On April 3rd, we'll see the release of the highly-anticipated Challenger Decks from Wizards of the Coast. The premise of these Challenger Decks is that they're an affordable entry into the Standard format, by supplying a 75 card deck based on noted strategies in the current Standard landscape. The intention of these Challenger Decks is to be played straight out of the box at FNMs and local competitive events.
One of the best approaches to make Magic affordable is by giving your cards mileage across various formats, which these Challenger Decks promote in abundance.
Not only do they provide an excellent gateway into Standard, but these Challenger decks are also packed with value. At roughly $30, these decks offer at least $70 of value which creates a solid foundation to begin your collection. Anything that provides an affordable gateway in Magic: The Gathering will always get my support, and there is plenty of flexibility in what these decks can offer.
Back late last year, Wizards of the Coast announced a new format called Pioneer, which created a bridge between Standard and Modern. Pioneer incorporates its own banned list and utilizes cards from Return to Ravnica onward, and since its inception has become one of the most popular constructed formats of recent times. Given that plenty of cards featured in these Challenger decks see play in Pioneer also, they can help you break into this new format.
In this piece, I evaluate each Challenger Deck and offer a walkthrough with upgrades for Pioneer application. Some of these may evolve into pre-existing Pioneer strategies, or something completely different. It's worth noting that these Challenger decks don't necessarily require upgrading to be considered good. They're well-designed already, and you can play these as they are in both Pioneer and Standard. However, I'm offering an upgrade walkthrough if you want to play Pioneer more competitively or want to change these decks up.
Let's begin with Cavalcade Charge, the mono-red offering in this selection.
Cavalcade Charge offers the most for your money by boasting $100 of value in the box. Mono-Red has been a staple archetype in Standard since the release of Guilds of Ravnica last year, and it doesn't look to stop anytime soon. This extends to Pioneer too, where we have seen various mono-red strategies evolve and make waves in the metagame. Whether it's medium, "chonky" or aggro, red is one of the most versatile colors in Pioneer and provides plenty of options.
With the upgrades to Cavalcade Charge, I've chosen to keep it as an aggressive strategy so we can keep our hallmark cards in Runaway Steam-Kin, Torbran, Thane of Red Fell and Bonecrusher Giant.
4x Fervent Champion
4x Scorch Spitter
4x Rimrock Knight
3x Tin Street Dodger
4x Cavalcade of Calamity
2x Castle Embereth
1x Chandra, Acolyte of Flame
3x Satyr's Cunning
3x Slaying Fire
1x Experimental Frenzy
Bomat Courier offsets one of the core issues in playing a red strategy—card draw. Although we have Light Up the Stage to mitigate this issue also, it's wise to not depend on the sorcery completely. We're adding Kari Zev, Skyship Raider and Zurgo Bellstriker as cheap aggressive options. Rounding out the rest of the creatures is Legion Warboss, which creates a powerful threat that can win games on its own. Although Goblin Rabblemaster is the better of this effect, they are three times the value of Legion Warboss that are more difficult to come by. I recommend picking up Legion Warboss unless you have access to Goblin Rabblemaster.
For our land base, we are adding a set of Ramunap Ruins cutting out Castle Embereth as the Desert encourages more damage output. If you have access to them, adding a couple of Mutavault to the mix would benefit the aggressive approach further, however, these are incredibly expensive and the strategy can survive without the potent man land. Despite veering away from the Cavalcade of Calamity approach, we remain as aggressive as ever. There's a reason Mono-Red looks to be a staple archetype in Pioneer.
If adopting an aggressive approach is not your style, then we have Allied Fires which promotes a planeswalker control strategy, utilizing Fires of Invention to take over the board. Jeskai Fires is a noted archetype in Standard, and Fires of Invention will only become more powerful the more sets are released.
Allied Fires contains $70 worth of value, with Steam Vents and a non-foil Kenrith, the Returned King being the key money cards. Allied Fires takes a slower, more controlling approach than Mono-Red by deploying an early Fires of Invention. We then take advantage of Fires of Invention's ability to cast multiple planeswalkers as often as possible. As a backup, we have access to Fae of Wishes which permits additional sideboard options game one. Although Fires of Invention strategies are a newer concept in Pioneer, they are powerful if piloted correctly as there is a wealth of options available. In terms of upgrades, the core focus is refining the land base as we are a three-color strategy.
