Every few weeks, a question (and subsequent answer) shows up on Mark Rosewater's blog:
"teancrumpetsfan asked: Could you reprint a bunch of good uncommons as commons in a supplementary set for Pauper? Thanks.
Pauper is a format about working within the restrictions of common. Putting cards that don’t belong into common just to make them available for Pauper fights the very nature of the format."
-retrieved from Blogatog on November 26th, 2013
Without fail vocal members of the Pauper community will chime in and ask for certain powerful effects to be pushed down to common. The argument boils down to:
"Other formats are not beholden to rarity - why should ours?"
Here's the thing: Pauper is a format that exists only because there is a restriction of rarity. There have been errors from the past that have been corrected via the ban list including cards with Storm (an admitted mistake mechanic from Magic R & D) and those with unintended interactions (Invigorate and Infect) but the core of the format is to play Magic with only commons available on Magic Online (I am not going to debate the online vs offline issue today). Let us operate from the core principle: Pauper is a competitive format where you are only allowed to play commons. This begs the question: What is a common?
Commons are the bread and butter of Magic. They serve multiple functions and I hope to hit them all today.
Commons have to be interesting enough to support casual play: This is probably the most important and most ignored attribute of commons that many Pauper players miss entirely. The vast majority of Magic is not played with full playsets and developed metagames. A lot of times its just two players jamming whatever they've cracked in their booster packs against one another. These players might have the resources to visit a web store like Star City Games or Channel Fireball and maybe they are entrenched enough in Magic to devote some of their care to improving their stack. Just as likely is that Magic is a game they play between playing other games. In this situation commons have to do tons of work. Not only do they have to serve as an entryway to the game (more on this later) but they have to supply consistent, fun, play value.
Looking at Theros, examine Wingsteed Rider. This is clearly a powerful common that can go into many casual white decks. It does just fine on its own or supported with other cards (and is exceptional when paired with cards from Theros). It is consistent and will provide tons of play decisions over the course of many games. It forces the match to be played rather than decided. On the other side take a card like Nylea's Emissary. This card is simple enough to be common but over the course of ten or fifteen games when the Emissary player continues to draw their one copy and crush the Rider player, do we really think the white mage in this battle is going to want to keep up with Magic and learn more?
Commons are an entry point to the game and worlds of Magic: Open a booster pack and get transported to a new world every year. Commons have to tell this story. Mark Rosewater is fond of saying that "if a set's theme is not at common then it is not your theme." Commons bear so much weight of setting the tone that they have to be simple and elegant. By design they have to be the distilled essence of any new mechanic or trope. Additionally, they also have to sell the game of Magic to new players. Since you're going to get eleven commons for every one rare, the rare might be the paint job but the commons are the excellent gas mileage. Commons have to be able to hook three different kinds of Magicians: brand new, returning, and entrenched. Not only this, but each audience has a slightly different need. The best way to do this is to make simple and elegant cards that are still fun to play in games.
Wingsteed Rider tells you so much about Theros and does so in an incredibly interesting way. Compare this to Loyal Cathar- both are white commons but they clearly come from different worlds but by virtue of casting cost they go together. Two commons and suddenly there is a ton of information for a newcomer.
Commons have to support limited: Yup. Here it is. People love to draft and with the advent of Magic Online there are more drafts happening than ever before. Commons are going to show up in every draft and often times in multiples. Much like the first point limited forces commons to have amazing repeat value. Sure, Gray Merchant of Asphodel can be a pain to face in the realm of 40 cards but it asks for some serious devotion. But what about when the deck doesn't come together? Then Gary is merely okay. And that's going to happen. Compare this to Sparksmith or Timberwatch Elf- commons that warpped formats and would clearly be Uncommon today.
One reason that certain formats are worse for draft -Avacyn Restored, for example- is that the games play out largely the same. Look at successful draft formats -Rise of the Eldrazi and Innistrad- and you will find a bevy of reasonable commons that could provide tons of repetitive play value.
Commons have to see play in constructed: This is new but Wizards has stated that they want to see cards of all rarities in high level play. I think they are succeeding at this with pushed, if not broken, common cards.
So where does this leave us: Commons have to be elegant executions that provide insight to the worlds of Magic while providing solid repeatable game play experiences while also being strong enough to appeal to three large parties of players.
Are there cards out there today that are not common that could be "downgraded" in rarity? Absolutely! In fact, I want to know some Uncommons or Rares you think are reasonable at Common- post them in the comments or hit me up on Twitter or Facebook. Or if you have designs for Commons, let me know - would love to see them - but make sure they work at Common.
Pauper is about the restriction to common - don't shoehorn in any other rarity just because. If a card isn't common, well, it doesn't belong in Pauper.