Pioneer is back and I’m having a blast.
The gameplay is awesome, there are plenty of decks to choose from, and the format feels fresh because so few eyes have been on it over the last year. I’ve been digging hard to find decks I really like, and others I can make significant changes to in order to make them more efficient, better against the current metagame, and some bigger-picture stuff. Long story short, there’s a whole lot to like about Pioneer, and I highly recommend trying it for yourself if you haven’t already. Long gone are the days of Dimir Inverter. Now is the time for Vampires!
Pioneer has two combo decks at the top of the field, and they do a great job of punishing midrange decks. The lack of clock makes them pretty terrifying because they can goldfish through interaction on the fourth or fifth turn most of the time. If they aren’t dead by then, you probably are. At the same time, aggro decks have been popping up all over the place to punish the combo decks for not interacting. Boros Heroic has been doing well recently, and it’s mostly due to a lack of interaction from the opponents, but also because the deck is sweet. At the moment, the Pioneer trophy leader is on Boros Heroic, so it must be decent at least.
Midrange decks like Vampires often struggle to close the game quickly enough against combo, even with potent interaction. There’s just no substitute for getting them dead, and cards like Thoughtseize just don’t hit the same in a format featuring Treasure Cruise. With that said, the shifting metagame caused by combo at the top means aggro will be dominant soon, if not already, and then midrange can sit on top of them. I think Vampires are generically powerful enough to stand on their own, and are well-positioned thanks to this point in the shifting Pioneer metagame.
But why are Vampires so good? While they’re slower than most other aggro decks, their creatures often have lifelink and/or deathtouch, giving them some added utility against other creature decks. Many of them are difficult to kill or simply replace themselves at the cost of life. Vampires is also a black deck at its core, meaning we get to play potent disruption and our sideboard is usually pretty strong. Due to all these factors, and a few others we’ll discuss shortly, I think Vampires is a really strong choice for the current Pioneer format.
Sorin, Imperious Bloodlord is one of the best planeswalkers of all time. That’s it. That’s all I have to say.
Just kidding; we can go into it more, but just know that the only thing holding Sorin back is the fact that it only works with Vampires. If it were “any creature” on both abilities, it would have been banned with Oko and the rest. Sorin at three mana is tough to beat when your creatures are small, simply because throwing a Dusk Legion Zealot or Mutavault at your opponent’s creatures to gain life just makes it almost impossible to kill them, and the fact that it only ticks up on those two modes means it’s also impossible to kill!
The most explosive part of Sorin is the minus ability, which lets you cheat a large Vampire onto the battlefield. That creature can be anything from Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet to Champion of Dusk, but the latter ensures you keep the cards flowing. That extra burst of mana, and adding a large creature to the battlefield on the same turn you cast a planeswalker, is sick. If you’ve previously cleared the battlefield, adding that much pressure along two metrics, creature threat and planeswalker threat, it becomes almost impossible for traditional decks to keep up.
Sorin is the best card in the deck, and should be lauded as the primary reason to play Vampires.
Without further ado, here’s the Vampires list I’ll be running in the near future.
- 2 Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet
- 4 Gifted Aetherborn
- 4 Dusk Legion Zealot
- 4 Champion of Dusk
- 4 Knight of the Ebon Legion
- 2 Murderous Rider
- 2 Edgar, Charmed Groom
The Nature of Cheap Interaction
Cheap interaction, like Thoughtseize, allows decks like Vampires to slow the game down. By stripping your opponent of a card in their hand, you can choose whether to attack their power level or their consistency. Do they only have one two-drop creature? Well, maybe taking that buys you a lot more time than the Glorybringer they can’t cast for three more turns. Fatal Push is similarly used to kill your opponent’s creature, buying enough time to cast your more expensive threats.
These interaction points are important for black in Pioneer because they offer cheap interaction on two extremely different fronts. Thoughtseize is cheap interaction geared toward attacking the hand, while Fatal Push is more focused on dealing with creatures on the battlefield. Few decks in Magic have better interaction than these two elements, which creates a natural draw towards black in Pioneer.
