Pioneering Pioneer: Aggro, Combo and Control
With the announcement of Pioneer, the internet this week has become a cacophony of people randomly shouting out their favorite cards from the last eight years. There are still a lot of questions around Pioneer: will it end up closer to a souped-up Standard or a watered-down Modern? Which cards will WotC ban? What’s the format’s goldfish turn? While we won’t have these answers until real tournaments start rolling, we can nonetheless try to build out some shells for the format. Keep in mind the golden rule of Pioneer: if a card wasn’t playable in Standard, it’s probably not playable in Pioneer. Sure, Death’s Shadow was garbage in its Standard format and is a powerhouse in Modern, but it’s the exception rather than the rule. In this article, my goal is to get you thinking about shells. The format is way too new to lock down 75 card lists with perfect manabases, mainboards tuned for the meta, and sideboard plans. Instead, I will discuss each strategy, lay out some key cards, and let you brew up the rest. With that, let’s get started!
When a new format rolls around, Mono Red is never a bad place to start. While everyone else durdles around dreaming of Harmless Offering a Demonic Pact, you’re going to burn their face. There are two main directions you can go with Monored: Prowess Burn. Prowess is built around
4 Soulscar Mage
4 Warlord’s Fury
Lots of Red SpellsTM
Like the Modern deck, you want to maximize the damage off of your Prowess threats. The major problem with this archetype is that without the Canopy lands, running out of gas is easy. Your cantrips will tend to end in lands, and you’ll flood out. That means you’ll want something like Bedlam Reveler, but without Manamorphose, Reveler is going to come down later than usual. This means that you may want to go the Runaway Steam-Kin/Experimental Frenzy route, and if you’re doing that, I’m not so sure that running sub-par Prowess threats like Blistercoil is better than running non-Prowess good cards in another Monored shell. Such as Burn.
This deck looks like a cross between Modern Burn and Standard Monored, which is because… well, it is. The biggest decision a deck like this is going to have to make is which (if any) four-drop to play. The best four-drops for Monored are likely Hazoret and Frenzy, though I do believe that Torbran is a better choice for go-wide red decks (like Goblins, stay tuned!). Frenzy incentivizes a low land-count and a higher density of burn spells. Hazoret is okay with a slightly higher land count and is more concerned with emptying your hand as quickly as possible. Which four-drop you choose should influence how you build the rest of your shell.
4 Legion’s Landing
4 Smuggler’s Copter
2 Sram’s Expertise
Monowhite goes wide well, and it has some sticky, difficult-to-block threats in the form of the Vehicles and planeswalkers. White Weenie looks to take advantage of its ability to go wide and tall simultaneously, spewing lots of tokens alongside Benalish Marshal, Venerated Loxodon and its powerful one-drop threats. Legion’s Landing easily ramps you into cards like Sram’s Expertise, and Shefet Dunes can act as an additional lord to kill out of nowhere.
Depending on how the removal of the format plays out, Benalish Marshal may be nontrivial to kill, putting this deck in a good place. It’s blazingly fast, which is a good option to go underneath the slower combo decks, and can board into cards that grant Indestructible to hedge against sweepers.
Monogreen Aggro can hit harder than any of the other aggro decks, and doesn’t lose a whole lot of speed to do so. The downside is that Monogreen is mostly confined to one spell a turn, but the benefit is that it has insane one-mana interaction in the form of Aspect of Hydra and Blossoming Defense. Post-board, interaction only gets better with Veil of Summer serving as Pyroblast. The creatures in the deck have natural, built-in evasion and grow bigger the longer the game goes on. The Great Henge should be another consideration depending on the metagame (read: number of Oko's and Teferi's) as a cheap way to never run out of gas.
