How To Attack The Pioneer Metagame For SCG Indianapolis

Sam Black reviews the key decks of Pioneer and how to take them down ahead of SCG Indianapolis!

Jace, Wielder of Mysteries, illustrated by Anna Steinbauer

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Pioneer is still the newest format, and while we’ve had a set of major tournaments to “solve” it for us, we haven’t seen the full cycle of possible reactions to the decks that we say across the Players Tours.  In Brussels and Nagoya, Dimir Inverter was the clear breakout deck. In Phoenix, while Dimir Inverter won the event, in many ways, Lotus Breach was the most impressive deck. After players witnessed that, Lotus Breach failed at GP Phoenix, where Mono-Red won the event.  While we now have an established metagame, it’s not clear the format is properly solved, so this might be the best time to build a deck that targets the most successful decks to get an edge.

I don’t know what the deck that best does that looks like, but I want to talk about what kinds of things to look for and avoid if you want to try to attack the format at SCG Indianapolis with a brew of your own.

Know Your Targets

This is the most powerful deck in Pioneer.  The tight two-card combo allows the deck to play a robust interactive game and Dig Through Time functions perfectly at supporting their fair game while setting up their combo by clearing their graveyard and finding their combo pieces.  The combo pieces aren’t necessarily independently strong, but they’re not totally embarrassing on their own, and some would-be hate cards like Hushwing Gryff only serve to make Inverter of Truth more powerful.

Additionally, because the combo is so compact, the deck can easily pivot in sideboarding into different interactive Dimir decks, and it can be difficult to know whether you’re supposed to prepare for Inverter of Truth, Pack Rat, The Scarab God, or Ashiok, Nightmare Muse, and all of those might require different cards or strategies to combat.

Attacking Dimir Inverter

You can attempt to attack their graveyard to force them to combo in one turn, or to Unmoored Ego to disable their combo, or to try to mill them to kill them if they try to spread out their combo, but these plans don’t interact with their pivots.  As a result, I think you can’t afford to focus too much on their combo aspect, and need to respect them as a Dimir Midrange/Control deck with a combo finish. A more robust control plan can go over the top of that if you have the right kind of interaction or you can try to go under it with fast aggro or combo of your own.

Dig Through Time and Thoughtseize are the real cards you need to make sure your deck can fight.  Disdainful Stroke is one of my favorite cards against this deck. Decks that try to go under Inverter need to be very fast or fast and moderately disruptive.  Decks that try to go over Inverter need to be extremely disruptive. Dimir Control might work. Mono-Green Ramp almost certainly won’t.

While it was never the top headliner, Bant Spirits has emerged as the deck with the tools to interact just enough with the top combo decks in the format while establishing a viable clock to contend with those decks while having the internal power, synergy, and consistency necessary to compete against an open field.

Where Azorius Control once occupied a substantial portion of the Pioneer metagame, Bant Spirits has emerged as the best way to use blue and white sideboard cards and interact with opposing spells.  Unlike Azorius Control, Bant Spirits has a viable gameplan against Lotus Breach.

Attacking Bant Spirits

Removal can be valuable to get your spells back from Spell Queller and destroy their lords, but if you don’t have a proactive plan you might lose to card advantage gained by countering your spells with Rattlechains or Collected Company.  Spells that kill multiple Spirits at the same time are much better, but you need to have a plan for Spell Queller and Selfless Spirit. Heaven // Earth is one of the best cards because it’s an instant, which makes it much easier to find a window when your opponent doesn’t have mana up for Spell Queller, or you can spend five mana to cast it.

Sideboard cards like Mystical Dispute and Fry are powerful and efficient, but won’t make up for a losing strategy.

Cards like Ishkanah, Grafwidow that cost five mana and invalidate a lot of their strategy are very effective.  Somehow getting Hornet Queen onto the battlefield would be even better.

Somehow red decks seem to have diversified over time, rather than landing on a consensus build, which is honestly pretty weird.  Mono-Red is a fast deck that gets to play interactive spells that aren’t dead against combo decks. Mono-Red decks are probably generally disadvantaged against Dimir Inverter, but advantaged against Bant Spirits, and very good at beating people who are trying to do cute things or focused too much on disrupting combo decks.

Attacking Mono-Red Aggro

Uro, Titan of Nature’s Wrath is a great card against Mono-Red.  You want a card that can close the game in a reasonable time frame, because merely gaining life won’t matter against Torbran, Thane of Redfell or whatever other four- or five-mana spell your opponent is playing.  Mono-Red decks are primarily creature decks, so if you can answer their creatures you can slow them down a lot, and then you just need to win before losing to their removal. Dream Trawler is another example of the right kind of card against them.  Cavalier of Thorns is another good one. The problem is that most of these cards are very bad against most other decks.

Uro is one of the best midrange threats/finishers of all time, maybe even the best ever, and this deck is very good exchanging resources at a good rate and then finding and enabling Uro.  This is Pioneer’s Jund, but blue means that it has access to counterspells, which make it play very differently after sideboarding.

As a midrange deck, this is very much a “Game 2” deck, where it’s expecting to improve its chances against everyone after sideboarding as long as it’s come properly prepared.

