Pioneer Trails - No More Shenanigans!

Guillaume Robert • November 5, 2019

After what feels like forever ago (even though it has only been two weeks since the announcement) and after many, many 5-0 lists were shared over both social media and WotC's League Results page, the competitive Pioneer scene finally opened its doors this past weekend to players who were very eager to figure out what the "real" metagame was like. Between the MTGO PTQ on Friday (over 380 participants) and the NRG Championship Series Tabletop event on Saturday (featuring just shy of 160 players), we were all given a sample of what lies ahead.

Or so we thought...

The first ban-hammer dropped this Monday evening, and three cards have been asked to pack up and leave: Oath of Nissa, Leyline of Abundance and Felidar Guardian.

How did we get there, and what does that mean for the format going forward?

The talk of the weekend - MonoGreen Devotion and CopyCat

Listen, I am not going to stand here and try to convince you that these decks are fair. When successful, both these archetypes demand the opponent to have a solution at hand or face the risk of losing within a turn or two. And let's be honest, it definitely showed:

  • for the PTQ, 10 out of the Top 32 decks were CopyCats, and 5 were MonoGreen Devotion, and with a Kethis Combo list taking 4th place also using the Legendary Enchantment, that is a total of 16 decks using Oath of Nissa;
  • in the Top 32 of the NRG Championship Series event, there were also 5 MonoGreen builds, and "only" 7 CopyCat lists when combining the Saheeli, SuperFriends and Vannifar varieties, giving 11 total decks using Oath of Nissa (the SuperFriends deck in 7th place did not use any copies).

Is that a lot? Absolutely. Every time any given card and/or archetype monopolizes close to 30% of a format, alarm bells tend to go off. While I was working on this article, Aaron Forsythe provided some more relevant input to the conversation:

On top of just data and numbers, there is also the display of dominance that streaming and coverage bring to the table. That was best exemplified by Todd Anderson's run in the PTQ with MonoGreen Devotion, during which he went 13-0 into the Finals, and rather easily at that. One of the silliest lines the build could pull off was:

And yet similar crazy lines were not that rare, when Todd would go on to combine Nissa and Nykthos to land a 8/9 Voracious Hydra without having to double the counters, or a 13/13 Walking Ballista to finish games off quickly. Seems decent, right?

What is interesting to look at is that the NRG Series event happened the day after the MTGO PTQ, so that players had a chance to make an educated decision as to what they should play based on the final standings of the online event - which were available to the public through various outlets (Twitter and WotC mainly). Here are the number of copies of each archetype that placed in the Top 32 of each event:

Representation of each Pioneer Archetypes in the Top 32 of the format's first Competitive Events.

The naming convention is different between the two events, but the message was clearly similar: CopyCat and Devotion/Ramp were ahead of the pack in terms of players' preference and overall performance.

The B&R Update - What now?

Coupled to MTGO League results overwhelmingly pointing to the same issues, the B&R committee decided to take action. One could argue that it was a rather quick trigger for a two week old format, and that maybe the rest of the metagame could have adapted via Sideboard answers. Sadly that is not going to accomplish much at this point, so instead I am trying to look at what the state of Pioneer could be once the dust settles. Looking again at the statistics above after removing the decks that will directly suffer the most from the bans, we get the following:

Atop the "new" standings, we find an archetype that many have been hyping getting into the weekend, and that Todd Anderson even called a tough matchup for the Devotion deck - Izzet Phoenix, featuring our old pal Treasure Cruise. A somewhat relevant anecdote: Mark Kelley had actually lead his take of the Phoenix deck all the way atop the standings at the end of the Swiss rounds of the NRG event and into the Finals... before conceding and settling for 2nd place in the event, apparently for reasons related to the NRG Series rankings. Kudos to him for his show of sportsmanship, because his build definitely could have taken home the trophy:

4 Thing in the Ice
4 Arclight Phoenix
2 Crackling Drake
4 Lightning Axe
4 Opt
4 Wild Slash
4 Izzet Charm
3 Fiery Temper
4 Chart a Course
3 Strategic Planning
4 Treasure Cruise
4 Island
2 Mountain
4 Shivan Reef
4 Spirebluff Canal
4 Steam Vents
2 Sulfur Falls

