Last week's Pioneer bans were serious blows to the format's top decks, which left the metagame wide open going into the weekend's Pioneer PTQ double-header on Magic Online. The new format is mostly being played online, so MTGO has been the main driver of metagame trends, and all eyes are on the latest results to see what decks have emerged as winners after the bans.
With no more Pioneer qualifiers scheduled online in 2019 and no premier-level paper events for the format until the MagicFests at the end of next month, we're unlikely to see any bans until February. The metagame will sort itself out a bit further in Leagues and in the weekly Challenge event, but it's safe to say the format is in a somewhat stable place for the time being. The most successful decks from last weekend will be especially important in defining the metagame going into the new year.
Banning Once Upon a Time was no help to green strategies, but it's clear they're still among the best decks in Pioneer. Simic Devotion dominated the second event of the weekend, winning the event and placing two more copies in the Top 4, with three more copies in the Challenge Top 8, making it one of the breakout decks from the weekend.
The first PTQ saw two aggressively-slanted Simic decks in the Top 8, showing it's still one of the best in the field.
The ban of the pesky Smuggler's Copter has proven to be a boon to control strategies. It directly led to a breakout weekend for Azorius Control, which won the first event and put another in the Top 8, followed by a Top 8 in the second event, and then another win in the Challenge.
With lots of creature removal, including board sweepers, the strategy is in a good spot against a metagame full of green creature decks, and so should be a major player heading into 2020.
Both Izzet Phoenix and Sultai Midrange reached a Top 8, showing these breakout decks from the first days of the format are now working their way back into the new and more balanced metagame.
Mono-Blue Devotion, which hasn't been more than a very minor player so far, has also put itself in the equation with a fresh Top 8.
Black decks have shaken off the Smuggler's Copter ban by making it all the way to the finals of both qualifiers. The deck from the second qualifier is very much a post-ban rebuild of the deck, removing Smuggler's Copter and just expanding its other cards to fill in the gaps, in this case going up to a full maindeck playset of Grasp of Darkness.
Mono-Black has a very deep card pool to draw from, and unless Thoughtseize is banned there will always be a strong shell available to support it. That said, it's possible that the best route for Mono-Black is an entirely different one, which does not need to replace Smuggler's Copter because it never used it in the first place.
Mono-Black Vampires was one of the format's first breakout decks, finishing 10th in the first Pioneer Challenge followed by a 3rd place finish the next week by the same player. I suspect that the attention it brought the color helped directly lead to the more aggressive tribeless deck that supplanted it. Now there is less incentive to load up on the cheap and recursive creatures that are so effective for supporting Smuggler's Copter, which opens the door for the more midrange-focused Vampire deck that proved so successful last weekend. After reaching the finals of the first PTQ, ICHORID ran through the second as the top seed after swiss before falling in the quarterfinals.
While ICHORID may not have gotten the qualification they fought so hard for, they showed that Mono-Black Vampires is not only viable but likely one of the best decks in the field. The deck retains the staple black disruptive core of Thoughtseize and Fatal Push, which supported by Castle Locthwain give the deck a similar ability to out-grind opponents over a long game. With Mutavault and Knight of the Ebon Legion, the deck can still play small-ball and get aggressive in the early game, but the creature base is much more versatile and value-oriented than the hyper-aggressive creatures that defined Mono-Black Aggro. Rather than Scrapheap Scrounger, for example, the deck uses Gifted Aetherborn, which can actually play defense, trading up against green decks and working wonders against red decks in a format without Lightning Bolt.
Drana, Liberator of Malakir is ostensibly a very aggressive card that plays best with a go-wide aggressive strategy, but in practice it's still very effective as a standalone threat growing just itself each turn, and will quickly get out of hand when joined by just one other creature. Helping its body count is Dusk Legion Zealot, which is a notable upgrade over the original versions of the deck that played the more aggressively-slanted Stromkirk Condemned in the slot. The value-driven Dusk Legion Zealot helps hold the deck's synergies together, serving as a body for any of the abilities on Sorin, Imperious Bloodlord, increasing the efficacy of Champion of Dusk, or even sacrificing itself to Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet.
Sorin, Imperious Bloodlord is the centerpiece of the deck's Vampire plan and Pioneer's biggest incentive to stay in the tribe. All of its abilities are incredibly effective in a deck full of Vampires, whether it's pumping other creatures, acting as a Lightning Helix engine, or acting as a tempo play with its -3 ability. Chaining this ability into a five-drop like the deck's other main Vampire payoff, Champion of Dusk, is a line of play that rivals nearly anything else you can do in Pioneer on turn three. The ability also does good work with Gray Merchant of Asphodel, which this deck has trimmed down to a two-of as more of a support card than a primary plan.
