Throne of Eldraine rocked every format in Magic to its foundations, and Pioneer was no exception. Pioneer’s larger problem was that it had no foundations at all – the format’s debut in October 2019 came just as Throne’s fairy-tale villains spoiled every dream in their path. After the initial frenzy of bans took out familiar foes like Felidar Guardian and Field of the Dead, this should have been the perfect place for some old Standard favourites to get another day in the sun.
Of course, it’s never that easy. New Standard favourites like Oko, Thief of Crowns and Once Upon a Time immediately cemented themselves as the best cards in Pioneer as in every other format. Just when Pioneer had a need and a chance to develop its own identity, the absurd power level of the new cards made every format feel identical. Theros Beyond Death proved even more powerful in Pioneer – just in time for the pandemic to wipe out paper play and erase any momentum Pioneer had. Only a few months after its launch, Pioneer had already crashed. It took a long time and a sustained push from Organized Play to get it back to its current health.
At first glance, Wilds of Eldraine has fewer monsters lurking under the bed and is more in line with your expectations – a few minor upgrades to existing decks and some appealing build-arounds.
There are a lot of Adventures to follow in this new tale – but what about actual Adventures?
- 4 Lovestruck Beast
- 4 Beanstalk Giant
- 4 Edgewall Innkeeper
- 4 Bonecrusher Giant
- 4 Fae of Wishes
- 4 Brazen Borrower
- 4 Beluna Grandsquall
The main cast of this deck is a list of proven Pioneer hits. Bonecrusher Giant is a format-defining card in red aggro and midrange alike and acts as a litmus test for any new creature. Lovestruck Beast isn’t the beauty it once was but still competes with a full decade of three-drops. Fae of Wishes only shows up in a small band of combo decks, but it offers them crucial versatility. At the other extreme, Brazen Borrower probably shows up too often as a safety blanket against random permanents that pivots seamlessly into an aggressive role.
You’ll have to look a lot further to find the Adventure payoffs in winning Pioneer lists. The Adventure mechanic already offers a trade-off between inherent card advantage and raw efficiency – neither Stomp nor the 4/3 body on Bonecrusher Giant is that inspiring, but taken together they are a formidable package. Jumping through extra hoops to squeeze even more value from your cards is tough to justify when there are so many ways to ignore or overpower these engines. Faffing about with Beanstalk Giant and friends gives Mono-Green Devotion all the time they need to figure out if they can combo you yet (probably yes – who can say?!) or lets Azorius Spirits or Mono-White Humans carve you up.
Beluna Grandsquall lets you develop your battlefield while addressing that inefficiency and can be that big burst of card advantage later if the game does go that long. Temur Adventures already has a glut of three-drops, and Beluna doesn’t help there – this sideboard keeps the Fae of Wishes toolbox relatively small to load up on cheap interaction like Mystical Dispute and Rending Volley.
Surely Pioneer Hammer is finally good now? Right?!
Open the Armory was at least acceptable for the decks that needed a specific Aura or Equipment. Kellan, the Fae-Blooded gets you that effect on the house with the perfect body at the right cost to suit up after that. Double strike means that Colossus Hammer you just grabbed is good for the full twenty, but Kellan still packs a punch no matter what he carries, making him a useful fallback for the games where you don’t have Sigarda’s Aid or a similar enabler and have to get scrappy.
Kellan doesn’t fix the big structural flaws in Hammer – it’s hard to be a linear deck that’s light on interaction and vulnerable to removal – but it’s unfair to ask too much of him. He brings one of Modern’s most appealing flagship decks one step closer to this smaller stage.
Quirion Dryad needs something else to stay competitive after twenty years. Attaching an effect that’s become a staple in red and gives your other Druids or prowess creatures more fuel is a great start.
Its timing seems perfect too. A curious build-around from a very curious set, the new Pia Nalaar has become the centerpiece of an aggressive Boros deck using Wrenn’s Resolve, Reckless Impulse, and Showdown of the Skalds to keep cards flowing while building a wide battlefield. This approach suffers when it draws too many Impulses and too few threats or vice versa – Questing Druid bridges that gap.
The big problem here is the mana. Allied mana has improved leaps and bounds since the start of Pioneer – we don’t have to resort to the likes of Game Trail anymore – but the limits of your lands make themselves known. The damage from tapping Karplusan Forest for red turn after turn adds up, and drawing Copperline Gorge when you need a fourth land for Showdown might make you quit Magic on the spot.
