Why Everyone is Devoted to Mono-Green in Pioneer

Dom Harvey revisits one of Pioneer’s most storied decks to see just how it has managed to thrive while others have gone extinct.

Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx, illustrated by Jung Park

Leyline of Abundance Oath of Nissa Once Upon a Time

Mono-Green Devotion may be the most iconic and enduring Pioneer deck. Leyline of Abundance and Oath of Nissa were two of the earliest additions to the banlist after Todd Anderson terrorized the first Pioneer tournaments on Magic Online with a deck that was terrifying in its speed and consistency. 

At the format’s competitive debut at the SCG Invitational that winter, Mono-Green Devotion was the most popular deck despite these bans and took big mana devotee Adam Fronsee to the finals. I’m still unsure how Once Upon a Time survived that first round of bans but Mono-Green Devotion was the main reason it fell in the second. 

That young format looks unrecognizable now. Pioneer has gone through repeated and radical changes since then and Mono-Green Devotion has been the only real constant throughout. It hasn’t always been the best deck — or even a good deck! – but you’re never surprised to see it. When you did see it a few months ago, it looked something like this list from Corey Baumeister:

Werewolf Pack Leader Vivien, Arkbow Ranger Mistcutter Hydra

A relatively recent addition from Adventures in the Forgotten Realms, Werewolf Pack Leader allowed this list to take an aggressive stance while building devotion and gave Vivien, Arkbow Ranger a big, cheap attacker to upgrade even further. With Mistcutter Hydra joining the bench as a mana sink, Corey’s list could easily be confused with the hyper-aggressive ‘green machine’ he played to a lot of Standard success. 

The Mono-Green Devotion list taking this festival by storm looks very different – a planeswalker-centric ramp deck with a flashy combo finish discovered by accident (much like the infinite loops in kanister’s beloved Krark-Clan Ironworks deck).

After this initial hype, the deck caught on like wildfire. Mono-Green Devotion was all over Magic Online, from the weekend Pioneer Challenges down to the leagues. If someone was streaming Pioneer, there was a good chance they were streaming Mono-Green Devotion. The most recent ManaTraders monthly event was Pioneer and the most popular deck was Devotion — something that was barely on the radar a month ago!

Let’s see what all the fuss is about:

Kiora, Behemoth Beckoner Karn, the Great Creator Pestilent Cauldron

With two copies of Karn and two copies of Kiora in circulation between the battlefield and graveyard, a Nykthos, and fourteen or more devotion to green, you can assemble a loop:

  • Use the -2 ability of Karn to find Pestilent Cauldron
  • Cast the Restorative Burst side of Cauldron to return the other Karn and Kiora (3GG used)
  • Cast and keep the new Kiora (5GGG used), untapping Nykthos with its -1 ability. 
  • Activate Nykthos (7GGG used, 14 mana generated).
  • Cast and keep the new Karn (11GGG used, 14 mana generated), bringing us back to the original state.

Each iteration of the loop gains you life – eventually, you cast Pestilent Cauldron itself instead and mill the opponent’s deck. If you don’t have access to black mana, Karn can find Treasure Vault if you have a land drop left over (or Golos, Tireless Pilgrim for Overgrown Tomb in other lists). An extra pip for devotion means you also net mana with each iteration, giving you more ways to finish the job. As that Twitter discussion mentioned, Heart of Kiran is a promising option for the Karn toolbox in its own right that also eases some of these combo requirements. 

The Ironworks comparison is useful in another way — people fixated on the Scrap Trawler + Myr Retriever loops even though these were largely unnecessary for the deck’s success. You can go to all this trouble for a deterministic kill but a lower devotion count setting up Karn for God-Pharaoh’s Statue or The Immortal Sun on a full battlefield will still win almost any game. If this aspirational endgame was the only use for these cards they wouldn’t be worth their slot in the deck — you play Karn anyway (as other lists of Mono-Green Devotion have in the past) because it is a good threat and ramp payoff that finds you crucial tools against other linear decks that can race or overwhelm you. 

Nissa, Who Shakes the World Cavalier of Thorns

The lack of Nissa, Who Shakes the World is striking — when this deck was dominating early Pioneer, the fast Nissa draws were a big part of what made it so scary. Nissa’s absence in Corey’s more aggressive list is easier to explain away, but it seems perfect for a Storm the Festival deck trying to generate obscene amounts of mana and untap the same lands repeatedly. 

Cavalier of Thorns dethrones Nissa here by taking up every part of that recipe. Cavalier can find the Nykthos that unlocks everything else while ensuring you have enough devotion to enjoy it. Lair of the Hydra lets Cavalier find a threat up-front, its death trigger guarantees the next threat, and its enters the battlefield trigger can mill Storm the Festival to be flashbacked for even more action. 

In a format that’s increasingly fast and aggressive, Cavalier of Thorns is better at stabilizing for the one turn you need — Nissa brings six loyalty and a 3/3 blocker, but Nissa managing to survive is no consolation if they can just finish you off instead. Cavalier can also run defense for other planeswalkers like Karn, the Great Creator or trigger the Kiora, Behemoth Beckoner that aims to power that big Nykthos turn. 

Burning-Tree Emissary Wolfwillow Haven Sylvan Caryatid

Another Mono-Green Devotion stalwart missing here is Burning-Tree Emissary, which gives you the most explosive Nykthos draws, but is mostly useless when you don’t have your most important card (especially in this less aggressive build that has no use for a mopey 2/2 body and can’t upgrade it with Vivien). This version turns to Wolfwillow Haven and Sylvan Caryatid as additional, durable mana sources that can set up Turn 3 Karn, the Great Creator even when your Turn 1 Elvish Mystic doesn’t show up or survive. If you are keen on a small splash, Caryatid makes that more consistent.

Old-Growth Troll

A welcome addition to every Mono-Green Devotion list is Old-Growth Troll, which does everything you could possibly ask for. Turn 2 Troll backed up by anything will win games by itself without assembling obscure planeswalker combinations. It’s your best defensive card against any aggressive deck, in part because the best defense is a good offense, and is a resilient threat against anyone trying to pick off your smaller creatures. It’s also a big early boost to your devotion. Turn 1 Elvish Mystic, Turn 2 Troll, Turn 3 Nykthos gives you five mana for Cavalier, Nissa, or some other threat. 

Finally, the ‘other half’ of Troll upgrading a Forest gives you yet another source of ramp that pairs well with Kiora (which also triggers from both the actual Troll and the token Troll!).

A format like Pioneer has the tools to push back against any new menace (you already see many more Aether Gusts and Noxious Grasps in sideboards than you did a month ago) and players are moving away from strategies that line up poorly against Mono-Green Devotion (or Naya Winota, which presents a similar challenge). That said, as Pioneer becomes a fixture of paper play again, you can expect to see a lot of people manually counting their devotion to green and you should strongly consider joining them.