What is Paper Pauper?
For those unfamiliar with the format, Pauper is an eternal format where the card pool is restricted to commons only. This simple restriction drastically changes what is available to players, and makes for a completely different metagame. It is a budget player's dream, offering endless options for cheaper than single cards in other formats. It is a casual lover's passion, offering a relaxed experience with the playgroup. It is a rogue builder's playground, with a diverse metagame and endless possibilities.
In Magic Online, Pauper is one of the most popular formats, but it lacks any official recognition in its offline form. People who love playing Pauper online often want to play its counterpart in the real world, and thus "Paper Pauper" has grown into its own popular format. The lack of official recognition can be problematic for a group that wants to start playing Paper Pauper, however. I have seen many groups attempt to port the online version directly to paper, which requires limiting what sets are available, allowing cards that have only been physically printed at uncommon, and often leads to vast confusion and turmoil.
A group kicking off Paper Pauper simply needs a strong starting point to begin. At its core, Paper Pauper is a community-driven format, much like Commander. Even when taken as a serious competition, the group will adjust its ban list and restrictions as it sees fit. It needs only that starting point to launch from. This article is that starting point, and nothing more. We will go over the snags and widely excepted rules, so that anyone interesting in starting up a league can have an easy foundation to build from. Where you go from there is up to your group.
The Common Rarity
Paper Pauper is restricted to commons only. This is the fundamental basis for the format, but there are three key points to work out with this simple rule.
First, Paper Pauper goes by the saying "once a common, always a common". Cards often change rarity throughout multiple printings, but all Paper Pauper cares about is if the card has ever been common. If a card has ever been printed as a common, than that card, and all copies of that card, are allowed. As an example, Avarax was originally printed as an uncommon, but has since seen a common reprint in Eternal Masters. Since Avarax has had a common printing, it is absolutely eligible for Paper Pauper - including copies from Onslaught with the uncommon symbol.
Second, all printed cards are allowed when considering common legality. This means all physically printed releases, from expansions to duel decks and reprint sets, are allowed. Online-only editions, however, were never printed and are not legal for Paper Pauper. In example: Chainer's Edict has only ever been printed at uncommon or higher rarity. Magic Online released the card as a common in Vintage Masters, but this is an online-only set. As such, Chainer's Edict is not a legal card for Paper Pauper. This is one of the more common rulings that a playgroup will change later, generally when people want to directly port their online decks to paper. The fundamental rule is that online-only sets are not legal for Paper Pauper, but this should be discussed with the group, and explicitly ruled on, as you form a league or tournament.
The last major point of confusion is that some older expansion sets did not have our current clear-cut rarity system. These early sets were printed using only two sheets of cards: a common sheet and an uncommon sheet. The confusion originates from the fact that these two sheets often represented four or even five different rarities within the set. The issue for Paper Pauper is, specifically, the cards that appear on the common sheet only once, which was significantly less frequent than the other commons that appeared two, three, or even four times. For most of these sets, these rarer common sheet cards were prevalent at the same frequency as normal uncommons. These cards are referred to as "C1s," short for "1 printing on the common sheet". In sets where the C1 rarity is as rare as uncommons, they are ruled to be uncommons and not eligible for Paper Pauper play. Luckily there are only a few of these sets, and even fewer cards that crossed this line. We will break it down by set.
Early Set Rarity
C1 Rarities in Paper Pauper
Arabian Nights is quite easy. All cards printed at C1 rarity also had alternate art printings, and each of these alternate printings were at C2 rarity or higher. Arabian Nights survives unhampered; all cards printed on the common sheets in Arabian Nights are true commons and are legal in Paper Pauper.
Antiquities had four cards printed only at the C1 rarity: Cursed Rack, Feldon's Cane, Mishra's Factory, and Strip Mine. Feldon's Cane has since been reprinted as a common in Chronicles. The other three have seen no reprints, and are thus not true commons and not eligible for play in Paper Pauper.
Legends was an oddity at the time as it used common, uncommon, and rare sheets closer to what we have today. There were only three rarities: C2, U1, and R1. There are no C1s in Legends, and thus all Legends commons are true commons and legal in Paper Pauper.
The Dark has only one card printed at C1 rarity: Maze of Ith. Maze is not a true common, and is thus not eligible for Paper Pauper play. All other common sheet cards were C2 rarity or above.
Fallen Empires, like Arabian Nights, has no common-rarity issues. All cards printed at a C1 rarity had alternate art versions, and were a C2 rarity or above. All cards printed on the common sheet in Fallen Empires are true commons and are legal in Paper Pauper.
Chronicles had five cards that were printed on the common sheet only once: Kei Takahashi, Marhault Elsdragon, Sivitri Scarzam, Tobias Andrion, and Tor Wauki. These cards are considered uncommon and not legal for Paper Pauper play.
Homelands causes some confusion when looking at the C1 rarities because it was used much more extensively than the other sets, and because people disagree on whether the C1s are commons or not. Cards printed at C1 rarity have the exact same rarity as cards printed at the U3 Uncommon level. If you opened 121 packs as they came off the assembly line, you would get exactly six of each C1 card and exactly six of each U3 card. C1 cards are uncommons. This is contrary to some people's opinion, but it is clear cut that the C1 rarity cards are uncommons. The following cards were printed at C1 rarity in Homelands and have not seen a common reprint: Ambush, Clockwork Gnomes, Clockwork Steed, Clockwork Swarm, Coral Reef, Ebony Rhino, Headstone, Jinx, Joven's Ferrets, Leaping Lizard, Merchant Scroll, Renewal, Serra Paladin.