4 Wizard’s Retort
Monoblue Tempo was one of the best decks of the previous Standard format, and Monoblue Devotion was one of the best decks of its time. Put them together, and you have a Monoblue Tempo deck that has a real plan for catching up in the lategame, something it was totally unable to do earlier this year. Something to keep in mind for Pioneer: with no Path to Exile, Indestructible is a real threat, particularly if Trophy, Abrupt Decay, and Fatal Push become the removal spells of choice. Even if Declaration in Stone picks up, it still doesn’t feel as bad as getting Path’ed. The playstyle of this deck early is to stick an Obsession on a threat to pull ahead, and use your suite of cheap spells to keep your opponent from ever catching up. In the late game, you can slam the door shut with Thassa, Master of Waves, or Tempest Djinn. Another consideration for the deck is to swap out a playset of the non-Pirate creatures for Spectral Sailor so that you can swap Wizard’s Retort (only 8 Wizards in the deck) for Lookout’s Dispersal (you’d be up to 12 Pirates).
48 It Literally Doesn’t Matter
First and foremost, we have the premier combo of the format. It was banned out of Standard, has seen some play in Modern, and now it’s back to haunt Pioneer… for the time being. If you check out the Frontier format, which is still played in Japan, Copycat is a powerful force in the format, and there’s no reason to expect that it would be any different for Pioneer. There are a variety of shells that the combo can be played in: Jeskai midrange, Jeskai control, Superfriends, Aetherworks Marvel, 4C Energy… the list goes on and on. For the time being, the litmus test of the format is Copycat. You need to be able to combat this deck by killing them before they go off or having mainboard interaction in the form of Walking Ballista, Thalia, Heretic Cathar, or Pithing Needle/Sorcerous Spyglass.
The problem with all of these, of course, is that Copycat will often be played alongside everyone’s favorite three-mana planeswalker, Teferi, Time Raveler. This makes Saheeli even more problematic, as it can’t be interacted with via spells while going off, and Teferi can bounce any of the aforementioned hate cards prior to going off. Of all the decks and cards in this article and the next, I believe that Teferi, Time Raveler (for this and other reasons) and Copycat are the most likely to eat a ban.
4 Woodweaver’s Puzzleknot
(Yes, Omniscience is too cute)
There are some important things to keep in mind about Aetherworks Marvel. First of all, of all the decks in the format, it is one of the least able to take advantage of cards outside of its Standard format. Because of its reliance on Energy, it’s hardly able to take advantage of cards outside of its own block. The only real upgrades it gets are in the manabase (which was already perfect because of Attune + Hub) and the payoffs (Ugin, the Spirit Dragon). The second thing to remember is that, when Marvel was finally banned, it wasn’t actually an insanely good deck. In the article Wizards posted banning the card, they state that “…every popular deck except Blue-Red Control and Monoblack Zombies ranges from an even to a positive matchup against Temur Aetherworks.”
While they acknowledged that these numbers worsened a bit in favor of Aetherworks at higher tiers of competition, the deck was still not as busted as, say, any Standard deck playing Oko. Frank Karsten points out that a T4 Ulamog occurred in only a bit under 10% of games. Marvel was banned because it was absolutely miserable to play against, not because it was too good. The third thing to remember is that, in Pioneer, the hate against Marvel improves substantially: Teferi, Time Raveler; Karn, the Great Creator; Abrade; Spell Queller; Pithing Needle and Grafdigger’s Cage are all reasonable answers to stop Marvel.
While Marvel is undeniably a powerful Magic card, the certainty of some around an imminent ban seems premature. It wasn’t overwhelmingly powerful to begin with, it gets almost nothing from the new format, and its enemies gain a ton, some of which is maindeckable. While Marvel does get slightly better payoffs in Ugin and the return of Emrakul, I’m not convinced that it’s enough to push it into the top tier of Pioneer decks.
Fires of Invention is a card that’s been making some waves in Standard and even Modern, even though those waves have largely been overshadowed by Oko and Field of the Dead. In Pioneer, Fires has even more potential. I have not begun to trawl through the many activated abilities available in the format to abuse with Fires, but one caught my attention: Soulfire Grand Master.
Grand Master allows you to copy spells that you’re casting for free, and even cast them again that turn if you like, thanks to Fires. This lends itself to a combo with another broken combo card, Nexus of Fate. If you cast a Nexus of Fate and activate Soulfire Grand Master, the Nexus will be returned to your hand, and you get infinite turns right then and there. No having to work for it with Wilderness Reclamation and Search for Azcanta: you just win. Fires shells have an enormous space for building, but it’s a card that I would keep my eye on, particularly with other cards that are broken and have expensive activated abilities.
