The New Challengers in Pioneer

Despite dodging the banned and restricted announcement, Pioneer is evolving. Dom Harvey reviews several of the format’s new wildcards

Embercleave, illustrated by Joe Slucher

Pioneer escaped unscathed from the recent bans that took down The Meathook Massacre in Standard and Yorion, Sky Nomad in Modern. Barring a last-minute shakeup from The Brothers’ War, this current version of Pioneer is the format that will be the focus of competitive Magic for the next two months for this first round of Regional Championships. Thanks to a stretch of high-stakes online tournaments, we have an even better idea of what that will look like.

Bloodtithe Harvester Old-Growth Troll

Rakdos Midrange and Mono-Green Devotion maintain their positions as the two top-tier decks of Pioneer. One is a strange combo-ramp deck capable of some truly obscene turns; the other is a pure distillation of fair, midrange Magic. Between them they exert a squeeze on the format in which each deck helps the other to stay on top. It’s easy to build a deck that goes bigger than Rakdos Midrange but it’s tough to find one that doesn’t get outclassed by Mono-Green Devotion if both decks get to do their thing. From the other direction, you can build a disruptive aggro deck or a carefully tailored control deck to target Mono-Green Devotion but those tools line up poorly against Rakdos. 

Mono-Green is more volatile in both its play patterns and its results. You know Rakdos will be popular at any given Pioneer tournament and that it will perform well. Mono-Green will show up but you can never quite tell if it will successfully storm the festival or get lost on the way there. Kiran Dhokia (cherryxman on Magic Online) used Mono-Green to win the Pioneer Showcase Challenge and then the Showcase Qualifier to get to the MOCS where he punched his ticket to next year’s World Championships… in the Modern Cube portion, followed by an 0-4 run in Pioneer. It’s not uncommon for it to dominate a Pioneer Challenge one day and be completely absent the following day. Make sure you can handle the swings!

This is the litmus test for any new deck – can you beat one of these decks while at least holding your own against the other (with the usual caveat that you probably aren’t as good against the best deck as you think you are)? We will see how some new challengers fare on that front. 

These decks present defined targets – most slots in the ‘stock lists’ are locked in and individual lists vary by only a few cards. Mono-Green takes this to the extreme as almost all of its sideboard is dedicated to Karn, the Great Creator – there’s no room to radically transform your deck in sideboarding even if you wanted to. 

Lovestruck Beast

The question then becomes how to use the few flex slots in the maindeck. Bobby Fortanely used Lovestruck Beast in his Showcase Top 8 list as a nod to aggro decks like Mono-White Humans and that looks even more prescient with Gruul Aggro arriving on the scene this week. Even against Rakdos Midrange, a cheap creature that triggers Kiora, Behemoth Beckoner and beats Bonecrusher Giant or Graveyard Trespasser in combat is very welcome. 

A consensus seems to be forming around a shiny new boat:

Skysovereign, Consul Flagship

Skysovereign, Consul Flagship has taken over the Pioneer airspace in recent weeks. It’s a phenomenal threat against Rakdos Midrange, shooting down their small creatures while flying over the bigger ones and dodging all of their removal from Fatal Push to Dreadbore (and single-handedly earning Abrade a slot in maindecks again). It’s also a universally strong card against the various creature decks. Mono-White Humans claims to have a good matchup against Mono-Green largely thanks to Brutal Cathar and Brave the Elements – Skysovereign kills Cathar to unlock your creature and as a colourless artifact it gets around Brave as both a removal spell and a blocker. Against Mono-Blue Spirits and Bant Spirits, it threatens to kill one relevant creature each turn or block another while dodging Mausoleum Wanderer and Spell Queller. 

Mono-Green Devotion can use its last maindeck slots on some copies of Skysovereign and put another in its sideboard for Karn. What if we went further?

