Investigating The First Magic Arena Explorer Anthology

With the full contents of the first Explorer Anthology revealed, what’s next for the MTG Arena format? Dom Harvey breaks down the cards that made it in… and the meaning of the cards that did not.

Elvish Mystic
Elvish Mystic, illustrated by Wesley Burt

Explorer Anthology 1 marks the first explicit stride towards Pioneer on MTG Arena. Unlike the Historic Anthology that accompanies it (the first dedicated injection of cards into that format in quite some time), we knew that all of these cards would make it to Arena and to Explorer – the only question was when. 

Explorer will become Pioneer eventually, but the journey there involves some tough and interesting choices. Do you want Explorer to mirror Pioneer as soon as possible, delivering the most important missing links now and filling in the gaps later? Or do you want Explorer to have its own distinct identity along the way, with different pillars and dominant strategies?

With only twenty slots up for grabs, each card choice makes a statement. Now that we know this Anthology’s full contents, what’s missing is as striking as what’s there. 

In: Elvish Mystic

Elvish Mystic

Elvish Mystic is the easiest slam dunk for the first Explorer Anthology. The tag team of Elvish Mystic and Llanowar Elves has been a pillar of Pioneer since its inception, from Mono-Green Devotion’s early reign of terror in the days of Once Upon a Time and Leyline of Abundance to its renewed reign of terror today. Whether you’re casting Oko, Thief of Crowns or Old-Growth Troll on Turn 2, this pairing makes that possible. 

These eight-Elves decks are built around that expectation. Games where your Turn 1 Elvish Mystic survives look very different from games where it dies or doesn’t show up at all. The difference between four copies and eight is vast. Without Elvish Mystic to make up the numbers, you couldn’t justify building the kind of deck that can use Llanowar Elves to its full potential. 

Out: Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx 

Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx

What this Anthology lacks is the foundation of the best Elvish Mystic deck. Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx is central to Pioneer’s historical identity and a defining feature of the format right now. If your priority is making Explorer align with Pioneer, there’s no way you leave out Nykthos. 

Its exclusion sends some mixed signals. When Winota, Joiner of Forces was preemptively banned in Explorer, it looked like it was on borrowed time on Pioneer, and the axe duly fell before long. Should we assume the executioner is coming for Nykthos too? Nykthos was the exclusive promo for this round of paper Regional Championship Qualifiers – an odd choice if you don’t expect it to have a long-term future in Pioneer. 

There’s also a more innocent explanation: you know that Mono-Green Devotion will become one of the best decks the moment you print Nykthos, so why does that need to happen right now, especially when other strategies that could keep it in check aren’t complete yet? For now, you can let the format breathe and see how it develops while not shaped by this known quantity. In that sense, Explorer is a laboratory that offers a glimpse into alternate universes for Pioneer – if this offshoot without Nykthos (or Treasure Cruise, or…) looks more healthy, that may inform future bans in Pioneer. 

Winner: Gruul Aggro

Gruul Spellbreaker Steel Leaf Champion Collected Company

For now, the main beneficiaries in Explorer are other decks that would want the full pack of Elves but floundered in Pioneer because of a poor matchup against Mono-Green Devotion (and previously Naya Winota) and splash damage from everyone else’s hate aimed at that matchup.

Gruul Aggro and Mono-Green Aggro have seen success in Pioneer as well as Historic, where it had to split the difference between two very different cards in Llanowar Elves and Pelt Collector in order to have enough one-drops. Now, the ideal curve of Elf into three-drop into four-drop is a much more realistic prospect. That’s great news for Collected Company, which wants to be cast ahead of schedule and asks you to bloat your curve with more three-drops to get the highest mana yield from it. 

Winner: Golgari Fight Rigging

Fight Rigging Rotting Regisaur Lovestruck Beast

The deck I’m most excited about in this space is Golgari Fight Rigging. You can outmuscle the other Elvish Mystic decks or anyone without enough removal, and your best draws go over the top of anything. This list avoids the top-end cards like Titan of Industry that are hard to cast without Fight Rigging in favour of a streamlined, consistent approach. Lovestruck Beast in particular is a big winner from Elvish Mystic’s arrival as another 1/1 that can power it out quickly.

In: Mausoleum Wanderer

Mausoleum Wanderer

Mono-Blue Spirits is a popular deck in paper Pioneer and will appeal to Arena players who have fond memories of Mono-Blue Aggro from its time in Standard. Part of that paper popularity is that it’s an ideal budget choice in an increasingly expensive format, but the incentives are different on Arena, where Supreme Phantom and Ledger Shredder have the same sticker price. 

This isn’t the most powerful deck in the abstract, and it’s hard to know if it will be a good choice until the rest of the format settles. One tricky matchup from Pioneer in Izzet Phoenix is probably gone, but Rakdos Midrange is even more popular in Explorer and remains a big problem.

