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What’s Wrong With Pioneer And How WotC Can Fix It

Why is Pioneer stuck in place, and how can Wizards of the Coast get it moving again? Ross Merriam isn’t one to bring up a problem without a solution!

Inverter of Truth, illustrated by Chase Stone

In November, Pioneer was Magic’s darling. It was fresh and exciting; a brand new format to explore, and importantly one without fetchlands, leading to a complete reevaluation of formerly broken cards like Deathrite Shaman and Treasure Cruise. The weekly Banned List updates may have been annoying for some who wanted more stability before investing in the format, but it made the metagame even more dynamic as everyone rushed to break and re-break the format every week.

Pioneer was quickly adopted by the competitive community with Star City Games using it in place of Standard for the 2019 Season Two Invitational at SCG CON Winter and Wizards of the Coast (WotC) using it as a Players Tour format a few months later following the release of Theros Beyond Death.

And yet here we find ourselves in July, only eight-and-a-half months after the format’s release, and Pioneer looks to be old news already. The metagame is stale, there is little reason to innovate, and interest in the format has been waning for months. Right now, Challenge and Preliminary events on Magic Online (MTGO) are regularly failing to fire due to low participation.

Somehow Magic’s newest format has become its stalest, and at this point it’s clear something needs to be done to reinvigorate Pioneer. But in order to determine what action to take, first we need to understand how we arrived in these unfortunate circumstances. So let’s look at the issues that Pioneer is facing and my proposed solutions to those issues.

The Metagame Is Stale

This is the most obvious problem Pioneer is facing. Ever since the Players Tour events following Theros Beyond Death, the same set of decks have dominated the metagame. Ikoria shook things up with Lurrus of the Dream-Den and Yorion, Sky Nomad taking over, but it was clear that the companion mechanic was too powerful and needed a nerf. With those cards held in check, Pioneer was poised to use the other tools from Ikoria to adapt to Dimir Inverter, Mono-White Devotion, Lotus Breach, and the like, but that adaptation never came.

We’re on the fifth month of these decks suppressing everything else and at this point there are effectively no interesting problems to solve in the format. Just pick one of the best decks and learn it. The metagame is stale and has been for months. It seems to me that WotC is reluctant to interfere with the format after the opening period where weekly bans made the format unstable, but with the format’s popularity waning, they need to step in. 

Pioneer still being a relatively new format means that many players haven’t had the time to fully invest into the format, so their attachment to it is low. That makes it an easy format to abandon when it isn’t fun to play. So even though we’re past the opening phase of the format where the Banned List was shaped by trial and error, Pioneer requires a heavier hand than more established formats to keep people interested and investing in it. 

We knew there would come a time when the Wild West days of Pioneer would end as the format becomes further explored and powerful strategies dictate the texture of the metagame, but what we’re seeing right now is well beyond that and detrimental to the format’s health and long-term viability.

And for all the talk of how the metagame is dominated by a handful of decks at the top, one of them clearly stands out above the rest: Dimir Inverter.

Since the companion nerf, Dimir Inverter has been the clear best deck in Pioneer, with multiple copies in a Top 8 being the norm. The other top decks in the format are much easier to target when necessary, but Dimir Inverter has proven resilient and adapted to all the axes on which it has been attacked.

And to make matters worse, Dimir Inverter got a clear upgrade to its removal suite with Eliminate in Core Set 2021. Gideon of the Trials has long been a go-to card to combat the deck, since it both shuts down the combo and provides a significant clock. Between it and the many important planeswalkers in the mirror, Hero’s Downfall has been a staple of Inverter for months. But overloading on a three-mana removal spell can lead to awkward, clunky draws. Eliminate provides a more efficient answer to cards like Gideon of the Trials; Narset, Parter of Veils; and Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy so you don’t get run over by aggressive decks as often.

It’s clear to those who are still paying attention to Pioneer that Dimir Inverter’s stranglehold on the format is only going to tighten in the coming weeks. It is essentially the Splinter Twin of the format, playing an excellent combo-control game that is incredibly difficult to interact with. The combo can only truly be stopped by counterspells, which are weak to the deck’s discard-heavy disruption suite and sideboard Mystical Disputes. Attacking them with discard spells leaves you vulnerable to their robust card advantage sources: Dig Through Time and Jace, Wielder of Mysteries.

You can buy time with graveyard hate, but that’s it. Rest in Peace isn’t shutting them down and puts you down a card to start with. Hyper-aggressive decks can punish their draws with lots of combo pieces, but they still have plenty of cheap removal and a great set of sideboard options for low-to-the-ground aggro decks.

Simply put, Dimir Inverter has no glaring weaknesses. Maybe you can catch them unprepared for one of these avenues of attack on a given weekend, but you’ll only have that one tournament to take advantage before they adapt. It’s time for this deck to be put out to pasture.

To accomplish this, I’d like to see Inverter of Truth added to the Pioneer Banned List. Many have advocated for Dig Through Time instead, but Dig sees sparse play outside of Inverter and is far from dominant in the metagame, despite its pedigree. Inverter is the problem here and there’s no reason to hurt other decks like Azorius Control in the process of excising that problem.