Of all the old Standard decks that people are excited to play with and against again, Nexus is undoubtedly one of the most polarizing. It was a miserable deck to play against and honestly wasn’t a whole lot of fun to play. Nonetheless, it’s fast, consistent, and blanks a lot of strategies out there looking to win with creature damage and lacking enchantment removal. Depending on how the format shakes out, it might be right to run some number of Teferi, Hero of Dominaria in place of or in addition to Wilderness Reclamation, and there’s probably a better win condition than Callous Dismissal that I just don’t know about.
While the deck does have access to actual Fog, Haze is likely preferable because it cycles and mana is not generally an issue. That’s also the reason for Hieroglyphic Illumination over another draw 2. Why the obsession with cycling? Well, you see, Dig Through Time is not banned in this format, and without fetches, it’s a bit trickier to turn on Delve consistently. This deck has no problem doing so. With 4 Fabled Passage and 12 one-mana ways to cycle, combined with Search, Growth Spiral, and Haze, Delve will be online in no time. And even if it’s not, Dig is an instant, which means it’s just begging to be combo’ed with Wilderness Reclamation. If there’s a deck that gets Dig banned, it might be this one. Alternatively, they could just ban Nexus of Fate because it should never have existed in the first place.
Maybe this shouldn’t be in combos, and should instead be considered a strong synergy, but putting it here let’s me split the article in two nicely. UR Phoenix has taken a bit of a hit in Modern with the banning of Looting, but Pioneer looks to be a bit slower. And without the pressure to consistently hit Turn 2 or 3 Phoenixes, UR Phoenix could stand a chance in Pioneer. The inclusion of Baral let’s the deck play a bit like Storm, whizzing through its deck quickly and flipping Thing faster. Depending on the removal suite, you may want Irencrag Pyromancer or Crackling Drake in addition to/instead of Thing in the Ice. Another big variable is the popularity of Declaration in Stone; if Declaration becomes the primary white removal spell of the format, Phoenix is likely just dead in the water, as permanently exiling all Phoenixes is too much of a liability.
4 Stitcher’s Supplier
Four-Color Rally was one of the individually most powerful decks to ever assault a Standard format. Once found, it was undeniably the best deck, and the format warped completely around it. It’s ability to execute a kill at instant speed with tapped out opponents led to similar play patterns as Splinter Twin used to. Don’t tap out! Or you’re dead. Additionally, it required opponents to interact with either the stack or the graveyard, as once Rally resolved, the game was over. Like other good combo decks, Rally also has the ability to play a normal game of Magic. With plenty of fodder for Nantuko Husk, pings off Cutthroat, and the nearly unkillable Cartel Aristocrat, the deck can kill off value Rallies and with some lackluster beats.
Of course, one of the most powerful sideboard cards from Modern that carried over to Pioneer was Rest in Peace, and it’s already looking to be a staple in Pioneer. If Rest in Peace is prevalent, then Rally might need a better plan B. Perhaps some blue for Teferi, Time Raveler…?
4 Sai, Master Thopterist
2 Inventors’ Fair
With Paradoxical Outcome decks blowing up in Modern, it seemed natural for people to try to port them to Pioneer. However, this deck has a few problems. Paradoxical Outcome in Modern allows for same-turn wins; once the deck goes off, the game has ended. It also allows for infinite combos with Emry and Jeskai Ascendancy as early as Turn 2. Finally, it has access to Urza, Lord High Artificer errr Inspiring Statuary which can win the game completely by itself. Overall, I think this deck, as built here, is a little too weak and inconsistent for Pioneer, just like it was in Standard. I do think, however, that exploring Jeskai Ascendancy decks is worth it, perhaps in conjunction with Emry and Tormod’s Crypt to get infinite pumps.
Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy
Lazav the Multifarious
Lands, many of which are probably Legendary
I’ll be honest; during the season in which the Kethis power house was legal in Standard, I had the opportunity to play in exactly zero Standard events. As such, I have no idea how to build the deck, and have instead resorted to listing Legendary cards that it looks like others have chosen to put into their decks. The deck being good likely hinges on how prevalent Rest in Peace/Storm hate is and whether it can play a reasonable non-combo game. Access to Legendary cards that forward the self-mill plan such as Emry and Jace, Vice President of Wizards of the Coast, are fantastic upgrades, and I’m certainly not the first one to bring up the synergy between Emry and Hope of Ghirapur alongside Kethis and Lazav.
