Pioneer synchronized its Banned and Restricted announcements with the rest of Magic’s Constructed formats last month, formally ending the weekly lunch ban experiments, but it wasn’t until the last three weeks when the format became real. The series of major tournaments we saw established a clear metagame that we can be confident will last for the foreseeable future. Dimir Inverter, Lotus Breach, and Sultai Delirium are the top dogs, with several fringe options, mostly aggressive, remaining competitive.
This is really the first time in Pioneer’s short history that we’re in that situation. Before this year, a week or two of dominance was enough to get a deck banned, and the period of Big Red and Five-Color Niv-Mizzet was always illusory. The Pioneer metagame has never been on such solid ground.
There are many implications to this new reality, starting with the ease of brewing with such a defined target. But I want to focus on a more grim reality. Namely, entering this stage in Pioneer’s development means that some of the cards which were hyped in October and November to return to their former glory have officially fallen flat.
It was only four months ago that Pioneer began with so much promise. Promise of bringing your favorite cards from the last seven years back for another spin. But as we all know, you can never go home again. Pioneer isn’t Standard, and not every great card can stand up to an objectively more powerful card pool. Context is everything in Magic, and it was inevitable that a new context would leave some cards behind.
Today I’m going to discuss the five cards that I think disappointed the most, and analyze why they failed to live up to the hype or their pedigree. In no particular order, let’s begin.
Treasure Cruise was near the top of the list of many players’ expected bans in the first weeks of the format. Even without fetchlands, delve is an overpowered mechanic, and Treasure Cruise and its partner in crime Dig Through Time are the most egregious users of it.
And we’ve certainly seen the power of Dig Through Time. It’s a staple of Azorius Control and the best card in perhaps the format’s best deck in Dimir Inverter. It was also a key element in Simic Nexus before that deck’s namesake card was banned. It’s near the top of the list of cards that may be banned soon, yet Treasure Cruise barely sees any play. Why?
Despite being linked since their printing, these two cards function quite differently. Treasure Cruise has always been at its best in decks that fill the graveyard proactively with fetchlands and cantrips, such as Delver decks in Legacy. On the other hand, if you’re filling the graveyard while playing Magic, you’re generally doing it with interactive spells (removal, counters, etc) in a reactive strategy. In such a strategy, Dig Through Time’s card selection and instant speed is more valuable than the volume of resources offered by Treasure Cruise. In their Standard environment, Dig Through Time saw significantly more play because of this dynamic.
Pioneer simply doesn’t have a high enough density of good, cheap cantrips to enable a proactive strategy which uses delve. Izzet Phoenix has been around since the format’s inception, but it has never been good. Both Treasure Cruise and Thing in the Ice depend on a density of good cantrips and Quicken is decidedly not it.
A Dig Through Time ban may force players to play Treasure Cruise in reactive shells as the next best option, but the poor fit is going to cause issues for those decks, especially Dimir Inverter, which needs to find its combo pieces.
But as the format grows, more cheap cantrips are inevitable unless Standard is destined to only ever have Opt, which I guess is possible. It won’t take too much to push Treasure Cruise over the edge, but you should be waiting for that next cantrip to break this one out.
Aetherworks Marvel was dominant during its time in Standard, eventually leading to a ban less then a year after it was printed. While initial lists built around the card were singularly focused on activating it early and often to cast Emrakul, the Promised End and Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger, later lists put it in a shell that could play a fair game centered around the other energy cards.
That kind of versatility is even more attractive in a larger format, where presumably the removal options are both more diverse and more powerful, so the hopes of dominating the metagame with a linear strategy are much lower. But still, Aetherworks Marvel has failed to make any impression at all in Pioneer.
