Two weeks ago, Pioneer was announced as a format.
Last week, we found out the Invitational at SCG CON would feature Pioneer as a replacement for a seriously dismal Standard format.
Over the weekend, we got to see Pioneer and all it had to offer in the first PTQ ever featuring the fledgling format, setting the tone for the format to come.
And two days ago, around lunchtime, Pioneer had most of the last two weeks of hard work undone by its first of many to come off-schedule Monday Banned and Restricted announcements.
I’m not going to go into the rationale of the bans too much, as that was covered very well by the announcement itself, but I know that it left a lot of players asking the same question:
Whether you’re trying to stay on top of Pioneer for the upcoming Invitational, trying to buy into a brand-new format while avoiding getting burned by bans, or simply excited for the possibilities of Pioneer, the two most dominant decks being put behind bars almost feels like returning to square one. Nothing is obviously overperforming anymore, there are two fewer checks to pass, and really, it’s anyone’s ballgame.
We often allude to these kinds of formats as the Wild West, an endless stretch of possibilities and dangers simply waiting to be conquered by the bold and daring. When you mix in the volatility of the Banned List and the high power level of some of the cards still on the loose, Pioneer is really a West to be reckoned with.
Fortunately, if there’s one thing I know about getting rich and staying alive out West, it’s that it pays to side with the sheriff. What do I mean by that?
Well, if you look at the plots of most Westerns, it’s usually some rich railroad tycoon buying up land that’s about to be connected to civilization by their railroads, thus tripling the land’s value; all, of course, with the protection of the sheriff because they pay them off, making them above the law…
Oh, you meant “What do I mean by that?” in regards to Pioneer. I should have known, apologies.
What I mean by “siding with the sheriff” is simple: if you want to stay out of trouble, stay on the law’s good side. Want to find a deck that won’t get banned? Don’t go out there trying to be an outlaw. Go out and bring them to justice instead.
- 1 Jace, Architect of Thought
- 2 Teferi, Hero of Dominaria
- 4 Teferi, Time Raveler
- 2 Narset, Parter of Veils
As Pioneer enters what might be a short-lived cycle of players trying to break it and subsequently Wizards banning things, one of the most appealing angles of attack I can think of is to show up with a deck that tests your opponent’s ability to clear your hurdles rather than trying to outrace them yourself.
By my calculation, the best controlling color combination in Pioneer has to be Azorius. Detention Sphere is the most efficient and flexible answer to the emerging threats of Arclight Phoenix and cheap planeswalkers like Oko, Supreme Verdict is an unconditional sweeper that can’t be countered and keeps aggressive and midrange strategies in check, and Teferi is a single-card soft-lock against Aetherworks Marvel and Wilderness Reclamation decks. With this kind of broad coverage to build from, the only things you have left to consider are what your removal looks like and how you’re ending the game.
Perhaps the only place where Azorius is lacking as a contender is in its ability to trade one-for-one cleanly and efficiently. While Censor is certainly in line with our plan of punishing unrefined decks, I can’t tell you the last time I happily registered a copy of Last Breath. Thankfully, Supreme Verdict does a lot of heavy lifting when it comes to keeping the battlefield under control, so much of a good job that I’m not certain Last Breath will continue to be better than Declaration in Stone with Felidar Guardian out of the format as of Monday.
As for finishing the job, this list from the Magic Online PTQ decided on a classic combination of Teferi, Hero of Dominaria and a couple of copies of Approach of the Second Sun. While Teferi will always have a seat at the table when it comes to Azorius control decks, I’m not too sold on the idea that a seven-mana sorcery that says “Gain 7 life” is the best thing we could be doing with our mana. Pioneer is a big format, so while I appreciate the clean nature of this decklist otherwise, I went digging to see what else people are going to for their end-game.
The results were everything I had dreamed of and more.
All right, now we’re talking.
This decklist from the NRG Series event over the weekend is a masterful display of the art of never actually planning to win the game.
In principle, everything in these two decks is practically identical other than their plan for pulling ahead once they’ve survived the early-game. Anyone who’s played any of the Standard formats where Sphinx’s Revelation was legal (or maybe even just a game of Commander) could probably explain to you how much of a powerhouse the card is at taking over the game. Of course, manufacturing a safe opening to resolve a Sphinx’s Revelation can be a bit tough sometimes, but I’d much rather draw one of these than an Approach of the Second Sun.
Now, as far as low-investment kill conditions go, I didn’t think I’d really see the day we’d get much lower-cost than Nephalia Drownyard or Mutavault, but here we are. Field of the Dead as an inevitability card is likely a lot less scary than it is in some of the Hour of Promise ramp decks roaming around the format right now, but short of a Celestial Colonnade reprint, I’m not sure we can be doing much better. Especially in a setting with Sphinx’s Revelation, Azorius Control is always interested in hitting another land drop or playing more lands that have utility to mitigate the natural flood of drawing additional cards. This natural enabling of Field of the Dead is something I wish I’d thought about myself, but it still seems genius nonetheless.
Perhaps my biggest pet peeve of this deck is that it chooses to run too many ways to find a kill condition. Between Field of the Dead, Sphinx’s Revelation, and the rest of your deck, I’d assume three copies of Fae of Wishes to be overkill. This isn’t to say the options to nab with Granted aren’t powerful; I just wonder if you ever really want to draw two copies of Fae of Wishes in a single game.
