Your Pioneer Deck Deserves Better. Here’s How To Fix It.

Ari Lax has some strong opinions about the Pioneer metagame after the Players Tours! He’s here to help you make better card choices.

Jace, Wielder of Mysteries, illustrated by Anna Steinbauer

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I tested a lot of decks for this Players Tour before settling on Dimir Inverter. Unshockingly, I have many strong opinions about optimizing everything. Time to listen to me yell about the entire Pioneer format.

Lotus Breach

There’s no better place to start than the weekend’s clear breakout deck.

Thassa's Oracle Expansion

Many players eschewed Thassa’s Oracle for Expansion // Explosion as their kill condition under the guise of playing a more relevant card, but I’m fairly sure Thassa’s Oracle has strong upsides in the argument.

The main one is that Thassa’s Oracle allows for some low-resource kills involving only one Lotus Field. Escaping Hidden Strings plus Tome Scour twice with only one Field demonstrates a library-churning loop at net zero mana, since Hidden Strings nets two mana untapping Lotus Field and any land, while two Tome Scours net four graveyard cards to cast Strings again. From there you eventually find Thassa’s Oracle and win, where just Explosion and Granted for Jace, Wielder of Mysteries basically requires a second Lotus Field or more graveyard than short kills usually have.

The second is that I’m not even sure Expansion is a better normally cast card than Thassa’s Oracle. For all the weird copy scenarios with Expansion, there are the spots where you just cast Thassa’s Oracle on Turn 2, dig for Lotus Field, and block some. You can always Blink of an Eye back the Oracle to reset and win, so even if you lose access to Granted you have a win left in your deck.

Alpine Moon

Alpine Moon is a similarly important low-resource “win condition” for mirrors. While you can always Thought Distortion them, Alpine Moon lets you use a single Lotus Field, a Granted, and an untap effect to easily lock off their combo access. As long as Lotus Field is a playable deck, this is a worthy sideboard slot.

Vizier of Tumbling Sands

One trick from Michael Jacob: Vizier of Tumbling Sands is castable as a creature. In removal-light matchups, this enables many single Lotus Field kills via Hidden Strings untapping Vizier and Lotus Field. It is also a way to set up a Lotus Field for use next turn without commuting your lands into a slow-rolled Damping Sphere.

Dimir Inverter

Omen of the Sea

Corey and I tested together for this event and were the only two team members who played Dimir Inverter, but we had strong differences in opinion on Omen of the Sea.

I love the card, and he begrudgingly played one. So much of Dimir Inverter is plotting out how many cards will end up in your graveyard on the combo turns, because that is what dictates the speed you can go from casting Inverter of Truth to winning the game. Omen is both a cantrip that assembles the combo without heading to the graveyard and an extra blue devotion for Thassa’s Oracle that boosts a large number of wins a turn or through a Fatal Push removing the Oracle’s devotion.

Ipnu Rivulet Thought Erasure

This precision drives a lot of other decisions. It is why Ipnu Rivulet is in the deck, as a way to clear through cards after untapping with a “larger” Inverted six-or-so-card library in a game you don’t have a clean early combo or Dig Through Time. You also often just surveil cards to the top with Thought Erasure when you have your kill sequence wrapped up because putting them in your graveyard is worse than maybe finding the best possible card.


One thing to be extremely wary about with this deck is putting yourself down on cardboard. While you have a ton of attrition tools, you aren’t an attrition deck. This is especially true against opposing Thoughtseize decks, and always true with Censor. If you can Censor a two-drop to massively slow down their clock, great. If you’re playing against three-mana hate cards, Censor gives you more outs. But randomly firing off Censor on a three-cost card because you can is often worse than cycling it or literally doing nothing and keeping your graveyard clean.

Drown in the Loch

Corey was right about Drown in the Loch, though. Or at least he really was for the Lotus Breach weekend. I would advise playing them and sideboarding them out against Rest in Peace.

Bant Spirits

I actually have nothing bad to say about how Bant Spirits is constructed. It seems like everyone has cut Brazen Borrower, which is right because Petty Theft costs mana and doesn’t add power to the battlefield. The tempo of the bounce is often less than the tempo of just playing more power.

This lack of criticism may also have to do with Tommy Ashton playing my physical cards, which I had ready from when I was debating Bant Spirits against Dimir Inverter. Tommy was also playing a Max McVety-approved Spirits list, which is always a great starting point for creature-heavy aggro.

Permeating Mass Reflector Mage

To quickly cover the cards Todd Anderson didn’t cover last week: both Reflector Mage and Permeating Mass are strong against monocolored aggro. All the two-mana ways to handle a threat are terrible because you start losing to Monastery Swiftspear on Turn 1, and Permeating Mass costs one. Basic math. Reflector Mage is just locked-in tempo when the matchup against these aggro decks is all about stealing the initiative back, where Deputy of Detention can be blowout-prone.

Sultai Delirium

Courser of Kruphix

Courser of Kruphix is garbage. Pioneer isn’t a format defined by drawing an extra half a card over the next seven turns, and it isn’t a format where a 2/4 blocker is holding anything off. It wasn’t even that way before the Theros Beyond Death combo breakout because it was impossible to trade for your cards for theirs when they were Scrapheap Scrounger, let alone when your opponent is casting Underworld Breach and card advantage is a foreign language.