Vampires takes advantage of both these spells in an attempt to control the pace of play. While Thoughtseize has many uses, Vampires can wield it in a variety of ways to sculpt the story of how the game will play out. Control decks are reliant on sweepers like Supreme Verdict or engines like Teferi, Hero of Dominaria, and taking one of those powerful spells can leave them without a method to recoup lost card advantage or protect their life total.
Fatal Push allows them to do the same thing, but on the other end of the spectrum. Red has absurd creatures like Monastery Swiftspear which have ludicrous damage output, so being able to match their speed with removal is key. If our deck started answering creatures on the second turn, we’d be a full turn behind them in terms of deploying threats or countermeasures. That’s the difference between Fatal Push and Heartless Act. While both are great at what they do, Fatal Push offers interaction on a whole new axis: the first turn.
If you’re looking for some choice words on how to sideboard Vampires in Pioneer, look no further. Before we begin, I’d like to talk about a few cards I commonly sideboard in and out, so that it might be easier for you to make those types of decisions on the fly. These sideboard guides are more suggestions than scripture, so instilling some fundamentals is important for adaptation under pressure.
Thoughtseize might seem like an easy cut against some aggro decks, but be advised that Thoughtseize is often your best weapon against the likes of Lurrus of the Dream-Den. Some aggro decks are hyper-fixated on a specific card, and other times they have access to threats that normal removal doesn’t deal with. Think Chandra, Dressed to Kill and you’ll understand exactly what I’m talking about.
With that said, I do take out Thoughtseize quite often against opponents where I don’t feel threatened by their plays, and all I want is to keep my life total high.
There are plenty of opponents in Pioneer that won’t be bringing creatures to the party. If you see few or none in the first game, make sure to keep Fatal Push on your radar of cards to remove. Heartless Act is in a similar boat. Always be considering what your removal targets, and if it is even worth having around if your opponent does end up casting one of those big baddies.
Edgar, Charmed Groom excels in attrition matchups, but is rather weak against a variety of opponents. It’s far too slow against combo, but is somehow better than Kalitas and some of your other options. If you find yourself playing against an opponent without removal, consider trimming this one.
If my opponent uses the graveyard or is on the slower end of the spectrum, I will sideboard in Go Blank for one of my mediocre pieces of interaction or slower threats. Generally speaking, Go Blank is a slapper, and much better than anyone initially gave it credit for. I’ve seen this start to see maindeck play, and I’m here for it.
VS Izzet Phoenix
This is the one matchup where I hate having Heartless Act in my deck, but I love it everywhere else. In a pinch, you can still kill the Awoken Horror on the back side, but bouncing your entire side of the battlefield is a bit much, innit?
Go Blank shines here, acting as a way to remove Arclight Phoenix before they’re able to return it but after they’ve pitched it to Lightning Axe or similar. I don’t love Thoughtseize in this matchup specifically because of how many raw card advantage spells they have. I think of Go Blank more like graveyard removal that just so happens to constrict their hand, while Thoughtseize just trades for something in hand that’s likely a redundant copy of something else. Thoughtseize is really weak against decks where all their cards do pretty much the same thing.
VS Lotus Field Combo and Four-Color Jeskai Ascendancy
These two combo decks are similar in terms of their makeup and gameplay. Deafening Silence and Go Blank are solid disruptors, and Duress acts like a fifth copy of Thoughtseize. The only real difference is that some versions of Jeskai Ascendancy play Omnath, Locus of Creation or Faeburrow Elder. In either of these cases, feel free to leave Heartless Act in your deck and take out more copies of Kalitas and/or Edgar. I tend to leave in Murderous Rider no matter what, just in case of sideboard threats like Hullbreaker Horror.
VS Mono-Red Aggro
Extra removal is clutch against these decks, as taking out their creatures early often leaves them short on damage in the later turns. On occasion, one of your lifelink creatures like Gifted Aetherborn survives and just generates a ton of life points, all while stunting their combat step. Kalitas is a nightmare for them to play against, so any removal that slows them down long enough to get there is useful. Thoughtseize becomes a dead card quickly in these matchups, as they’re mostly designed to play out their entire hand within the first three or four turns. In an attrition war, you can’t afford dead cards, especially those that cost you life.