Hall of Famer Willy Edel reminded us of his deckbuilding talent recently with this twist on Gruul Aggro. Embercleave gives the deck a way to win fast or out of nowhere against Mono-Green Devotion, which can blank even the likes of Bonecrusher Giant with Old-Growth Troll and Cavalier of Thorns otherwise.

Collected Company

The set of Collected Company in the sideboard is the most revealing part of this list. In Game 1 you want to optimize for fast Embercleave kills but this is less reliable in post-sideboard games where the opponent will have more relevant removal. In a deck whose curve is already built for Company, it becomes an excellent card to pivot towards in these more grindy games. Against Azorius Control both Embercleave and Skysovereign are weak against their spread of interaction while Company lets you reload immediately after Supreme Verdict and present a relevant threat on their turn. It’s joined here by classic anti-control planeswalkers like Domri Rade and Xenagos Reveler, letting you cleanly upgrade the top of your curve. Even though Company is usually the centerpiece of decks it’s found in and an automatic four-of – Bant Spirits splashes a colour in an already shaky manabase just for that card! – it’s worth keeping an open mind about its role in deck construction. 

If you agree that Skysovereign is well-positioned right now, why not embrace that fully? This version – which put two copies in the most recent Showcase Challenge Top 8 – has the full set in the maindeck as well as four Esika’s Chariot as another resilient threat against Rakdos. Dropping Embercleave relieves some strain on the mana – still shaky even with Karplusan Forest – and lets you run additional creature lands like Mutavault. Reckless Stormseeker lets you unlock the attack triggers from your Vehicles immediately, allowing Skysovereign to double up on its damage to kill larger creatures like Sheoldred.

The Akroan War

Without Embercleave you need help crossing the finish line against Mono-Green Devotion and turning their Old-Growth Troll or Cavalier of Thorns against them fills that gap. It’s also promising against Rakdos, where Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet and Sheoldred, the Apocalypse are their best ways to stabilize and their other creatures are well sized to trade with yours. The mirror in all its forms is an increasingly relevant matchup and The Akroan War is as strong there as it was in the Gruul Adventures mirrors in Standard.  

A much faster Gruul Aggro deck put its name on the map this weekend:

Red aggro is a staple of most healthy Magic formats and has been intermittently successful in Pioneer but this latest form is quite different from its predecessors. This is no Burn deck full of Lightning Strikes and increasingly embarrassing Shock variants – this is a quick and lethal creature deck hoping to flood the battlefield with small creatures and make those into real threats with Reckless Bushwhacker and Atarka’s Command. Removal, sweepers, and big blockers are effective and necessary here but once you have these your life total is under a little less pressure – stabilizing at a single-digit life total is more realistic than against previous red decks where a quarter or more of their deck can be pointed at you. 

Charming Prince Extraction Specialist Yorion, Sky Nomad

The latest wildcard to arrive on the scene is a throwback to the time when Heliod, Sun-Crowned and Walking Ballista were partners-in-crime in Pioneer. Extraction Specialist joins Yorion, Sky Nomad in setting up Charming Prince loops that join Serra Paragon and Sagas in creating a crushing cascade of card advantage in the midgame. In particular, Elspeth Conquers Death is fantastic against Rakdos Midrange and Mono-Green Devotion as well as these Gruul decks full of threats that cost three or more and other decks trying to go bigger than Rakdos. 

This white midrange revival presents an intriguing puzzle for deckbuilders. Yorion gives you twenty more slots to play with but there aren’t that many strong white cards in Pioneer. You can turn to other colours and every option has its charms, from Fable of the Mirror-Breaker and Chained to the Rocks in Boros to Vanishing Verse and other interaction in this Orzhov list. You can run Karn, the Great Creator but this entails a massive commitment for your sideboard which in turn changes how you build your maindeck. 

These developments show two sides of Pioneer. On one side, we have the two top decks maintaining their stranglehold on the format and reaching their final forms with little further room for innovation. On the other side, there are new decks with a wide range of playstyles emerging wherever you look. If you’re going for glory at your Regional Championship, you can choose to beat them or to join them.