To help celebrate the launch of the new Pioneer format, Magic Online has been hosting Player's Tour Qualifiers each Friday. The turnouts have been massive, in the range of 300 to 400 players. These are the largest and most competitive Pioneer events held so far, and provide the clearest picture we have of the metagame.
Just like the first event, last week's event featured Todd "strong_sad" Anderson sweeping through the swiss with his Mono-Green Devotion deck, despite seeing multiple bans in between performances! He ultimately fell in the quarterfinals to a more aggressive Simic Stompy deck, which reached the finals followed by a similar deck in third place. Yet another aggressive green deck, this one splashing for red and Embercleave, finished fourth, in a truly breakout performance for this style of green deck. By forming the foundation of both these aggressive and devotion-based green decks, Llanowar Elves and Elvish Mystic are coming to define the format, and this week's ban of yet another green card (Veil of Summer) will play some part in helping to contain these decks.
This is especially good news for the deck that came out on top in the PTQ, having to get through many green decks in the process. I was excited but definitely surprised when I heard that Mono-Black Aggro had won the PTQ, but when the decklists were finally published after much anticipation I realized it was a true masterpiece. While there were no Pack Rats or Gray Merchant of Asphodel, I knew I was seeing Pioneer's spiritual successor to Mono-Black Devotion, a deck I fell in love with back when it defined Standard. In many ways Pioneer is a format of the best old Standard decks battling it out, and Mono-Black Devotion fits right in that pantheon among the best of the best.
What makes the 2019 version of Mono-Black so exciting is the many upgrades it has received since its time in Standard ended over five years ago. A perfect example is Murderous Rider, which replaces Hero's Downfall as a functional reprint with a whole other side of utility and value. A removal spell with a creature built into it makes this something like Nekrataal for a new age, and the two-for-one it provides is perfect for a deck designed to fight and win any battle of attrition. It's the perfect Pioneer power-level upgrade, and plays a big part in making the deck as good as it is.
All of the Adventure cards are starting to see the play they warrant in every format, including a new Izzet Emerge Pioneer deck with the full eight Brazen Borrower and Bonecrusher Giant, and I think any deck that can be playing Murderous Rider should seriously consider if they should. It's particularly strong right now because it's a straightforward answer to Oko, Thief of Crowns and Nissa, Who Shakes the World, which are so prevalent in this metagame.
The old Mono-Black Devotion deck is often remembered for Gray Merchant of Asphodel, which gave it its name, and for Pack Rat which could feel unbeatable at times. But the real workhorse of the deck has always been and still is Thoughtseize, which allows it to disrupt any opponent imaginable, supplementing its removal spells and buying the time it needs for its creatures to end the game.
It doesn't have a real parallel to an old card, but Fatal Push is another fantastic upgrade for Mono-Black decks that wasn't available five years ago. It's counted among Magic's finest removal spells alongside Path to Exile and Lightning Bolt, both absent from Pioneer, so it's a uniquely powerful effect that stands in a class of its own in this format.
Fatal Push gives black decks like this a competitive advantage. Critically, it can critically kill creatures on turn one, including the all-important Llanowar Elves. By killing up to four-drops it handles the vast majority of creatures seeing play, which makes it a great tempo-positive play through the game.
Underworld Connections used to holding the deck's vast disruption package together and serving as the foundation of its attrition plan, so the deck has received a true gift in Castle Locthwain. It puts a very similar effect right onto a land, without the need to invest card slots or mana to cast it. A land drawing cards is an immensely powerful effect, especially at this bargain price, and it gives the deck a constant flow of cards to keep up with just about anything out there. It's especially effective because the deck has a very low average spell cost, so it can easily empty its hand to minimize damage taken.
The manabase includes another source of value in Mutavault, a true throwback to the old Devotion deck. The colorless land is really a privilege afforded only to monocolor decks like this one, and it's a welcome addition. It's incredibly efficient as a threat, and makes the deck even harder to contain. It's especially useful as insurance against sweepers and for pressuring planeswalkers, and is generally quite a nuisance for opponents.