The Final Cut
Although a hassle to get to, there are only 22 cards on our list. The above can get confusing when you delve into it, and there are threads on our forums discussing the complexities of these rarities more in depth. The above is the most concrete interpretation, the most widely accepted, and is consistently held up by a variety of methods to distinguish rarities. For those who use Gatherer, you'll note that the card engine agrees with most of the above with the notable exception of the Homelands cards.
Homelands continues to be a source of contention. Gatherer lists them as commons, but this is generally considered an error. Gatherer imported many cards based upon which sheet they were printed on, rather than how common they actually were. As always, the playgroup is the ultimate authority. You will find some pauper communities that allow Homelands because of this confusion. Again, Homelands C1 cards occur at the exact same rate as the other uncommons of the set, with less than a 5% chance of getting any particular C1 in a pack. This is well below the standard for a common card, especially as you compare this to the almost 20% chance to get any other specific common from a Homelands pack.
Paper Pauper Banned List
Just as with other formats, Paper Pauper has its own banned list. In a format of limited power, cards that break the mold of strength can easily ruin games and crush the diversity of the format. The Magic Online list starts us off fairly easily. Each card banned in the online format is just as format-warping as it is in the paper format.
The cards banned in online format are: Cloud of Faeries, Cloudpost, Cranial Plating, Empty the Warrens, Frantic Search, Grapeshot, Invigorate, Peregrine Drake, Temporal Fissure, and Treasure Cruise. These cards are likewise banned for Paper Pauper.
Paper Pauper's card pool is larger than the online version, and it brings with it a few new problematic cards. The easiest question to ask is "If this card were online legal, would it be banned?" There are only a few real offenders for which I believe that the answer would be an obvious "yes". Let's look at these cards individually.
The first and most obvious culprit is Hymn to Tourach. Hymn is one of the most powerful discard spells ever printed, and can wreck games quickly. The major difference between Hymn and other legal discard spells is that the Hymn's randomness can cause an opponent to discard their lands before they can play them. A second turn Hymn has too strong of a chance to get rid of an opponent's mana sources and seal the game before it really begins. While Vintage and Legacy might be able to work through this card's power, Paper Pauper cannot. Its power level is simply too disruptive.
The second card that requires our attention is Sinkhole. Like Hymn to Tourach, it is the ability to reliably stop your opponent from getting mana early that is this card's trespass. There are a variety of options for land destruction at the three-mana cost, but being able to hit a turn earlier can be a huge difference. Sinkhole can give a black deck on the play a major advantage that Paper Pauper decks simply cannot match. There are too few answers in the format to stop it after an opponent's first turn. It is especially troublesome when you add Dark Ritual or Lotus Petal potential to the mix.
The third card to consider is High Tide. There exists a myriad of combo decks within Paper Pauper, but they are not up to the same level as High Tide's strength. Although its normal combo friends Cloud of Faeries and Frantic Search are both already banned, there still exists a variety of ways to abuse High Tide to devastating effect. Snap, Freed from the Real, and Ghostly Flicker are the most deadly cards that can all combo out with High Tide quickly and reliably. Much like the Cloud of Faeries and Peregrine Drake combo decks, these decks can simply be too difficult to stop and end up warping the format.
The fourth card that needs scrutiny is Goblin Grenade. Goblin Grenade can simply be too fast for many Paper Pauper environments. Goblins can be a fierce competitor in Paper Pauper, but Goblin Grenade can simply make it too reliable. Although it's only 1 damage greater than Reckless Abandon, that 1 damage makes as much difference as it does between Shock and Lightning Bolt. I personally ran a Goblin deck, and can attest that it is simply too powerful.
The last card I want to touch on is Merchant Scroll. I went into detail above as to why this card from Homelands is not a true common, but I still want to mention it here - especially as some playgroups allow the Homelands C1s. Most of the C1 rarity cards aren't even worth considering for play, but Merchant Scroll is of course quite the powerhouse. Merchant Scroll takes many combo decks to a new level by adding a powerful tutor effect to it. I will be adding it to our banned list, in case your playgroup disagrees with the Homelands verdict or decides to allow the C1 rarities.
The Common Game
We have covered everything essential that has to be answered to start up Paper Pauper: the basic rules, what is legal, and the banned list. Where do you go from here? A good place to start is our Paper Pauper primer forum to see some of the best decks broken down and explained. The online Pauper forum also has a great deal of resources and ideas, although you will need to keep the differences between online and paper in mind.
Our Decks Vault is a great resource for seeing what your fellow 'Salvationers are player. MTGGoldfish is a great place to just find the top tier decks of the format. Bear in mind, however, that Pauper allows for rogue strategies and diverse metagames unlike any other format. Paper Pauper still has an immense card pool, and with the power level being much more balanced between cards, there are innumerable decks that can be made.
The wonderful thing about Paper Pauper is you do not have to decide on a deck. Even the most expensive Paper Pauper decks cost less than many marquee cards in modern. Can't decide between a few ideas? Build them all, and have tons of fun playing to your heart's content. I personally have over 50 Paper Pauper decks and can play whatever fits my mood. I have spent less to build al 50 of those decks than I spent on my main Commander deck. It's the reason Paper Pauper is so popular. You can easily play all the different strategies and deck types without a huge investment, and still have a competitive chance.