This weekend ushers in the new era of Magic Pro play with the first Players Tour events. All eyes will be on Pioneer for the format's most high-profile event yet. With the stakes so high, players have been working hard on finding the best decks to play and the best tech cards to fill them with, and I'm here with a look at the best of what has recently emerged.
Last weekend's MagicFest in New Jersey sold out, and along with it were massive Players Tour Qualifiers. The Pioneer event on Sunday drew 227 players, and it was won by none other than Mono-Black Aggro.
Helping the deck along the way was a piece of new technology in the sideboard, a full playset of Self-Inflicted Wound.
A former Standard staple, this piece of tech emerged in Pioneer in response to the rise of Niv-Mizzet Reborn decks on Magic Online. It can deal with their namesake Dragon, but it's particularly effective because it's a rare answer to the hexproof acceleration creatures that help cast it. Picking off Sylvan Caryatid or Paradise Druid (which is now becoming a standard inclusion) goes a long way in slowing Niv down long enough for Mono-Black's aggression to finish the job. Self-Inflicted Wound also deals with the deck's support creatures Siege Rhino and Questing Beast, so it's really an ideal removal spell for the matchup as a catch-all answer to whatever creatures they play.
In a matchup like Azorius Control, you can completely ignore creatures and deal with the stray Lyra Dawnbringer with one of your Murderous Rider you left in to handle planeswalkers. The Five-Color Niv matchup is not so straightforward. A full set of Teferi, Time Raveler along with up to four Niv-Mizzet Reborn plus any number of Siege Rhino and other miscellaneous creatures taxes Murderous Rider to the point that it needs more support. The ability to deal with these and help hose their mana acceleration, which can be critical for their stretched five-color manabase, makes it an all-star in the sideboard.
Mono-Black takes a very aggressive stance against Niv-Mizzet Reborn decks, and the extra life loss from Self-Inflicted goes a long way toward beating them. It offers a similar two-for-one effect as Searing Blaze in Burn decks, which everyone knows feels like a blowout every time it connects.
Magic Online's own new flagship event series, the Magic Online Champions Showcase, had its first Qualifier events last weekend, which brought competitive attention to many formats, including Pioneer. The winner was the pro Teruya Kakumae, and his take on Mono-Red Aggro includes a piece of old Standard technology that brings the deck to a new level.
Abbot of Keral Keep is part prowess creature in the same vein as the deck's core of Monastery Swiftspear and Soul-Scar Mage, and part card advantage. It's a suitable two-drop when it's necessary, but it's ideally held until later to unlock its card advantage potential. From turn three forward it's ideal for hitting land drops, and as the game progresses it becomes closer to a true two-for-one piece of value that can play anything it yields. Along with Bonecrusher Giant and Goblin Chainwhirler, this deck has a robust midgame with a lot of ability to generate value and grind out opponents, and Abbot of Keral Keep is a great way to further bolster that plan.
Not long ago Big Red decks with Goblin Rabblemaster and Glorybringer were at the top of the metagame, but they've had a hard time lately with the rise of Niv-Mizzet Reborn decks. Teruya's list takes a more aggressive approach that can get under them and kill quickly, but it's more well-rounded than hyper-aggressive decks with cards like Ghitu Lavarunner and Wizard's Lightning. In particular, it looks to have a good game plan against Mono-Black Aggro, where it's better suited for grinding over a longer game.
Giving the deck more finishing power is a full playset of Torbran, Thane of Red Fell, which feels like a combo finisher in how quickly it will end games when combined with just about anything else in the deck, like Kari Zev, Skyship Raider for a 7 damage punch. Unlike a combo piece, it's also plenty effective on its own, so it's a great play at the top of the curve after the opponent has been forced to spend their removal on earlier threats. Slicing through a competitive field was no easy feat, but this innovative deck got it done, and looks to be a major threat heading into coming premier events—including the Players Tour itself.
I'm always scouring results for new decks and new tech within top decks, and one archetype I've been paying particularly close attention to is Izzet Ensoul. It has had strong results online, and I noticed a lot of pro players putting up results with it, so I expect it to be a factor at the PT. It also strikes me as a deck that has more room for development and improvement, so I've been eagerly awaiting some sort of innovation.
I've seen various tech over the past weeks, including Ondrej "straca3" Strasky using a pair of Whirler Rogue that was a staple of the old Standard deck that inspired the Pioneer version, along with more extreme options such as Hazoret the Fervent. The Royal Scions has become the most popular choice for the flex slots, but the newest piece of tech, and the one I'm most excited by, comes from Theros Beyond Death.