While this deck is reminiscent of the old Standard Mono-Black Devotion deck, it's much more aggressive, filled with faster and leaner creatures capable of quickly beating down an opponent. Pioneer is significantly faster than Standard, full of better cards and more broken strategies, so it's a bad idea to wait around and try to grind out every opponent. It's also impossible to disrupt everyone completely—Thoughtseize only goes so far—so the best plan is to get aggressive and use disruption as a speed bump that slows them down and buys just enough time to kill them. To do this, the deck turns to a core of self-reanimating threats: Bloodsoaked Champion and the former Standard star Scrapheap Scrounger. These creatures cement the deck's ability to grind and win an attrition war in the face of opposing creature removal, and are mostly impossible to contain in any traditional sense.
These creatures also ensures plenty of crew members for the final pillar of the deck, Smuggler's Copter, which was formerly banned in Standard and is one of the very best cards in Pioneer. The card filtering ability it provides is perfect for a deck like this one because it offers better control over its situational removal spells, pitching removal against control decks or digging into it against creature decks. Discarding the recurrable threats is also a nice form of card advantage. Rounding out the creature suite to support Smuggler's Copter are Night Market Lookout and Knight of the Ebon Legion. Night Market Lookout does a good job as a one-mana creature that effectively has 2 power, and it even kicks back a life. It's also really good for crewing Smuggler's Copter, triggering for extra value each time.
Knight of the Ebon Legion doesn't offer any special synergy or come back from the dead, it simply hits really hard in a really efficient package. It's effective early while scaling up throughout the game. While its pump ability comes in big chunks, it feels a lot like creatures with the "shade ability", such as old staple of Odyssey-era mono-black decks Nantuko Shade, and more recently Rakshasa Deathdealer in Abzan Aggro. Like Blaze on a body, these creatures convert spare mana to extra damage at an efficient rate. It allows these creatures to fight far above their weight, and inevitably serve as a powerful late-game threat despite costing very little up front—in this case, just one mana.
As icing on the cake, Knight of the Ebon Legion can grow each turn without spending mana. It's common to play it before combat to crew Smuggler's Copter or post-combat after attacking with other creatures, only for it to grow from their damage. It might be somewhat surprising to see this Standard creature as a staple of Pioneer, but 2019 has been a historic year for the power level of Magic cards. While it's easy to overlook in the face of some more egregious cards, Knight of the Ebon Legion is one of the best creatures ever printed in black and will be a staple for years to come.
Rankle, Master of Pranks rounds out the maindeck, and while it was a very surprising sight at first, after playing with the card it became clear why it's so effective in the strategy. At face value it's a hasty, evasive creature with decent stats, so it's not a bad way to cap off the aggressive strategy as a sort of miniature Dragon, but the real payoff is Rankle's multiple abilities when it connects with the opponent. Not all of them will always be good, but they come completely at its controller's discretion, and each one helps to bury the opponent in their own way. The sacrifice ability is especially potent, and combines with the many cheap and expendable creatures in this deck. Bloodsoaked Champion in particular can fuel Rankle's sacrifice indefinitely to essentially lock out the opponent under The Abyss.
Mono-Black also brings a very effective sideboard to battle, which is essential for honing its disruptive strategy against the field. It's anchored by a set of Duress, a sideboard staple of the old Standard version and of every format where it is legal. Against many opponents it will be just as effective as Thoughtseize, and that puts them under immense pressure. Add in Kitesail Freebooter, which comes with the upside of being able to attack or crew Smuggler's Copter, and opponents will have no room to breathe. Creature-based opponents require more removal, so Disfigure supports Fatal Push as another way to take out mana dorks, while Noxious Grasp hits bigger threats. Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet plays many roles, from graveyard hoser to life gain source against red decks, while it ability to make Zombies means it's a huge threat in any creature matchup.
The polarized nature of the sideboard makes the sideboarding process a relatively simple and straightforward process. Against decks vulnerable to discard it can all come in to replace creature removal, while against creature decks threats can come out for more removal. Another rule of thumb I follow is that the recurrable creatures are at their best against grindy matchups with removal, so they can be trimmed against decks that aren't looking to interact. Because they don't block, this same theory applies against aggressive decks that can race past them.
With green decks so prevalent, I wonder if Lifebane Zombie should be in consideration as a sideboard or even maindeck card. It was incredibly effective in Mono-Black Devotion and at times was even used in the maindeck, so I could see working well in the current Pioneer meta.
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.