Attacking Sultai Delirium

Graveyard hate is moderately effective, but not game-ending, as they have engines outside of their graveyard in planeswalkers and Tireless Tracker.  Going over this deck is very much the opposite of trying to go over Dimir Inverter. Against Dimir Inverter, you need to interact a lot to avoid losing to their combo while attempting to win a longer game, but against Sultai Delirium, a long, interactive gameplan is likely to get trumped by Emrakul, the Promised End, so strategies that try to go over the top of Sultai Delirium need to focus on closing the game with big finishers.  Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger is exactly the right kind of card here.

Lotus Breach is a true combo deck that can’t meaningfully pivot, unlike Dimir Inverter, but the combo is very robust thanks to Fae of Wishes and the fact that the deck’s primary goal is to accumulate mana via Lotus Field and Thespian’s Stage, which is very hard to interact with.

Attacking Lotus Breach

It’s possible to go under Lotus Breach, but not easy, since they’ll most often win on Turn 4 if you can’t disrupt them.  Unfortunately, most traditional disruption is very weak against them. They have enough ways to draw additional cards that opposing discard and counterspells only serve to buy a little time and don’t meaningfully prevent the deck from comboing.  Additionally, if you try to overload them with reactive spells, you need to have a plan for Thought Distortion. This is a very hard card to prepare for if you have that kind of strategy, though Narset’s Reversal is absolutely amazing against it.

Alpine Moon and Damping Sphere are the most effective tools against this deck, but both of those are generally also only temporary as the Lotus Breach player will have access to cards like Ratchet Bomb and Blast Zone in addition to Unravel the Aether or Return to Nature.  Diversifying casting costs among permanents used to hate them can help, but mostly it’s important to build a deck that capitalize on slowing them down.

Building an Anti-Metagame Deck

Those are the primary targets.  To build a new deck to attack the format you’ll generally want to start by identifying cards or strategies that line up well against a reasonable cross-section of those decks.  From there, you’ll want to honestly assess how your deck will line up against the other top decks and think about whether any problematic matchups can be improved, most likely with a small amount of dedicated hate (which often won’t work, as addressed above).

Once you’ve identified the draws to your deck – the primary strength it brings to the table, which is likely the reason you want to build it in the first place – you should ask yourself if it’s ultimately a worse version of an existing deck or archetype or a viable variation of that deck or archetype. 

For example, if you decided that you want to build an Azorius deck that can take advantage of graveyard hate against Sultai Delirium and Dream Trawler against Mono-Red Aggro, but you know that you want to be more proactive than Azorius Control to ensure that you have a reasonable matchup against Lotus Breach, so you build a new take on Azorius Midrange, you should ask yourself if you’d be better off just adding a land and a few Dream Trawlers to the sideboard of Bant Spirits.

Similarly, if you want to build Mono-Green Aggro, you need to think about how it’ll line up with all the existing decks.  Most likely, it’ll be minimally capable of interacting with the combo decks, which means it’ll just be racing against them.  At that point you’ve identified that the matchup will be about speed and you have to assess whether your green deck actually goldfishes faster than a different aggro deck would, and if it doesn’t, identify whether it’s bringing another unique and valuable strength to the table.

We’re past the point in the format where you can just decide that Yorvo, Lord of Garenbrig is a sweet card and you want to cast it on Turn 2 off a Llanowar Elves. You need to think about how the whole game will play out and why that’s better than casting Ensoul Artifact on Turn 2.

Abstract Goals

So given these pressures, what do we need to do?  If we’re trying to play a long game, we need to make sure that we can interact enough not to lose to Inverter of Truth, but we also need to avoid having so much interaction that we lose to Thought Distortion or Emrakul, the Promised End.  Similarly, we need to make sure that we can end the game or gain life before getting burned out by a red deck. This combination of pressures is hard to account for if we’re trying to play a truly controlling strategy. Summary Dismissal can stop Emrakul and Thought Distortion, so that might be one way to try to navigate the squeeze the format places on slower decks.

Summary Dismissal

Fast decks need to make sure they’re not so linear or fragile that they fall apart if targeted by a Thoughtseize and they need to make sure they’re actually fast enough to outrace Mono-Red and Lotus Breach. Most aggressive creature decks won’t accomplish that, but you can consider whether a small number of interactive spells can slow those opponents enough to win the race.

If that works, you need to ask yourself whether the fast deck can withstand Fatal Push and Thoughtseize backed by Uro, Titan of Nature’s Wrath out of Sultai Delirium.

These needles are hard to thread.  The format looks the way it does for a reason and these decks are on the top after a lot of players have had strong incentives to find the best decks they can.  If something here inspires you to build a deck, or if you were planning to, that’s great, I hope you have fun with it, and if you can solve this puzzle and actually win, it’ll feel great.

But realistically, it’s entirely fair to read this as a description of how hard it is to crack the format and conclude that you don’t have the knowledge, time, or faith in the project to do so. That’s entirely valid, not something to be ashamed of, and honestly, very likely to lead to the best results for you.  Can your deck accomplish all of these goals better than everything hundreds or thousands of players trying to find the best deck could? Probably not. Can you identify exactly which of these pressures will be most pertinent for your specific metagame and plan for those? Maybe, but again, it’s not easy.

My advice? I’m honestly surprised that nothing was banned after this round of PTs, and I think you should play your take on an established archetype this weekend.  Dimir Inverter seems like the best, but if you’d be more comfortable with the playstyle of another deck discussed in the decks to beat here, that would also be a solid choice.

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