Nobody: " "
Not a single soul: " "
The person ghosting [an appointment with] Nick: " "
Nick: "Okay y'all, SAPROLING MIGRATION"
It's become a joke, a brand, a meme at this point, that when confronted with a new development in the metagame, my response is so often, "But what about aggro?" It takes many forms: Mono-White, Selesnya, Boros, Orzhov, etc. And of course, like every good Twitter user in 2020, I lean in to the joke rather than fight it.
But there's more to it than just memeing. There really are things I'm looking for in the metagame when I wonder about what the aggro deck is or could be.
One of my favorite strategies is to play the bigger aggro deck. It's a long, long established metagame call that when a low to the ground aggressive deck is rising in popularity, one of the best places to be is a version of aggro with slightly larger creatures that plays a slightly longer game. The classic example, in my mind, is Brian Kibler's Pro Tour Austin deck:
Tribal Zoo had been one of the biggest decks (along with Dark Depths) for months leading up to the Pro Tour. Brian's answer was to go one step above them, still presenting a fast and lethal clock, but also including creatures that could block and play defense.
In many ways that was what Selesnya Tokens was in Standard for the whole of our time on Ravnica: the bigger aggro deck. Whenever Mono-White Aggro surged in popularity was exactly the time to add green, because Trostani Discordant and March of the Multitudes represented a game plan more powerful than anything Mono-White could do, while still representing a sort of "combo finish" (in conjunction with Flourish) that let it punch through midrange decks.
The other time I look for opportunities to get aggressive are when the format's not prepared for it. And right now, as everyone targets Inverter of Truth and Underworld Breach, that's where Pioneer seems to be.
Take a look at Corey Burkhart's Players Tour winning list, for example:
Corey's deck has, maindeck, four Fatal Push and a Hero's Downfall. In the sideboard, there are five more removal spells: singleton copies of Cry of the Carnarium, Hero's Downfall, Legion's End, Languish and Witch's Vengeance, all of which have wildly different applications and strengths. Specifically, the lack of sweeper effects is intriguing, because when a blue deck has to spend cards and mana on finding answers to the opponent's board, it needs the cards it can find to be impactful enough to make up for the rest of its turns not affecting the battlefield. A card like Supreme Verdict can undo multiple cards' worth of work that Hero's Downfall or Legion's End really can't.
Fatal Push is in a weird position in Pioneer as well. The card is incredibly strong on rate if it hits anything above one mana, but actually enabling revolt is difficult. There are a few Fabled Passages, but a deck like Inverter has to walk a thin line between using Passages to fix its mana early and saving them to enable revolt. It won't be uncommon for this deck to have trouble killing a three-drop creature, which I observed multiple times in Richmond when a Thief of Sanity entered play opposite it. There just aren't many ways to kill bigger threats!
Planeswalkers can also present quite a problem for the deck. A Negate, a couple Drown in the Loch and a couple Hero's Downfall isn't a long list of ways to answer a resolved planeswalker.
All of this means that, in situations where it's under pressure, the Inverter deck changes from control to beatdown, because there's a time limit on how long it can avoid being overrun by an aggressive deck. Their only option is to combo as fast as possible, even though a turn-five kill is the fastest they can pull off, if they find the pieces.
With all of this in mind, my original pass on trying to exploit the metagame looked something like this:
The list tried to blend two elements together: tokens, and Gideon tribal. The token strategy was a combination of the relative lack of sweeper effects in Pioneer right now, and my love and appreciation for the card Legion's Landing. The card just does so much! It functions as a creature immediately, mana acceleration in the mid-game and a last ditch plan if things don't go right in a long game.
Gideon Tribal, on the other hand, presents Dimir Inverter with a problem it struggles with immensely. If that deck has trouble removing one planeswalker, it's definitely going to struggle with three Gideons in play at once, especially when their only reasonable threat (Inverter of Truth) can't deal damage.
Interestingly, there's common ground between the two strategies in Kytheon, Hero of Akros and Legion's Landing.
Both cards actually trigger in approximately the same circumstances. They want three creatures in play on turn two so that they can transform on turn three when they attack. There are several ways to make two creatures with one card in Pioneer, but to make things easier on the mana, I opted for the two white versions: Servo Exhibition and Raise the Alarm.
Before I ever played a game, just tinkering with cards and numbers, I wondered if the deck would just be better as mono-white. I got about two matches in to a League before I drew these as my only lands:
I conceded the match, dropped from the League, and changed some cards:
It turns out that not only does changing colors help the manabase, it also lets us play more utility lands. Castle Ardenvale is a little redundant with Legion's Landing, but since we have to play all white-producing lands anyway to cast Benalish Marshal (ruling out Mutavault as an option), it's essentially a no-cost backup option, even if it rarely gets activated. Shefet Dunes, on the other hand, was a free anthem effect in a deck that capitalizes on anthems immensely well.
The sideboard of both decks was built around two thoughts on the format generally:
#1: Damping Sphere is incredible against Underworld Breach. This isn't a revelation, it's just an easy way to beat the combo deck in the format when combined with pressure. Just wait for them to actually play the Lotus Field if you can, and suddenly their deck basically stops functioning.
#2: Tocatli Honor Guard (and by extension, Hushbringer) are weirdly well positioned. Both Spirits decks and Inverter get shut down by Torpor Orb. In lieu of that card, though, we have these. I gave Honor Guard the nod because it was more likely to survive through Cry of the Carnarium, but both have their merits.
The rest was a mix of graveyard hate and removal to take advantage of white's pretty reasonable sideboard options for removal that don't really make sense in the maindeck. Baffling End and Devout Decree cover a lot of angles, but neither is good against that much of the field on their own. Settle the Wreckage is absolutely backbreaking against the Stompy and Mono-Black decks that rarely have an option but to try and attack into open mana, even if they're expecting it.
