Core Set 2021 had a lot to live up to – but not in the way you’d expect. Every set for the past year had revolutionized every Constructed format. Instead of escalating this even further, the hope for Core Set 2021 was that it would offer a refreshing change of pace; a return to normalcy, as if this new state of affairs wasn’t ‘normal’ yet.
Of course, this is easier said than done. A call for a Mercadian Masques to 2019’s Urza block or Champions of Kamigawa to 2020’s Mirrodin has to reckon with the fact that those sets flopped at the time and are now held up more often as warnings to heed than examples to follow. A set aiming at a more appropriate power level still needs to make its mark in Constructed and give exciting tools for deckbuilders.
I’m cautiously optimistic that Core Set 2021 can strike this balance, though what this means in practice will differ between formats. In Pioneer, we’re looking at small upgrades to existing decks in a format that has mostly reverted to Dimir Inverter:
With companions neutered, good old 60-card Dimir Inverter is once again the strongest and most popular deck in Pioneer (and Eliminate may just give it that much-coveted 50% win rate!) Ben Friedman highlights the importance of Eliminate against common anti-Inverter measures like Narset, Parter of Veils; Teferi, Time Raveler; and Gideon of the Trials but Sorin, Imperious Bloodlord is another critical target with Mono-Black Vampires making a surprising return as Pioneer’s default aggressive deck.
While Hero’s Downfall already existed as a necessary maindeck card, three mana is a substantial price for a deck that was prone to clunky draws and exploitable by fast starts from aggressive strategies. Eliminate is much less demanding on your mana and its efficiency is important when you want to fill the graveyard for Dig Through Time or Dig for an answer and cast it on the same turn.
However, Inverter’s success ensures that Downfall still has a place in Pioneer. Eliminate missing Jace, Wielder of Mysteries is critical in the mirrors that will be even more popular thanks to Eliminate improving Inverter and Ashiok, Nightmare Muse is a staple sideboard card for these grindy matchups. Mono-White Devotion has turned to Gideon, Ally of Zendikar and Karn, the Great Creator as mid-game threats that are very difficult to remove through other methods. Core Set 2021 also brings two more four-drop planeswalkers that can eliminate our hero unless answered quickly:
I enjoyed a lot of success with Golgari Scales pre-Ikoria in part because of Vivien, Arkbow Ranger’s ability to make any creature into a serious threat. While Vivien was game-breaking if you were ahead or at parity, a well-timed removal spell intercepting the -2 mode could swing the game and you would often have to cash in Vivien for a threat with the -5 mode to follow up a sweeper. Garruk, Unleashed also lets Elvish Mystic brawl with the best of them but the token creation ability can defend it when behind or generate an immediate battlefield presence.
- 4 Llanowar Elves
- 4 Elvish Mystic
- 4 Scrapheap Scrounger
- 2 Rhonas the Indomitable
- 4 Rotting Regisaur
- 4 Lovestruck Beast
- 4 Questing Beast
- 3 Garruk's Harbinger
Previous green-heavy Golgari Aggro decks in Pioneer built towards Ghalta, Primal Hunger and The Great Henge but this leaves the deck more vulnerable to Thoughtseize and Fatal Push (or Eliminate!), adding variance to a generally solid Dimir Inverter matchup. Instead, we aim for fast, consistent aggression topped off with four-drops castable in games where your resources are limited.
This list eschews Steel Leaf Champion and Yorvo, Lord of Garenbrig in favour of Mutavault, one of the best cards for any aggressive strategy that can support it and an ideal target for Garruk’s +1 in longer games. Garruk’s Harbinger makes that trade-off easier as a replacement three-drop that happens to be well-positioned against Inverter. Rotting Regisaur is the main motivation for the black splash and Garruk, Unleashed fills in for Vivien or Embercleave to force it through any unfortunate blockers.
Teferi’s newest incarnation is the model of a mid-game value planeswalker in a format where Jace, the Mind Sculptor is missing and Jace, Architect of Thought doesn’t cut it. Jace, Wielder of Mysteries occupies this role better while also being a combo piece in Dimir Inverter but decks like Azorius Control, Sultai Delirium, or the planeswalker-centric Fires of Invention shells can benefit greatly from this card, even though it may be the third-best Teferi in Pioneer.
It’s scary to imagine Selfless Savior with Lurrus of the Dream-Den under the old companion rule and easy to imagine Savior bringing Lurrus out to play in maindecks in this new world. The interaction between Alseid of Life’s Bounty and Lurrus was a cornerstone of Orzhov Auras during its brief reign and Savior offers a cheaper and often better version of that effect — indestructibility is weaker against targeted removal in white, a wash against targeted removal and sweepers in black, and crucially much stronger against Supreme Verdict.
