Why Are There So Many Fair Decks In Pioneer?

Pioneer is starting out with only five fetchlands banned, and predictably, the format is totally…fair? Sam Black explains why fair decks have emerged as Pioneer frontrunners and highlights key lists.

They’ve only banned fetches! Think of all the previously banned cards we can play!

As it turns out, the cards that have been printed in Pioneer-legal sets that have been banned in Standard or Modern aren’t really like the cards that were on the initial banned list in Modern. Pioneer doesn’t offer anything like Skullclamp, Hypergenesis, or Glimpse of Nature (Beck doesn’t count). Most of the cards that have been banned were either banned specifically because of their interaction with fetchlands (Treasure Cruise, Dig Through Time, and Deathrite Shaman) or they’re just fair midrange cards that were a little too good, like Smuggler’s Copter and Reflector Mage.

The closest things we have to exceptions to that are Emrakul, the Promised End; Aetherworks Marvel; and Felidar Guardian.

Maybe you’ve seen my tweet:

If you were to take my advice, it would be reasonable to start with any of those three cards, but in practice, I think people are having a little more success proving that Oko, Thief of Crowns should be banned.

How wild is it that I can even suggest that a planeswalker that isn’t involved in any combos outside of “this is pretty good with Gilded Goose” can even be brought up as one of the first cards to consider banning in a large eternal format?

Shouldn’t we be worried about all the degenerate combos first?

So we’re talking about Saheeli Rai / Felidar Guardian, Jeskai Ascendancy / whatever, and maybe Aetherworks Marvel / whatever? What do you have after that? Aetherflux Reservoir? I think we’re pretty safe on that front.

I think there’s a very good chance Felidar Guardian will be in the first group of cards banned, but until that happens, it’s not unbeatable; it’s just something you have to be able to interact with.

After seeing the format play a little, I think there’s a good chance that very few additional cards will be banned before the first Pioneer Players Tour. My watch list in order at the moment:

I think each of those is considerably less likely than the previous, and I think it’s more likely that none of them are banned than all of them. I’d probably set the betting line at 2.5 cards banned by the first Players Tour.

Note that not all cards on that list are created equal. What I mean is, if Nykthos is banned, it’s because people are doing crazy things on Turns 2-4 too often and it’s too hard to disrupt. But I don’t think Nykthos is a stronger card than Oko; it’s just a card with a higher ceiling. That is to say that a perfectly tuned Green Devotion deck might be too strong and Nykthos would get banned because of that exact decklist. If Oko gets banned, it won’t be because it’s broken in a precise decklist; it will just be because its power level and gameplay lead to a worse format in general.

My tweet is mostly structured to talk about building the kind of deck that gets a card banned, but just playing the cards that are too good and will get banned on their own is also a perfectly reasonable thing to do.

So why is Pioneer so fair? Mostly, the cards that lead to unfair strategies just don’t exist. We don’t have any real Rituals outside of Ironcrag Feat (I suppose, if you go deep enough, Brass’s Bounty and other spells that make Treasure or Scions can technically count) and we don’t have any storm cards. There are cards that generate large amounts of mana or cards that reward us for playing lots of spells, but they’re all permanents. Every possible combo deck in Pioneer relies on permanents. There’s nothing close to spell combo, and that, at the core, is why this is a fair format.

That means that Abrupt Decay stops “fast combo” because it kills the cheap enabler. If the combo uses more expensive cards, there are plenty of other answers.

Kethis, the Hidden Hand and Jeskai Ascendancy are the cards that are most likely to enable the kind of combo where you cast a lot of spells and win in a single turn.

Pithing Needle, Sorcerous Spyglass, and Phyrexian Revoker prevent Saheeli and Kethis from working, and they’re generally well-positioned in the format because planeswalkers feature so prominently, since this is the first eternal format where planeswalkers have been part of every legal set.

If you’re trying to play an unfair deck, you can’t rely on the stack, and everyone knows they need to be able to answer your permanents, but what about the graveyard? There’s no Relic of Progenitus, Nihil Spellbomb, or Surgical Extraction, but there’s still Rest in Peace; Leyline of the Void; Tormod’s Crypt; Grafdigger’s Cage; Ashiok, Dream Render; and Scavenging Ooze, just to name most of the more prominent answers. So you need to have a plan for what you’re going to do after sideboarding if you want to attempt this kind of strategy. There are certainly plenty of payoffs available that use the graveyard, but how many really count as unfair?

You can get discounts on your Emrakul, the Promised End; you can turn on delirium; you can delve; or you can get some free creatures. You can definitely build decks that punish people for relying too heavily on cards that destroy permanents, but you’re not killing anyone on Turn 3 with a graveyard deck, and I don’t think you’re really aiming for Turn 4.

