Exploring Pioneer, by Andrew Quinn

Andrew Quinn explores Wizard's latest Pioneer format, and discusses the trends and noteworthy decks emerging so far.

Kolaghan's Command from Dragons of Tarkir (artwork by Daarken)
Kolaghan's Command from Dragons of Tarkir (artwork by Daarken)

2019 is almost over. With the huge overhaul of organised play, the introduction of Arena and the printing of more ban worthy cards than in any other year since 2003, this past year has been one of the most important in Magic’s history. One of the biggest changes to Magic is one we’re still trying to figure out: the introduction of Pioneer, a brand new non-rotating Constructed format designed to bridge the gap between Standard and Modern.

Pioneer format

Modern was introduced to Magic over 8 years ago, designed to replace the Extended format which was massively dwindling in popularity. At the time, Modern had only 8 years of sets legal, plus a sizable list of banned cards. Today, Modern has over 16 years of legal sets, including Modern Horizons), its very own set, and a much larger list of banned cards (36 in total, up from 21 on the initial list). The cost of new Modern decks is as high as it has ever been and whilst the format is widely enjoyed and appreciated by Magic players all around the world, there’s no denying that it is difficult for new players to join in. Every year it becomes less and less likely that something new and revolutionary will happen to break the format.

(For players who are looking to break into or rejoin Modern format after a break, David Inglis has some suggestions to help ease the process).

But that’s where Pioneer shines! Here are some of my big takeaways from this format in the early weeks.

1. The format still remains largely unexplored

Pioneer was only announced back in October, so there hasn’t been much time to process its potential. We are yet to see many large-scale events in the format and few professional players and teams have yet to break into it. The first Modern Pro Tour yielded a lot of new decks that the wider community had not yet figured out, such as Blazing Shoal Infect. In fact, this tournament led to the banning of 6 cards: Blazing Shoal, Ponder, Preordain, Green Sun’s Zenith, Rite of Flame and Cloudpost.

This process is still at work in Pioneer. Wizards have already banned Smuggler’s Copter, Once Upon a Time and Field of the Dead, followed last week by Oko, Thief of Crowns and Nexus of Fate – some of the most powerful cards in the format. Early in any format, aggro decks typically dominate, and Pioneer was no different. Smuggler’s Copter was everywhere until its ban, including the most played deck in the metagame: Mono Black Aggro. Despite the ban, the deck has managed to survive a little longer.

Mono-Black Aggro by “ZHPY”

Creatures (24):
4 Bloodsoaked ChampionKnight of the Ebon Legion from Core 2020 (M20)
4 Knight of the Ebon Legion
4 Gutterbones
4 Scrapheap Scrounger
4 Murderous Rider
4 Rankle, Master of Pranks

Other Spells (12):
4 Fatal Push
4 Thoughtseize
4 Grasp of Darkness

Lands (24):
4 Castle Locthwain
4 Mutavault
15 Swamp
1 Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth

Sideboard (15):
3 Duress
2 Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet
2 Legion’s End
4 Lifebane Zombie
4 Noxious Grasp

Mono-Black Aggro has famously struggled in competitive Magic for about as long as I can remember. But aggro decks do tend to perform early on in any given format and the combination of Thoughtseize, Smuggler’s Copter and Mutavault as big heavy hitters allowed the deck to compete.

Without Copter, Mono-Black Aggro’s power level comes from the ability to run twelve high quality 1-drop creatures and Thoughtseize to disrupt the opponent. Being a mono-coloured deck also allows it to run 4 Mutavaults and 4 Castle Locthwain, giving it the ability to win long games as well as short ones. We saw a very similar shell back in RTR-Theros Standard with the Mono-Black Devotion deck that remained dominant for around a year. Thoughtseize is one of the most powerful cards in Pioneer and any deck that can successfully abuse it stands to do well.

Smuggler’s Copter was banned almost immediately when it was first printed in Kaladesh. We barely got a chance to see it play out in Standard and it doesn’t see any play in Modern or Legacy, so it’s easy to forget just how powerful this card is. It is a very clear representation of the difficulty Wizards have when appropriately costing new mechanics. We saw the same with equipment back in Mirrodin and Kamigawa, while they figured out the correct balance between casting and equip costs. Vehicles have become a lot more balanced since Kaladesh and I think it’s somewhat safe to say that mistakes like this one are unlikely to happen again.

