Huh? No, I don't mean the
Field of the Dead ban. Many were hoping for it (if not expecting) and frankly it makes sense as it was the most difficult item to deal with out of the Golos deck - a land with a repeatable triggered ability, a.k.a. a
I am talking about Pioneer, a new non-rotating format unleashed on us by WotC today that will see a near immediate competitive support, not just at the LGS level but at MagicFests as well (already 3 dates on the 2020 Schedule with it), and even the Players' Tour (February 2020)!
There were rumors about it late last week, when an update to the Wizard Event Reporter tool got an update with some mention of "Pioneer" in it. Minds went buzzing right away, trying to imagine what sets would be included and what would be the initial banlist. If Modern taught us anything, it is that a Day 0 banlist is sometimes necessary. Maybe due to the similarity in the name, many had thought that Pioneer was the "official" name for Frontier, a semi-casual format made by fans that had its starting point at M15. Shortly after the B&R Update got posted, the official article announcing Pioneer was published; and it goes much further back than M15:
That is 29 sets legal in Pioneer at its inception, pretty close to what Modern had in 2011 (31 sets). Hindsight always being 20/20, it sort of makes sense that WotC would come up with a new non-rotating format right about now. The other major point that seems obvious is the pre-emptive banning of the Khans of Tarkir Fetchlands, as Blake Rasmussen points out in the announcement article:
"We'll talk more about the B&R philosophy on Thursday, but the gist of the banning decision is as follows: mana bases with fetch lands and shock lands are very strong and make playing three or four colors too easy. Decks can become more homogenous and the format becomes more defined by how many of the strongest cards players can squeeze into one deck. More constraints on mana bases add diversity to the format and make decks play differently from one another."
Having had a couple of hours to digest the news, I am going to have a look at what this new format could look like on Day 1. Already a few lists have emerged from brewers everywhere, so I will try and cover as many bases as possible.
My immediate reaction to the announcement was "OK, which decks were absolute, undisputed tier 1 during their time in standard?", and there were two clear leaders in that category - they were even responsible for two standard banning by themselves:
Aetherworks Marvel and
I have little doubts that these two archetypes will be brought back and customized for Pioneer: Marvel can be adjusted to play more silly things than "just"
Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger, and CopyCats can run the full Energy package (
Attune with Aether,
Whirler Virtuoso) along with more Planeswalker support in
Teferi, Time Raveler and
Oko, Thief of Crowns.
But times have changed, and these days such powerful builds have to pass the Oko Test, i.e. "can a turn 2/turn 3 Oko completely disrupt your strategy":
- CopyCats aims at curving Saheeli-into-Guardian, and
Oko, Thief of Crownscannot turn Miss Rai into an Elk;
- Marvel usually gets its energy requirement as part of the spell resolutions: t1
Attune With Aether, t2
Woodweaver's Puzzleknot, t3
Rogue Refiner; to the notable exception of the sacrifice effect of the Puzzleknot, Oko does not stop any of these, and one is then free to play and activate Marvel - or "Spin the Wheel" - on the same turn without Oko being able to step in.
Pretty good, right? But why stop there then? Why not just go next level and combine two of the most dominant strategies of the past few years into one monstrosity? I give you Karn Golos Marvel:
As was the case for Modern, I am expecting combo strategies to be in the top tier of the Pioneer metagame early on. In addition to the two I already covered, there are a few more that are worth building around:
- Simic Nexus
- Rally the Ancestors
- Emry Ascendancy
- AetherFlux Cannon
- God-Pharaoh’s Gift
- Kethis Historic
The Case for Control Decks
We barely had time to say goodbye to
Teferi, Hero of Dominaria and
Search for Azcanta, and they are already back with more friends:
Detention Sphere, and even
Dig Through Time is joining the fray! As for the win condition, we can pick and choose:
Torrential Gearhulk and/or
Approach of the Second Sun are both viable, as would be
Gideon, Ally of Zendikar.
Besides the obvious UW build, there are other iterations of Control lists that have popped up already, like Jeskai Superfriends, because who doesn't like a little Narset sprinkled with CopyCats:
Another traditional approach is Esper Control, and since
Fatal Push are legal in Pioneer it might actually be a more natural extension from UW than Jeskai:
As a reminder, we are very early on in the format, so baby steps are to be expected. For example, in this Esper list, I could very well see a couple of
Thought Erasures being added down the line to make up for the lack of
Inquisition of Kozilek. I would also be remiss if I did not mention Grixis Control: with
Tasigur, the Golden Fang,
Nicol Bolas, the Ravager,
Angrath’s Rampage and
Bedevil, there are plenty of toys to revive an archetype that has also been climbing up the ranks of Modern standings.