I was blessed with a Shadowspear in my first Theros Beyond Death Sealed deck, and I knew its combination of abilities would be devastating in that format, where it outdid even my high expectations. It doesn't feel like a stretch for the card to see Constructed play, and it impresses as a two-of in this list that reached the Top 8 of the Saturday Pioneer PTQ at GP New Jersey.
The +1/+1 bonus is a nice perk, and giving trample to a 5/5 animated artifact is surely strong, but the real appeal to me is lifelink, which is a great way to break open any of the aggressive opponents that comprise the majority of the field. It even bestows an extra advantage in the mirror match, where its ability to turn off indestructibility can smash through opposing animated Darksteel Citadel.
Heliod, Sun-Crowned and its highly anticipated combo with Walking Ballista got off to a slow start, but a strong Top 8 finish in the Pioneer Showcase Challenge reveals it has come into its own as a truly competitive option.
Making the most of Heliod, Sun-Crowned means being able to support it white devotion, so this deck is full of heavy-white staples that typically accompany the God. However, this list is unique for venturing into green for Collected Company. It doesn't quite complete the combo because it can't put Walking Ballista into play, but finding Heliod and/or any combination of creatures in the deck, many of which provide card advantage of their own, is a great proposition.
One of these value creatures is Militia Bugler, which cleverly gets around Collected Company's inability to put Walking Ballista into play by digging for it. In this way, Collected Company can single-handedly find the combo, and as such adds a powerful element to this deck. Its storied history in Standard and Modern means it should be one of the best cards in Pioneer, and this is one of the best applications for it yet.
Heliod, Sun-Crowned and Walking Ballista are also starting to see success in mono-white builds, like this 5-0 list from a recent Preliminary event.
The new Alseid of Life's Bounty is a nice addition here that helps protect the combo while adding to devotion. With its lifelink ability, it also plays well with Heliod as a way to generate free +1/+1 counters, and it could build itself into a sizable threat.
The most important combo-kill card in Theros Beyond Death is not Heliod, Sun-Crowned, but Thassa's Oracle. It's already winning games in Eternal formats like Legacy in all sorts of wild builds, including with Demonic Consultation which can remove one's entire library for one mana.
It turns out a somewhat similar combo is available in Pioneer with Inverter of Truth, and it's more than a gimmick. A Top 8 in the Pioneer Showcase reveals that the deck is very much competitive, and it threatens the format with its own brand of two-card combo.
The idea behind the deck is to exile your library with Inverter of Truth, and then use Thassa's Oracle to end the game. Of course, things won't often work out quite so cleanly, because Magic will be played on the way, and cards are likely to get into the graveyard and interfere. To some extent that's ideal, because removing your entire library would require casting Thassa's Oracle immediately or dying on the next draw step.
The deck is set up to get some cards into the graveyard on its own, with cards like Opt and Discovery // Dispersal as a great way to build some wiggle room. The graveyard could become a problem when it grows too large for Thassa's Oracle to kill, so the deck turns to delve spells to shrink it to a manageable size. Dig Through Time does this job while helping assemble the combo, which makes it a true all-star in the deck, and it's further supported by Murderous Cut.
The real beauty of this combo and this deck is that both of the combo pieces are reasonable cards on their own in fair games. The Felidar Guardian and Saheeli Rai combo was so successful in part because they each also worked well with any of the other cards in the deck that could be blinked for value. This deck doesn't quite have the same synergies, but on its own Thassa's Oracle is a reasonably functional Magic card that provides a body and card selection. When it's backed by more blue devotion, like when in multiples or with the Jace, Wielder of Mysteries (which the deck uses as a back-up win condition) it digs deep and becomes truly powerful. Inverter of Truth is a bit clunky, but with careful play and set up it's just a huge threat for a low cost, somewhat similar to Death's Shadow and its own unique restriction.
With a potent combo-kill and the ability to play fair Magic, this deck draws some comparison to Splinter Twin, the old menace of Modern. Like Splinter Twin and its package of Lightning Bolt-plus-countermagic (like Remand), this combo is built on the foundation of the best disruption suite in the format: the Thoughtseize and Fatal Push package that has proven so successful for mono-black decks. Thoughtseize is especially great in a combo deck because it can protect said combo, and will leave many opponents with no options but to cross their fingers and hope for the best.
I already wrote a whole article on Spirits so I won't go into too much detail, but the deck is slowly being adopted by a wider audience, and its second place finish in the Showcase is sure to win more converts.
A consistent, aggressive plan backed by disruption is the bread-and-butter way to win in Pioneer (and maybe Magic in general), and this deck fits the description. Its style of game play may be particularly strong in a world where the Inverter of Truth becomes popular, due to the strength of Spell Queller against it.
Adam Yurchick is a competitive Magic player and writer. He writes about Modern, Pioneer, and Eternal formats, and keeps a weather eye on shifts in the metagame.