Out: Delve Spells

Treasure Cruise Dig Through Time Temporal Trespass

The explanation for the Winota and Expressive Iteration bans confirmed that the iconic blue delve spells in Treasure Cruise and Dig Through Time have a kind of diplomatic immunity in Pioneer. Their absence from this Anthology is a loud announcement that this early phase of Explorer is meant to look and feel different from its cousin. 

Dig Through Time was an essential piece of the format in the Dimir Inverter days, but has mostly been relegated to the fringes now. More recently, Treasure Cruise and Temporal Trespass took turns as the headline acts for Izzet Phoenix. With Expressive Iteration gone, Treasure Cruise is now even more essential for the various Izzet decks as a source of mid-game card advantage. Pieces of the Puzzle also emerged as a crucial role-player in the delve-heavy Phoenix lists, fuelling the delve spells and binning Arclight Phoenix while building towards the Galvanic Iteration + Temporal Trespass end-game. 

Pioneer Phoenix with Iteration had too many strong options for card advantage; Explorer Phoenix has too few. Without a way to refuel in the mid-game, spinning your wheels or throwing cards away to enable Arclight Phoenix loses its appeal. 

The lack of Cruise would limit Izzet Prowess too – if not for an even more fatal loss with wider implications. 

Out: Monastery Swiftspear

Monastery Swiftspear

Monastery Swiftspear was a game-changer for aggressive decks in every format, and Pioneer was no exception. Izzet Prowess, Boros Heroic, and many builds of Mono-Red Aggro relied on Swiftspear as a one-drop that scaled well into the mid-game when you are able to chain spells together. Another approach to Mono-Red that was more focused on permanents and imported the Anax, Hardened in the Forge + Embercleave finish from Standard had already started to show up in Pioneer and is an obvious candidate for Explorer. There’s less hope for Prowess and Heroic, where the next best option in Soul-Scar Mage is either there already or not good enough. 

In: Favored Hoplite; Titan’s Strength; Temur Battle Rage; Battlewise Hoplite

Favored Hoplite Titan's Strength

Temur Battle Rage Battlewise Hoplite

There are several cards in this Anthology for a deck in Swiftspear-esque space, but this batch feels oddly timed. The Boros Heroic deck has stuck around in Pioneer thanks to a steady drip of new printings, and these have removed the need for replacement-level tricks like Titan’s Strength. Battlewise Hoplite is the real head-scratcher – the fixing isn’t there to support Azorius Heroic, and it’s not clear the spells are either. Favored Hoplite is a welcome addition for the existing Heroic deck or any future one, as well as some takes on Auras.

In: Ensoul Artifact; Darksteel Citadel; Hangarback Walker 

Ensoul Artifact Darksteel Citadel Hangarback Walker

Izzet Ensoul was overtaken by Azorius Ensoul, but both faded from view thanks to a poor matchup against the Elvish Mystic decks in Pioneer – Naya Winota was tough and Mono-Green Devotion was even worse thanks to Karn, the Great Creator. Without these predators, the outlook for some kind of Ensoul deck is promising despite the lack of assorted tools from the first half of Pioneer like Mutavault, Springleaf Drum, and Ghostfire Blade.

In: Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet 

Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet

Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet was high on the consensus wishlist as a go-to finisher for black midrange decks. It’s also a strong tribal incentive for Mono-Black Vampires, which suffers most from the lack of Mutavault, yet can be rebuilt around Faceless Haven or pick up more colours to compensate.

In: Supreme Verdict

Supreme Verdict

Azorius Control had access to four-mana sweepers like Shatter the Sky or Depopulate, but Supreme Verdict is a substantial upgrade – especially against anyone who picked up Mausoleum Wanderer from this Anthology.

In: Siege Rhino

Siege Rhino

Look, I love Siege Rhino. I love the memes about Siege Rhino. I hope to be a Siege Rhino myself one day. All that being said, I just don’t know if I can recommend Siege Rhino in a format where Omnath, Locus of Creation is legal and barely playable.

In: Everything Else

Shadowborn Apostle Tainted Remedy Alesha, Who Smiles at Death Rally the Ancestors Back to Nature

The rest is a grab-bag of casual favourites and powerful sideboard answers. Cards like Slaughter Games are generally much worse than they look, and the combo decks like Lotus Field Combo that they are strongest against have not made the jump to Explorer. Rally the Ancestors was a scourge of Standard and is brimming with potential in Pioneer, but some of the more obscure enablers are still missing here.

It’s hard to grade this Anthology when there is no clear statement about its goals. If the intent was to replicate Pioneer, it will fail. If Explorer is meant to sing some of the same tunes while remaining different enough for now, this Anthology should set it on that path.