This week's Pioneer banning announcement was the most important yet for the fledgling format. Smuggler's Copter and Field of the Dead were two of its major pillars, while Once Upon a Time held together innumerable strategies. The field has been opened up accordingly, and the bannings are bound to drastically alter the metagame. While new archetypes rising to fill the void is inevitable, the immediate winners from the bannings are the other decks already in the field, waiting just below the surface for an opportunity just like the one this week's bannings present.
There are plenty of options to consider, but I can't help but focus on Dig Through Time and Treasure Cruise, who's brokenness only grows more glaring as their peers fall by the wayside each week. Dig Through Time is a key feature of Simic Nexus, which benefits significantly from the bans. It does a lot of heavy lifting putting the pieces together in the new breakout Lotus Field combo deck, which also uses a playset. As for Treasure Cruise, I've argued that Izzet Arclight Phoenix was the best deck in the format, and while I may have been optimistic, it's becoming more true each week. The bird's price rising on Magic Online this week in the wake of the bannings is probably a good sign we'll see it back in form this weekend.
Dig Through Time, Treasure Cruise, and Arclight Phoenix share in common their use of the graveyard as a resource, and it's over this resource that one of the next major battles in Pioneer will be fought. The graveyard has proven to be one of the most broken places to play Magic, and while Pioneer may lack the most egregious examples like the dredge mechanic itself, the ways the format has to abuse this zone only just begins with Arclight Phoenix and delve cards. There are other, even more powerful cards waiting to be brought to the surface.
Prized Amalgam is a Vintage-power-level card, a staple of nearly every Dredge deck in every format where it is legal, so its legality in Pioneer looms over the format, just waiting for the right deck to break it—and there are a few already trying. I've been eyeing the card for a while, and included Prized Amalgam among my top strategies to watch, but those builds focused on more aggressive decks that used it with Smuggler's Copter, which is no longer an option, and were not really using it to its full broken potential.
A couple weeks ago I caught wind of an intriguing Prized Amalgam deck that had success in Japan, finishing in the Top 4 of a 149-player event by staying truer to the Dredge playbook. It included Dredge's staple payoffs like Narcomoeba and Creeping Chill, but replaced other graveyard value cards like Bloodghast and Conflagrate with Pioneer-legal options that offer their own form of value from the graveyard.
Without dredge cards, the premier Pioneer graveyard enabler is Grisly Salvage, which was a staple of its time in Standard. Along with Satyr Wayfinder and the recent addition of Stitcher's Supplier, they form a strong core of graveyard enablers for Golgari-based graveyard decks.
Driven // Despair shows itself to be a great payoff for these decks, offering value from the graveyard and playing well with the many creatures in the deck, especially Haunted Dead and its token. The semi-evasion of menace is potent in itself for chipping in damage or as a finishing blow, but the ability to rip an opponent's hand apart, or even just catch a couple cards, can be game-breaking. Casting Driven from hand should also be pretty effective in a deck with plenty of creatures, and at its worst the card should cycle.
This build includes Gather the Pack as an additional graveyard enabler to help consistency. It helps the deck double down on the delve plan, going to a full playset of Gurmag Angler for the full-power option. Scrapheap Scrounger was a Standard all-star and already a proven Pioneer staple in Mono-Black, and it seems to play a really nice role here as a bit of extra value from the graveyard that plays well with the high creature count.
With resilient creatures and the ability to attack opponents from multiple angles, supported by the potential for broken starts when it hits the graveyard hard, I could see this sort of Dredge-less strategy rising to the top of the metagame, especially as the most powerful cards continue to be banned. This particular round of bans seems like a huge boon for controlling strategies that were weak to Smuggler's Copter and Field of the Dead pulling on it from two directions. Dredge could be the perfect antidote to the sort of attrition-based games these decks play.
A curious route for Prized Amalgam is to combine it with Cauldron Familiar, which is a very convenient way to trigger it. Prized Amalgam is also pretty good fuel for any extra copies of Witch's Oven, since it's so easy to get back into play, so things could really start to get out of hand. A deck using that combination is one of the Smuggler's Copter decks I wrote about before, so it will have to evolve, but a new angle for the deck could be exactly the direction needed to take.
This list will have to replace Smuggler's Copter too, but it's notable for pointing to Elder Deep-Fiend as the next evolution of the strategy. The Eldrazi has been proving itself in the second-tier of the format over the past weeks, first breaking through in Izzet Emerge deck, and now appearing in various Simic-based "Temurge" builds.
