With the possibility of new Pioneer bans each week, competitive players have been in a constant state of frenzy on social media. Calls to ban Smuggler’s Copter, Once Upon a Time, and Field of the Dead were heard by the powers that be, and they were removed. This came off the back of public feedback, as well as tournament results from both online and paper events. There was no question in my mind that these cards were going to see the executioner’s block soon, so I didn’t engage much on this topic. Also, this Tweet perfectly summarized my emotional state prior to Monday’s announcement.
Smuggler’s Copter is another one of those cards that should have never been printed and its existence would make aggro decks too powerful, homogeneous, and stale. This was one of those experiments where we all knew the outcome well in advance. There will be some who miss it, but Pioneer will be better with its removal.
Once Upon a Time happens to fall into the free spell category, which makes this one of the easiest bans that Wizards of the Coast has had to enact. Free spells are lame and cause all the problems that I mentioned above with Smuggler’s Copter, only amplified. Who doesn’t love to always cast Turn 1 Llanowar Elves? I personally do not care for it, but I know most of the Forest world has enjoyed the mind-numbing consistency that Once Upon a Time has provided to this point. This may finally be the catalyst that blocks any attempt at a free spell being developed from this point on.
Field of the Dead is the final ban that hit this week and I say good riddance. This land was the focal point of one of my many crusades and I’m very glad it’s dead in all relevant formats, as it has been a killer of control since its inception. Providing a toss-in, unstoppable army creator to a big mana strategy is cruel and unusual punishment for those of us who enjoy taking their time to win in a game of Magic. Not only does it hurt control, it also provides a hard lock on ground combat, making certain aggro decks unplayable. A card like this doesn’t funnel players into one strategy, but it damages the archetype diversity that healthy formats enjoy. If most aggro and control decks consistently get slaughtered by simply Field of the Dead, it has no place in this evolving format.
This week, I planned on writing a wild article on the merits of some fringe control decks in Pioneer, ones that had more game against the best decks of the format. With those decks eliminated through bans, Azorius and Esper Control are the undisputed powerhouses of Pioneer. It may sound like a typo, but it is as advertised. With Smuggler’s Copter out of aggro decks, ramp reduced to casting spells, and decks with eight one-mana Elves now having the chance to draw poorly in the early-game and late-game, control will feast.
Dig Through Time will have all eyes on it, being one of the last broken cards from formats of the past. Though immediately banned in Modern and Legacy, Dig Through Time still showed the competitive community what it could do. I remember casting Thoughtseize, Inquisition of Kozilek, and then Snapcaster Mage with an additional Thoughtseize against my Sneak and Show opponent at a Grand Prix. After that series of plays, my opponent topdecked a Dig Through Time, cast it at the end of my Turn 4, and killed me with ease.
Fetchlands had made Dig Through Time historically broken, but it’s still too good without it. I know some characters may be reading this now and use my words against me in the future; however, it would be unconscionable to call this delve card “reasonable” in any context. I may have a heavy bias, but my platform goal has always been to generate conversation geared at making formats the best they can be. Let us all enjoy Dig Through Time for a little while longer, until we are forced to jam Sphinx’s Revelation after the dreaded future Monday announcement.
Let’s start off with Azorius Control, as it is the more consistent option to attack this new metagame. With the best weapon removed from two of the three best decks, Azorius Control gains the most stock in the format.
Before the bans, I was not in love with the removal package that this style of deck had to offer. Azorius Charm against Mono-Black Aggro was awful and I couldn’t bring myself to play a deck that didn’t have access to Fatal Push. This decision was made even easier, as colleagues of mine tested Azorius Control with little success against the previous metagame, where I was able to put up results with Esper Control. I had a personal record of 5-3 at the Season Two Invitational at SCG CON Winter with Esper Control, with two of my three losses being to horrific misplays and rust with some of the Pioneer cards in live play. Even though Esper Control improved with bans as well, Azorius Control may be better-equipped to handle some of the new decks that will leap into the action.