Sorin's -3 ability is also great with Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet, which like Gray Merchant of Asphodel is another source of life gain. Along with Gifted Aetherborn and Sorin itself, the deck truly has a lot of life gain in the maindeck. Beyond giving the deck a great buffer against aggressive decks that bolsters its midrange plan, the life gain is especially valuable with playsets of Castle Locthwain and Champion of Dusk, and ensures the deck won't run out of life to fuel them even in the bitterest of grinds.
The package of black disruption and Castle Locthwain has proven to be one of the best deck-building cores in Pioneer, so combining it with black's best synergistic tribal strategy is a recipe for success. While getting very aggressive and just killing the opponent is a great strategy, it's also somewhat one-dimensional and relies on heavy disruption or fast starts or it's at risk of being overpowered. The Vampire's solution is to offer a powerful proactive plan of its own, which may not be as fast at killing the opponent, but is much less at risk of being overpowered.
As a midrange deck, Mono-Black Vampires relies heavily on its sideboard to disrupt the opponent. It shares many great tools with its aggro cousin, while branching out into some other cards that serve its own unique needs.
With green so prevalent, the deck turns to both Noxious Grasp and Blightbeetle. Duress will be increasingly important for fighting against Azorius Control, but this sideboard goes further with Davriel, Rogue Shadowmage. A sweeper in Cry of the Carnarium is a nice tool to have access to. As a midrange deck, Vampires is able to wield more expensive late-game cards like Liliana, Dreadhorde General, which sits in the sideboard to go over the top of other midrange and control decks. In the second PTQ the pilot of this build went even deeper with a copy of Bolas's Citadel as a massive card advantage engine, likely in response to Azorius winning the first event.
ICHORID cut two cards from their first attempt. The first was Lost Legacy, which is great against Nexus of Fate but not necessary if the deck isn't a big factor, which it doesn't seem to be right now. The second was Liliana's Defeat, which could very well become an important staple if Vampires can sustain this success.
Sideboarding with Vampires will be more complicated than with Mono-Black Aggro because of its more midrange nature, but that's an asset that gives it more flexibility in both sideboarding and actual game play. With tools to both play aggressively and to take the defensive role, all backed by its strong disruption, the deck should have game in any matchup.
The biggest opponents in Pioneer are Simic decks, both Aggro and Devotion, which are just about split in popularity right now. Sideboarding against them will be similar, bringing in all of the green hosers and an extra Grasp of Darkness, but I'd advise making different cuts.
Against Simic Stompy, Thoughtseize can be a liability, and Dusk Legion Zealot is a bit slow and weak. They make for simple swaps for the green hosers and removal.
Against Simic Ramp, it's advisable to take on a more aggressive role, seeking to end the game ASAP before they take over with their bigger cards. But it's still important to contain their battlefield to limit Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx.
It's reasonable to just cut Thoughtseize, but I'd cut Drana, Liberator of Malakir and Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet since they are so vulnerable to Wicked Wolf. Plus, Oko, Thief of Crowns makes them even less reliable.
Azorius Control is on the rise, and luckily sideboarding against it is pretty straightforward. Bring in the discard and cut the creature removal, and bring in any haymakers in place of Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet, which doesn't offer much in the matchup. A single Noxious Grasp serves as the final addition, supporting the maindeck Murderous Rider for containing their white planeswalkers.
I'd sideboard the same way against Simic Nexus, where Noxious Grasp can catch Tamiyo, Collector of Tales.
The sideboard doesn't offer much against nongreen or white aggro decks, but the package of Cry of the Carnarium, Grasp of Darkness and Liliana, Dreadhorde General bolster its control plan and seamlessly replace Thoughtseize.
Against White Aggro (which won a PTQ as Selesnya with Once Upon a Time when it was legal, and has persisted in both mono-white and white-red forms) take the same plan as against other aggro decks, but add Noxious Grasp, which they suffer from as an unfortunate side effect of the green decks. These decks are relatively easy to grind out, so Champion of Dusk is a safe cut.
A nice spot for Cry of the Carnarium is against Izzet Phoenix, where it can permanently deal with Arclight Phoenix. Be careful not to cut all of the creature removal or you'll just die to Thing in the Ice // Awoken Horror.
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.