Last weekend's Pioneer Challenge on Magic Online was the largest Pioneer event to date, and its results are the first real look at the competitive metagame beyond anecdotal League finishes shared on social media. The finals featured a Dig Through Time-supporting Sultai Midrange deck winning over an Izzet Arclight Phoenix deck with a full set of Treasure Cruise. The immediate takeaway here is that these delve cards are still undeniably busted, and their bans in Modern and Legacy and restriction in Vintage will inevitably translate to Pioneer. While banning fetchlands was one step toward containing them, Pioneer's massive cardpool contains plenty of other ways to quickly enable these broken cards.
These two delve-supporting archetypes proved dominant in the Challenge, with Sultai taking two of Top 8 spots and Izzet Phoenix three. They're now the clear front-runners in the metagame and will be widely copied. I've been operating on the assumption Dig Through Time and Treasure Cruise will be banned, and until then they're the best thing to be doing in the format.
Izzet Phoenix, on the other hand, is an archetypal Treasure Cruise deck, built to abuse it to the fullest in the same mold as the successful decks that led to its banning in three other formats.
Cheap card drawing and removal spells naturally help to fuel delve, but discard outlets like Chart a Course and graveyard enablers like Strategic Planning, which support Arclight Phoenix, further accelerate Treasure Cruise. In some ways Treasure Cruise is a win condition in its own right, and allows the deck to take the control role with its removal spells before burying the opponent in card advantage. I started my exploration of Pioneer last week by copying an Izzet Phoenix build I found shared on social media, and in my games I found that Arclight Phoenix was more of an afterthought compared to Treasure Cruise, and enabling the Cruise ASAP was the primary concern.
It makes sense. History shows that Treasure Cruise is a more broken card, and Arclight Phoenix is also notably worse in Pioneer than in Modern. Where the Modern Izzet Phoenix deck had a wealth of one-mana plays along with Manamorphose and free Phyrexian mana spells to consistently enable turn-three Arclight Phoenix, in Pioneer it's more of a turn-four deck. The specific decklist I tested was significantly slower than the finals decklist, which is built to maximize its turn-three potential by including a full maindeck playset of Lightning Axe as a cheap discard outlet and powerful removal spell that will be increasingly important as an answer to Thing in the Ice // Awoken Horror in the mirror match.
The inclusion of two Merchant of the Vale is primarily for its Haggle ability as an additional one-mana discard effect for Arclight Phoenix. These discard outlets synergize particularly well with Fiery Temper, which the deck turns to as an additional source of card advantage and a do-it-yourself Lightning Bolt. Wild Slash isn't much more than a Shock, but it's still a functional removal and burn spell that's emerging as the go-to Lighting Bolt of Pioneer.
With all of these removal spells, along with Izzet Charm as additional versatile disruption, the deck is very well-suited for taking down creature decks, and will help contain them much like it helped bring about the downfall of Humans and Spirits in Modern. As in Modern, Thing in the Ice // Awoken Horror adds insult to injury in these creature matchups as a sweeper and huge threat. Like Arclight Phoenix, it's slower in Pioneer with fewer free spells and one-mana plays. It's a true turn-four card that will simply never flip on turn three, but it gets the job done over the long games this deck is suited to play with Treasure Cruise.
When I first approached Pioneer I was overwhelmed by the deck possibilities, but when I was lucky enough to stumble upon an Izzet Phoenix decklist on Twitter that players were having success with, I knew that my old Modern favorite would be a great choice. My criteria for selecting a deck was to only bother actually building and playing something if it's contention for one of the best decks in the field. My initial 4-1 League run with the deck made me feel like I was playing Modern again, and I was thrilled that its performance in the Challenge validated my decision to move in on the deck (and rebuy a set of now price-spiking Arclight Phoenix on MTGO). It's definitely my go-to option going forward until the inevitable ban or some other major change, and Nammersquats's list is the one I'd recommend.
This list includes some cards that I found myself wanting when I was testing, like Lightning Axe and Anger of the Gods in the sideboard, along with some I didn't consider. Chandra, Torch of Defiance was an old Modern staple and makes a lot of sense here as a source of card advantage and alternate win condition—especially because this deck is weak to graveyard hosers. Leyline of the Void and Rest in Peace are particularly difficult, and played a part in my one match loss. That said, I did cast Treasure Cruise for eight mana in the face of the hoser, and Arclight Phoenix is still relevant when cast, so it's no nail in the coffin.
The Royal Scions is a potent graveyard-enabler with its loot ability, which can also help filter poor cards like extra lands and generally improve draws. Its ability to pump an Arclight Phoenix and help finish the opponent is quite powerful too, but I imagine that its ultimate ability is the real payoff. Against control opponents without pressure, who might also have graveyard hosers it ignores, it will threaten to take over the game with its massive card advantage and possibly kill them outright.