Prized Amalgam offers the perfect fodder for Elder Deep-Fiend as a disposable creature, not only in terms of card cost, but mana cost. Much of the value of Deep-Fiend is in its ability to cheat on mana cost, and Prized Amalgam pushes that further by often not costing anything. Along with Haunted Dead, it gives the deck the ability to put a converted mana cost into play without actually paying that mana, and then convert that free mana right into Elder Deep-Fiend. This concept is further pushed by Emry, Lurker of the Loch, which functions as a three-drop toward Emerge but might cost two or even one to play. It adds up to make this deck a really nice home for Elder Deep-Fiend, where it contributes a much-needed dose of finishing power and helps to round it out as a complete deck.
The Elder Deep-Fiend build actually broke out the weekend after I wrote about the Cat deck, and has been 5-0ing Leagues since, so this shakeup could be what it needs to break through to the top, despite losing Smuggler's Copter. While useful, it's not an essential part of the deck, and can be replaced by disruption or more synergistic cards. It does make Emry, Lurker of the Loch less useful as a source of value, so it might be wise to just replace Emry with something like Merfolk Secretkeeper for a cheaper self-mill effect, despite that making Elder Deep-Fiend slightly worse.
A simple option for replacing Smuggler's Copter is to move back to Cryptbreaker, which Elder Deep-Fiend replaced from the original build. It offers the same ability to discard graveyard cards for extra value, and plays well late into the game with its card draw ability. That would bring the new list to something like this:
Cryptbreaker forms the centerpiece of an entirely different and ultimately more powerful way to abuse the graveyard: a Zombie-themed Rally the Ancestors deck that plays off of the tribe's penchant for coming back from the dead.
Rally the Ancestors was the key component of the Four-Color Rally deck that became the best deck in its Standard format, and although it never proved to be quite good enough for Modern, it looks just right for Pioneer. It meshes very well with Zombie's shift into white that started in Amonkhet with Wayward Servant, and continued to Corpse Knight. They both combine with Rally Ancestors to deliver a massive blow with their triggers.
Nantuko Husk, the primary kill condition of the Standard Rally deck, also happens to be a Zombie, which makes it a perfect fit here. The deck can also lean on traditional tribal synergies from Cryptbreaker and Diregraf Colossus, and even has a planeswalker in Liliana, Untouched by Death, which fuels the graveyard for Rally. A couple of other recent additions also play well in the deck, with Lazotep Reaver being a nice two-in-one creature for enters-the-battlefield triggers, and Foulmire Knight as a nice piece of value in the grindiest games.
Enemy-color decks are arguably better than allied in Pioneer because of the Kaladesh fast lands, so this strategy really has all the makings of a winner. It reminds me a lot of the old Goblin Patriarch's Bidding deck, which combined a tribal theme with a powerful graveyard enabler, and was one of the best decks in its time in Standard and later Extended.
Another graveyard strategy with potential revolves around abusing Soulflayer, which combines with monsters like Chromanticore and Zetalpa, Primal Dawn to turn into an undercosted, overpowered threat.
Powered by Golgari graveyard enablers like Grisly Salvage and Gather the Pack, this deck essentially takes the Gurmag Angler plan even further by using Soulflayer. I'm not sure whether it's worth going through all of the trouble of Soulflayer when a 5/5 is pretty monstrous in itself, but there's also not a whole lot of downside beyond the fact you're filling your deck with a lot of clunky cards you won't realistically cast (though Deathrite Shaman and Sylvan Caryatid mean anything's possible). Considering that this strategy actually broke through to the Top 8 of a Pioneer PTQ online last week, which technically makes it the most successful graveyard deck yet, there's something more than just a gimmick here.
Compared to other lists of the strategy I have seen, this list is built with more ability to play fair, with a set of Murderous Rider and three Questing Beast. They both offer strong abilities for Soulflayer, and don't clog the deck with uncastable cards. The deck does retain the Soulflayer pseudo-combo with a set of Zetalpa, but Chromanticore is down to a two-of, while Samut, Voice of Dissent is gone entirely in favor of more functional cards like Rhonas the Indomitable, which is conveniently enabled by Soulflayer. It shows there's some real promise here for someone who wants to put in the effort, and this is definitely where I'd start my testing of the archetype.
With the graveyard currently being underutilized and definitely underhosed, it's ripe for catching the metagame by surprise and breaking the current paradigm. With this week's dramatic bannings, the metagame has never been so unstable, and the prospects of graveyard-based decks never higher.
Adam Yurchick is a competitive Magic player and writer. He writes about Modern and Eternal formats and keeps a weather eye on shifts in the metagame.