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Is Pioneer A Dead Format?

Is rolling dice for Adventures in the Forgotten Realms cards fun? Is Modern the best MTG format right now? And is Pioneer even a format anymore? World Champion PVDDR and two others weigh in.

Lotus Field, illustrated by John Avon

Welcome to Fact or Fiction! Today, Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa, Ross Merriam, and Brad Nelson give their takes on five statements about the current state of Magic: The Gathering. Don’t forget to vote for the winner at the end!

1. Adventures In The Forgotten Realms will have more of an impact on Standard than people think.

Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa: Fiction. This is tricky to answer because I am not sure what “people” think, though I’m taking from the question that people don’t think the impact will be too big. I agree that it won’t be too big, but if people think the impact will be zero, then that’s a fact, because there will be an impact. It’s just small.

We’re in a spot in Standard where the old cards are not only much better than the new cards but they are also somewhat parasitic. Take, for example, Jeskai Cycling. How can you add a card to Jeskai Cycling? There aren’t any new cards with cycling and the deck doesn’t have room for anything else. Adventures decks and Dimir Rogues decks suffer from the same problem to an extent; you can add some cards to these decks, but most of the slots are already accounted for with irreplaceable things. 

I will elaborate on this a bit more in my article later this week, but I think the only truly new Tier 1 deck to emerge with Adventures in the Forgotten Realms is Mono-Green Aggro. Past that, we’re mostly getting small modifications to existing decks, and then the other completely new decks seem just okay to me. The most influential card might end up being Burning Hands, since it finally gives red decks a clean way to answer both Lovestruck Beast and Elder Gargaroth. Overall, though, I expect the top decks to mostly remain the top decks until the rotation.

Ross Merriam: Fact. I’m basing this entirely on the fact that this set’s immediate impact on Standard will be suppressed by the power of Throne of Eldraine, which will lead players to underrate its impact after rotation this fall. So much of Magic is about context, with the value of any given card depending heavily on the various cards surrounding it, whether those be the cards it’s playing alongside or against. With how powerful Throne has proven to be, we’re going to have to completely reevaluate this past year of sets, because they will be living under a completely different set of circumstances.

But too many players get stuck in an overly simplistic view, deciding early on whether a card is good or bad and never moving off it or thinking about what exactly is allowing those cards to succeed or not. I don’t think the other sets surviving rotation are of that much higher a power level than Adventures in The Forgotten Realms, so there should be plenty of room for this set to shine come October.

Brad Nelson: Fiction. Well I guess it really depends on what people are actually thinking, but for me I feel it’s going to make a very little splash in Standard. Everything in Adventures in The Forgotten Realms just feels like it’s too underpowered or simply a role-player. There are just no cards on the same power level as Embercleave, Goldspan Dragon, or Emergent Ultimatum.

Now don’t take this as me bashing on the set; I think it’s a necessary step for a balanced Standard in the future. Cards printed in 2019-2020 were really powerful, which leaves very little room for a set like Adventures in The Forgotten Realms to make a huge impact. For the next six weeks I predict this set to supplement already existing decks with a card or two, and then finally blossom after we have another Standard rotation.

2. You like the die rolling experience that Adventures in the Forgotten Realms has provided to Limited.

Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa: Fiction. This is also tricky to answer because I don’t dislike the die rolling experience either. I just think it provides nothing for me personally, especially online when it’s just a generated number and you don’t even get to roll the die, so there’s no real excitement there.

As far as dice-rolling mechanics go, I think they did a good job with them. I feared that the roll would decide the outcome of the game too often; in practice this doesn’t happen frequently. I also really like some of the synergies that exist because of this. Critical Strike, for example, is just a very cool card. My main issue is that the dice rolling mechanic by itself does not bring any excitement to me.

Take, for example, Hoarding Ogre. I think you could reasonably read it as “When it attacks, create 1.6 Treasures.” That’s fine but not particularly exciting. Now, if you look at every die rolling card, that’s what they are most of the time. Once stripped of their “die rolling novelty” they become mundane effects. If someone is particularly into rolling dice then they’re cool, but if I’m neutral towards the mechanic, a lot of these cards are just bland even though they have a lot of words in them. So I don’t oppose the mechanic per se; I just feel like the set assumes the act of rolling dice is doing more heavy lifting than it is for someone like me. 