Also, I don’t think it’s necessary to ban cards from other powerful decks, like Walking Ballista or Underworld Breach. Removing Inverter from the metagame will create a huge shift in the metagame and open up space for new decks to thrive. Mono-White Devotion and Lotus Breach aren’t nearly as resilient and adaptable as Dimir Inverter, and I’m confident they won’t be too powerful in the post-ban metagame.

Beyond banning Inverter of Truth, I’d also like to see an effort to balance the multicolor lands that exist in Pioneer. The fact that enemy-color pairs get fastlands and painlands while the friendly pairs have to make do with Shadow and Battle lands is a huge source of metagame imbalance, especially for aggressive decks. It’s no surprise that the most successful aggro decks have either been monocolored or enemy-color pairs, like Orzhov Auras, Boros Burn, and Izzet Ensoul. There are plenty of powerful synergies to explore in Rakdos, Selesnya, Gruul, etc. but they aren’t consistent enough because of their weak manabases.

A wider range of options available, especially among aggro decks, provides more options for players to turn to when a metagame starts to stagnate and one or two decks take over. As such it’s a natural deterrent to stagnation. I still think that Inverter is too good to leave in the format, but I wonder what a format with Copperline Gorge and Brushland could’ve mustered to fight it.

No Paper Tournaments

This is where things get tricky. Obviously it’s not safe to hold large paper Magic tournaments in the middle of a pandemic. And when Pioneer was released, no one would’ve predicted the future we’re currently living through. The hiatus on paper events hurts Pioneer disproportionately because it’s the newest format and the one players are least invested in.

Lack of events also contributes to the stale metagame, since there is less of a reason to innovate. Despite the problem with companions being too powerful, Pioneer was still interesting a few months ago because we had new cards to explore and significant tournaments like the Super Qualifiers to play in.

As it turns out, Super Qualifiers were only temporary, and with them now gone, there are only MTGO Challenges to play in as far as big events, and those have a much lower payout than the Super Qualifiers did. They aren’t enough to maintain interest in a format over a long period of time.

The obvious solution here is to bring back Super Qualifiers, but that would be just another stopgap. It’s clear that Super Qualifiers were devised as a temporary measure to maintain interest in competitive Magic until WotC could figure out something more substantial in a COVID-19 world. That change has come with the advent of online Players Tour events via Magic Arena (Arena).

The real long-term solution is to incorporate Pioneer into this new Organized Play structure by migrating the format to Arena. We’re going to be in an online-only world for Magic for a while to come, and as much as I might personally prefer playing MTGO, Arena is the future of online Magic while MTGO is a dinosaur that will inevitably face extinction.

WotC announced months ago that they want Pioneer to be available on Arena eventually, but noted that it’s going to be a long process. Given the new reality we’re facing with regards to competitive Magic, I firmly believe that this process needs to be prioritized and completed as soon as possible.

Instead, WotC is pushing Historic as a second Constructed format for high-level competitive play. But Historic is too similar to Standard to provide significant variety. Pioneer feels appreciably different in both power level and gameplay, and would be a welcome addition to an Arena client that is clearly more popular among competitive Magic viewers. 

The push towards Historic is, from my perspective, another short-term fix for WotC in their rush to adapt to the new reality. With paper events, they had the luxury of working slowly to bring Pioneer to Arena, since its importance in the paper tournaments would keep the format relevant. That luxury no longer exists, and we need Pioneer on Arena to keep eyeballs on it.

The real long-term solution is to incorporate Pioneer into this new Organized Play structure by migrating the format to Arena.

Right now, Pioneer is stuck in a limbo of sorts. The SCG Tour Online and the Players Tour are focusing on Standard and Historic because they’re on Arena. For MTGO players, Modern is much more attractive since the metagame is more diverse and dynamic. It’s also more familiar to entrenched players. The Challenges alone aren’t enough to motivate players to invest into Pioneer, which exacerbates metagame stagnation, which in turn lowers the incentive to invest even further — a vicious cycle.

Pioneer is supposed to be a new format built for high-level competitive play. But it’s being treated like Modern or Legacy, older formats with an entrenched player base that allows WotC to be more hands-off, only intervening when certain cards or strategies become overpowered. I don’t think this is what WotC intended for their latest format, but they’ve been forced to leave it in the lurch for now because of the challenges of continuing Organized Play in an online-only environment.

It’s possible that we’re playing paper tournaments in 2021, Pioneer is picked up again as a major competitive format, and everything works out. But it’s also possible that irreparable damage is done to Pioneer’s standing within the community, and interest in the format never recovers. I don’t envy WotC’s position right now in managing such a difficult situation, and I don’t mean to be overly critical of how they are managing it. But as an early adopter and devotee of Pioneer, I hate to see it languish when it has so much untapped potential.

Pioneer is in danger of becoming irrelevant before it celebrates its first birthday. It needs more active curation from WotC and direct competitive support via integrating it with the primary client for online competitive Magic — Arena. With appropriate action Pioneer can easily return to the good graces of Magic players everywhere, but we’re a fickle bunch, so this action needs to happen soon.

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