Throne of Eldraine Standard is up in the air after massive bannings once again. Modern looks to be firmly in the grip of Urza, Lord High Artificer (with stalwart Death’s Shadow holdouts picking up the other end of the line). Legacy is newly free from Wrenn and Six. But Pioneer? Pioneer is where things are really heating up!
This past weekend, we saw Smuggler’s Copter come out on top over a field of lots of Mono-Green Devotion, Hardened Scales, and even a few Field of the Dead decks. After all, what better way to beat the powerful land than to fly over the army of Zombies and punch their owner in the mouth?
In the weeks leading up to the tournament, I prepared with some old friends from the former Team Metagame Gurus – the Jessup brothers, Jim Davis, Brad Carpenter, and Peter Ingram. We examined Simic Eldrazi, Gruul Aggro, and a couple of different Hardened Scales builds, before settling on a Rakdos Vehicles deck to exploit the trend of so many Llanowar Elves and Elvish Mystics in the format.
- 4 Llanowar Elves
- 3 Scavenging Ooze
- 4 Elvish Mystic
- 4 Goblin Rabblemaster
- 4 Glorybringer
- 2 Rhonas the Indomitable
- 4 Questing Beast
- 4 Bonecrusher Giant
- 4 Bomat Courier
- 4 Scrapheap Scrounger
- 2 Hazoret the Fervent
- 4 Soul-Scar Mage
- 4 Goblin Chainwhirler
- 3 Bonecrusher Giant
So why did we land on Rakdos Vehicles? It is, after all, essentially a Standard deck from 2018 with Bonecrusher Giant and Smuggler’s Copter retconned back in. Well, the idea was to combine Smuggler’s Copter’s ability to smooth out draws and maintain pressure with the exploitative Goblin Chainwhirler to punish all the Llanowar Elves seeing play in Pioneer.
Additionally, with Chandra, Acolyte of Flame in the sideboard, we have fully embraced the powerful and deceptive capability of the transformative role-shift in sideboard games. Longtime readers of these articles know the importance of the Snapcaster Effect, the increased density of powerful, narrow spells with the inclusion of effects that allow a second use of those spells.
Basically, when you have ways to rebuy your best spells for a given matchup, your midrange deck suddenly gets to fit essentially double of particular effects. We have eight Thoughtseize effects and ten cheap removal spells in our sideboard. An eighteen-card sideboard! What a luxury!
Now, Soul-Scar Mage gets a major upgrade in Pioneer compared to Standard, not because the effect is particularly devastating (though it is useful), but because the 1/2 body pilots Smuggler’s Copter so well. Additionally, against Winding Constrictor in particular, Soul-Scar Mage turns Wild Slash into Lightning Bolt. Two -1/-1 counters from the burn spell become three, because of the way Winding Constrictor is worded. So yes, if your Hardened Scales opponent leads off with a Winding Constrictor, your Soul-Scar Mage into Wild Slash turn is going to be pretty sweet.
And Unlicensed Disintegration is practically the best reason to be Rakdos, what with the ability to answer any creature and go upstairs for three points. It might be reasonable to play Searing Blood over some of the other burn spells in order to maximize the ability of the deck to push damage while clearing out opposing creatures.
Of course, Bonecrusher Giant is simply a wildly powerful two-mana removal spell that comes attached to a well-proportioned 4/3 for three mana, and Stomp stands to remain one of the most influential removal spells in Pioneer for years to come. The body also crews Heart of Kiran, which is nothing to take for granted. It’s likely too strong not to play in a deck like this and will shape what creatures can see play in Pioneer going forward. Three toughness is the high-water mark in a format with Wild Slash and Stomp over Lightning Bolt.
Of course, that is sort of the whole reason Smuggler’s Copter is so good (and to a lesser extent, Winding Constrictor and friends). They survive the Shocks of the format, which then leads to the sideboard need in this deck for the only one-mana removal spell that can kill a three-toughness creature in Pioneer – Fatal Push.
