Pioneer's first weeks were defined by the rise of Mono-Green Devotion, which despite seeing multiple cards banned has maintained its position in the top-tier of the metagame. Two weekends ago the deck took half of the Top 8 slots in the Pioneer Challenge on Magic Online en route to winning it, and last weekend it put up a convincing performance at the SCG Invitational, looking great on camera and taking two of the top three slots. That said, it was ultimately bested by the hottest trend in Pioneer, Mono-Black.
Last week I wrote all about Mono-Black and my positive experiences with it, so I wasn't surprised to see it take the trophy last weekend. I didn't expect such a dominant showing in last weekend's Pioneer Challenge, where it exceeded Mono-Green's performance last weekend by taking up the entire Top 4, with another in the Top 8. It's the hottest deck in Pioneer, and is on its way toward overtaking Mono-Green as the most popular "deck to beat."
Mono-Black is only going to get bigger from here, but with a cardpool as deep as Pioneer's, things won't stay this way forever. Metagames always evolve, and things will start to get tougher for Mono-Black as players begin to fight back. A deeper look at the results of last weekend's events show that they have already started. There are other strategies emerging to compete with Mono-Black that threaten to unseat it. Sitting alongside the five Mono-Black decks in the Challenge Top 8 is a red deck that will look familiar to anyone who played Standard last year, and it's just one of many examples of red decks breaking through.
The key feature of this list is Goblin Chainwhirler, which for a long period defined Standard by nearly pushing out 1 toughness creatures entirely. It's an incredible midrange tool and ideal for fighting back against this metagame, where every green deck plays eight 1 toughness mana accelerants and Mono-Black Aggro plays at least the same number of vulnerable one-drops.
The value proposition on Goblin Chainwhirler is too good to ignore, and it says a lot that its deck was one of the very few archetypes that succeeded in a field full of black and green decks. It's a straightforward and blunt way to attack the metagame, and while it won't beat these decks by itself, it plays a part in helping to contain them.
This decklist demonstrates that Goblin Chainwhirler is also very useful for its high devotion to red for Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx, a driving force behind the success of green devotion decks and one of the most powerful cards in all of Pioneer. It's easy to miss in this list, which lacks the typical Fanatic of Mogis and generally looks just like red midrange, but using it to get even a small mana advantage can translate to a battlefield advantage and eventual victory. The deck is not looking to generate a ton of mana and bury its opponent in big spells like green devotion. Instead, it contains one threatening mana sink with Cut // Ribbons as a Blaze effect for the late game.
Another tool in the arsenal of this deck is another old Standard staple, Glorybringer. So far Pioneer lacks any truly broken combos (the one it had was banned), and no true control decks have gained a strong foothold. That means the format is something of a midrange slugfest right now, and Glorybringer plays right into that, pressuring creatures and planeswalkers simultaneously. It's at its best against green decks, but even against black it demands immediate removal or it will start generating an advantage.
A more direct route toward beating Mono-Black is to be as aggressive as possible. Many of the creatures In the current iteration of Mono-Black cannot block, and that makes them especially vulnerable to being outraced by opposing aggression.
Swift End is inefficient as a removal spell against cheap creatures, and the damage clause is particularly bad against red. Burn spells further punish life loss from cards like Thoughtseize and Castle Locthwain, so things add up to make Red Aggro a troublesome matchup for the black deck. It's telling that one of the listed 7-1 or better decks from the SCG Invitational was Mono-Red Aggro, a throwback to the most aggressive red variations from last year's Standard.
Wizard's Lightning is notable as a do-it-yourself Lightning Bolt that stands a cut above the rest in the format when it is enabled, so it makes a strong case for playing Wizards to gain access.
The strategy receives a huge power-level upgrade from the Standard version with the addition of Eidolon of the Great Revel. It's a staple of Modern and even Legacy red decks, and naturally it should be one of the best red cards in Pioneer. The actual burn spells in the format aren't quite as strong as in Modern, but neither are the removal spells, so that makes creatures the go-to red plan. Eidolon of the Great Revel fits perfectly alongside them.
The sideboard features a set of Searing Blood, which is slated to be a staple of Pioneer red decks in a world without Searing Blaze.