VS Mono-Black/Orzhov Vampires
Fatal Push will always be useful because both of you will have access to Mutavault and Hive of the Eye Tyrant, even outside of the normal early threats. Knight of the Ebon Legion can be hard to handle if left unchecked, so a little bit more removal rarely hurts. Gifted Aetherborn is the worst creature in the deck against Fatal Push, so I like to sideboard it out. Your life total isn’t that relevant, and blocking is either not advisable or not possible.
Blood Baron of Vizkopa is a nightmare for our opponent to deal with, but Edgar is similarly excellent.
VS Jund Sacrifice
You need a few ways to kill Mayhem Devil, so I like keeping Heartless Act and Murderous Rider around. Blood Baron of Vizkopa is tough for them to beat, but glacially slow. If you pair it with disruption like Thoughtseize and Rest in Peace, you might just be able to ride one to victory. The longer the game goes, the more likely it is that you die to Bolas’s Citadel or Korvold, Fae-Cursed King.
VS Naya Winota
This matchup is rather difficult, if only because Winota decks fundamentally prey on midrange archetypes. If Winota survives and they’re allowed to attack, it is mayhem, mayhem I tell ya! Our deck isn’t aggressive enough or fast enough to close the game before they land one of their marquee cards, as both Esika’s Chariot and Winota, Joiner of Forces are extremely difficult to interact with favorably.
Your early pressure coupled with a timely Thoughtseize or Heartless Act can definitely steal games, and your singleton Grafdigger’s Cage can shut down their primary source of degeneracy. Overall, I just want to lower the curve and increase our interaction count slightly, which means shaving our four-drops. I like keeping Champion of Dusk around because of how powerful it is with Sorin, but the other two are expendable.
VS Azorius Control
Removal like Fatal Push doesn’t do much against their planeswalker-heavy control deck, but it might be wise to keep some number of Heartless Act around in case of a sideboard Hullbreaker Horror and those pesky Shark tokens from Shark Typhoon. Go Blank and Duress are great for dwindling their raw resources, though Go Blank is worse here than against most control decks simply because they don’t actually use their graveyard all that much.
Noxious Grasp has been a great flex card for popping off green creatures, but it just so happens to answer their best card against you: Teferi, Hero of Dominaria. Teferi is responsible for the majority of their wins, both in terms of answering problematic permanents and restoring resources after a battle of attrition. Without those card advantage engines, control decks don’t really work. Their whole deal is trading one-for-one until they can resolve a way to recoup those spent resources in one or two small bursts. Your discard and few pieces of planeswalker removal help keep them in check.
Vampires has been one of my favorite archetypes since diving back into Pioneer. The deck offers you a lot of flexibility in gameplay and deckbuilding. Your removal and discard act as cheap buffers to push you to the mid-game. Fatal Push and Thoughtseize are the keys to your success, but your more expensive creatures are better at capitalizing on those spells that slow the game down. Kalitas is weak in a deck full of expensive cards, but shines when it is near the top of the curve.
Sorin is the reason to play this deck. Real talk, it is a nightmare to play against, and feels just as good to play with. The first time you get to throw a Mutavault at your opponent’s creature and gain three life, the first time you cheat Champion of Dusk onto the battlefield to draw three cards, the first time you turn Dusk Legion Zealot from a 1/1 to a 2/2, you’ll understand exactly what I’m talking about!
I’m still in exploration mode, but I’m closing in on a few select archetypes that are prime to exploit the current metagame. I think both Vampires and my “Baby Red” aggro deck from last week are both solid choices, but I’m nowhere close to picking a best deck just yet. Everything seems to have a weakness, and the metagame truly feels like Rock-Paper-Scissors. I just need to find Volcano so I can beat all the rest. Wish me luck! If you want to watch the process, feel free to drop by my Twitch channel or check out my YouTube.