There are still a number of super powerful cards that have ended up banned in Standard, Modern and/or Legacy that remain legal and yet to be broken. Treasure Cruise, Dig Through Time, Aetherworks Marvel, Deathrite Shaman and Oko, Thief of Crowns all seem prime to take the format sooner or later. Above all else, it remains clear to me that Pioneer format will continue to be dominated by innovation and unforeseen decks for the next year or so. Which brings me neatly to my second point:

2. More and more decks will be discovered that combine cards from different blocks.

Modern has seen many weird and crazy strategies over the last 8 years. With more cards being added all the time, every now and again something from the latest set creates a new synergy with another card that was already legal, or sometimes someone will discover a combo between two cards that already existed but were never played together because they weren’t in Standard at the same time. Modern Green/White Bogles springs to mind: the deck’s key cards are spread out across Modern’s history of sets and never had a chance to played together before. When Bogles first came on the scene, the biggest innovation of course was discovering how powerful Daybreak Coronet was against a good portion of the metagame, as Burn, Zoo and Jund were all heavily prominent decks.

As Pioneer grows, we will undoubtedly see much of the same kinds of synergies being discovered, such as with the following list which British PT regular Sam Rolph recently won an online PTQ with:

Selesnya Human Knights by Sam Rolph

Creatures (31):Heron's Grace Champion (Eldritch Moon Game Day Top 8 Promo)
4 Dauntless Bodyguard
4 Venerable Knight
3 Knight of Grace
4 Knight of the White Orchid
4 Thalia’s Lieutenant
4 Worthy Knight
4 Acclaimed Contender
4 Heron’s Grace Champion

Other Spells (9):
4 Once Upon a Time
4 History of Benalia
1 The Circle of Loyalty

Lands (20):
1 Canopy Vista
1 Castle Ardenvale
3 Mutavault
7 Plains
4 Sunpetal Grove
4 Temple Garden

Sideboard (15):
1 Mutavault
1 Plains
3 Declaration in Stone
2 Dromoka’s Command
2 Fiendslayer Paladin
3 Gideon, Ally of Zendikar
3 Unravel the Aether

We’ve seen a lot of support for Knights recently, but Throne of Eldraine and Dominaria weren’t present in Standard together to be mashed up like this. The only non-human creatures in this deck are the Knight tokens from History of Benalia and The Circle of Loyalty, so Thalia’s Lieutenant is a natural fit. Heron’s Grace Champion is also a big tech choice: Heron’s Grace Champion was a heavily hyped up card when it was printed in Eldritch Moon, but it never seemed to do anything in Standard and at 4 mana was not powerful enough for Modern. Given that this deck already wanted to splash for Once Upon a Time’s huge consistency buff, Heron’s Grace Champion is a great discovery that tops the curve of this deck incredibly well in a format full of other aggressive decks. While this was largely a metagame choice (without Once Upon a Time around, this deck will likely show up in the future using a different splash colour), I wouldn’t sleep on Heron’s Grace Champion. In a metagame full of other aggro decks, it may once again be time for it to make a splash.

Another deck I’ve seen which encapsulates this concept perfectly is the following. Once again, it managed to go undefeated in the Swiss rounds of a recent online PTQ:

Simic Twiddle Field by “GGoggles”

Creatures (12):
4 Arboreal Grazer
4 Fae of Wishes
4 Vizier of Tumbling Sands

Other Spells (25):Lotus Field from M20
4 Growth Spiral
4 Hidden Strings
3 Shimmer of Possibility
4 Sylvan Scrying
4 Pore Over the Pages
4 Dig Through Time
1 Finale of Revelation
1 Omniscience

Lands (23):
1 Blast Zone
4 Botanical Sanctum
4 Breeding Pool
2 Forest
4 Lotus Field
4 Temple of Mystery
4 Thespian’s Stage

Sideboard (15):
1 Fog
1 Finale of Revelation
1 Sanguine Sacrament
2 Unravel the Aether
2 Anger of the Gods
1 Lost Legacy
2 Mystical Dispute
1 Jace, Wielder of Mysteries
1 Hour of Revelation
1 Ugin, the Spirit Dragon
1 Omniscience
1 Enter the Infinite

This deck is absolutely incredible. The idea is fairly simple: get out two copies of Lotus Field and use effects that untap them to ramp your mana and cast an Omniscience. Two Lotus Fields give you 6 blue mana. 2 of that mana can be used to cast Hidden Strings, which untaps the Fields. You then have access to 10 mana, enough for the Omniscience. From there, you cast Granted (Fae of Wishes’ Adventure spell) for free and fetch Enter the Infinite, which lets you draw your entire deck. You then cast another Granted to grab Jace, Wielder of Mysteries and use its +1 ability to win the game immediately.

Combo decks are usually good fun to see in action and this deck is no exception. The deck is sweet and has plenty of card selection to make it consistent. Fae of Wishes allows you to run a sideboard of varied options and you can play absolutely any cards because Lotus Field can tap for any colour of mana. The deck is naturally weak to Thoughtseizes and Counterspells but being based in blue the deck can play any number of Spell Pierces, Dispels or Mystical Disputes as needed to meet the challenges of the metagame. Every good metagame deserves to have a good combo deck, so it will be interesting to see how this one adapts.