A copy of the new Brazen Borrower also makes an appearance in the sideboard, where it acts as a versatile piece of disruption. Notably, it can remove a resolved Leyline of the Void or Rest in Peace (if only for a one-turn window) while functioning as an evasive threat that ignores the graveyard. It's a lot of impact for one card and a slot that feels reminiscent of the commonly sideboarded card Vendilion Clique, but updated for a new age where cards in play are more important than those in hand.
The Izzet Phoenix mirror in Pioneer is similar to the mirror in Modern, but the lack of Surgical Extraction means Arclight Phoenix plays a more important role. Treasure Cruise adds an additional facet, and players are frequently going to fight over it with countermagic in post-sideboard games with the help of Mystical Dispute. Dispute looks like a staple sideboard card of the format as long as these delve spells are legal.
Anger of the Gods is one way to deal with an opposing resolved Arclight Phoenix, and including is as way out of otherwise unwinnable games is prudent in a deck with so many ways to discard it when it's not needed. Normal burn spells are quite weak in the matchup and can be removed.
With Sultai Midrange deck proving itself as the top midrange deck of the format, it's likely en route to the most popular deck in the field, and the matchup against Izzet Phoenix will be one that defines the metagame.
Izzet Phoenix typically did very well against Jund and Golgari-based strategies in Modern because Arclight Phoenix plays so well against its removal-heavy plan, but Oko, Thief of Crowns is a devastating new tool for containing it. Oko also stops Thing in the Ice, whether by Elking or even stealing it, and Food tokens turn off Izzet's ability to finish with burn spells, so Oko is really an all-in-one hoser for what Izzet is trying to do. Fighting over it, hopefully by preventing it from hitting play, and otherwise applying enough pressure and burn to kill it, will be the focus of the game—as it seems to be in just about any game where Oko is involved, no matter the decks.
Strategic Planning and Merchant of the Vale are two of the go-to cards to sideboard out, especially when the opponent is likely to have graveyard hosers to blunt their utility.
Joining Izzet and Sultai in the Top 8 were two copies of Four-Color Copycat Combo. In addition to its Felidar Guardian and Saheeli Rai combo, it also plays Teferi, Time Raveler and Oko, Thief of Crowns as game-winning cards in their own right.
Ultimately these are creature-heavy decks. Cards like Gilded Goose are susceptible to removal spells, but value-producing creatures like Rogue Refiner and their cast of planeswalkers mean out-grinding the deck isn't necessarily an easy task. You need to hold up burn spells to prevent them from comboing and killing you, but otherwise the goal is to contain their battlefield while pressuring them as much as possible.
The deck also plays some great blue creatures printed in the years since its time in Standard, including staples from last season: Tempest Djinn, Merfolk Trickster and Siren Stormtamer. It's fundamentally a creature deck vulnerable to the loads of removal in Izzet Phoenix, and it doesn't have any good answers to Arclight Phoenix, so without any true card advantage of its own I suspect it will be ground down and buried by Treasure Cruise. Master of Waves with protection from red is the biggest concern, so containing their creatures to minimize devotion will be important, as will be Mystical Dispute from the sideboard.
Underworld Connections, the staple of the old Standard deck, has been upgraded to Castle Locthwain. The same draw effect no longer costs a slot, and it gives the deck a lot of power to grind against even Treasure Cruise. Champion of Dusk is another obstacle, but otherwise it's a tribal creature deck that is vulnerable to removal spells, so containing their creatures is the primary goal. The key will be applying pressure in the process, and while Fatal Push can stop Thing in the Ice, they lack good answers to Arclight Phoenix.
The next highest finishing unique archetype was Simic Ramp.
Mono-Green Ramp was very popular and put up many Top 32 finishes, but it's not surprising this version with Oko, Thief of Crowns did the best. It also makes the deck much stronger against Izzet Phoenix. Otherwise it's a creature-based deck low on removal spells, so overall it's a strong matchup for Izzet Phoenix. I imagine the Top 32 of the event was littered with them because they fell in the later rounds to decks like Izzet and Copycat they struggled to stop.
No metagame would be complete without a Mono-Red Aggro, and this list by paragon of red decks sandydogmtg combines burn elements with creatures for a truly Red Deck Wins-style of deck capable of playing much more than a one-dimensional burn game.
That said, the creatures make it vulnerable to what Izzet Phoenix is doing. Kill their creatures at all costs so their burn spells can't kill you, and out-grinding them with Treasure Cruise becomes a real possibility, as happened in my matches against the deck during my initial foray.
Izzet Phoenix has emerged as the deck-to-beat in Pioneer by pushing the format's most potent card, Treasure Cruise. Players will begin to push back with hosers and the metagame will evolve around it, but Izzet Phoenix will remain one of the top decks in the format as long as Treasure Cruise is legal, and likely even long after. After all, Izzet Phoenix quickly rose to define Modern, so it makes sense it would be very good in a less powerful format, especially with its pedigree as a competitive Standard deck using weaker enablers. It's my go-to deck until there's a good reason for it not to be, and I just don't see that happening until Treasure Cruise and Dig Through Time are banned.
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.