On Monday, at a perfectly reasonable time for people on the West Coast to be finishing lunch, Wizards announced three bans in Pioneer: Felidar Guardian, Oath of Nissa and Leyline of Abundance. The goal of these bans was to eliminate or weaken three core strategies that had shown themselves to be very dominant in the first couple weeks of Pioneer: Saheeli/Guardian combo, Mono-Green Devotion and what I'm going to call the "three-mana planeswalkers of 2019" strategy that Oath of Nissa smoothed over a little too much by providing both color fixing and card selection.
This is almost a soft reset on the format. While we have plenty of information from the first two weeks of Pioneer, the decks that performed well did so under very different circumstances, and had me wondering: where will the format go next, and how can we fight against it?
One of the big consequences of this ban that I haven't seen discussed much is how impactful it is to one card in particular: Teferi, Time Raveler. Saheeli Rai is effectively gone, as she was only ever half of a Splinter Twin combo, and Oko, Thief of Crowns has plenty of other shells he fits into, but Teferi's place in the format is less clear. His previous ubiquity was largely because of how well he fit into decks that wanted to play Jeskai colors for Saheeli Rai and Felidar Guardian. Without Felidar Guardian, there is a lot less of a pull to play white at all. The only non-Saheeli decks playing him before were white-blue and Esper control decks, which haven't seen much success.
The reason this is so important is because of another card that was largely pushed out of the previous Pioneer format: Aetherworks Marvel. Just like in its own Standard, Marvel is about a turn too slow for a format where Saheeli Rai and Felidar Guardian could end the game immediately on turn four. Marvel doesn't have the luxury of playing much disruption for that combo, or for Teferi, Time Raveler, who makes interacting with the combo impossible. To put it bluntly, there was no reason to spin the Aetherworks Marvel wheel when one of the top decks accidentally dunked on the strategy so hard. Because Felidar Guardian is now banned, and Teferi, Time Raveler doesn't have a clear home, Aetherworks Marvel seems poised for a debut as a top-tier contender in Pioneer.
Meanwhile, one of the most powerful cards in Modern is also legal in Pioneer: Thoughtseize. Black midrange decks are likely to stay a tier 1 or 2 strategy as long as Thoughtseize is legal, which makes it harder to rely on synergy-based decks. Between efficient removal, hand disruption and reasonable threats, it feels too easy for decks that rely on synergy to be pulled apart unless they're very redundant or very explosive. This leads me to look for decks with cards that are individually powerful, but can synergize from there.
These two considerations have led me to an old favorite: Bant Collected Company. Bant Collected Company was one of the first decks that I thought would be powerful in Pioneer when the format was announced, but I quickly realized a rather critical flaw in the strategy: it lacked the tools to compete with the Saheeli-Guardian combo. Now, however, that's a non-factor.
What it does have is the ability to still play Teferi, Time Raveler, along with some cards that have proven to be strong enough for Modern, let alone Pioneer.
One of Pioneer's most apparent factors is just how bad interaction is in the format. Countermagic is woefully weak, one-mana removal is very situational and Veil of Summer is incredibly potent at beating black and blue answers. Enter Spell Queller, which is usually countermagic attached to a flying creature body that can take advantage of the mediocre removal in the format while skirting Veil of Summer entirely
Not only does it seem well positioned in the format, it also works incredibly well with the other white-blue card that I'm looking to play, Teferi, Time Raveler. Countering a spell on their turn two off a Gilded Goose and then picking up the Spell Queller on turn three with Teferi is an absolute beating to an opponent, who cannot cast the spell that was exiled when Spell Queller leaves play… and then must get rid of Teferi before it happens again.
Similarly, it works well with the other three-mana planeswalker that I want to play, Oko, Thief of Crowns. After making a Black Lotus attack for lethal in the Top 8 of the Vintage Championships last week, nobody should need an explanation of why Oko deserves a slot in any deck at all—let alone one that plays a hefty number of creatures sized a little below rate that get their value from enters-the-battlefield abilities, and that also wants to play Gilded Goose anyway. That said, the interaction with Spell Queller is adorable: when it becomes a 3/3 Elk and loses all abilities, that includes its last ability that would re-cast the spell if it ever leaves the battlefield.
The namesake card of the deck forms the core of former Standard and Modern decks alike. The card does several things as long as a deck is built with it in mind: it generates instant-speed threats, effectively draws cards, and cheats on mana. It is an absolute haymaker in a midrange world. A Sultai midrange deck tries to grind an opponent down with one-for-one effects and win a game where both players are resource light but their cards are individually more powerful. All of that work is undone by an average Collective Company drawing cards, disrupting their plans and pressuring their planeswalkers.