3. Ramp decks are probably more powerful than they ever have been

As a competitive player, my one big success was when I managed to reach the Top 16 of a Standard Grand Prix with Mono Green (splashing red) Devotion. I have always loved ramp decks and it makes me unbelievably excited that ramp decks are not only possible in this format but also incredibly powerful. Just take a look at the following list of insane payoffs and enablers that green decks have access to in this format:

Llanowar Elves
Elvish Mystic
Gilded Goose
Sylvan Caryatid (and a ton of other similar 2-drops)
Rattleclaw Mystic
Growth Spiral
Hour of Promise
Shrine of the Forsaken Gods
Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx
Castle Garenbrig

Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger
Ugin, the Spirit Dragon
Emrakul, the Promised End
World Breaker
Hydroid Krasis
Voracious Hydra
Dragonlord Atarka
Nissa, Who Shakes the World
Walking Ballista

I’m probably missing a lot of cards there, too. Here’s a straightforward list that takes advantage of Castle Garenbrig and Shrine of the Forsaken Gods to cast huge Eldrazi creatures:

Mono-Green Devotion by “Oderus Urungus”

Creatures (16):
1 Walking Ballista
4 Arboreal Grazer
4 Elvish Rejuvenator
1 Thought-Knot Seer
4 World Breaker
2 Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger

Ugin, the Spirit Dragon
Ugin, the Spirit Dragon

Planeswalkers (4):
4 Ugin, the Spirit Dragon

Other Spells (13):
4 Spatial Contortion
4 Nissa’s Pilgrimage
1 Hedron Archive
4 Hour of Promise

Lands (27):
1 Arch of Orazca
1 Blast Zone
4 Castle Garenbrig
7 Forest
4 Hashep Oasis
4 Radiant Fountain
2 Sanctum of Ugin
4 Shrine of the Forsaken Gods

Sideboard (15):
2 Damping Sphere
3 Unravel the Aether
3 Courser of Kruphix
1 Tireless Tracker
3 Thought-Knot Seer
2 Oblivion Sower
1 Emrakul, the Promised End

I played a deck very similar to this when the pieces were in Standard. Arboreal Grazer is a huge boon, allowing the deck to cast Nissa’s Pilgrimage and Elvish Rejuvenator on turn 2. Ugin, the Spirit Dragon is the big payoff here, being able to reset the board once you hit enough mana. With all of the mana sources being lands, Ugin won’t set you back either, leaving you with all your mana the turn after. Finally, Hour of Promise is what makes this deck really tick. Being able to find two copies of Shrine of the Forsaken Gods, or grab a Sanctum of Ugin to search for another threat. With Grazer on turn 1 and a 3-drop on turn 2, you can cast Hour of Promise as early as turn 3 and begin casting your threats from turn 4 onwards.

4. There are a bunch of decks that are just revamped versions of old Standard decks

This will continue to be the norm for much of the coming year, but already we’ve seen a lot of popular Standard decks pop up with new additions from older sets. Here are a few examples:

Izzet Phoenix by “Cherryxman”

Creatures (11):
4 Thing in the Ice
2 Brazen Borrower
4 Arclight Phoenix
1 Crackling Drake

Arclight Phoenix (RNA)
Arclight Phoenix

Other Spells (29):
4 Lightning Axe
4 Opt
1 Quicken
4 Wild Slash
4 Chart a Course
4 Izzet Charm
4 Strategic Planning
4 Treasure Cruise

Lands (20):
3 Island
3 Mountain
3 Shivan Reef
4 Spirebluff Canal
4 Steam Vents
3 Sulfur Falls

Sideboard (15):
2 Magma Spray
3 Fry
2 Mizzium Mortars
3 Negate
1 Mystical Dispute
1 Narset, Parter of Veils
2 Saheeli, Sublime Artificer
1 Dig Through Time

Izzet Phoenix is a fan favourite from the past year that gains some big upgrades over the Standard version, most of which have featured prominently in the Modern versions of the deck. Thing in the Ice is another great payoff for casting lots of cheap instant and sorcery spells. Lightning Axe is a premium removal spell that lets you discard Phoenixes, alongside Fiery Temper as another cheap spell. Finally Treasure Cruise and Dig Through Time give you great ways to restock after casting your flurry of spells and can often be cast for their correct mana costs of 1 and 2 respectively.