The fatal flaw in the deck is in how much Aetherworks Marvel demands in deckbuilding. Yes, your strategy is flexible, but you have to maintain the threat of activating Aetherworks Marvel on Turn 4 or 5 for a game-ending card, and doing so requires a huge amount of energy production. In Standard, that requirement was easily met by cards that were otherwise solid. Attune with Aether and Aether Hub gave you great mana, Rogue Refiner and Whirler Virtuoso formed the backbone of the midrange plan, and Woodweaver’s Puzzleknot, while underpowered, made getting to six energy so trivial it was hard to fight the deck on that axis.
Simply put, none of these cards translates well into Pioneer. The mana is much better, so the fixers are at best unnecessary and at worst a liability, with Attune functioning as an enters-the-battlefield-tapped land. Rogue Refiner and Whirler Virtuoso are a fine rate for Standard, but below par in Pioneer, both at playing defense against aggro decks and offense against control and combo. Refiner has seen some play alongside Heart of Kiran, but that’s about it. And Woodweaver’s Puzzleknot? Don’t put that in your Pioneer decks.
The end result is what was a minor inconvenience at worst in Standard became an untenable restriction in Pioneer. The deck’s midrange plan is no longer powerful enough to contend, and you can’t shift far away from those cards without sacrificing the effectiveness of Aetherworks Marvel itself.
Nothing short of a return to the energy mechanic and a more powerful supporting cast will breathe new life into Aetherworks Marvel, but until then, you can put them back in a random pile on your card-littered coffee table.
Emrakul, the Promised End
Another card which was banned in its Standard environment, Emrakul, the Promised End was a no-show until the emergence of Sultai Delirium, where it performs its role nicely as a late-game tutor target for Traverse the Ulvenwald.
But it’s not the resurgent power of Emrakul, the Promised End that has vaulted Sultai Delirium to the top of the Pioneer metagame. In fact the deck has been legal in nearly this form for the format’s entire history, save for Uro, Titan of Nature’s Wrath. Thus, it’s easy to see how Uro is the key card here. Uro utterly annihilates aggressive strategies while playing a role in longer matchups as a solid value card that also ramps you towards the Emrakul end game.
Sultai Delirium would be worse without Emrakul, but not by much. Similar to the energy mechanic, the delirium cards that wore worth building around in Standard aren’t quite up to snuff in Pioneer. The delirium elements are minimal now, with Uro being the real graveyard payoff.
As for Emrakul itself, it’s likely the biggest loser among the delirium cards in the switch from Standard to Pioneer. As formats grow, power level goes up, and curves decrease. The aggro decks are faster and more consistent, and any deck planning on going long must have a very robust end game to compete. Emrakul is a very powerful effect, but not something you can overload on lest it clog your hand early.
This dynamic played out in Standard with Golgari Delirium playing it as a late-game tutor target, but with the naturally slower format and the increased power of Ishkanah, Grafwidow against creature decks, you got to that stage more often, which made Emrakul more problematic. Sultai Delirium closes plenty of games with Uro well before Emrakul would matter, so its role is less important.
That’s good and bad news for Emrakul fans. Good because you don’t have to worry about a ban any time soon, but bad because you also won’t be casting it that often. A slower format could increase the prevalence of Emrakul’s role in Sultai Delirium, but it would also be bad for the deck by pushing out the aggro decks it preys on.
Of all the cards on the list, this one is perhaps the least surprising. Everyone understands that Deathrite Shaman was broken with fetchlands, as its bans in Modern and Legacy attest. Without them, it’s a mediocre utility creature that doesn’t really fit in any strategy.
But, surrounded by enablers like Grisly Salvage and Stitcher’s Supplier, Deathrite Shaman could find a home in a dedicated graveyard deck, or so I thought. Those decks appreciate some acceleration and reach, as well as solid one-mana plays, so Deathrite Shaman checks a lot of boxes in a potentially powerful package.
In the format’s infancy, we saw Deathrite Shaman make an appearance in these decks, often crewing Smuggler’s Copter when its abilities weren’t needed. Ultimately, it didn’t make the cut in the current iterations of Sultai Dredge, and looking more closely reveals a few reasons why.