A promising list from the Top 4 of a 110 player tournament in Japan attempts to close the gap between the more burn-heavy Modern versions by splashing into white for Boros Charm, which is legal in Pioneer.
Boros Charm's 4 damage for two mana is the best rate around for burn spells to the face. The added utility of either saving a creature from removal or giving double strike to a prowess creature to deal six or eight damage, a realistic possibility, could make the effort of splashing a second color worthwhile.
The splash also opens up the sideboard, adding the Modern sideboard staple Deflecting Palm, as well as opening up access to a very interesting card in Chained to the Rocks. Path to Exile has been a key sideboard card for Burn decks in Modern for years. Lacking access to it is a real obstacle for red decks in Pioneer, especially because their reliance on creatures makes them even more vulnerable to the sort of high-toughness creatures that Path answers. Chained to the Rocks gives red Pioneer decks a very similar effect, and a clean answer to problematic cards like Ghalta, Primal Hunger and Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet.
An entirely different approach to red has also appeared, combining the best of the color with Thought-Knot Seer. The deck has moved beyond 5-0ing leagues to put itself within striking distance of premier event Top 8s, with a 7-2 record in the Pioneer PTQ last weekend.
The idea here is that because Ramunap Ruins is already a staple of Pioneer red decks, it's not too much of a stretch to go further and gain access to Thought-Knot Seer. This is no Eldrazi deck, but Thought-Knot Seer is simply one of the best creatures in the format, if not in the game: a Vintage-playable creature that history shows is viable in just about any deck that can cast it.
Thoughtseize is simply the finest piece of disruption in Pioneer, and one of its very best cards overall. It drives Mono-Black's current success. Thought-Knot Seer is essentially the same effect with a body attached, and it's a welcome addition to this midrange strategy. It's perfect for disrupting whatever the opponent is doing, but this deck even goes a bit further by using it to protect its own broken elements.
Overall this is a familiar-looking deck that takes elements from the best red decks of the past few seasons, but includes a set of Hanweir Garrison and its combo with Hanweir Battlements (which as a colorless land, helps cast Thought-Knot Seer). The idea is that Hanweir Garrison is pretty solid creature on its own as Goblin Rabblemaster number five through eight, especially in a format without Lightning Bolt. Combined with Hanweir Battlements, it becomes a massive game-ending threat.
While it's not quite Splinter Twin, it is some sort of combo, and the opportunity cost of playing it is pretty low. This interaction never quite made it in Standard so it's somewhat surprising to see it succeeding in Pioneer, and it will be interesting to see if it can follow up on this success.
It's not a whole red deck but a specific card, Anger of the Gods, that's one of the best ways to fight back against this metagame. Both Mono-Green and Mono-Black are loaded with creatures, so getting a card and tempo advantage from Anger of the Gods is quite straightforward in these matchups. It cleans up the mana creatures from Green Devotion, as well as any Burning-Tree Emissary that add toward devotion.
The trend away from Courser of Kruphix to Jadelight Ranger, which has become standard at this point, makes Anger of the Gods even better, and leaves them almost entirely vulnerable to the sweeper. Even animated lands from Nissa, Who Shakes the World are not safe from Anger of the Gods.
Its exile clause comes into play against Mono-Black, which with eight or so recurrable creatures can typically exhaust any amount of removal spells and sweepers like Supreme Verdict. Anger of the Gods cleans them up for good. Mono-Black does have Smuggler's Copter and Mutavault that are immune to it, along with Thoughtseize to sometimes catch it in hand, so having Anger of the Gods will hardly beat them by itself. Still, it's definitely capable of swinging games and is a huge asset in the matchup.
Anger of Gods won't be limited to just these opponents either, and should find use against any sort of aggressive opponent. It also has applications against Izzet Arclight Phoenix decks, where it permanently removes the bird. It should be a sideboard staple of any sort of non-aggro red decks, and could even be in consideration as a maindeck playable for the right deck.
The best home for Anger of the Gods right now is likely in the sideboard of Izzet Phoenix, like in this 7-1 version from the SCG Invitational that puts it next to Glorybringer to make a great-looking sideboard.
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.