The one die-rolling card I actively dislike is Power of Persuasion. I wish the twenty just got you the creature forever; as it is, rolling a twenty is worse than rolling a twelve most of the time and that’s just a feels-bad.

Ross Merriam: Fact. Variance — yet another oft-misunderstood concept in Magic. A lot of players think that variance is the worst part of Magic, when it’s one of the most important aspects of the game, making it more dynamic and interesting for players of all skill levels.

But nothing gets the masses more riled up than variance that is so overt it smacks them in the face. So any time cards flip coins or roll dice, the anti-variance crowds crawl out of their dimly lit hovels, wipe the Dorito dust from their fingers onto their unwashed hoodies, and prattle on about how the game is being ruined, dumbed down, or both. Somehow the irony of needing the variance to be as obvious as possible for them to notice is lost on them, but I digress.

The question of variance is not one of whether it should exist in Magic. It’s what an appropriate level of variance is. When you have something as clear as a coin toss or die roll over a small advantage, the experience is much more palatable than an effect that is likely to decide the game. And while there are certainly spots where a natural twenty will decide a game, it doesn’t come up often enough to be a problem.

Rolling dice is an essential part of the Dungeons & Dragons experience, so porting that IP into a Magic set wouldn’t work without also bringing the dice with it. The only risk in doing so was in overdoing the swing in power from a poor roll to a good one, but with a relatively flat gradient, you get to have that key part of the experience without it interfering with the fun of Magic. That’s a win for me.

Brad Nelson: Fact. Now I don’t think my answer counts, as the only Limited I’ve played was with my loving fiancé in an in-store Two-Headed Giant Prerelease event. During it, my opponent assembled a battlefield of Barbarian Class and Pixie Guide — a combo that still left them rolling worse than we were with only one die. They did not share in my excitement when I critical hit on Contact Other Plane. Nor did our other opponents when I used True Polymorph to get a copy of my fiancé’s The Tarrasque!

In all seriousness, I’m not a fan of random number generators in Magic, but at the same time I love casting Hymn to Tourach, so what does that say about me as a person? I guess that wasn’t that serious…

3. Banning The Book of Exalted Deeds in Standard 2022 was a good decision.

Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa: Fact. The format is not ready for a card like that and the games being Best-of-One with no sideboarding to account for it and no timer didn’t help things. What are two The Book of Exalted Deeds decks supposed to do when faced against each other? The game will literally never end unless someone scoops and that’s a pretty bad experience. I don’t think the card will need to be banned in regular formats, but it might force Magic Arena to adopt a timer in Best-of-One as well down the line.

Ross Merriam: Fiction. My problem with this decision has nothing to do with the emerging metagame or the apparent power level of the card. Instead I’m focused on how this decision shines a light on all the better things they could’ve done to get us out of a Standard format that was a lame duck even before the latest set was released.

Virtually everyone in the competitive community is eagerly anticipating the rotation of Throne of Eldraine. We’re sick of it, and we want to play different cards. Wizards of the Coast (WotC) clearly knows this, otherwise they wouldn’t have made Standard 2022 an option for play on Arena. It’s their way of trying to keep the uninterested masses at their computers.

But if they’re going to make that decision, there’s no reason to not go all the way with it, and either offer Standard 2022 consistently as a Best-of-Three format, or just ban a bunch of the most offensive cards from the current Standard and give us a smoother transition to the Fall. There’s precedent for such a scorched-earth policy from when Wilderness Reclamation; Teferi, Time Raveler; Growth Spiral; and Cauldron Familiar were banned last August.

Maybe WotC didn’t like the results of that and are trying something different, but we’ll never really know. All we do know is that Standard is still stale, and we’re being offered yet another weak remedy.

Brad Nelson: Fiction. Look, I love Standard 2022. It’s probably because I used to love playing Block Constructed and this is the closest I’ll ever get to it. I love it so much that I hoped WotC would change the MPL Gauntlet from Standard to Standard 2022, and open up a Best-of-Three queue for Standard 2022. The decision to ban The Book of Exalted Deeds in the format makes me feel like the format is there to scratch an itch, and they have no intentions of opening up the queue or treating it like a serious format until Innistrad: Midnight Run releases, which makes me very sad.

Now on a more objective approach to the question, I still think it’s a bad decision since the combo is still going to be there after rotation in the Standard Best-of-One queues. Will they reward users with banned Wild Cards when they ultimately ban it in that queue as well?

