Big Red Is Back In Pioneer

Big Red is back! Todd Anderson breaks down the Pioneer deck with the firepower to take on Oko, Thief of Crowns!

Pioneer seems to have settled after the most recent sweeping bans. The loss of Smuggler’s Copter, Once Upon a Time, and Field of the Dead has left the format with a vacancy. Oko, Thief of Crowns seems like the only card left that seems truly broken, in that it can singlehandedly win games. At this point, I think we’re all basically fine with Dig Through Time and Treasure Cruise, which is a strange sentence to say out loud, but the fact of the matter is that no one card really feels all that dominant.

Besides Oko, there have been a few cards running around that really feel great, although they need some help to get across the finish line. My project for this week will be to examine a few builds featuring one of my favorite cards in Pioneer right now.

Glorybringer is one hell of a Magic card, acting as a way to chop down annoying planeswalkers while cleaning up the mess they left behind. And if your opponent is forced to deal with your creatures or other threats turn after turn, chances are they’ll be tapped out when you get to slam your hasty Dragon. And as we all know, if you get to exert a Glorybringer, it’s pretty tough to lose.

But you can’t just put Glorybringer into any deck. You need to play a bunch of supporting characters around it to make it as good as it can be. A friend of my stream, KillaGerm, brought a deck to me to look at and help tweak it to push it over the top. It started in a weird place, playing some Eldrazi and colorless lands, but I think we got it to a nice spot.

Red Alert

This style of deck has been around for quite some time. The one that comes to mind first is Seething Song into Arc-Slogger, a staple play of Standard back when I was in high school. But a lot has changed since then. And for the first time in years, Pioneer has the tools to offer us a Big Red deck that’s actually pretty damn good.

At the moment, this is the current iteration that KillaGerm has landed on, and I’m inclined to agree that it looks pretty clean. This is one of the better Bonecrusher Giant shells, because we don’t have a ton of two-drops that really fit the theme. But the real draw to this archetype is all the powerful three-mana creatures. Let’s examine them and talk about why they’re in the deck, and what type of benefit they provide us as we traverse the waters of Pioneer.

Goblin Rabblemaster is likely the best creature in the deck, even if we’re mostly playing this archetype because we get to play Glorybringer. It produces a ton of pressure across multiple bodies in a short period of time. It’s the absolute best creature in the format to equip with Embercleave to boot. It has the fastest closing speed of any three-mana threat in the format. I don’t think this deck would be nearly as good if Goblin Rabblemaster didn’t provide so many free wins, but that’s likely the case for a lot of different cards.

While we’re not really a Goblin deck, there are some minor synergies that you can exploit. All three of Mutavault, Legion Loyalist, and Legion Warboss provide extra Goblin bodies to pump your Goblin Rabblemaster when you start to rumble, but they’re also forced to attack, so be careful!

A slightly worse Goblin Rabblemaster but the key difference is how much less damage it attacks for. It’s good, but there’s a different three-drop that needs a closer look.

It might seem weird that Hanweir Garrison is actually good in Pioneer when it was never really all that great in Standard. In fact, we’re even playing Hanweir Battlements to combo with it, but maybe not in the way you think.

Like a lot of cool deckbuilding stories, this one starts with Hanweir Battlements being in the original deck that featured colorless Eldrazi. It was a colorless land for those creatures, but also had a ton of utility by giving various creatures haste so they could tag an opposing planeswalker. In actuality, we just found out that being able to use all your mana every single turn is hugely important in Pioneer, and these lands let us do exactly that.

But the kicker on Hanweir Garrison is actually the little number in the bottom right of the text box: three. Three toughness and three casting cost dodge so much removal in the format. Wild Slash and Bonecrusher Giant are heavily played, and Fatal Push needs a little help. It doesn’t hit as hard as Goblin Rabblemaster, but dodging all that removal definitely has its benefits. It’s also randomly hard to block sometimes.

The meld ability doesn’t happen often, but it’s pretty fun when it does!

The three-drops in the deck aren’t all it has to offer, though. And while I do consider this a Glorybringer deck, the utility spells are often the ones helping us actually cobble together wins in tough spots. For example:

I’ve gone back and forth with KillaGerm on this one, since I’m convinced its no longer necessary now that Field of the Dead is out of the format. But I think the part I’m really missing is that Legion Loyalist giving first strike and trample to Goblin Rabblemaster is actually pretty ridiculous. I’ve been trying out a few different options in the one-drop slot, including Fanatical Firebrand and Soul-Scar Mage, but Legion Loyalist seems to be the one that hits the hardest and is the most consistent.