Do not be discouraged by the number of changes. Most control strategies run plenty of one-offs, and the upgrades can be achieved incrementally. However, I would prioritize the land base first as this promotes more consistency with the rest of your deck.
3x Kasmina, Enigmatic Mentor
4x Omen of the Sea
2x Banishing Light
1x Deafening Clarion
3x Tranquil Grove
4x Wind-Scarred Crag
3x Swiftwater Cliffs
3x Thirst for Meaning
1x Dovin, Hand of Control
1x Ashiok, Dream Render
2x Revoke Existence
2x Drawn from Dreams
1x Dovin's Veto
2x Devout Decree
As mentioned above, I would focus on swapping out Swiftwater Cliffs, Wind-Scarred Crag and Tranquil Grove for Battlefield Forge and Hallowed Fountain. However, the strategy remains playable with the original land base and can be upgraded incrementally. Unfortunately, we have to settle on Hallowed Fountain as Adarkar Wastes is not legal in Pioneer currently. We are largely a white-blue strategy that splashes red, so it's important to ensure we have access to these colors consistently. Extending this, obtaining shock lands is an excellent way to grow your Pioneer collection, and they will always see play within the format. Although we are running Battlefield Forge to respect budget restrictions, I would recommend running Sacred Foundry if you already have access to them as they deal less damage to you over time.
If you are interested in upgrading this further, then Teferi, Time Raveler is a strong option. However, his impact in various formats has influenced his pricetag greatly. If you intend to play control strategies for the foreseeable future, I would recommend picking these up eventually as they are a staple within the archetype—that does not look to change anytime soon. $22 each may seem a steep investment, but you will get your money's worth out of this incredibly powerful planeswalker.
Lastly, Allied Fires could easily be converted into Azorius Control in the future as we already have Narset, Parter of Veils, Hallowed Fountain, Detention Sphere and Time Wipe. Especially if you do pick up Teferi, Time Raveler, you will have a solid foundation to build one of the most consistent archetypes in the format.
Next up is Flash of Ferocity, which aims to adopt a reactive approach by utilizing powerful flash creatures to out-value the opponent. As a "tempo" strategy, it couples disruption with aggression.
Flash of Ferocity has received the most anticipation as the pre-con comes with a Brazen Borrower and a Fabled Passage, which are seeing extensive play across Pioneer and Standard. As a result, this Challenger Deck alone amounts to $96 and offers a great foundation to play a reactive strategy in Pioneer.
The objective of Flash of Ferocity is to respond on your opponent's turn as most of our spells can be played at instant speed. Although Simic Flash has now evolved into Simic Midrange in Standard, thanks to the printing of Uro, Titan of Nature's Wrath, the strategy remains competitive and ports favorably to Pioneer. Reactive strategies can take some time to learn, as knowing when to be the aggressor is a difficult skill to grasp, but this skill can be understood by playing a bunch.
Focusing on upgrades, the priority is refining the mana base to become more consistent and to include better flash creatures.
By adding roughly $100, we have a more refined mana base and more flash creatures. The key one is Quickling, which allows us to recast our flash creature to generate more value throughout the game. Merfolk Trickster keeps control of the board, and we have the option to finish the game with an emerged Elder Deep-Fiend.
2x Sinister Sabotage
3x Thornwood Falls
1x Wavebreak Hippocamp
1x Brineborn Cutthroat
4x Wildborn Preserver
3x Shifting Ceratops
3x Threnody Singer
In regards to the land base, we've added Yavimaya Coast and Hinterland Harbor as these are easier to obtain compared to Botanical Sanctum and Breeding Pool. Due to Simic getting so many powerful Standard cards lately like Oko, Thief of Crowns, Hydroid Krasis and Uro, Titan of Nature's Wrath, Simic has become incredibly popular, which has increased in price for the on-color lands. However, if you have access to Botanical Sanctum and Breeding Pool, I'd recommend slotting these in over Fabled Passage, Temple of Mystery and a few basics.