I suspect graveyard decks are more about resilience than speed, and while the number of resources these decks can generate if left unchecked can definitely feel unfair, the slower closing speed definitely contributes to the format feeling more fair, in that even if you can’t interact, I suspect a deck like Green Devotion doesn’t need graveyard hate against any sort of graveyard-based creature deck because it just goes over the top and wins before their accumulated value matters.

Ultimately, I think Pioneer is going to be about creatures and planeswalkers. Note that I think Collected Company is more likely to get banned than Dig Through Time, but I think they’ll both be legal for at least the next six months. Dig Through Time feels remarkably fair. The work you have to do to set it up isn’t trivial, and at the end of all of that work, you get a couple of cards, but planeswalkers can easily generate that much value faster. Perhaps you’ve heard people compare Narset, Parter of Veils to Dig Through Time? Yeah, that’s how it feels in Pioneer. Why jump through all those hoops instead of just untapping with a planeswalker once?

If you have a finite amount of time to work on Pioneer, I wouldn’t spend it trying to find a broken unfair deck. If you want to play an unfair strategy, that’s fine, just play Copy Cat or Jeskai Ascendancy, but I have no reason to believe you should expect to win considerably more than if you play a fair strategy.

For me, the cards I most want to have in my deck are probably Oko, Thief of Crowns; Abrupt Decay; and Thoughtseize. A convenient aspect of balance in this format is that the best combos are Jeskai colors like Saheeli Rai / Felidar Guardian or something based around Jeskai Ascendancy, and likely want to add green cards, and the best answers are black or Golgari.

I like the core of four copies of Thoughtseize, Fatal Push, and Abrupt Decay supported by some value creatures like Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy; Courser of Kruphix; Gilded Goose; and Tireless Tracker and a bunch of planeswalkers headlined by Oko, Thief of Crowns. I think Tamiyo, Collector of Tales hasn’t gotten enough respect in this shell, particularly since it’s so good with Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy and Courser of Kruphix.

My current take is pretty similar to and based on oRS’s list from the Pioneer Challenge on Magic Online:

I think I want to replace at least one Dig Through Time with Tamiyo, Collector of Tales, but I like most of what’s going on here. It’s hard for me to get away from Oko and the rest of the awesome green cards, but it also looks to me like Grixis could be well-positioned in this format. I’d start with something like this:

If everyone’s playing midrange, there’s a lot to be said for tearing their hand apart with Thoughtseize and Thought Erasure and then burying them with Nicol Bolas and Kolaghan’s Command. Veil of Summer is scary, but Thoughtseize is one of the better ways to beat it if you’re playing blue and black.

It feels wild to me to suggest this Grixis deck that I honestly believe doesn’t have anything that’s particularly close to justifying a ban – technically I think some other kind of deck could get Dig Through Time banned, but this deck would be just as happy with Into the Story – but once you start to understand the world as Thoughtseize versus people trying to assemble combos with permanents, it makes sense to me that I want to be on the Thoughtseize side.

If you don’t want to play control or combo, you’re left with the proactive strategies. Burn and Mono-Red Aggro look playable, but I personally wouldn’t want to play them if I could help it. Green Devotion looks very good to me, there are a variety of builds, and I have some thoughts on them. Most importantly, I think you should build to maximize Nykthos. I think the two-mana mana creatures are much worse than Burning-Tree Emissary because they’re less explosive with Nykthos, and I think playing fewer than four Once Upon a Time is nonsense. I think splashing blue is worth it, but I might be wrong about that. I’d play this:

I haven’t seen any other lists play Sanctum of Ugin with Walking Ballista to find Ulamog, but it seems pretty good to me. If you were to drop the blue splash, I could even see making it a larger part of the plan and playing Ulvenwald Hydra to find Sanctum of Ugin and possibly even adding World Breaker as another card to find or trigger the Sanctum.

The last space that shows a lot of potential in my mind is Collected Company, and I like a lot of what I’ve seen there. Graey on Magic Online 5-0’ed a League with the combination of Biomancer’s Familiar with Duskwatch Recruiter and Eldrazi Displacer, with Chord of Calling to find Eyeless Watcher for an infinite combo with Eldrazi Displacer and Biomancer’s Familiar, which is pretty cool:

There are also a variety of tribal strategies as well as normal Bant value creatures that I think are worth exploring, especially Humans, Elves, and Spirits, but I could also imagine Zombies.

I know that there haven’t been any major physical tournaments yet and everyone is still just getting a feel for that format, but it’s amazing to me that we don’t see people really clamoring for a banning. I think a lot of people view it as a foregone conclusion that Felidar Guardian likely won’t stay in the format, but from what I can tell, even Guardian isn’t that oppressive now. It honestly looks like, to a large extent, all the mistakes in recent years might actually balance each other out here.