The Synergistic Builds
This is where we start looking into more "midrange" approaches to Pioneer. Outside of the famous Rock (B/G) archetype, three color combinations seem to have an edge when it comes to this strategy: Bant, Sultai and Abzan.
First is Bant Company, which looks like a Good Creatures deck but is actually closer to midrange because of the abilities attached to the creatures it plays:
See? No spell outside of
Collected Company! But when you have
Knight of Autumn,
Deputy of Detention and
Spell Queller to control the board, it allows you to maximize Company's chances of hitting.
Next is Sultai Delve, an archetype that has been attempted in Modern but has now a chance to make its own name as a midrange house in a brand new format with reduced competition from Jund:
Here cards like
Grim Flayer and
Drown in the Loch lose a bit of their value and efficiency since there are no fetchlands to fill the graveyard enough and/or give Delirium.
Deathrite Shaman is an interesting choice for the same reason, and time will only tell if its inclusion is more due to its reputation rather than its actual power level in Pioneer.
And finally, this one is a fan favorite: the return of
Siege Rhino!! Abzan Midrange is the build that will benefit from having the most mana efficient removal spells (
Declaration in Stone) while also adding a full playset of
Murderous Rider // Swift End from Throne of Eldraine:
A Mutavault's Dream: Tribal decks
These past few sets, and especially during Ixalan season, WotC had put back tribes into the spotlight: Vampires, Merfolk, Wizards, Zombies, Spirits, and even Elementals all took center stage at some point over the past couple of blocks. Now? Not only do players get a deeper arsenal per creature type, another centerpiece to the strategy is back:
Mutavault, printed last in M14. Based on the early postings, the most popular tribes being tried so far are Zombies, Elves and Spirits.
Wait, you thought I would forget about Goblins? The little tribe that could got some boost in Modern with the reprint of
Goblin Ringleader in Core20 and a few Rakdos pieces in Modern Horizons, and now in Pioneer they get a whole new format to take over. Plus,
Goblin Rabblemaster and
Legion Warboss can finally show us how they really are best friends!
I originally thought that the Modern Humans build could be ported straight up to Pioneer, but missing out on
Aether Vial and the multicolor painless lands (
Pillar of the Paruns,
Cavern of Souls) is proving more problematic than I thought. Still, there is a more than decent shell to work with in Bant, with
Tithe Taker taking on the role of
Thalia, Guardian of Thraben and
Mana Confluence assuming the duties of Cavern.
The Old Friends: Aggro & Burn
With fast combo decks expected to be everywhere at first, and with control strategies not far behind, what is left if none of these builds are to your taste? Well, go under them with aggressive strategies of course!
I will start with Burn/MonoRed: in recent months, the Prowess archetype has been performing pretty well in Modern Leagues, and looking at stock lists one can see that most of it is Pioneer legal:
Bedlam Reveler. The only downside is the lack of 1 CMC burn spell, but
Skewer the Critics and
Wizard’s Lightning are as good proxies as we are going to get for now. Note that
Eidolon of the Great Revel and
Boros Charm are both available in the format as well, and that you could also decide to splash Blue and benefit from
Stormchaser Mage and
Treasure Cruise - at least for as long as the latter will stay unbanned…
We can also rely on Gruul with the
Electrostatic Pummeler deck: it was a serious threat back when Energy was a thing, so I am expecting it back with a vengeance and take advantage of
Veil of Summer for additional protection.
Another build that caught my eye is Affinity: with a very low and efficient curve, and some card draw in
Bomat Courier and
Smuggler’s Copter, this deck looks like the perfect home in Pioneer for
All That Glitters and
Ensoul Artifact. I would not be surprised to see some attempts to stretch it to Jeskai, to include some reach in
Shrapnel Blast and/or
By the time I was done going over the data I collected for this article, hundreds of new decks had been posted to various database sites (I used mtggoldfish.com for the lists above). That is an excellent marker for the future popularity of the format already. I am pretty sure more and more archetypes will start popping up left and right, in preparation for the first sanctioned events at the beginning of November. As for online play, Pioneer will be available on MTGO only for now (one can hope for Arena some day) starting October 23, and some of the popular streamers and SCG personalities have already started running some Pioneer builds in Modern Leagues to get a feel for the power level.
As always, if you want to play Pioneer at some point, I would prioritize acquiring all rare lands especially the Kaladesh Fastlands (
Blooming Marsh) and the Ixalan (
Sunpetal Grove) and Dominaria (
Clifftop Retreat) Checklands.
I hope you enjoyed this quick overview of the early shape of the Pioneer metagame. The first online results should be posted before this coming weekend, and you can be sure I will be all over them to bring you the best and latest techs and innovations!