Alongside the tempo package, Simic Flash promotes a solid control plan by incorporating a suite of countermagic. Although Frilled Mystic is the best counter in this list, we've added Disallow and Censor to the roster as they are a great improvement on their Standard counterparts. Nimble Obstructionist is also extremely versatile—being able to Squelch for tempo or attack with an evasive body is what the strategy wants to achieve. Similar to Teferi, Time Raveler, I would look at picking up a playset of Brazen Borrower eventually due to its utility in other formats. Averaging at $23 each may be discouraging, but they provide greater consistency and value in Simic Flash.
Rounding out our journey we have Final Adventure, which promotes a low-to-the-ground Golgari approach.
Adventure is one of the best mechanics to come in Magic for quite some time. It decreases redundancy and promotes interesting lines. Amounting to $80, Final Adventure contains a Fable Passage, two Murderous Rider and a Vraska, Golgari Queen which are the highlight value cards in this list. Rather than utilize lord effects or aggression, Final Adventure plays a midrange-style game, which may seem weird as our creature curve tops out at three. In typical Golgari fashion, the deck operates on pushing through small amounts of damage while maintaining the board state. That game plan rarely changes at any point, as the aim is to grind down the opponent's life total and creep ahead on cards.
Creating an affordable evolution of Final Adventure for Pioneer is difficult, as Adventure is very much a Standard mechanic that has not quite expanded into Pioneer yet. In addition, Golgari Midrange strategies are historically expensive due to their deep presence in formats such as Modern. So, instead of upgrading Final Adventures into Golgari Midrange, we've opted for a Golgari Stompy approach instead.
A myriad of upgrades will refine this for Pioneer application, however, this can be achieved incrementally. I recommend prioritizing the land base first, then expanding into the creatures and spells.
4x Lucky Clover
4x Edgewall Innkeeper
4x Foulmire Knight
2x Blacklance Paragon
4x Order of Midnight
4x Smitten Swordmaster
2x Midnight Reaper
2x Knight of the Ebon Legion
3x Jungle Hollow
2x Temple of Malady
1x Cling to Dust
2x Kraul Harpooner
1x Thrashing Brontodon
1x Noxious Grasp
1x Massacre Girl
By focusing on the land base first, you keep the consistency of the Adventure package until you can upgrade into a more aggressive shell. As with the other Challenger Decks, it may seem discouraging initially given there is plenty to upgrade, but Final Adventure offers a solid base into Golgari Stompy, which has seen plenty of success in high-profile tournaments this year.
As we are in green we can utilize Llanowar Elves and Elvish Mystic to ramp into threats such as Rotting Regisaur and Steel Leaf Champion which can put us ahead. Access to eight mana dorks offers incredible acceleration for our threats, and also mitigates the drawback on Lovestruck Beast. Once again, I've omitted Blooming Marsh and Overgrown Tomb for budget purposes, but I recommend adding these in eventually, replacing Llanowar Wastes and Woodland Cemetery.
Expanding on this, adding The Great Henge and Collected Company could offer more options to out-grind the game if you want to fully optimize Golgari Stompy in Pioneer. The Great Henge offsets any damage from red strategies, offers incredible card draw and will rarely cost the nine mana. Collected Company is a fantastic way to refill the board after a well-time sweeper such as Supreme Verdict, and we have a good ratio of creatures for Collected Company to always garner value.
That's all four Challenger Decks with upgrades geared toward Pioneer! Admittedly there is plenty to process in this article, but I hope it provides a decent foundation to enter Magic's newest and most exciting format. Feel free to contact me over on Twitter on what you think of this product, with any upgrades you are looking to add!
As mentioned above, I'm an advocate of any product that allows players an easy and affordable gateway to Magic: The Gathering. Given that these decks are jammed-packed with rares and mythics, they're incredible value for money while offering dual application for Standard and Pioneer. I hope to see more of these Challenger Decks in the future, and who knows, maybe we'll get Pioneer Event Decks someday? Either way, Wizards of the Coast are knocking these out of the park, and I hope they continue for a long time.