Between Arclight Phoenix, Thing in the Ice, Young Pyromancer, Monastery Mentor and maybe even Kykar, Wind’s Fury, I think there is likely going to be a strong spells matter deck that will feature in the format for the foreseeable future.

[Editor’s Update: since writing, Cherryxman has indeed replaced Thing in the Ice with Young Pyromancer, for faster activation and capacity to take over the board if left undealt with.]

Izzet Ensoul Artifact by “The_nayr”

Creatures (21):
4 Stonecoil Serpent
4 Bomat Courier
4 Gingerbrute
2 Hope of Ghirapur
2 Phyrexian Revoker
4 Skilled Animator
1 Whirler Rogue

Planeswalkers (2):
2 The Royal Scions
Ensoul Artifact from M15
Other Spells (16):
2 Stubborn Denial
2 Wild Slash
4 Shrapnel Blast
4 Ghostfire Blade
4 Ensoul Artifact

Lands (21):
4 Darksteel Citadel
2 Island
3 Mutavault
4 Shivan Reef
2 Spire of Industry
4 Spirebluff Canal
2 Steam Vents

Sideboard (15):
1 Blazing Volley
2 Grafdigger’s Cage
1 Stubborn Denial
1 Aether Gust
1 Roast
2 Aethersphere Harvester
2 Metallic Rebuke
2 Mystical Dispute
1 The Royal Scions
2 Karn, Scion of Urza

Another very popular type of deck, Ensoul Artifact came to prominence in 2015 following the printing of Magic Origins, seeing Mike Sigrist make the finals of Pro Tour Magic Origins in what later turned out to be a Player of the Year season for him. The concept is simple enough. Use Ensoul Artifact on a cheap artifact and get a 5/5 creature to attack with. Darksteel Citadel becomes an indestructible 5/5 creature, Ornithopter is a flying 5/5 for 0, etc… Backed up by Shrapnel Blast and Ghostfire Blade, the deck is capable of a very high damage output out of practically nowhere. Skilled Animator and Gingerbrute are very nice recent additions and I would not be surprised if versions of this deck playing All That Glitters or Tezzeret’s Touch start popping up too.

Finally, I’m going to leave you with a deck that I would certainly like to start exploring: Dragons. Esper Dragons was a huge force in Standard, combining Dragonlord Ojutai and Silumgar’s Scorn to great effect. On that note, the deck that I’m most looking forward to trying out:

Grixis Dragons by “Rampagemania”

Creatures (14):
4 Bonecrusher Giant
3 Brazen Borrower
3 Glorybringer
4 Nicol Bolas, the Ravager
Nicol Bolas, Dragon-God (WAR)
Planeswalkers (2):
2 Nicol Bolas, Dragon-God

Other Spells (20):
2 Fatal Push
4 Thoughtseize
3 Wild Slash
4 Silumgar’s Scorn
3 Thought Erasure
2 Hero’s Downfall
2 Kolaghan’s Command

Lands (24):
4 Blood Crypt
1 Drowned Catacomb
3 Fabled Passage
3 Island
2 Mountain
3 Spirebluff Canal
1 Sulfur Falls
3 Swamp
4 Watery Grave

Sideboard (15):
2 Collective Brutality
2 Legion’s End
2 Noxious Grasp
3 Mystical Dispute
2 Unmoored Ego
3 Leyline of the Void
1 Niv-Mizzet, Parun

Dragonlord Ojutai is sweet, but so is Nicol Bolas, so I think that Grixis may be a very good choice for this kind of deck too. Red gives access to Glorybringer as a powerful threat, with Kolaghan’s Command to let you recycle your dragons as well as the powerful adventure creatures. Stormbreath Dragon, Niv-Mizzet and the other Dragonlords all seem like potential additions. Most importantly, once the metagame settles down and we aren’t getting banlist updates every week, this list can adapt to the decks we expect, and I hope will start to see more play. Blue/White Control has already been doing well in the metagame, but I certainly hope this can be a reasonable part of it too.

Until next time, are you working on a sweet Pioneer brew? Tell us about it in the comments!

WPNQ #2 Pioneer & Preliminaries at Manaleak.
Join us Feburary and March 2020 for our Wizards Play Network Qualifier (Season 2: Pioneer) & Preliminaries at Manaleak, Birmingham.

Getting your Pioneer deck together for Wizards Play Network Qualifier Season? Sign up for our Birmingham-based Preliminaries via www.manaleak.com. Find further details and more events via our our Facebook page.

Exploring Pioneer, by Andrew Quinn
Exploring Pioneer, by Andrew Quinn
It's still early days on the frontier, and with ongoing bannings making and breaking decks, it's hard to know where the format will settle. Andrew Quinn brings his experience across other formats to explore the current state of Pioneer, and the decks to watch.

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