Wizards of the Coast has banned Aarakocra Sneak, Stirring Bard, Underdark Explorer, and Vicious Battlerager in Magic: The Gathering’s Pauper format. These are just the latest bans handed down by the Pauper Format Panel, which has announced a series of bans since its inception at the beginning of 2022.

Taking the Initiative

All four of the cards banned in today’s announcement use the Initiative mechanic introduced in June 2022’s Commander Legends: The Battle for Baldur’s Gate. Initiative functions similar to Monarch—which was first seen in another Commander-focused set, August 2016’s Conspiracy: Take the Crown—and allows the player that has the Initiative to venture into the Undercity (a specific dungeon) at the beginning of their upkeep.

Monarch has caused its fair share of problems in Pauper, resulting in the ban of Fall From Favor earlier this year, and Initiative looks like it will follow in its footsteps. Though Commander Legends: The Battle for Baldur’s Gate was released three months ago, many of the set’s new cards only made their way to Magic Online two and a half weeks ago.

“The Pauper format has an Initiative problem,” Gavin Verhey said in his ban announcement video. “The mechanic has shown up all over the place. It appears as a cornerstone not only in decks that have been established for years—for example, Faeries adopting both Aarakocra Sneak and Vicious Battlerager—but also in new ‘turbo initiative decks’ that play four copies of each of those plus four Underdark Explorers.”

“And it’s not just casting these cards fairly on turn four,” he continued. “Many decks aim to land an Initiative card on turn one, and use that alone to ride the mechanic to victory. With Monarch, you just drew additional cards. But Initiative does more proactively, both growing your creature quickly, dealing an additional 5 damage, and then eventually getting you another huge creature. Those are all factors that let this mechanic snowball fast.”

To Ban Some, or to Ban All?

Once the Pauper Format Panel determined that they needed to take action to curb the power of Initiative, the next question was: which of the cards should be banned?

There are seven total cards in Pauper with the Initiative mechanic: Avenging Hunter, Goliath Paladin, Trailblazer’s Torch, and the four cards banned today.

But in their deliberations, the PFP decided to draw a line and that “no initiative creatures that cost four mana. Especially given the presence of cards like Dark Ritual, four is easier to hit, and even in fair decks, that one turn really does make a large difference.” That took care of Aarakocra Sneak, Stirring Bard, and Vicious Battlerager. As for Trailblazer’s Torch, Verhey said the fact that it isn’t a creature makes it far less problematic.

That left three cards that cost five mana: Avenging Hunter, Goliath Paladin, and Underdark Explorer. Goliath Paladin doesn’t see any play, so it wasn’t banned. Avenging Hunter, though strong, doesn’t fit well in Dark Ritual shells and forces players to make deckbuilding choices to support Green, so it was also allowed to stay legal in Pauper. Underdark Explorer, on the other hand, is a 5/3 menace creature that quickly turns into a 7/5 creature thanks to the second room in the Undercity dungeon. The PFP deemed that to be too powerful and worthy of a ban.

Isn’t Dark Ritual Really the Problem?

One of the cards that was frequently mentioned in the ban announcement—but not banned itself—was Dark Ritual. The card has come up multiple times in the context of Pauper bans, including last year when Wizards banned both Galvanic Relay and Chatterstorm.

But the Pauper Format Panel decided not to ban Dark Ritual itself “for two major reasons.”

“First,” Verhey said, “it was clear Initiative has problems outside of Dark Ritual. Even when played fairly, it was very strong. We didn’t want to couple them together.”

“Second,” he continued, “I believe Dark Ritual being legal in Pauper is important. Cards like this, which are commons that are extremely powerful and reminiscent of high strength formats are a cornerstone of what makes this format what it is.”

So Dark Ritual will remain legal in Pauper…for now. “But we cannot deny the impact leaving Dark Ritual […] legal has on the format,” Verhey concluded. “This will not be the last time we end up having an issue because of ritual effects.”

An Update on Affinity

Long before Monarch—and now Initiative—Affinity decks were the Pauper format’s bogeymen. The Pauper Format Panel acknowledged community concern around the archetype and noted that “it doesn’t have a win rate out of line with other successful decks in the format” and that “its non-mirror win rate isn’t even much above 50%.” Despite that, the PFP “will continue to watch Affinity closely and see how it looks going forward.”

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