Breaking Down the Magic Online Pioneer PTQ Top 8 Decks

The recent Magic Online PTQ was the first big event showcasing the Pioneer format, and Ari Lax is here to examine all the Top 8 decklists! Could there already be trends emerging in this new format?

The first Pioneer Players Tour Qualifier was held on Magic Online this last
weekend. Six unique archetypes made Top 8, with a total left field deck
taking it down. Here’s the breakdown of the first high stakes peek into the
format that makes up half the Season Two Invitational at SCG CON Winter.

Eighth Place and Third Place – Four-Color Copy Cat

Read Gerry Thompson article from last Friday and realize this is all
fairly stock Copy Cat stuff. This was the most represented archetype in the
Top 32 decklists, and if it remains legal through the posting of this
article it’s a clear deck to beat.

A part of me wonders if this prevalence is actually a function of the power
of the Copy Cat combo, or just the fact that it’s the best vehicle for the
Turn 2 broken planeswalker package. This also links to Oath of Nissa, which
kinda feels like a Faithless Looting both fixing draws and enabling more
synergies. In this case, it’s the card that lets you convert Llanowar Elves
mana into Teferi, Time Raveler or Saheeli Rai when you don’t draw the right

The key addition we see that wasn’t present in Gerry’s list is Rogue
Refiner. He mentioned the three-drop glut as the reason it was excluded,
but at the same time your entire deck is built to cast three-drops and the
only thing holding you back is perfect mana. I would never underestimate
that last part, and Aether Hub is probably reason enough to get some Rogue
Refiners in your deck.

I don’t love four Attune with Aether or only playing 21 lands, but there’s
probably some medium where you hit your land drops, don’t flood, and where
Aether Hub isn’t Tendo Ice Bridge. Maybe the answer involves Traverse the
Ulvenwald as a split threat-land, because in Standard the end game for
Felidar Guardian definitely included that card.

One note on the removal front: Oath of Chandra is significantly worse than
it was during the Standard Copy Cat era due to the Dominaria
planeswalker damage redirection change. It no longer actually applies
pressure to their permanents, just help for your Elk beatdown plan. There
has to be something better.

Seventh and Fifth Place – Izzet Phoenix

Jacob Nagro, a player who has really taken the lead on Pioneer, was an early promoter
of Izzet Phoenix in the format. SCG Tour commentator Ryan Overturf has also been promoting Izzet Phoenix. Izzet
is technically two-thirds of Grixis, right?

There’s, again, a lot of consensus between all of these decks, but the
minor maindeck differences point to a real difference between this deck and
the Modern Izzet Phoenix deck despite the matching creature bases with
Thing in the Ice.

There’s only Opt as a card selection one-mana cantrip. A huge part of the
Modern deck was being able to chain off Manamorphose, Serum Visions, and
Thought Scour to recur Arclight Phoenix off two or three mana. Arclight
Phoenix either costs you cards to fire off Wild Slash or Lightning Axe, or
it costs you four or five mana to chain off Chart a Course. You need some
bridge, the way the Standard Izzet Phoenix leaned on Goblin Electromancer
and Radical Idea.

Madness is that gap filler. Fiery Temper is a one-drop, and madness
anything keeps your card count higher. That’s where we get the divergence
of Nagging Thoughts to maximize that aspect of the deck, or Strategic
Planning to maximize everything else.

One caveat to the madness nonsense is that I remain unconvinced Izzet Charm
is a playable Magic card. Since 2012, when Return to Ravnica
released, everyone has tried to shoehorn Izzet Charm into their Modern deck
and it has always been horrible. I get that Pioneer is a new format, but
that still doesn’t mean I want to pay two mana for any of the nonsense
Izzet Charm provides.

Treasure Cruise is in a weird middling spot here. I don’t actually think
this deck works without Treasure Cruise, since spending cards to do stuff
doesn’t mesh with having spell chains later to recur Arclight Phoenix. But
Treasure Cruise previously sat next to fetchlands, and this Izzet Phoenix
deck is merely OK at fueling it without them. Treasure Cruise becomes this
curve topper that draws you into Wild Slash and Izzet Charm, cards that
don’t quite hang in a long game. The card is obviously powerful, but I
don’t think we’ve maximized for it in Pioneer with Izzet Phoenix.

The other big disagreement is on sideboard threats, which honestly is true
of every Izzet deck ever. I’m partial to cards that don’t die to Abrupt
Decay, especially Ral, Izzet Viceroy, but Ryan Overturf has been jamming
some Brazen Borrowers which seem really awesome. They are less in the
category of “overpower midrange” and more in the “additional clocks against
combo”, but your extra body being an adventure instant to go with your main
Arclight Phoenix plan seems delightful. Maybe we should just be starting
Bonecrusher Giant.

And it’s also basically impossible to find the tweet where I told Ryan that
Brazen Borrower sucked during preview season, so there’s no way to prove I
was wrong there. Right?

