Top 10 Explorer Decks For Magic: The Gathering Arena

Until all of Pioneer is on MTG Arena, Explorer is as close as it gets. Dom Harvey takes on the fresh digital format with a Top 10 of decks that port over and new opportunities.

Fires of Invention, illustrated by Stanton Feng

It’s official: Pioneer is finally coming to MTG Arena!

That may take a while, though. For now, there’s Explorer.

Explorer contains as much of Pioneer as is on MTG Arena, with Wizards of the Coast (WotC) working to fill in the biggest gaps as quickly as possible. An obvious issue is that a card isn’t always relevant or doesn’t always remain relevant in the same way. Part of the charm of larger formats is new printings ‘activating’ cards from years ago that hadn’t found a home until now.

Kaya's Ghostform Hidden Strings Reckless Rage

This is most likely for the unique strategies that lean on cards nobody else would look twice at. Nobody has a casual interest in Hidden Strings; it’s either totally unplayable or an essential card for your combo deck to function. Orzhov Auras (Lurrus) was effectively deleted from Pioneer for a year thanks to Kaya’s Ghostform being bugged on Magic Online (MTGO), but that isn’t a card you would prioritize adding if it wasn’t in the format unless you had seen it in action already.

Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx Eidolon of the Great Revel

Thing in the Ice Supreme Verdict

Other cards are known pillars of Pioneer that need to be there for the format to feel authentic. Their arrival will make a big impact on Explorer and won’t stop there; Izzet Phoenix in Historic will be as thrilled to pick up Thing in the Ice as its Pioneer cousin, and Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx is sure to be a fan favourite in Historic too. 

In these examples, we have those archetypes’ current success in Pioneer to encourage their inclusion in Historic Anthology 6 or the next Explorer expansion. It’s easy to imagine some obscure card from Dragon’s Maze becoming important with a future set, and then having to wait for months for Explorer to add that card and catch up to paper Pioneer. 

Challenge, Meet Opportunity

This is a short-term disappointment for anyone hoping to get stuck in with their favourite Pioneer deck on another platform, yet it creates some unique opportunities. Explorer, this stand-in format that will eventually morph into Pioneer, will be different enough at first that it may as well be its own entity, with its own puzzles to solve. 

Pioneer, Historic, and Modern each tried to be the natural resting place for cards that had rotated out of Standard. This is a difficult role to fill and none of these formats managed it perfectly, but a powered-down Pioneer might finally rise to that challenge. The decks I feature below are a mix of proven winners in these larger formats that can hit the ground running in Explorer and Standard stars that didn’t make the leap to Pioneer proper but might flourish here in between. 

Naya Winota

Naya Winota terrorized Standard and Historic in its time and may be the best deck in actual Pioneer right now. It loses little from the transition to Explorer, and its cousins in other formats offer a useful template for how to build it here. The best enablers and hits for Winota are all here. The big misses are Mana Confluence, a land that lets you aim higher with your mana, and cheap non-Humans that protect Winota like Voice of Resurgence or Selfless Spirit

Jund Citadel

This first snapshot of Explorer lacks the combo decks that are a central part of Pioneer’s current identity. Jeskai Ascendancy and Lotus Field aren’t racing to the finish line here; Explorer will involve long, grindy contests on the battlefield. Jund Sacrifice is the ideal weapon for those fights and comes complete from Throne of Eldraine Standard. I expect the more conventional Jund Food lists with Cauldron Familiar, Witch’s Oven, and Trail of Crumbs to be the default, but I have a soft spot in my heart for the Bolas’s Citadel deck, and the launch of a new-ish format is the perfect time to chase those dreams. 

Orzhov Humans

Mayhem Devil and The Meathook Massacre have a lot of prey lined up if the tribal aggro decks draw their usual crowds:

Between an impressive yield of Humans in recent years and the Historic sets parachuting Thraben Inspector and Thalia’s Lieutenant onto Arena, you have access to every Human you could hope for. Unclaimed Territory and Secluded Courtyard let you chase the Modern or Pioneer high of Five-Colour Humans, but the incentives aren’t there; there’s no Mantis Rider to follow up your Werewolf Pack Leader here. This mono-white core has what matters: a smooth curve, strong tribal incentives, and disruption attached to creatures like Containment Priest or Thalia, Guardian of Thraben.

A more obvious possibility for any deck like this is splashing for Collected Company. That’s a valid option here (with other green cards like Hamlet Vanguard to sweeten the deal) as well as for our next tribe.

Bant Angels

If everyone is flooding the battlefield with minimally interactive creatures, the synergistic creature deck that gains a lot of life is a great place to be. Giada, Font of Hope gives Bant Angels yet another two-drop that powers explosive starts and helps it to make up for its clunky curve. 

Mardu Vampires

A more down-to-earth tribe, Orzhov Vampires is a classic example of a Pioneer deck struggling to hold its own against new competition and more refined lists of its old foes. Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet is a big hole in Vampires’ arsenal, but a move to Mardu gives Sorin, Imperious Bloodlord enough strong Vampires to deliver on its incredible potential. 

Rakdos Midrange

How about a generic midrange deck instead? There’s always a place for Thoughtseize and Fatal Push, and this shell is already a staple of Pioneer. If you would rather revisit Rakdos Arcanist, that’s still doable even in this more modest card pool. 

Mono-Red Aggro

If you just want a bread-and-butter aggro deck, we have years of successful Standard red decks to use as inspiration. This list focuses hard on creatures as permanent sources of damage, but you can go for a sleeker, spell-heavy version using Soul-Scar Mage and Ghitu Lavarunner to power Wizard’s Lightning or an even chunkier deck recreating the Splinter Twin vibes of Anax, Hardened in the Forge plus Embercleave from their time together in Standard. Bonecrusher Giant, Goblin Chainwhirler, and Rampaging Ferocidon all grab my attention in what I expect to be a creature-centric format in these early days. 

Azorius Control (Yorion)

Teferi, Hero of Dominaria is sure to make its mark in yet another format, and the Azorius Control shell from Pioneer carries over cleanly – even with these additional constraints, it’s easy to fill the extra twenty slots for Yorion, Sky Nomad

Jeskai Fires (Yorion)

Jeskai Fires (Yorion) highlights what can be lost in translation. Chained to the Rocks is just one card, but without it, this deck loses its best line of defense against these creature decks – while gaining a lot more freedom to customize its manabase. If you can reliably make it to the mid-game through other means, the Fires of Invention + Yorion, Sky Nomad combo is still one of the most powerful strategies in Pioneer itself as well as this pint-sized version. I’m excited to explore the Enigmatic Incarnation decks in this space too!

Jeskai Mutate

The premier combo decks in Pioneer will have to wait, but there are still ways to take lots of game actions. The Alchemy rebalancing changes have clipped Goldspan Dragon’s wings in Historic, but you can relive its glory days in Explorer – if you ever get bored by going off with it in Standard.

It’s hard for a format to establish its own identity if it becomes seen as just a seat-filler for Pioneer, and the Alchemy launch doesn’t give me confidence about WotC’s ability to shepherd this new format through its early days. Despite that – and myself! – I’m holding out hope that Explorer will be a fun interlude in Pioneer’s story arc.