4. Modern Horizons 2 has made Modern the most fun competitive format.

Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa: Fiction. I’ve never been a big fan of Modern and Modern Horizons 2 hasn’t changed that in a meaningful way. Things are still too broken, decks pass by each other like ships in the night too often, and sideboard cards are too important. I believe that, for Modern to become appealing to me, we’d need a very big overhaul of the format.

This isn’t to say that Modern should be overhauled or that Modern Horizons 2 hasn’t made it more fun. There are a lot of people who love Modern and some are happy with Modern Horizons 2 while some aren’t, so please don’t take this as a prescription for what I believe should happen to the format or anything like that. But if the question is about whether it’s now the most fun competitive format for me, my answer is definitely no.

Ross Merriam: Fiction. Modern Horizons 2 couldn’t have made Modern the most fun competitive format because it already was. The old complaints about Modern being too non-interactive haven’t been true in years, and while Hogaak, Arisen Necropolis and Oko, Thief of Crowns have for a time broken the metagame, generally it’s been a format full of diverse decks and interesting decisions.

No other format provides the same combination of those two factors on the level that Modern does. The wide card pool offers plenty of possible answers for any problem matchup as well as tons of Tier 2 strategies that won’t be successful week in, week out but can certainly be a great choice for the right metagame. This variety covers the gamut of strategies, from aggro to combo to control to midrange and beyond, so no matter how you like to approach Magic there’s something for you in Modern.

Modern Horizon 2 did inject some life into Modern at a somewhat stale point in the metagame. Prowess decks had been near-dominant for weeks before its release, but that was never going to last long-term. So while there might be brief periods of time where one of the other formats rises above Modern, none of them is more consistently fun and dynamic.

Brad Nelson: Fact. I’ve been in moving hell for the past month, and it’s still not over yet. Luckily though I’ve finally been able to play some Modern this past week so I can answer this question with a resounding yes. I just love the games I’m able to play in this format, as they reward a lot of patience and navigate battlefields well. Sure Modern has always had that, but, for example, I feel I have much more agency playing Mono-White Hammer than I ever did playing Infect. I also love screaming “Bonk!” at my computer when I deal someone twenty out of nowhere.

I’ve also just started to dabble in AsmordoIreallyhavetospellitout decks, and have found them extremely challenging when it comes to sequencing. Maybe it will get old eventually, but for now my only complaint about the format has always been the same one: Ban Primeval Titan!

5. Pioneer is a dead format.

Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa: Fact. I’m sorry to say this to Pioneer fans, but the format was sort of dead on arrival. It had one set of major tournaments and then the pandemic hit and it seems like it never recovered from that. People who are interested in playing an older format on Arena can’t play it (and it would have Historic to contend with regardless), and people who are interested in having that experience on Magic Online have mostly gravitated towards Modern instead.

Obviously the format could have flourished with a well-curated banned list and competitive support, but it’s clear at this point that this will not happen. WotC had previously announced a Pioneer Masters set and that’s already delayed, so it’s been made very clear that their priorities do not lie with the format, and I doubt we’re going to have big Pioneer tournaments coming up. 

I don’t expect the format to die literally right now (there are still people playing it, after all), but at some point the lack of support catches up with you. If WotC doesn’t care about the format, they won’t design with it in mind, they won’t release supplements for it, and they won’t test the new cards with it. It would take tremendous community effort to keep Pioneer alive without help, and the format simply hasn’t had the time to build this community because of how early in the format’s life cycle the pandemic hit (unlike Legacy for example, which has a loyal following and would thrive even without any WotC support). 

Ross Merriam: Fact. There’s no reason to play it, and there hasn’t been one for over a year. We can argue about how or why it got to this point, but those are the facts. However, it absolutely can be revived. It’s just going to take major tournaments and active intervention to keep the metagame fresh. I absolutely believe that Pioneer can be a great format, and I enjoyed it until it was left to die in the clutches of Inverter of Truth. But competitive players only have so much bandwidth, so with Historic taking on greater importance due to online play, Standard and Modern being more entrenched, and Legacy and Limited still being around, something had to fall by the wayside.

If WotC decides they want to save Pioneer, they can support the format and save it. It will likely come at the expense of Historic, and with the importance of Arena to the future of Magic, I just don’t see that happening. I’d like it to, but I’m not expecting any miracles.

Brad Nelson: Fact. What’s Pioneer?