Next week marks the physical release of Ikoria: Lair of Behemoths, which feels overshadowed by what's currently going on in the world. Despite this, it means we can acquire cards for when the opportunity to play paper Magic: The Gathering arises once again. Although the set remains in its infancy (its original release already happened on Magic Online and Arena), there are growing concerns about the companion mechanic. Over the last few weeks, strategies that choose to adopt the mechanic have enjoyed compelling success, demonstrating that companions' deck-building restrictions are not disadvantageous enough to outweigh starting each game with an eighth card in hand. Companions have created metagames where you feel instantly behind if you are companion-less, even before the match has begun.
Despite these concerns, the companion design is interesting—the cards just need harsher restrictions than they presently have. Although companion has warped competitive Magic, there are ways to enjoy the mechanic from a casual standpoint. This week, we are looking at creative approaches to utilizing the companions from Ikoria: Lair of Behemoths in Pioneer. An important note before we go any further: some of the prices of the newer cards may be skewed given they are not physically available yet. As a result, these cards may seem more expensive than expected—this results from a lack of circulation. As with any new set, prices open high and fall once the cards are available to purchase, based on their demand and power level. Although Ikoria: Lair of Behemoths highlights a swath of powerful cards, I anticipate the set to be opened massively in a similar vein to Theros Beyond Death. These decklists reflect this and will become more affordable once there is regular circulation.
Let's begin with a well-loved mechanic that returns in Ikoria: cycling.
In Standard, cycling looks to be a tier 1 strategy that can easily port to Pioneer. One of the draws of playing a cycling strategy is that it mostly consists of commons and uncommons, which make it quite affordable. At its base, you can create this at $132 with the option to upgrade later on if you wish. The game plans are simple: cycle through your deck to grow your Flourishing Foxes, create Sharks with Shark Typhoon, or burn your opponent out with multiple Zenith Flares. This strategy offers plenty of options; most of your removal and countermagic can be cashed in for card draw at any point.
Zirda, the Dawnwaker's ability may crop up in games from time to time, but mostly it's just a guaranteed option on turn three. With regards to upgrades, Supreme Verdict would replace Cleansing Nova, and four Hallowed Fountain would replace a Plains, an Island, and two Glacial Fortress would optimize this list. Additionally, you can expand into more burn by adding Drannith Stinger, providing an additional win condition if you want to change it up. Cycling offers plenty of options and deck-building creativity, and I suspect this won't be last we see of the mechanic in future sets—the deck will only get better.
Next up is for those cool cats and kittens who enjoy playing tribal strategies.
Traditionally, tribal strategies tend to lean on the aggressive side. However, the Cat tribe leans more midrange, with a curve that tops out at five mana. Kaheera, the Orphanguard serves as a three-mana lord the deck has access to every game, allowing it to push through additional damage without waiting to resolve a Regal Caracal. The list is relatively affordable except for Brimaz, King of Oreskos, which is one of the best Cats ever printed, and as a result, yields a hefty price tag. If you are unable to acquire Brimaz, King of Oreskos in the meantime, running Kaheera, the Orphanguard maindeck as well as a companion is a sound option. Shifting the Prowling Serpopard to the mainboard is another solid approach.
There are several routes to take with the build—expand from Cats to add haymakers like Voice of Resurgence, or even adding Collected Company as a secondary win condition. Either way, I suggest grabbing four Temple Garden replacing a Plains, a Forest, and the two Hashep Oasis. If you want to delve deeper into the tribal theme, Mutavault provides an additional line of attack that benefits from Kaheera, the Orphanguard. Also, I would be tempted to add a few Heroic Intervention given how vulnerable this type of strategy is to sweeper effects. If you are feeling brave, you could add a couple Lurrus of the Dream-Den to the deck as well.
Yorion, Sky Nomad requires players to have an additional 20 cards in their deck, which may sound steep—but if you want to play a Stax-esque control strategy, the restriction may be easier to satisfy than you'd expect.
Yorion Doom Foretold is akin to Stax strategies of old. The deck offers a disruptive game plan involving opponents discarding cards and sacrificing permanents. The combination of Doom Foretold with Starfield of Nyx is a combination that is virtually impossible for opponents to get out of. Yorion, Sky Nomad supports this game plan by generating even more value from the enchantments with enters-the-battlefield triggers like Treacherous Blessing and The Birth of Meletis. Although the deck only has one copy of Starfield of Nyx, it sees loads of cards via a myriad of flicker effects.
Adding four Godless Shrine for a Plains, a Swamp and two Isolated Chapel will optimize the manabase, while Thoughtseize supports the deck's central theme of disruption. However, Thoughtseize remains one of the more expensive Pioneer cards. While Agonizing Remorse is a fine substitute, you will want to upgrade into Thoughtseizes eventually. Lastly, you could easily add a handful of Idyllic Tutor to grab those silver bullets (and Starfield of Nyx) and begin flickering away.
While I'm excited to build fun decks around companions, I do hope the end state for Pioneer is an environment where playing a companion is not considered the default option. Presently, it feels like you are missing out on such an advantage by not playing a companion; I'm hoping to see formats like Pioneer and Modern adapt to the companions in a way that involves not using them, but rather exploiting the restrictive deckbuilding that they encourage. One important point to take away is the strategies that I have created this week can be played without companions and are viable strategies independent of them. So if there is ever a situation where the mechanic is amended or even banned, you haven't lost out as much financially as you can still play these strategies without them.