Lands decks in this format will likely fall into two categories: Field of the Dead and Maze’s End. With the powerful upgrades to the Gates archetype from Ravnica Allegiance, a Gates deck appears to be viable. Hour of Promise and Sylvan Scrying do some great work in both of these archetypes. I’ve lumped them together because the plan is the same: ramp really hard and then win with a land. It may even be possible to combine the two into a single shell so long as you remain base Green. With so much ramp, it’s likely you can have powerful top-ends as a plan B in addition to or instead of Golos, such as Ugin, the Spirit Dragon, Emrakul, the Promised End, or Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger. We’ve seen decks built around Field of the Dead, Gates, and Scapeshift in both Modern and Standard have considerable success, so it seems likely that the deck will come together in some form or another in Pioneer.
This deck is one of many reasons why I think people should be playing Field of the Dead in Pioneer if they can afford to do so.
Control in Pioneer is going to be viable as long as one condition holds: Teferi, Time Raveler is either banned or just not played very much. As Teferi has single-handedly destroyed spell-based Control in Standard, so will he threaten to do so in Modern, as players would be forced into GBx colors for access to Abrupt Decay/Assassin’s Trophy in order to play a more board-based, controlling midrange gameplan.
Going off the assumption that Teferi, Time Raveler will eventually be banned, Control can take many forms in Pioneer, but will likely be Blue-based.
Elspeth, Sun’s Champion
UW will likely lean on its powerful array of planeswalkers to apply pressure and build card advantage. Supreme Verdict and Declaration in Stone will help to keep the board clear, and Dig Through Time will find the next pair of walkers in the lategame. UW is unlikely to be a 4x Dig Through Time deck because it lacks the ability to fill the graveyard quickly thanks to its reliance on permanents. Answers and threats in the deck, in terms of removal, countermagic, and planeswalkers, are impossible to determine until a metagame is established.
I’m not entirely convinced that UB has the removal suite necessary to fight the format. It doesn’t have as many good planeswalkers as UW, nor does it have as good a sweeper. If pure UB is to see play, it will be off the back of Drown in the Loch, which is going to require mill support that currently doesn’t exist. Alternatively, if creature-heavy decks are prevalent and The Scarab God is well-positioned (seems unlikely against Teferi and Oko), that could also push UB into playability.
Esper can be built either as a mashup of UW and UB, mostly giving UW access to some better spot removal, or as Esper Dragons.
2 Silumgar, Drifting Death
4 Silumgar’s Scorn
Esper Dragons was a deck that could play a controlling game or a “stick a Dragonlord Ojutai and protect it” game. This flexibility is the same thing that made the recent UB Torrential Gearhulk/The Scarab God deck in Standard so powerful; it was capable of controlling, but it could also just kill you on virtual Turn 5.
The draw to Sultai is the fantastic removal in Abrupt Decay and Assassin’s Trophy, along with Oko the Loco. However, I do feel as though Sultai will tend to gravitate toward a controlling midrange shell, likely Delirium-based, due to its powerful suite of creatures.
We’re so used to Grixis being a trap in Standard; does it have potential in Pioneer? I think Grixis’s viability in Pioneer is contingent on how good Kolaghan’s Command is, as that is easily the best spell in the deck. If Grixis is able to make good use of KCommand, Thoughtseize, Drown in the Loch, Dig Through Time, and Torrential Gearhulk, then it could be a real contender. The main problem is that it currently appears to be quite difficult to actually do this.
That’s it for this week! Next week, we’ll go through Midrange decks and Tribal/Synergy-based decks!
Ryan Normandin (@RyanNormandin) is a grinder from Boston who has lost at the Pro Tour, in GP & SCG Top 8's, and to 7-year-olds at FNM. Despite being described as "not funny" by his best friend and "the worst Magic player ever" by Twitch chat, he cheerfully decided to blend his lack of talents together to write funny articles about Magic.
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