A few days ago, Wizards of the Coast employee Gavin Verhey announced that there would be a ban list update on Monday. This update only applies to one format in particular: Pauper. While the bans, as a result, will not impact the majority of the MTG community, the story behind these bannings is rather interesting. This story is about how a Commander mechanic named the Initiative completely ruined Pauper.
Turbo Initiative is hands-down one of the most powerful decks ever seen in Pauper’s history. The strategy is simple: get out one of the common creatures legal in the format that trigger Initiative out as fast as possible. This mechanic is so powerful in Pauper that getting an early Initiative is synonymous with ending the game. The deck list pictured above in a tweet is a stock example of the offending archetype that resulted in today’s ban list update. Explaining why this casual Commander mechanic ruined a competitive format will be difficult without knowing what the mechanic does, so we will start there.
Initiative: A Refresher
Initiative refers to a dungeon exploring mechanic released in Commander Legends: Battle for Baldur’s Gate. Whenever someone plays a card that allows them to “take the Initiative,” they get to venture into Undercity. When they do so, that player will start in the first room in the dungeon pictured above. From there, players can progress to a room that connects with their current room by either retaking the Initiative or beginning their turn with the Initiative still under control.
The rest of this mechanic functions similarly to Monarch, another powerful mechanic in the Pauper environment. Should someone deal damage to the player that currently has the Initiative, they gain it. As such, that player gets to venture into the Undercity once. We go more in-depth into the Initiative here.
Initiative has Fallen from Favor
To stop a player from venturing into the Undercity every turn, your opponent must deal combat damage to you. The whole point of Turbo Initiative as a Pauper deck was to try and get out creatures that trigger the Initiative as quickly as possible. Vicious Battlerager and Aarakocra Sneak, in particular, have very defensive stats. It is tough to deal combat damage to a player with a 1/4 on turn one or two in Pauper. Therefore, the Initiative player can win the game by venturing into the Undercity over and over.
In a situation where other players play Initiative cards to steal it or actually manages to connect with a creature, then you can play yet another Initiative card to take it back. This likely results in a format where Initiative is the only viable deck. From there, through card advantage, free Lava Axes, and the ridiculous Throne of the Dead Three final room, you can win the game easily.
As mentioned in Good Morning Magic’s video featured near the end of this article, there are not a lot of long-term advantage engines available in Pauper. Therefore, when cards that offer these engines that are also too efficient show up, they usually get banned from the format for warping it too severely. Fallen from Favor is a recent example that triggered the Monarch mechanic. However, the main difference between Initiative and Monarch is that the Initiative’s advantages directly impact the board. This results in a much steeper clock that players have to deal with when trying to derail this long-term advantage engine.
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The Banned Cards
Pauper’s four most powerful Initiative activators were the cards that got banned. These are:
- Aarakocra Sneak
- Vicious Battlerager
- Stirring Bard
- Underdark Explorer
Not only are these cards exceedingly easy to cheat out with Dark Rituals and Lotus Petals, but they also provide a body that can easily protect your Initiative. There are still some Initiative cards available in the format, but these all cost more than four mana, do not provide bodies that can help you retain the Initiative, and are exceedingly harder to cheat out using Dark Ritual and Lotus Petals. That said, Gavin Verhey and the rest of the Pauper Committee have stated that they may also need to be banned. If these remain problematic, they may be banned at the end of October.
Dark Ritual on the Chopping Block
This discussion, alongside featuring the Initiative, has undeniably shone a light on Dark Ritual. As mentioned by Gavin Verhey, this card has been banned in past competitive MTG formats for enabling powerful spells too far ahead of the curve. While Dark Ritual was not banned now because “Initiative had problems outside of Dark Ritual” (it was also seeing play in other UB decks in large amounts), the Pauper Committee has stated that it may go soon.
That said, they are worried that some powerful old Common staples like Dark Ritual have a sort of identity in the format, much like Delve cards in Pioneer. Their ultimate decision was to look for feedback from the Pauper community when banning Dark Ritual. This card enables a ton of archetypes within the format, so banning the card is a huge deal. That said, the card also causes a lot of non-games, meaning that no matter what decisions players may make, the game’s result has been decided from the contents of their opening hands alone.
MTG Ban Closing Statements
The only offense these cards hold is that they brought the Initiative to a format that wasn’t ready for it. Without the Initiative, these cards are hilariously underwhelming in the Pauper format. As such, the Initiative itself was a much bigger problem than the cards that got banned, so seeing how the remaining Initiative cards perform should be interesting. Initiative cards weren’t even available on Magic Online for an extended period. Only after players expressed their desire for the missing Baldur’s Gate cards did they begin to show up in Treasure Chests. Now that we’ve received them, it’s evident that the format was not ready for them. As a result, the Initiative’s most potent pieces were banned only two and a half weeks after they became available.
If you want to learn more about Wizards of the Coast’s official ban announcement, you can watch the video linked above.