Amalia’s Pioneer Debut At The U.S. MTG Regional Championship

Pioneer combo decks built around Amalia Benavides Aguirre made their presence felt at Magic’s U.S. Regional Championship. Dom Harvey breaks down the combo, card choices, and metagame reactions.

Amalia Benavides Aguirre
Amalia Benavides Aguirre, illustrated by Alix Branwyn

The strange cadence of the Regional Championships made this cycle a land of contrasts. We knew there would be a mid-season shakeup with The Lost Caverns of Ixalan, but nobody expected this level of turbulence.

For folks near the beginning, it was more of the same – Blood Crypt and Steam Vents everywhere; the control or combo die-hards doing their thing with Teferi, Hero of Dominaria or Hidden Strings; and Mono-Green Devotion having to work harder to win matches than the complaints about it would suggest. Canada’s second Regional Championship was squarely in the eye of the storm, offered up as a sacrifice to prove that the discover mechanic was an awful mistake.

A timely ban rescued this past weekend’s U.S. Regional Championship in Atlanta from the same fate and gave us our first glimpse of The Lost Caverns of Ixalan’s ‘true’ impact on Pioneer and the shape of the format heading into Pro Tour Chicago. 

The Amazing Ms. Amalia

The Amalia combo was a new and exciting wildcard heading into this weekend. Some brave Canadians had tried to debut the deck in Toronto during the discover episode and were impressed by its potential, even though those lists were less refined and struggled against the discover menace. Atlanta was Amalia Benavides Aguirre’s first chance to shine in a leading role, and she made the most of it. 

Wildgrowth Walker Amalia Benavides Aguirre Dina, Soul Steeper

People realized the punchline immediately – triggering either Wildgrowth Walker or Amalia Benavides Aguirre will make the other one trigger, entering a loop that continues until a lethal Amalia has destroyed everything else (including the Walker, breaking the loop), put your life total out of reach, and let you explore through most of your deck to set up your next move if needed. 

Creature combo decks like this are much less common in Pioneer than Modern, and this one isn’t obviously priced to move – especially in a format where the popular Rakdos decks and Izzet Phoenix are flush with removal. How did Amalia dazzle the doubters?

Pulling Rank

Return to the Ranks

Return to the Ranks was the big find that levelled up Amalia Combo from fragile gimmick to legitimate threat. Without Return, your Phoenix or Rakdos opponent could pick off your combo pieces and leave you with a motley crew of Gilded Geese and Lunarch Veterans. Now, the threat of Return looms over any longer game. Return for X = 2 is easily castable without any further support and can get back both combo pieces, while any extra land or creature lets you add a source of lifegain (Lunarch Veteran / Prosperous Innkeeper) or explore (Cenote Scout) triggers to kick-start the combo; Dina, Soul Steeper for an immediate win outside combat; or a source of protection like Selfless Savior

Stock lists of Izzet Phoenix have no way to contest a Return to the Ranks in the maindeck other than some Spell Pierces that go dead quickly. Rakdos has to lean on its Thoughtseizes, but a topdecked Return can swing a game at any time, and repeated explore triggers can fast-track a Return to that sweet spot on top. 

Return is not only the best way to reassemble your combo, but also the ideal follow-up to a ‘successful’ combo. After Amalia has destroyed everyone else, the opponent can survive by making a blocker at instant speed and then removing Amalia on their turn. With the flurry of explore triggers from Amalia during your combo, you can guarantee a Return to the Ranks as your next draw to do it all over again.

The Voices

Voice of the Blessed Voice of Resurgence

In the debates over how to use those final slots, smart deckbuilders found several ways to make their voices heard. Voice of the Blessed fills the same role here as in the fair, aggressive lifegain decks powered by Lunarch Veteran and Prosperous Innkeeper – a giant threat that quickly rises above the fray. Creature combo decks are more exposed to common interaction than ‘pure’ combo, but boast an inherent backup plan: your combo pieces can take up arms and start attacking. Most of the creatures here are too mopey for that to be realistic, but Voice of the Blessed packs a powerful punch.

Voice of Resurgence is as strong against removal and instant-speed interaction as ever, but adds a unique layer of protection here. Normally, removing a combo piece on their turn against an opposing Voice incurs a steep cost – here, Voice can stop that removal altogether. If you try to kill a combo piece, Voice will trigger and create a token, triggering Lunarch Veteran / Prosperous Innkeeper, which in turn triggers Amalia and sets off the combo again. Chord of Calling for Voice of Resurgence ahead of your combo or including Voice in a Return to the Ranks ensures the coast is clear.

Chord and Company

Chord of Calling Collected Company Knight-Errant of Eos

Collected Company and Chord of Calling have worked together to enable combos since the days of Melira Company in Modern, but the properties of your mana curve that make Return to the Ranks perfect here also leave Company oddly out of place. Your odds of finding any one card aren’t great, so you want the average yield from a Company to be worth the risk. This deck avoids three-drops, so you don’t profit on mana the way you would in a deck like Selesnya Angels (where any pair of three-drops is a great return), and a ‘free’ Cenote Scout or Gilded Goose is a poor consolation prize for hitting the wrong two-drop.