Further, the kinds of cards that Bant CoCo wants to play are incredibly powerful in a world of Sultai decks. Removal is often only as good as the threats an opponent is presenting, and in this case a substantial amount of the value from any one card tends to be wrapped up in the triggered ability from entering the battlefield: it's generally not very damaging to have a Reflector Mage Fatal Pushed, for example.
This is one of the most powerful cards in Pioneer, and is undeniably among the best cards in a Collected Company shell. The ability to find lands or mitigate flood, dig through a deck full of situational creatures and provide extra copies of Collected Company is invaluable. The fact that it does all of this while being a hit off of Collected Company itself is absolutely outrageous, and sets up situations in the late game where a Collected Company on the end step of an opponent's turn reveals Jace, Vryn's Prodigy, which then activates the following turn, loots, and casts Collected Company again. If the board was empty, there are now three creatures and a planeswalker in play where previously there was nothing.
But secretly… the best part of Jace, Vryn's Prodigy is just that it's a Merfolk Looter. When I played Bant CoCo in Standard, I repeatedly joked that the worst part about Jace, Vryn's Prodigy is that it flips. Oftentimes even if there is a powerful card to flashback like Collected Company, it would have been better to keep cycling lands. Unfortunately, Merfolk Looter isn't legal, so we'll have to "settle" for Jace. The good news is that it generally works well in multiples, for multiple reasons.
When building a CoCo deck, you want to play a minimum of about 25 creatures. Looking at old Frank Karsten math, he suggested the bare minimum was 22, but that left an uncomfortable ~25% chance of hitting zero or one creature cards. Because there is no realistic way to be mathematically certain of always hitting two creatures, it is better to hedge with a number that will at least mitigate this. Because sideboarding will sometimes require that we board out a couple creatures, I prefer to buff this to 27 or 28 creatures. There also tends to be "more" sideboard space as well, because the deck has trouble bringing in more than a few cards in a lot of matchups. You rarely sideboard out ten cards from a Collected Company deck.
Here is the current build of Bant CoCo I've been working on:
Creature-based midrange strategies are well suited to competing with a broad metagame, where their creatures can serve as a way to blunt offense, win midrange battles through incremental card advantage, and pressure control and combo decks while providing just enough disruption to stop them from winning. This deck is going to be in flux for a while as the Pioneer metagame takes shape, but I currently have it built with the idea of beating Aetherworks Marvel and Sultai.
There are three other matchups that are high on my radar currently, all of which Yoman5 talked about in his article on Tuesday: Izzet Phoenix, Hardened Scales and Ensoul Aggro. Reflector Mage can make trouble for all three by bouncing key permanents, especially because Izzet Phoenix is not as good at moving cards from its hand to the graveyard as it was in Modern. Scavenging Ooze has been impressive generally in Pioneer so far, but seems especially potent against Izzet Phoenix, even just as a way to spend extra mana to tax their Treasure Cruise turns. Post-board, Declaration in Stone gives the deck a way to catch back up from draws that involve multiple Arclight Phoenix, which should hopefully be enough of a window to win the game.
Hardened Scales and Ensoul Aggro definitely look fast, but between Dromoka's Command, Reflector Mage, Teferi and a host of creatures to get in the way, I think I like the matchup currently. That said, without having played these matchups specifically yet, they could be worse than I imagine. Even if that's true, Bant colors have plenty of answers to artifacts and enchantments, and cards can be easily swapped to improve those matchups.
If there's one matchup I'm still a bit worried about, its Kethis Combo. Unfortunately, just like with Saheeli-Felidar, there aren't a lot of good ways for Bant to interact with it. Reflector Mage bouncing Diligent Excavator or Kethis, the Hidden Hand for a turn can definitely slow them down sometimes, but other times it will be almost irrelevant. Scavenging Ooze again does some work here, eating legendary cards out of the graveyard to slow down the Kethis player from bouncing the graveyard hate with Teferi, Time Raveler and comboing off. However, I suspect that the Kethis deck is still favored, because in games where these cards don't show up, Bant CoCo probably doesn't have a fast enough clock to stop them from winning anyway.
I'll be modifying this list as I jump back into Magic Online and play games of this new format. Pioneer is a brewer's paradise, and there is a lot of room to explore new ideas and concepts, but it's hard to do alone, especially because there are a lot of powerful creatures that have been printed in the last seven years of Magic. If you try the deck, let me know on Twitter how you do, and if there's any key cards you think I missed.