Selfless Savior doesn’t matter much for decks like Mono-White Aggro, which have more than enough one-drops already and few high-value creatures to protect beyond Benalish Marshal. However, many of the white aggressive decks in Pioneer are aggro-combo decks that rely on enhancing or protecting a single creature — not just Orzhov Auras but Boros Heroic, Naya Winota, or Abzan Rally with Priest of Forgotten Gods and Lurrus. Selfless Savior is the perfect pickup for these strategies. It may also be the additional one-drop that Mono-White Devotion desperately needs, shielding its fragile two-drops as well as Walking Ballista on combo turns:
- 2 Boros Reckoner
- 3 Anafenza, Kin-Tree Spirit
- 1 Archangel Avacyn
- 4 Thraben Inspector
- 4 Walking Ballista
- 3 Daxos, Blessed by the Sun
- 4 Heliod, Sun-Crowned
- 4 Selfless Savior
This sleeker version of Mono-White Devotion is worse at assembling the combo of Heliod, Sun-Crowned and Walking Ballista but much better at applying pressure. Selfless Savior enables another combo with Boros Reckoner — a Reckoner that’s indestructible (via Savior or Gideon Blackblade) and has lifelink (from Gideon or Heliod) can target itself repeatedly if damaged to gain infinite life. Archangel Avacyn is an excellent card on its own merits and even better with creatures that can sacrifice themselves on demand to transform it like Ballista and now Savior.
This innocuous pair has already lifted another aggro deck to new heights in Pioneer:
- 4 Rattlechains
- 4 Spell Queller
- 2 Selfless Spirit
- 4 Mausoleum Wanderer
- 4 Nebelgast Herald
- 4 Supreme Phantom
- 4 Empyrean Eagle
- 4 Spectral Sailor
- 2 Shacklegeist
Shacklegeist isn’t a unique card for Azorius Spirits, which has used Nebelgast Herald to good effect, but it does allow smoother starts for a deck that really wants to curve out into Empyrean Eagle or leave mana up for Spell Queller. Lofty Denial is much more exciting in a format where blue can’t buy a Mana Leak and cards in that family have always been at their best in tempo decks.
Demonic Embrace lets traditional Mono-Black Aggro do battle in the skies too. Mono-Black Vampires, in vogue at the moment, has more heavily polarized draws thanks to Sorin, Imperious Bloodlord — many draws with Turn 3 Sorin are unbeatable even without Champion of Dusk to build-your-own-Griselbrand but this comes at the cost of playing mediocre Vampires to curve into Sorin and being stuck with hard-to-cast Vampires at the top of the curve in non-Sorin games.
Traditional Mono-Black Aggro was the best deck in previous iterations of Pioneer and this lean, clean list has the tools to compete. Demonic Embrace sends Knight of the Ebon Legion to the air, triggers its +1/+1 counter clause, and sets you up to activate Knight for an even larger burst of damage next turn; alternatively, you can make an uncharacteristically demonic Baneslayer Angel with Gifted Aetherborn or create inevitability with the twelve recursive creatures. Mogis’s Marauder can steal games in a similar fashion and is more resilient to removal. Rotting Regisaur is a promising sideboard card against other aggressive decks that can also be airlifted over enemy lines with Demonic Embrace — here, one hit should be more than enough.
- 3 Thassa, God of the Sea
- 2 Merfolk Trickster
- 1 Fblthp, the Lost
- 1 Agent of Treachery
- 4 Gadwick, the Wizened
- 1 Brazen Borrower
- 2 Thassa, Deep-Dwelling
- 4 Thassa's Oracle
- 3 Barrin, Tolarian Archmage
Mono-Blue Devotion is a promising shell that has enough trouble with cheap creatures that splashing Reflector Mage was a real consideration. Barrin, Tolarian Archmage avoids a foray into Pioneer’s awkward mana fixing and the second blue pip is actually meaningful when you care about devotion. Looping Barrin with Thassa, Deep-Dwelling is a powerful tactic against the decks that Selfless Savior helps most and Thassa itself is trivial to animate in this shell.
While that experiment ended before it began once I realized I’d never actually cast a spell, I tried a more conservative draft of Selesnya Scales. The Heliod + Walking Ballista combo is the first place most people go once white is in play but I think it’s a trap here — Walking Ballista is your best card in many matchups and you don’t need help if you can stick it, while Heliod is much weaker than in Mono-White Devotion, as you can never animate it and there are few ways to gain life.
- 1 Scavenging Ooze
- 4 Experiment One
- 2 Rishkar, Peema Renegade
- 4 Walking Ballista
- 4 Pelt Collector
- 4 Huatli's Raptor
- 4 Stonecoil Serpent
- 4 Conclave Mentor
Huatli’s Raptor is a strong incentive to move back to Experiment One and Pelt Collector and the rest of the deck is built accordingly. Dromoka’s Command is outstanding but the white interaction can’t compare to Thoughtseize and Fatal Push and the enemy colour fixing in Pioneer is considerably better so I doubt this will supplant Golgari Scales.
It’s clear that Jolrael, Mwonvuli Recluse has a lot of potential but less clear how to unlock it — a card that rewards you for something you want to do anyway, in a format where those rewards haven’t seen play so far, in a colour that isn’t associated with that theme. The early crop of Bant Jolrael decks in Core Set 2021 Standard provide a useful template that I think translates well to Pioneer:
Jolrael follows the example of Stoneforge Mystic; Bitterblossom; and Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy — two-drops that add a new dimension to reactive blue decks and allow them to assert control over the pacing of the game. An uncontested Jolrael gives the type of easy win that’s rare for this archetype and the threat of Jolrael forces opponents to keep in and value removal that has no other good targets — an Inverter hand without Fatal Push might lose to a Jolrael, while a hand with a Push is worse at playing a control mirror against Teferi, Hero of Dominaria and its sidekicks.
Pioneer finally has a chance to rest after months of constant upheaval. Core Set 2021 should keep it moving just enough that it doesn’t grow too stale.