be more liberal with playing out cycle-lands for mana early.
Pauper is a format that many people will decide to get into for budget reasons. Once actually playing, however, it can become apparent that the format is much deeper and more intricate than one would expect. There are a great many viable decks and none of them are so oppressively good that it feels like a rock-paper-scissors format where one can only hope for the right matchups. With it being such a potentially low investment, why not try Pauper?
Here are some links, either from earlier in this article, or ones that you may find useful if you want to gather more information about Pauper!