1 Brazen Borrower // Petty Theft
3 Narset, Parter of Veils
2 Chandra, Torch of Defiance
3 Abrade
4 Mystical Dispute
2 Sweltering Suns
Izzet Phoenix by Mark Kelley, 2nd place @ NRG CT Nov. 2019

Thing in the Ice and Arclight Phoenix are well-known potent threats from their days of Modern fame. If any deck is going to get one of the big Delve payoff spells (Treasure Cruise, Dig Through Time), this the one: despite lacking fetches and 1-mana cantrips, this build has shown to be resourceful enough to make the fiery birds viable again, and the ability to reload one's hand for just a couple of mana is another nice payoff. I could see some copies of Merchant of the Vale // Haggle and/or Thrill of Possibility making it into the 75 (like in Joey Beam's version of the deck finishing 25th place at the NRG event), maybe in a split with Strategic Planning. And I would definitely work on adding at least two copies of The Royal Scions even if that means cutting the Crackling Drakes out: the amount of card filtering and graveyard filling is far from negligible, and their Ultimate happens more often than you would think, which makes it easier on your flock of Phoenixes to finish the job off.

One clue pointing to Mark Kelley having likely taken into account the PTQ results of the day before: Sweltering Suns in the Sideboard, aiming at taking care of Devotion's board before the Nykthos/Nissa engine can do too much damage. Anger of the Gods is another valid option, but Cycling ensures that Kelley's board wipe of choice would never be a dead draw.

The other rising archetype of the weekend is the return of another Standard All-Star, which even got the honor of being the first card banned in Arena play: Nexus of Fate.

3 Search for Azcanta
4 Wilderness Reclamation
2 Oko, Thief of Crowns
3 Teferi, Time Raveler
2 Tamiyo, Collector of Tales 
2 Blink of an Eye
4 Growth Spiral
4 Haze of Pollen
2 Supreme Will
4 Nexus of Fate
3 Dig Through Time
1 Sphinx's Revelation
2 Blast Zone
4 Breeding Pool
1 Castle Vantress
4 Fabled Passage
3 Forest
3 Glacial Fortress
3 Hallowed Fountain 
3 Hinterland Harbor 
1 Island
1 Lumbering Falls
1 Plains

4 Cerulean Drake
2 Thing in the Ice
1 Jace, Architect of Thought
3 Veil of Summer
2 Display of Dominance
3 Dovin's Veto
Bant Nexus by Keenan Davidson, 5th place @ NRG CT Nov. 2019

Early on there was some attempt at building Bant Control decks that could get advantage of Wilderness Reclamation coupled with powerful wrath effects like Supreme Verdict and Settle the Wreckage while also making it easier to cast a large Sphinx's Revelation or a kicked Cyclonic Rift. But Davidson's version is more all-in on the Nexus of Fate plan with Dig Through Time, Supreme Will and Search for Azcanta as means to ensure that at least one copy of Nexus can be found on every turn. For the win, you get to pick between a 3/3 Elk courtesy of Oko, Thief of Crowns or an animated Lumbering Falls with Hexproof to make sure your opponent is out of options.

Out of the board, I am going to assume that Jace, Architect of Thought was the answer to CopyCat strategies, so that particular spot is now open. Cerulean Drake and Thing in the Ice are good solutions to MonoRed and other aggressive decks, while Display of Dominance can prove very useful against a flipped Thing in the Ice heading your way (in a mirror match of against Phoenix), a pesky Oko, Thief of Crowns played early on, or serve as a versatile tool when facing Sultai Midrange to take care of either Drown in the Loch or Tasigur, the Golden Fang.

What about combo decks?