If the format reduces down to all Llanowar Elves all the time, Fanatical Firebrand seems a bit better, but Gilded Goose is actually quite annoying and is currently seeing more play.

This was a later addition to the deck that ultimately found a home and just stayed. It’s hard to block and actually gives you some great defense in the early turns against an opponent with small creatures. It adds extra damage with Torbran and can just chip away at the opponent even if they have blockers. Plus, you can pretty freely attack into medium-sized creatures with your Ragavan and finish them off with Wild Slash or Lightning Strike.

If there ever was a deck where Bonecrusher Giant could shine, it would be this one. You get a cheap creature that has utility other than being a big dumb idiot. It gains virtual card advantage and buys you enough time get to your late-game. And luckily, with Wild Slash being all the rage, Stomp actually kills a lot of creatures in the format too. And it even has some utility against Fog or Master of Waves.

Is this card better than the other three-drops in the deck? I think so, and I’ll likely be playing a fourth copy over the second Legion Warboss, but I’m not the one who keeps going 5-0 with the archetype!

These two cards are quite good at both interacting with early creatures and tagging your opponent later to close out the game. The damage really adds up when you start to factor in all the chip damage from the token creatures and Ramunap Ruins, so Lighing Strike and Wild Slash can certainly close the game at the end, even if we’re not a traditional “Red Aggro” deck.

I’ve experimented with Mizzium Mortars, and it was quite good, but the truth of the matter is that you want that slot to be an instant so you’re more likely to use your mana killing a creature on the second turn, only to follow it up with a powerful three-drop on the next. Often, I’d get stuck with Mizzium Mortars in hand and be forced to choose between killing their creature or casting my three-drop. And if that’s the case, I’d much rather have a slightly weaker and potentially worse removal spell that is more versatile.

Almost as good in Pioneer as it was in Standard, Chandra, Torch of Defiance hits hard and answers most creatures while leaving behind a potential damage or card advantage engine. The only downside to Chandra, Torch of Defiance is that they’ve nerfed her slightly by changing the planeswalker redirect damage rule.

Chandra is also a great follow-up to Goblin Rabblemaster, as your opponent has likely killed it or put a blocker in the way. Either way, Chandra on an empty battlefield or killing their blocker is clutch. I’m sure I don’t need to go over just how good it is, but suffice it to say that it’s great. We’re only playing a few because it’s actually kind of difficult to protect, as most of our creatures don’t block well (or are forced to attack).

This one makes the deck feel like a glass cannon on occasion, but there’s no denying that it’s absurdly powerful. When combined with cheap burn and token creatures, the damage piles up in a hurry. It’s rare that your opponent survives if you get to untap with a Torbran, but it’s also equally likely they’re dead if they can’t kill it mid-combat. The reasons we’re not going harder on Torbran is the high cost, in both red mana and converted mana cost, and the fact that it’s legendary.

I can’t stress how much of a blowout it can be to cast Torbran with a battlefield full of token creatures. The damage output it provides is outrageous.

Like Torbran, Embercleave provides some ridiculous damage output at a very reasonable cost. Embercleave helps you win games that you’re incredibly far behind in, usually by teaming up with Goblin Rabblemaster. However, Embercleave is pretty good on most of the creatures in your deck, even if they’re small in stature.

The real trick is how easy it is to reduce the cost. Every Goblin Rabblemaster makes it cost two less mana (or better). Hanweir Garrison reduces it by three. And even if you’re not necessarily ending the game the turn you cast it and equip on a non-Goblin Rabblemaster, you’re usually getting value out of the double strike killing an opposing creature while doing a medium-sized chunk of damage.

The Dragon of the hour, Glorybringer fills out the top-end of the curve and is one of the best threats the deck has to offer, if only because it doesn’t really need help winning the game. Cards that singlehandedly dominate the battlefield are obviously powerful, but figuring out which of those cards you can fit into your deck is important. Obviously, because we’re playing red, Glorybringer is the perfect top-end of our curve. Luckily, it also happens to be one of the best finishers in the format.

Glorybringer, like many cards in our deck, is great at attacking an opposing planeswalker. With Oko, Thief of Crowns expected to be one of the most important cards in the format, having ways to attack it profitably is important. In the coming weeks, I expect Oko, and Glorybringer as a check, to become pillars of the format.

I can’t stress how important it is to use your mana every single turn in this format. In most cases, the person who generates and uses the most mana is almost always the one who wins the game. The aggressive decks are good, but the really messed-up decks in Pioneer are the ones trying to ramp. The banning of Once Upon a Time made them worse, but they’re still very good. With that said, you can usually stifle that mana development with removal, or match them on mana spent by utilizing these lands every single turn.