The choice between Chandra, Torch of Defiance and Hazoret the Fervent is also a bit tricky. Different players lean differently on these powerful threats, but it seems like the real answer will come based on the nature of the threats of Pioneer. If it’s all Smuggler’s Copter and Heart of Kiran, Chandra looks pretty weak. If it’s all Winding Constrictor, Chandra looks quite strong. For this tournament, we chose to play a mix, but as Pioneer currently stands, I suspect that Hazoret is the better choice. Chandra is pretty mediocre against Mono-Black Aggro, and Hazoret is unkillable (at least until they put Grasp of Darkness into their decks).
Now, the question remains: why choose this over Mono-Black, Mono-Red, or green-based aggro decks? And when is it wrong to play Rakdos? After all, I did message our group that I kept losing to Mono-Black Aggro, and that I thought it looked great. But the allure of Goblin Chainwhirler was too strong. What gives?
Frankly, Mono-Black does the grindy elements of Rakdos better than Rakdos does. Smuggler’s Copter, Mutavault, Castle Locthwain, and the host of recursive creatures are all incredibly difficult to grind out. It also has a manabase to die for. One color with room for Mutavaults is the dream. Especially when compared with the low-quality multicolor lands that we have to settle for in allied color combinations, Mono-Black’s rock-solid manabase looks absolutely peachy. Where is Blackcleave Cliffs? Where is Sulfurous Springs?
But the power level of Goblin Chainwhirler relative to the rest of the format is the key here. When The Chainwhirler is good, you need to bend the deck to accommodate. When it’s bad, you can move away from red and explore other Smuggler’s Copter decks. Of course, Kellen Pastore broke it with his interesting sideboard for Mono-Black Aggro. Take a look:
- 4 Bloodsoaked Champion
- 4 Scrapheap Scrounger
- 4 Night Market Lookout
- 1 Gutterbones
- 4 Knight of the Ebon Legion
- 3 Rankle, Master of Pranks
- 3 Murderous Rider
That’s right, Fourth Bridge Prowler. Kellen knew what he was doing. Now there’s a way for Mono-Black to maintain bodies on the table for Smuggler’s Copter while messing up Llanowar Elves and company. The card I needed to incorporate in Rakdos Vehicles? Forge[/author] Devil”][author name="Forge"]Forge[/author] Devil. After all, on the draw Goblin Chainwhirler can be too slow against the Llanowar Elves decks. Plus, Mono-Black is practically “can’t-block tribal,” which is embarrassing against the faster green starts. Fourth Bridge Prowler solves this and other issues in a smooth one-mana package. Congrats to Kellen for finding this gem.
As for sideboarding with Rakdos Aggro, there are several conflicting elements, and so many different decks in Pioneer that it’s hard to make a definitive guide. There are also likely to be multiple bans over the course of the next month or two, which makes for a difficult field to predict. Here’s where I’d start against some of the most important opposing archetypes:
VS Mono-Green Devotion
VS Mono-Black Aggro
VS Mono-Red Aggro
VS Simic Aggro
VS Bant Ramp and Mono-Green Ramp
VS Izzet Ensoul
VS Azorius Control
There are no fewer than ten different strong decks one can play in Pioneer: a handful of Smuggler’s Copter decks, a handful of Llanowar Elves decks, a couple of different control builds, some midrange decks like Sam Black and Autumn Burchett excellent Golgari Field masterpiece, two or three different ramp decks, and even combo decks waiting to be broken. (Looking at you, God-Pharaoh’s Gift; Aetherworks Marvel; Kethis, the Hidden Hand; and Nexus of Fate.)
At this point in the format’s evolution, it seems like proactive decks with a bit of disruption and solid removal spells are the way to go. The Mono-Green Devotion boogeyman is slowly subsiding into the rest of the format as the nonsense gets weeded out. And we’ve still got several weeks’ worth of tweaking and bannings left to go before the format officially gets set up. It’s an exciting time for the pioneers of Pioneer.