While it is true that Simic Nexus has a lot in common with one's traditional combo deck, that would still make it one of only two combo decks viable in the format. With Felidar Guardian and Oath of Nissa both gone, it is not just CopyCat that was removed from the landscape, but Vannifar Pod too - at least the version with the reasonable line that involved Felidar Guardian, Thalia's Lancers and Saheeli Rai - leaving only Kethis Combo:

1 Jace, Wielder of Mysteries
2 Oko, Thief of Crowns
4 Teferi, Time Raveler
4 Diligent Excavator
4 Emry, Lurker of the Loch
4 Hope of Ghirapur
4 Kethis, the Hidden Hand
3 Lazav, the Multifarious
4 Once Upon a Time
4 Mox Amber
2 Terrarion
4 Oath of Nissa
4 Blooming Marsh
4 Botanical Sanctum
4 Hallowed Fountain
4 Mana Confluence
2 Temple Garden
2 Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth

1 Oko, Thief of Crowns
1 Assassin's Trophy
3 Fatal Push
2 Jace, Architect of Thought
2 Narset, Parter of Veils
2 Tormod's Crypt
2 Urza's Ruinous Blast
2 Vraska, Golgari Queen

Losing Oath of Nissa removes some of the build's consistency, as well as lowers the critical mass of Legendary cards that can be binned. To that end, I am suggesting two possible replacements:

  • Fblthp, the Lost can help with going through the deck faster and offers a potential blocker in creature matchups, and its cost is also reduced to a single Blue mana once Kethis, the Hidden Hand is in play;
  • Legion's Landing is another option serving as a repeatable Legendary, 1-CMC enchantment that also brings a body into the mix, sort of a "happy medium" between Oath and Fblthp. Flipping Landing is doubtful, and it might actually be for the best considering that sending an Adanto to the graveyard (which is part of the endgame of Kethis Combo) would then become even harder.

Recent changes to the build brought in Hope of Ghirapur, a very smart move that enables either stalling for a turn in search of the missing combo piece, or starting the combo without concern for disruption.

As fate would have it, over the past 24 hours there is a new combo archetype that has been making the rounds of social media all the way to Seth-better-known-as-SaffronOlive, who promptly fired MTGO to stream it in action - because of course he did 🙂 . Introducing "Pioneer Possibilty Storm":

1 Shared Summons
1 Enter the Infinite
2 Domri Rade
3 Kiora, Behemoth Beckoner
1 Xenagos, the Reveler
1 Vivien Reid
4 Bonecrusher Giant // Stomp
3 Glorybringer
1 Borborygmos Enraged
4 Possibility Storm
4 Llanowar Elves
4 Elvish Mystic
4 Lovestruck Beast // Heart's Desire
2 Rosethorn Acolyte // Seasonal Ritual
2 Walking Ballista
1 Geier Reach Sanitarium
4 Stomping Ground
4 Rootbound Crag
2 Game Trail
3 Mountain
7 Forest
2 Captain Lannery Storm

2 Display of Dominance
2 Fry
2 Ratchet Bomb
2 Scavenging Ooze
3 Hornet Nest
2 Reclamation Sage
1 Bow of Nylea
1 Chandra, Torch of Defiance

Reportedly it won a 30-people Pioneer paper tournament in Japan, and that's how the list took off. The idea is rather simple: with Possibility Storm in play, one can cast an Adventure Sorcery spell (Lovestruck Beast // Heart's Desire or Rosethorn Acolyte // Seasonal Ritual) in order to cast the lone Enter the Infinite in the deck, putting back Borborygmos Enraged on top of the library. With the entire deck in hand, casting Walking Ballista with X = 0 then allows Possibility Storm to bring Borborygmos in play, and all that is left to be done is chucking lands at the opponent for the win. I am not totally convinced that this is the most optimal way to build this archetype, but I am sure I will not be the only one trying to work on it and optimize it.

Another announcement Monday?

Yes, WotC did tell us a little while ago that they will be trying to adjust the format as it goes, maintaining weekly updates to the Pioneer B&R on Monday "after lunch, Pacific time". It is a more cautious approach than what was done with Modern, and is essentially a player-based response: if you solve the format a little too hard, they have already showed us that they are not afraid to go after the guilty parties.

Thankfully, the updated B&R should already be in effect when this article comes out, so we should not have to wait too long before the metagame adjusts. I will definitely be on the lookout for any breakout performance, whether being streamed or posted on social media or League results. Just remember, one 5-0 does not a staple make, but do it 6 or 7 times and you might be on to something...

How do you feel about the B&R Update? Which strategy do you think will dominate Pioneer next? Feel free to reach out on Twitter, @poppu_mtg, to continue the discussion!