Although Pioneer is still going through growing pains with Oko, Thief of Crowns and Nexus of Fate now banned, the format continues to be as inventive and exciting as ever. We are close to hitting the threshold of regular bans on Magic's newest format, which means stabilization and freedom of creativity without the cloud of ban speculation affecting players regularly.
We have seen glimpses of tribal strategies in Pioneer from Mono-Red Goblins to Mono-White Humans, but what about Zombies? We have seen a myriad of Zombies printed over recent Standards sets, which even saw a Pro Tour win in the hands of Gerry Thompson with Mono-Black Zombies. Despite these successes, this take on Zombies is offbeat compared to its Standard predecessor, as we are adding white for powerful recursive threats such as Return to the Ranks and Rally the Ancestors. In total, the list below comes to $120 and offers an excellent base to play one of Magic's favorite tribes.
The win condition is simple: go wide with Zombies and turn sideways. We have different routes to approach this plan, however, as we have Nantuko Husk as a sacrifice outlet which can become a big threat independently. With the addition of Wayward Servant and Corpse Knight, we can accrue small amounts of damage which synergizes well with our plan of growing the board. Even through a Supreme Verdict or any other sweeper, we have insurance in Rally the Ancestors and Return to the Ranks which trigger both Corpse Knight and Wayward Servant to pile on plenty of damage. Given how creature-orientated Pioneer is becoming, swarming the board with Zombies invalidates a lot of combat strategies, especially when we're bringing them back on our turn. Four-Color Rally was a nuisance in old Standard due to its resiliency, which let it pull wins from nowhere, and this build is no different.
In terms of upgrades, I'd look at obtaining a set of Godless Shrine first, replacing Temple of Silence. The aim is to deploy as many Zombies as possible, and while the fixing is needed, Temple of Silence can slow down this approach greatly. Within a budget, Temple of Silence is a necessary evil as adding Plains to the list becomes a dead card given how many black cards we are running early on. However, we need to ensure we have white for our white-heavy spells later on such as Return to the Ranks and Rally the Ancestors, and Temple of Silence meets these criteria.
Another positive to playing black is Fatal Push. Despite revolt being difficult to achieve compared to in Modern, Fatal Push remains an excellent removal spell. I would look at adding a handful of Fatal Push and moving Liliana, Untouched by Death to the sideboard. I like Liliana in this build as she is Dark Salvation, pseudo-Rally the Ancestors and Stitcher's Supplier on a planeswalker, which offers plenty of reach if the game goes long.
Lastly, I'd look at picking up a playset of Thoughtseize to replace the Duress in the sideboard. Thoughtseize remains one of the most disruptive spells in Pioneer and is the primary reason to play black in the format. With this reasoning in mind, I would be tempted to do a two and two spilt of Thoughtseize between the main and sideboard to ensure you can play around any sweepers without diluting your game plan game one. However, Thoughtseize is one of the more expensive cards in Pioneer due to its power in the format. $30 a copy may seem steep, but I feel this number will even increase in time due to demand.
We looked at a combo-aggressive strategy last week in Gruul Pummeler, but what about playing a low-to-the-ground Gruul strategy?
Gruul Aggro cares about turning sideways and attacking the face. This aggressive build comes to just over $100 and provides a different option if you aren't keen on the combo Pummeler approach. Gruul Aggro offers soft counters synergy with Pelt Collector and Experiment One, which combines well with Burning-Tree Emissary. Many of our creatures double up as removal or combat tricks with Bonecrusher Giant and Ghor-Clan Rampager, which grants flexibility. I like having Embercleave in the build as having affinity for attacking creatures practically guarantees the discount. Gruul Aggro is a simple, turn-sideways strategy which is easy to pick up if you are new to the format.
Upgrades for Gruul Aggro are minimal; we can add a set of Stomping Ground removing two Forests and two Mountains for mana consistency. Otherwise, I would want a few Chandra, Torch of Defiance or Domri, Anarch of Bolas in the sideboard for Control matchups as they provide additional damage and ramp, which Gruul can always use well.
There are a couple other approaches you can take such as adding a Goblin subtheme with Legion Warboss and Goblin Rabblemaster. If you choose to do this, I'd recommend adding Elvish Mystic and Llanowar Elves to the build as casting these on turn two is a very aggressive approach to take. I'd also be tempted to run Lovestruck Beast, as it synergises with your mana dorks. My budget lists run aggressive one-drops which does not utilize mana dorks well, but if you choose to have more three and four-mana creatures then I would incorporate the mana dorks to the build. The other approach is including an Eldrazi subtheme with haymakers such as Reality Smasher and Thought-Knot Seer; however, the manabase may need to be reconfigured to accommodate colorless mana. Still, it's a viable direction to go.
Wrapping up on a similar theme from last week, our last budget deck was an all-star back in Eldritch Moon Standard: Azorius Monument. Since the announcement of Pioneer, it was only a matter of time until I was going to create a list of one of my all-time favorite Standard decks. Azorius Monument is a tempo strategy which is all about two-for-ones. Whether you are blinking Reflector Mages or creating 1/1 Human Warrior tokens off Oketra's Monument, Azorius Monument accrues value and offers plenty of disruption. This budget build comes to $122 and consolidates plenty of what the Standard forerunner offered.
We have a new tool for this strategy in Charming Prince, who synergizes perfectly, as every creature in our mainboard has an enters-the-battlefield-ability. One of my favorite lines is casting Reflector Mage to remove a creature, then blinking it with Charming Prince to remove another creature, leaving the potential that two creatures can't be cast on your opponent's turn. If there is no board state to worry about, you can simply blink Cloud Blazer to draw a bunch of cards or use Angel of Invention to grow the board. Dusk // Dawn is a staple as it wipes the more problematic creatures of the format, and we can aftermath these back to get those triggers again—and it's even sweeter if a Charming Prince returns too!
The upgrades are minimal, too. I would begin with grabbing a set of Hallowed Fountain, replacing the Port Towns and two Plains. In extension, I would add a set of Spell Queller to the sideboard replacing a Giant Killer, a Fragmentize and the two Lavinia, Azorius Renegade. If you are feeling comfortable with the build, I would be tempted to add an Archangel Avacyn into the mainboard too as she offers synergy with Selfless Spirit and is a potent threat herself. There are plenty of routes to take the build too: you can go into Azorius Spirits which features a more blue base with Mausoleum Wanderer and Supreme Phantom, or you can go into Azorius Tempo, which incorporates Teferi, Time Raveler and Brazen Borrower for a more disruptive strategy. Admittedly, both of these strategies require more investment, but there are options if you want to change it up after a while.
Typically, when we see powerful cards make an impression across Standard over the years, it usually means their application extends to Modern, and Pioneer is no exception to this rule. I'm excited to see what Theros: Beyond Death brings to the table as this will be the first set since Pioneer's inception, which means more brewing will be had! A heads-up that there will be no article from myself next week due to the Christmas holidays—I hope you all have wonderful holidays and a prosperous New Year! I'll be back the week after Christmas with more budget Pioneer brews!
Emma Partlow is a writer and Modern enthusiast based in Suffolk, England. She's been involved in Magic since Khans of Tarkir back in 2014, and loves helping players dive into the game's most diverse format.
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