First is the inconsistency. The tempo advantage from a mana creature is most relevant in the early turns of a game, and if your enabler doesn’t offer an expendable land to exile on Turn 2, Deathrite Shaman isn’t going to be very effective. Maybe it’ll let you double up with a Grisly Salvage and Satyr Wayfinder on Turn 3, but that’s already a great draw, so how much is Deathrite Shaman really adding?
Second is that Deathrite Shaman runs headfirst into graveyard hate. It’s completely ineffective against Rest in Peace and Leyline of the Void, which are cards people already want and have to bring in against you. So Deathrite Shaman ends up lowering your floor by overexposing you to common hate, without appreciably raising your ceiling.
This one isn’t breaking through in Pioneer any time soon.
Siege Rhino may not have a ban on its resume like the other four cards on its list, but it was polarizing during its time in Standard, with many playings calling for its banning while others couldn’t imagine playing a tournament without registering four copies of the powerful pachyderm.
Abzan was the dominant clan during the Khans of Tarkir era, in no small part due to the power of Siege Rhino. But despite being ubiquitous for nearly its entire time in Standard, the card hasn’t translated well into Pioneer.
Part of it is Siege Rhino isn’t nearly as good against the other midrange and control decks in Pioneer as it was against those same decks in Standard. It doesn’t generate any material advantage and the life swing is more easily mitigated by better removal and other disruption available. This suggests that Siege Rhino could emerge in a solid Abzan shell should the metagame become dominated by aggressive decks.
But I want to remind everyone of another aspect of Abzan’s dominance in Standard that seems to go overlooked:
The split removal spell and Divination was extremely potent, allowing Abzan decks to have fewer dead cards against control and extra removal for key threats against more threat-heavy decks. It was miles better than every other card in the cycle, several of which saw plenty of action themselves.
But Abzan Charm takes an even bigger hit in the larger format than Siege Rhino. Abzan Charm saw play based on its versatility, since the rate of each mode is behind the curve. Those kinds of spells get much worse in older formats, because the opportunity cost of that sacrifice in rate is significant. You could get away with casting Read the Bones on Turn 3 against some aggro decks in Standard. You can’t in Pioneer. And with Pioneer bringing tighter curves, the restriction on the removal mode is prohibitive.
Abzan Charm and Siege Rhino were enough to draw people to Abzan once they wanted the green card advantage creatures and black disruption. They aren’t the same draw in Pioneer, where blue is the primary third color for Uro and counterspells. In an aggro-heavy metagame Siege Rhino is still a solid draw, but it’s not enough to top Sultai, and we’re going to need a big draw to white cards to close that gap.
Why Have These Cards Disappointed In Pioneer?
The key takeaway here is one that I’ve stressed often in this space: when evaluating Magic cards, context is everything. In these five cases, it wasn’t necessarily that the card itself became bad, but the cards around it, the cards that enabled it, became worse in comparison to other options. Traverse the Ulvenwald and Attune with Aether were premier mana fixers in their Standard environments, and now they are often liabilities. Abzan Charm was a great removal spell, and in Pioneer it’s basically unplayable.
All of these cards are powerful, but only in the right context. And Pioneer, at least as it currently stands, isn’t that context. They are cards without a home.
What separates the good Magic players from the great is understanding the context necessary for a given card to shine, and recognizing when the supporting cards exist to maximize its potential. This should be your attitude every time a major shake-up happens, whether it’s a new set, a new ban, or a new format. Look at the big picture for the terms of engagement and figure out which cards best exploit those terms.
For those who were simply hoping to compete with their favorite cards, the good news is that the context in Magic is always changing. Amulet of Vigor was a bulk rare until someone figured out the power of combining it with Primeval Titan, bouncelands, and Tolaria West. New cards come every few months, and if Theros Beyond Death is any indication, new sets will have a significant impact on Pioneer. All of these cards (save for maybe Deathrite Shaman) could realistically experience a renaissance if they get the right supporting cast around them. In Magic, as in life, hope springs eternal.