As far as ways to win the game go, you’ve got your pick of anywhere between “quick and painless” with Elspeth or Ugin and “long and miserable” with Elixir of Immortality looping your library over and over again. Perhaps the reason for so many copies of Fae of Wishes is that the first Fae is meant to get one of the various hateful sideboard cards, and the second can go get a kill condition, but either way I think it’s a little overboard on ending the game. Why be in such a hurry?
While we’re over here in the sideboard, I want to take a quick second to talk about one of the other most appealing factors of playing Azorius Control decks in Pioneer, and that reason is Rest in Peace. Like I mentioned in my article a couple of weeks ago about the pillars of Pioneer, having good hate for any graveyard deck or synergy is an easy way to get a leg up on the competition.
Treasure Cruise, Dig Through Time, Prized Amalgam, Arclight Phoenix: these are all cards waiting for their opportunity to be broken. So long as people are trying to use the graveyard, having the absolute best hate is a huge leg up on other colors of the format.
Now, I know I just spent a lot of time trying to sell you on Azorius Control but I know there are a lot of skeptics among you, the ever-persistent crowd of anti-control mages insisting that there’s no way a predominantly reactive strategy can be correct in a deep format like Pioneer. Well, simmer down. I’ve still got plenty of Azorius in the tank, just for you.
- 4 Reflector Mage
- 3 Archangel Avacyn
- 4 Thraben Inspector
- 4 Spell Queller
- 3 Walking Ballista
- 3 Brazen Borrower
This Azorius Flash list from the Pioneer Challenge over the weekend is the exact same maindeck as an Azorius Flash decklist I posted on my Twitter during the week, which Magic Online user mtg-max and others have also been finding very real success with.
The success of the deck really comes from its ability to pick apart unprepared opponents with linear strategies. Spell Queller and Reflector Mage were the one-two punch that backed up Bant Company throughout its time in Standard and made it the powerhouse it was, and the two teamed up again for the Azorius Flash deck that was the best-performing deck at Pro Tour Kaladesh by a country mile.
The reason for the tag-team duo’s repeat success here is simple: once you’re in a position to force your opponent to act, you not only have ways to recover from tapping out for something like Gideon, you also have a 2/3 flying Time Walk your opponent has to risk playing into. Brazen Borrower perfectly fills this dynamic as well by alleviating the lack of strong removal options in our colors and allowing us to preserve our Spell Quellers in spots where we still want to apply pressure.
The other big appeal to me, which I think mtg-max drifted away from a bit in their take on the archetype, is the flexibility of our gameplan moving to the sideboarded games. It’s very easy to assume a role of a flash deck bent on protecting Gideon, Ally of Zendikar or Teferi, Hero of Dominaria and casting Supreme Verdicts and counterspells. Especially in the Wild West, I value this kind of flexibility the most.
Perhaps the only change I’d look at to this deck moving forward would be to swap out the Walking Ballistas for some Selfless Spirits, considering the bannings. Originally Walking Ballista was my replacement for Selfless Spirit because it was a way to answer Llanowar Elves or Elvish Mystic and have a hoop for Copy Cat decks to jump through, while still crewing Smuggler’s Copter and performing the task of Transforming Avacyn on demand. However, Selfless Spirit, in the absence of many of those factors, is a much better clock to put on the opponent when you’re trying to force the issue, and nicely protects Spell Queller or the rest of your creatures from your own Supreme Verdicts out of the sideboard.
If I didn’t value the flexibility as much, which might be the case in the coming weeks, I think a similarly powerful deck using Spell Queller could be a tribal take in Azorius Spirits.
- 3 Reflector Mage
- 4 Rattlechains
- 4 Spell Queller
- 4 Selfless Spirit
- 4 Mausoleum Wanderer
- 4 Supreme Phantom
- 4 Empyrean Eagle
- 3 Spectral Sailor
As far as clean and consistent goes, this deck certainly takes the cake. One of the things that the decks that are really starting to evolve in Pioneer are doing is finding ways to lower their curve and gain natural tempo advantage on their mana efficiency. While this Spirits deck is certainly doing that, I’m not entirely certain the tradeoff of losing the powerful answers Azorius has to offer is worthwhile.
I’m also not certain that the gain of a clean manabase makes the loss of Collected Company worthwhile either. Something about Favorable Winds makes me feel like we might not be playing all the best cards we have access to, but maybe that’s just me.
The one thing I will say about this deck that impressed me is the ingenuity to play Sky Tether in the absence of Fatal Push or Wild Slash as a cheap removal spell. While I’m not sure it wouldn’t be better served as something else in this deck like more copies of Brazen Borrower, I think it’s a big upgrade to some of the other removal spells we were seeing in the other Azorius decks. Maybe this will lead to some cross-archetype innovation. It’s certainly exciting.
With Pioneer setting back the clock a few days to a world before we broke it, there’s a lot of work to do in tuning and brewing loads of decks. I’ll be keeping my eyes closely on every League decklist dump as it comes out, not only to see the new decks but also the old decks refining and tuning ahead of the Invitational that’s right around the corner. We’ve got a lot of work to do if we want to make Wizards take another long lunch next week.
Oh, and one final friendly reminder: you can cut your Authority of the Consuls now. Good luck!