Sixth Place – Mono-Green Ramp

I want to be clear this deck is not Mono-Green Devotion. We will get to
that one in a bit. This is more the successor to Bant Golos or old Innistrad Standard Wolf Run Ramp than it is related to any
Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx deck.

Ugin, the Spirit Dragon is one of the most powerful ramp end games in
Modern when you aren’t playing against combo. Good news, this format
doesn’t have those stack-based combo decks at all. Ugin is a clean sweep
against everything but cards from Kaladesh. The question is just
how to get to Ugin mana, and what to do when you don’t draw the
planeswalker. The answer for now appears to be Field of the Dead or
Cascading Cataracts plus Golos.

This exact list is slow out of the gates though. I get that Elvish Mystic
isn’t a combo with Field of the Dead or Ugin, the Spirit Dragon’sX
ability, but I think you need more than just Arboreal Grazer and Once Upon
a Time to come out of the gates quick. You want your three-drop ramp spells
on Turn 2, and if you sweep away a mana creature, who cares.

Four is also way too many Castle Garenbrig. This list is light on Forests,
you don’t have an actual six-drop you are bridging to, and you can’t chain
multiple Castles to cast Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger. I get that it’s
close to Snow-Covered Forest for Field of the Dead, but I actually want
untapped basic original flavor Forest for many of these other cards.

I don’t think this deck utilizes it very well, but spell mastery plus Once
Upon a Time is a strong pairing. Between that and delirium, I expect a lot
of Once Upon a Time as card type instant in graveyard in this format.

The other portable package from this sideboard is Thought-Knot Seer plus
random colorless lands, an easy enough ask in a format with pain lands. If
Felidar Guardian gets banned, that might be a suitable secondary plan for
Oko, Thief of Crowns decks.

Fourth Place – Kethis Combo

If Copy Cat is the two-card combo deck of the format, Kethis Combo is the
engine deck. If you want to optimize any of these Top 8 decks, start here.
This is just the Standard deck with minor additions.

I’m honestly skeptical of some of the additions here. A huge part of the
power of the Standard Kethis Combo deck was the false tempo game it played,
not the raw combo, and this deck feels like it doesn’t have as many other
angles of pressure. Spend those slots on more things that interact and
force your opponent to interact instead of linear combo enablers. Oath of
Nissa and Oko, Thief of Crowns are just good. Find more cards like that
(Oath of Nissa as Faithless Looting point two: legendary permanent

Second Place – Mono-Green Devotion

Todd Anderson definitely called his shot last week. More than any other
deck in Pioneer, this feels like it is doing something really above and
beyond to the point I wonder if this is a Modern deck we haven’t tuned yet.
Leyline of Abundance is really a broken card. Or maybe Once Upon a Time is.
It’s hard to tell.

I can’t really do the deck justice in a fractional of an article here, so
read Todd’s article today.

This is also the third instance of Oath of Nissa as Faithless Looting, with
the green cost being the synergy enabler here.

First Place – Simic Nexus

On a macro level, the success of Simic Nexus makes sense as a hard exploit
to a lot of what the Pioneer format doing. All these decks are killing you
in combat against all these Fogs, and Sultai Midrange isn’t positioned to
handle Wilderness Reclamation or Dig Through Time.

On a micro level, I have no idea how this deck wins. Half the format is
playing Teferi, Time Raveler which just shuts off your entire deck, and you
have to play Display of Dominance to kill it. Another large section has
four Wild Slash, which has text beyond Shock. These decks don’t even have
to kill via combat if they just know you’re showing up with Fog, they can
cast Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger instead of Voracious Hydra or play a real
Negate over Mystical Dispute to hit a green enchantment.

This deck was a perfect tool for exactly this weekend. You should be aware
it exists for future events, and just generally be aware Fog is in the
format. But I would not play this deck next weekend, because people will
change four cards and have a much better matchup against it.

Other Trends

That’s a lot of the same things we saw in the Top 8. There’s only a few
minor notes to hit past those lists.

I can’t write this without mentioning the Prime Speaker Vannifar Copy Cat
deck, with Thalia’s Lancers finding Saheeli Rai as the Vannifar target that
ties the combo chain together.

Smuggler’s Copter was the core of most successful aggressive decks. Two
drops that trigger prowess or loot away Thoughtseize are good.

The two less represented archetypes that have my eye are Hardened Scales
and various artifact aggro decks with Emry, Lurker of the Loch backed with
Darksteel Citadel. A fairly buried Winding Constrictor deck incorporating
Thoughtseize seems to be a lead in the right direction, especially if
Smuggler’s Copter can also get involved.

The best decks in Pioneer right now are the easy ones to figure out, but
the best Modern decks early in that format weren’t the ones that we
remember from Pro Tour Philadelpha. There’s no promise we get the time to
do this, but I’m excited to see what rises from the mix to match them.