Mono-Red Aggro will surface, as well as other aggro decks that were unable to compete with Mono-Black Aggro’s dominance. Mono-Black Aggro isn’t eliminated from contention without Smuggler’s Copter, but it won’t be the undisputed best choice for fans of one-mana creatures. Mono-Red Aggro has all the tools to return to its former glory, as it took down two Standard Pro Tours with Pioneer-legal cards. There are many scary burn spells that pair with very cheap creatures, making it a deck to watch out for. Azorius Control is best equipped to deal with this lurking deck, offering a cleaner manabase which is less taxing on the life total in a few ways. The first is less damage from shocklands. That has always been the downfall of three-color control decks of the past, which is why it may be best to sacrifice a little power for life-preserving mana options.
Azorius Control is also forced to get creative with disruption and removal, some of which gain life. Absorb would never make it into an Esper Control list, but here it is a stock addition. Esper Control has Drown in the Loch and hand disruption, allowing it to shy away from three-mana counterspells. There are also cards like Blessed Alliance and Azorius Charm, both of which have lifegain clauses. Blessed Alliance is the easier option to access, but there have been many instances where a Torrential Gearhulk pads the life total at a crucial moment in the game. There are ways to incorporate these cards into three-color control, but it would require reducing numbers of cards that incentivized the splash at the beginning.
With the new wave of aggro decks that have a weak late-game but a strong early-game, decks with four Thoughtseize may not be the best choice. I foresee this metagame shaping to be more aggressive than ever, which is ultimately a good thing for the control team. Decks like Simic Nexus will enter the new format with big dreams, only to have them incinerated by a red fireball of death. Simic Nexus looks very similar to the old Standard version, but with one of the best card draw spells of all time. Dig Through Time will help put Simic Nexus on the map as a viable starting option, but I believe it will be short-lived. These aggressive decks, like Mono-Red Aggro, will feast on any deck using Fog as their primary removal spell. If the metagame does not play out this way and control/ramp/combo decks dominate Pioneer, Esper Control will be the hero we all need.
In case of format emergency, break the Esper Control glass and destroy the competition. Even though I believe fast aggro is primed for a breakout, the slow decks of the format have access to some of the best enablers and win conditions in Magic’s history. I’ve mentioned Dig Through Time repeatedly in this article and for good reason. There are a lot a players out there, like me, who wake up every morning ready to draw some cards. With Dig Through Time legal, we will not be denied, regardless of how many Lightning Strikes are legal.
In this alternative possibility, Thoughtseize, Thought Erasure, and Liliana, the Last Hope are control requirements. People have forgotten how busted Liliana, the Last Hope is as a battlefield controller as well as a win condition. The middle ability is also relevant with Torrential Gearhulk, but the other two are what we’re here for. Sniping down one-mana creatures while going up in loyalty is a game-winning series. Even when there are no targets for her destruction, the ultimate occurs without a hitch with hand disruption and counterspell backup. Since the ultimate is nearly unbeatable, there’s very little reason why this card doesn’t see a ton of play in the newest iteration of Pioneer.
Thoughtseize and Thought Erasure would be the best options to combat a format that aggro decks do not inhabit in great numbers. If your metagame is cluttered with green ramp decks, tear their hand apart. Trying to beat various Eldrazi with Azorius Control is a fool’s errand and I would not recommend trying if your opponents are regularly casting Nissa’s Pilgrimage.
I’ve mentioned the game Esper Control has against Simic Nexus and that means it would handle the control mirror just as easily. Control mirrors are decided by win conditions and disruption. The number of dead cards hurts the user Game 1, but the sideboarded games are won by better overall configuration. Esper Control takes it to the house with an array of black hand disruption spells, stronger win conditions, and access to better sideboard cards in the mirror. I don’t believe that control will be the most-played archetype out there, but it adds to the slow metagame that could possibly unfold if aggro drops the ball.
The Pioneer metagame is in the hands of fast aggro as we kick-start a new format without Smuggler’s Copter, Once Upon a Time, and Field of the Dead. If the best players around the world optimize these strategies effectively, Azorius Control will be our response. There are many tweaks around the edges we can make to give our choice game against the field, whatever it may be.
Azorius Control may be weaker to slow decks, but it doesn’t outright fold to them. Esper Control can dismantle aggro decks in some scenarios; however, it isn’t the cleanest choice among its competitors. Control is going to be the strongest choice, regardless of which way the metagame shifts in the coming weeks, which means I will be a very happy competitor if Dig Through Time sticks around.