The first League I played with this deck I went 2-3, with two wins against Dimir Inverter and losses to Spirits and some other random stuff. The Spirits loss was a little surprising, but the lack of relevant removal for Spell Queller hurt a lot more than I thought, especially game one. On the play maybe I could have won, but relying on the
coin flip high roll even / odd [randomly determined starting player method] is not a good strategy long term.
Additionally, Kytheon, Hero of Akros is just bad.
The problem isn't that it's hard to get three creatures into play, it's that the best deck in the format plays four Fatal Push and he's an incredibly convenient target. Unlike Legion's Landing, Kytheon must attack for him to transform, which means that he has to be in play on turn three to do it. Legion's Landing, on the other hand, can be played on turn three before combat and then transform, meaning the token was essentially free. Even if Kytheon did transform, Gideon, Battle-Forged doesn't really do anything. Kytheon made me jump through a lot of hoops to give a creature +3/+2. Not completely terrible, but not exactly Pioneer power level.
Additionally, against Dimir Inverter, it just wasn't necessary to have so many Gideons in play. The Plan B of Gideons was useful post-board, when they had more removal and the bigger Gideons could do some work, but game one the main strategy of reducing them to 0 life before they could react was more than enough to win most of the time.
But the most surprising disappointment was Venerated Loxodon.
When the potential strength of the deck is its ability to race the combo decks of the format, Loxodon forcing the deck to take turn three off from attacking is not where I want to be. Further, against a deck like Mono-Red or Mono-Black, tapping five creatures is just actively bad. The Elephant is powerful, but too slow for what I actually want to do.
Unfortunately, looking to solve these problems, I ran into other problems. Mono-White Aggro doesn't have useful removal that it can play maindeck, period. A card like Declaration in Stone might be passable in a pinch, but it is definitely not a card you want multiples of. And everything else costs more or does less than Declaration in Stone. Something like Dromoka's Command briefly seemed appealing, especially because it has the ability to also remove Underworld Breach from play… and then I remembered Fortified Village. Nope.
For similar mana-related reasons, blue was out as well.
That left red and black. As I was weighing both options, a lightbulb went off in my head. Back when I first took a look at Pioneer, I had brainstormed these sorts of token-based strategies, and the last deck I suggested was based around Reckless Bushwhacker, red's secret go-wide payoff. Bushwhacker and Lightning Strike meant the deck actually had some reach and removal, both of which seemed desirable in a format all about racing the opponent's combo.
And with that, I loaded up a deck that looked more like this:
Since I was already dipping in to red, Bomat Courier was a very appealing option as a way to reload if things got bogged down. A turn-one Bomat Courier that goes unanswered is often a suspended "Draw three to four cards" spell. Conveniently, only the back half actually needs red mana, so a hand of all Plains and Shefet Dunes can still cast this. Since I wasn't looking to remove Benalish Marshal, this was a big selling point.
Now with twelve cards that made artifacts (Thraben Inspector and Servo Exhibition being the other two), one of the trickiest but most powerful white one-drops was available: Toolcraft Exemplar. Even if it only connects once, a 3 power attack on turn two can make all the difference in a close game. Further, multiple copies end the game obscenely quickly. With Bomat Courier, there are draws that will attack for four on turn two, and then for almost lethal on turn three (Toolcraft Exemplar. Toolcraft Exemplar, Bomat Courier. Legion's Landing, Goblin Bushwhacker, attack opponent down to 2).
All of this meant that, rather than wasting time with the Gideon of the Trials, I moved them to the sideboard, replacing the Tocatli Honor Guard. Honor Guard was good, but this deck needed its enters-the-battlefield effects to function in some number of games, and I didn't want to risk it. Some or all of the points against Spirits that Honor Guard would give can be made up for with Lightning Strike and Fry. Really, the only place where Honor Guard would be missed is against Mono-Red, where a Goblin Chainwhirler absolutely takes your lunch money.
I left Gideon, Ally of Zendikar in because I still wanted an option for what to do with four mana post-combat to take advantage of Legion's Landing. A turn-one Landing, turn-two Servo Exhibition or Raise the Alarm followed up by an attack and Gideon, Ally of Zendikar should be more than enough pressure to win before anything else in the format can.
I won't lie. This deck was not only good, it was fun. And for a deck that's so all-in on aggression, it's surprisingly good at playing a game that's gone on a couple more turns than expected, or where a few too many lands are drawn. Gideon, Ally of Zendikar, Bomat Courier, Thraben Inspector and Adanto, the First Fort all give the deck ways to keep drawing cards or adding to the board. In a couple different games, even though I had drawn eight or nine lands, I was still in the game thanks to this deck's aggressive tools also working in a pinch to grind an opponent out.
The deck is still in progress, and I doubt it's in its final form, but it does seem quite powerful. It has the ability to goldfish quickly, create a bigger battlefield than a deck like Mono-Black, and play through Thoughtseize effectively. Plus, it has powerful sideboard cards. All of this points to potential in the format.
Unfortunately for me, the next two weeks are filled with preparation for Standard and Limited, as I try to pull off the hat trick of Top 1200 Mythic, crushing the Mythic Challenge, and winning enough rounds in Sealed to Day Two GP Reno… all in the same day (February 29th). That doesn't leave any time for Pioneer, and so I have to take a step away from the archetype. Hopefully someone out there can pick up the torch for me, because the deck feels powerful, and I'd love to see a white aggro deck do well in Pioneer again. But for now, I have to return to Standard.
Nick Prince is a competitive Magic player and member of the L.A. Gayming Society leadership team.
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