The best of the bunch, by a wide margin, is Mutavault. It’s mostly because it’s the easiest to gain an advantage with, but it’s also a cheap way to pressure planeswalkers without much of a cost. And while the colorless mana source might screw you once every few times you draw Torbran, you can bet your bottom dollar that Mutavault will save you just as often.

But all these lands have their place and usefulness. Castle Embereth is excellent with all the token generators, Hanweir Battlements lets you pressure players or planeswalkers after a sweeper or timely topdeck. And Ramunap Ruins combines with all your incidental damage to close games you had no business winning. All the lands have value because they give you stuff to do with extra lands drawn, and few decks have the capability to do the same.

Much like Mono-Black Aggro before the ban of Smuggler’s Copter, your goal should be to use all your mana every turn. And while we don’t have something as powerful as Castle Locthwain, all of our lands combine to allow for minute advantages over the course of the game. From Castle Embereth making combat a nightmare for your opponent to Mutavault making Chandra, Torch of Defiance much more manageable, your lands are a major reason this deck is successful.

The sideboard is relatively straightforward, but I thought it might be helpful to give you some insight as to why certain cards are there and what they help against.

These two-mana removal spells could potentially be Mizzum Mortars or similar, but Roast is able to kill Lovestruck Beast and Lava Coil can exile an opposing Scrapheap Scrounger. I honestly don’t know which of those three is the best. These are very good in matchups where Wild Slash and/or Lightning Strike just don’t have the damage output large enough to kill the opposing mid-sized creatures. In a pinch, you can just bring them in as additional removal if you expect your opponent to be flooding the battlefield with two- to four-drop creatures.

I’m not a fan of this one because it can’t kill Oko, but Fry certainly has its uses. There are quite a few white and blue creatures and planeswalkers running around that can get lit up, and your opponent not being able counter it is occasionally a big deal. However, two mana is steep for this effect, and I’ve seen some people choose to omit it from their build and I don’t blame them in the slightest. After all, those planeswalkers are likely trading for a card before you kill them with Fry, which is not really a place you want to be.

This one’s a bit harder to justify now that Field of the Dead is banned, but Burning Earth still slaps against quite a few decks in the format. The only real downside is that you aren’t always able to apply enough pressure for Burning Earth to close things out, but chances are it’ll be a huge nuisance for the opponent (and occasionally just win the game on its own).

I’ve cast Abrade quite a lot in Pioneer, but it also got a bit worse now that Smuggler’s Copter is gone. However, Heart of Kiran is starting to see some play and is randomly harder to deal with because of its higher toughness. It’s also harder to crew, but the creatures sized to crew it are often a bit too large for your removal spells to deal with. Abrade is still useful, though not nearly as much as it was before.

I’ve argued with people about Pithing Needle and Sorcerous Spyglass so much in this format, but no one seems to understand just how mediocre they are. But there’s always an exception. This deck has a lot of trouble beating Oko, Thief of Crowns if it gets out of hand, so having a few ways to cut it off before it gets going is huge.

Brad Nelson told me a long time ago that one copy of Grafdigger’s Cage was always the best number to play, because the second one has no text. The first one often stops entire decks from functioning and can be problematic for opponents trying to utilize Chord of Calling or Collected Company. But the second one…man, it’s bad.

There aren’t a ton of graveyard strategies running around, but there is the occasional Prized Amalgam or Collected Company to keep you on your toes. And holy hell is Grafdigger’s Cage excellent against them.

Another one of those modal removal spells, Electrickery is likely better than Blazing Volley for the same reason Lightning Strike is better than Mizzium Mortars: you can kill your opponent’s creature on the second turn and follow it up with a three-drop. This one shines against Llanowar Elves, but it’s lost a lot of luster now that Gilded Goose rules the roost.

There are a lot of Lotus Field decks running around Magic Online right now, which makes Alpine Moon useful even though Field of the Dead is banned. There are probably a few other lands worth tagging, but please don’t bring in Alpine Moon to stop stuff like Azcanta, the Sunken Ruin.

Red Dead Redemption

Big Red makes me happy. Haste and Dragons and big splashy damage effects are exactly what I want to be doing when I’m playing Magic. One of my favorite archetypes of all time was the Young Pyromancer plus Stoke the Flames deck a few years ago in Standard: a thinking player’s red deck.

If you think you might have some fun dunking on your opponents with Torbran, Thane of Red Fell or an Embercleave on Goblin Rabblemaster, maybe you should give this deck a try! Just don’t throw it in the trash the first time you draw Torbran with a battlefield featuring multiple colorless lands and only two Mountains! That’s just the cost of doing business.