The only reason Courser is in this deck is “good types,” and at that point you may as well just start with Leyline of the Void. It’s an enchantment too!

Ipnu Rivulet Brain Maggot

I absolutely love having more killer bullets to find with Traverse the Ulvenwald. Having played the Dimir Inverter side of these matchups a ton, the end-game can often come down to limitations on what they can find to stop your combo. After an Inverter of Truth resolves, a discard spell for your empty-deck win condition or a mill spell often allows Sultai Delirium to steal a game.

And look at those good types on Brain Maggot, solving the “Courser of Kruphix is trash” issue one slot at a time.

Walking Ballista Liliana, the Last Hope

I know Joel Larsson defeated Bant Spirits in the Top 8 of Players Tour Brussels and Jacob Wilson defeated Tommy Ashton in Phoenix, but that was a miracle. The matchup is absolutely horrendous. So many of your cards require delirium to go off, but every turn you cast a Satyr Wayfinder to set that up, the Spirits player just leverages the battlefield even more and kills you. You have removal, but they just have more Spirits. Uro, Titan of Nature’s Wrath just always gets raced because it costs multiple turns to set up, and I’ve lost games with full-power Ishkanah, Grafwidow because all their things are pumped up to 4/5 flyers. The only way you win is generating a pumpless window to freely pick off their one-toughness creatures with Walking Ballista or Liliana, the Last Hope.

The problem is that both of these cards are basically unplayable against every other deck in the format. They are too slow against every combo deck, too low-impact in the high-power midrange mirrors; the best-case scenario is Liliana, the Last Hope killing Mono-Black Aggro one-drops. And really, if you’re playing Uro, Titan of Nature’s Wrath and are concerned about any ground-attacking aggro deck, you messed up somewhere.

I don’t know what the answer is. Mausoleum Wanderer and Selfless Spirit squeeze out all the sweepers in the format. Maybe you only play Sultai Delirium if you don’t care about Bant Spirits. Maybe you load your sideboard with these effects and hope they mulligan to five like Mattia Rizzi did.

Or maybe you don’t play Sultai Delirium, which sucks because the deck is awesome.

Mono-Red Aggro

Monastery Swiftspear Zurgo Bellstriker

If you play fewer than nine one-drops in Mono-Red Aggro right now, you’re doing it wrong. It’s a combo metagame, not a Glorybringer one. This is the easy part.

Rimrock Knight Light Up the Stage

That said, don’t play cards that are only good if you are already winning a game. If you have successfully attacked with a creature, you don’t need to post-damage draw more cards to build a bigger battlefield with Light Up the Stage

Rimrock Knight represents solid damage output against combo, but in any matchup where the concern is less immediate damage and more ensuring you have cards line up against theirs, Rimrock Knight is really bad. Playing both halves is clunky, it’s a liability to Boulder Rush into any interaction, and a two-mana 3/1 just isn’t a rate you want to pay. Sideboard it out immediately against Bant Spirits, Mono-Black Aggro, and mirrors.

Eidolon of the Great Revel Grafdigger's Cage Ash Zealot

Look at all these hate cards that die to Natural State in Zach’s list. How about we diversify our assets with Ash Zealot over Grafdigger’s Cage so our Lotus Breach opponents don’t get to sideboard in the same answers to cover every one of our hate cards.

Mono-Black Aggro… Or Vampires

I would like to make an argument for Mono-Black Vampires often being a better deck to play than Mono-Black Aggro. 

Bloodsoaked Champion Damping Sphere

You can easily make the case that Mono-Black Aggro is the better tempo-disruptive deck against combo. I’m conceding Mono-Black Vampires won’t be a better deck to play next weekend. Mono-Black Aggro can load up on hate, and your cheaper aggro threats are all resilient to simple removal, and you aren’t drawing Gifted Aetherborn or Dusk Legion Zealot.

Goblin Chainwhirler Uro, Titan of Nature's Wrath

But the weekend after that when people adjust back to more fair Magic, I want the higher per-card impact. It is so easy to brick Mono-Black Aggro with midrange or undercut it with Mono-Red Aggro. Mono-Black Vampires holds its ground in a shifting metagame much better.

Vicious Conquistador

The one change I would make is moving some of the low impact two-drops down to Vicious Conquistadors. Gifted Aetherborn isn’t really a playable Magic card, is it? Vicious Conquistador is just as much of a Vampire for Sorin, Imperious Bloodlord

The Rest

Heliod, Sun-Crowned Gideon's Intervention Rest in Peace

I think Mono-White Devotion might become playable again if you build it as a prison deck, not a midrange deck. Heliod, Sun-Crowned makes you so good against aggro anyway. Just lock in some combo hate and call it a day.

; Llanowar Elves Steel Leaf Champion

Golgari Aggro is probably a terrible idea if people stick to black removal, but I can imagine a list that gets more disruptive and hedges properly against Lotus Breach. It’s probably half a level behind the other disruptive proactive decks that don’t have to draw Llanowar Elves in interactive games.

Teferi, Hero of Dominaria

Don’t ask me how Azorius Control ever wins matches.

Inverter of Truth Lotus Field

Lotus Breach and Dimir Inverter are extremely strong decks that have upturned the previously chonky Pioneer format, but I think the tools exist to fight back against them. Both decks are extremely adaptable, and the back-and-forth as we determine exactly where they fall will be exciting to watch.

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