As a result, some lists in Atlanta paired Knight-Errant of Eos with Chord of Calling and Return to the Ranks instead. Once you have more convoke cards than the Boros Convoke deck named for that mechanic, any marginal one-drop or creature that makes multiple bodies is better for that reason alone. Moving towards more cards like Selfless Savior or Alseid of Life’s Bounty that can double as cheap convoke enablers may be the answer here.

Skyclave Apparition Lavinia, Azorius Renegade Jirina, Dauntless General Deep-Cavern Bat

Chord of Calling gives you easier access to a wide array of hate cards once you know what to target. The off-colour and off-plan Lavinia, Azorius Renegade stands out as an example – if you want to nail down the race against Lotus Combo, you can do that at the cost of just one slot. 

Escaping the Loop

As the hype around Amalia reached a critical mass during the week, competitors in Atlanta faced a clear choice: beat them or join them.

Joining them was easier said than done – the details of the list mattered a lot, and finding the more obscure pieces like Return to the Ranks was impossible on-site and required more lead time than anyone had left. A lot of people had a set of Wildgrowth Walkers gathering dust in a box somewhere, but making sure those reached the people who needed them on short notice wasn’t easy. The Amalia craze became the perfect case study in how the wider Magic economy is increasingly ill-suited to the short-term needs of competitive players. 

If you chose to beat them, you could keep it simple or get creative. 


Knight of Dusk's Shadow Rampaging Ferocidon

Why not disable the combo directly by preventing any lifegain at all? Rampaging Ferocidon was a Pioneer staple in simpler times, but it has a narrower role now, in decks like Gruul Vehicles that can find it with The Huntsman’s Redemption or more proactive Rakdos lists that chose to take the matchup seriously. As a tutorable two-drop, Knight of Dusk’s Shadow is a great tool in Amalia itself as a mirror-breaker.

Disrupting Combo Assembly

Grafdigger's Cage Containment Priest Hallowed Moonlight

You can also cut off the cards that assemble the combo. Grafdigger’s Cage is a cheap and colorless way to take out all of Collected Company, Chord of Calling, and Return to the Ranks at once. Creature decks like Boros Convoke or various builds of Humans can turn to Containment Priest, while Hallowed Moonlight has found its way back into some control maindecks, as it has various uses elsewhere – against Arclight Phoenix or Transmogrify / Indomitable Creativity effects or even the third chapter on Fable of the Mirror-Breaker that transforms it into Reflection of Kiki-Jiki – and can simply ‘cycle’ otherwise. 

Cards like this will be more and more common now that Amalia has such a large target on its back. Knight-Errant of Eos dodging this form of hate while boasting a big body may be the best argument in its favour.

Pump Effects?!

Gather Courage Rimrock Knight

Scan enough lists, and you’ll see some strange pump effects popping up for no apparent reason. The secret here is that pumping an opposing Amalia at the right time to skip the twenty-power escape clause means the loop will continue indefinitely, forcing a draw. 

The idea of an unintentionally drawn game is a fun novelty if it’s rare and unpredictable. It looks more sinister if it’s a common occurrence because one deck can deliberately and tactically guarantee it. The mechanics of the Amalia combo can be a nuisance in themselves and cause games to drag out – and now you might have to play more games than you’d expect in any other match of Magic!

Reports from the floor didn’t suggest that Amalia alone had a clear impact on the length of rounds in Atlanta – we aren’t in Second Sunrise or Sensei’s Divining Top territory yet – but players and judges alike are ready to complain if that changes. If the deck also sustains its impressive win rate and has a warping effect on the metagame, it may find itself in court before long – many cards on Pioneer’s Banned List had less to answer for.

Fair Creature Decks’ Loss

Venerated Loxodon Thalia's Lieutenant Supreme Phantom

The biggest losers in the short-term are fair creature decks that prioritize building their battlefield over the kind of interaction you need to keep up with Amalia. Boros Convoke received a lot of good press a few weeks before Atlanta, as it could keep Rakdos Midrange and Izzet Phoenix on the back foot and didn’t have to worry about Mono-Green Devotion anymore. The appearance of Amalia came at the worst possible time for Convoke – players who had locked it in already and didn’t adapt were punished.

Control’s Gain

Temporary Lockdown Teferi, Hero of Dominaria Yorion, Sky Nomad

It was no surprise that control wizard Dan Weiser won the tournament and a slot at Worlds with Azorius Control, but Hallowed Fountain fans on the whole had another great weekend.

Control made sense as a response to the Discover decks, and these lists with a heavy focus on Temporary Lockdown are a natural foil to Amalia, but Pioneer experts like Claudioh Miranda were dominating with it online and offline before any of these new challengers arrived. When a deck does that well across several starkly different iterations of a format, you have to ask whether it’s more than a great call for a weekend – it might just be great!

Amalia can enjoy life as star of the show – for now. Other Pioneer mainstays who are used to getting more attention will be jealous of her success and try to cut her down. Her response to that will reveal if she has what it takes to thrive in show business.