You also need enough Mountains for Chained to the Rocks, a unique removal spell whose absence on MTG Arena is one of the biggest differences between Explorer and Pioneer. You can run more lands to fudge these numbers – but what are you cutting?
The enemy-coloured creature-lands offer their own sign of how much things have changed. The Oath of the Gatewatch cycle wasn’t impressive on rate, but they did the job at the time. This batch seems oddly derivative of the first, and the comparisons today aren’t flattering.
As the format becomes faster and more cutthroat, the cost of a land entering the battlefield tapped becomes increasingly steep. For black midrange decks in particular, access to Thoughtseize or Fatal Push on Turn 1 is an integral part of your curve. You also have more choices for your fixing – Shambling Vent isn’t the only game in town the way it might be in Standard. You would much rather have Hive of the Eye Tyrant as an untapped black source early that can still rumble later.
Creature-lands in general have a new friend in this set:
What do you see when you look at Blossoming Tortoise? If you evaluate it as a midrange card, it’s unimpressive even for Standard. If you are a combo player looking for creative ways to churn resources, a new frontier opens up.
Reducing the activation cost of Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx makes it easier to use it right away if it came from Cavalier of Thorns or Storm the Festival, setting up a further cascade of game actions. With Kiora, Behemoth Beckoner untapping Nykthos or Cavalier and Storm finding another copy, you can benefit from Tortoise’s discount multiple times in one turn. When you can’t go off yet and are trying to amass resources, Tortoise can bridge the gap to a Cavalier or Storm that gets the ball rolling.
The bar is high for a four-drop in Mono-Green and there are few flex slots to fill, but Tortoise is worth a try. Mono-Green master Bobby Fortanely has tried much more unlikely candidates in those slots – including cards that aren’t even mono-green – but I expect he would give this one an audition even if his own bar were higher.
If you have that combo player perspective, Beseech the Mirror is the most eye-catching card in the whole set. You may have to chase that thrill elsewhere – Pioneer lacks the cheap artifacts and mana acceleration that can power an early Beseech as well as a payoff worth this much effort.
More Than “Sleight” Improvement
An innocuous reprint may sneak under the radar as the most important card in the set for Pioneer. With Sleight of Hand joining Consider and Opt, Izzet Phoenix now has enough one-mana cantrips to prompt some tough choices. Do you want the full twelve one-drops when so many of your slots are devoted to card manipulation already? Or do you embrace that efficiency, move away from expensive setup spells like Pieces of the Puzzle, and end up with a sleeker shell that can easily chain three spells to return Arclight Phoenix on Turn 3 or cast Treasure Cruise as Ancestral Recall?
Once you reach a critical mass of one-drops, other spellslingers want your attention. Previously there weren’t any good one-mana sorceries for Finale of Promise; now, Sleight of Hand and the occasional Strangle might be enough.
The Indomitable Creativity decks are always on the hunt for more cheap enablers and previous lists had to resort to cards like Startle and Flip the Switch that you consigned to a shoebox years ago after your last Innistrad: Midnight Hunt draft. Flick a Coin makes a non-creature Creativity target while replacing itself – and maybe picking off an Elvish Mystic for good measure!
Some Rakdos Sacrifice lists have turned to Karn, the Great Creator as a trump for the mirror that also strengthens your end-game across the board. A Threaten effect on an artifact is a welcome surprise for those builds.
Don’t let all the words about legends and Equipment fool you – this is a mana rock. Ignoring technical but embarrassing exceptions like Corrupted Grafstone, this is the closest thing to Mind Stone and friends that you’ll find in Pioneer. The last ‘new’ rock was Everflowing Chalice over thirteen years ago – so old that it predates Pioneer’s Return to Ravnica cutoff!
Where you put it and what you ramp into with it is a tougher question. A colourless way to jump to Karn, the Great Creator sounds appealing – until your Irencrag is shut off by an opposing Karn for the first time.
I have an unhealthy love for Enigmatic Incarnation, so any cheap enchantment that draws a card automatically piques my interest. This also triggers off your expensive Incarnation targets as well as Leyline Binding, making it realistic to draw two or three cards with this before it magically transforms into a Skyclave Apparition or something. Incarnation already has late-game firepower – the extra smoothing of an Omen of the Sea or Bitter Reunion fills a bigger gap.
I’m also tickled by the idea of pairing this with Bring to Light – finding Tibalt, Cosmic Impostor or Sunfall and drawing two extra cards to boot is the stuff of dreams. The same response applies here, though – if you’re resolving your big finish, you’re probably doing just fine!