While the threat of COVID-19 has led to the cancellation of Magic: The Gathering events from MagicFests down to local Friday Night Magic, it has caused a boom in the online game. Without a way to get their fix in paper, players are turning to the digital cards of MTG Arena and Magic Online. Last weekend's Magic Online events reached record levels of attendance, with swollen player counts in the Players Tour Qualifiers and the weekly Format Challenges. The effect is especially noticeable in fixed-round Leagues and Preliminary events, where the extra players translate into extra decklists, and have provided a wealth of exciting new ones to pour over.
Players turning to Magic Online has been especially good to Pioneer. It's now firmly in the lead as the program's most popular competitive constructed format, where it's well ahead of Modern and only continuing to grow. Last weekend's banned list update of "no changes" has kept the format and the metagame humming along as it has since the Players Tours brought about the rise of Dimir Inverter, which players have been working on beating ever since. Instead of bannings bringing about massive changes, keeping things the same has instead created a stable environment to work in, and some really cool decks have emerged from it in recent days.
The most surprising deck to appear last week was this one based around playing and sacrificing Ugin's Nexus to unlock its Time Walk effect.
This deck first earned a 5-0 League finish and seemed like a gimmick, but it has since claimed 4-1 in a Preliminary event and made a case that it's a real competitive option. With a set of Karn, the Great Creator able to wish for a sideboard copy of Ugin's Nexus, the deck has great access to its centerpiece. It uses another planeswalker Vraska, Golgari Queen as its primary sacrifice outlet, which plays well with Arboreal Grazer as fodder. It's joined by another sac outlet Korvold, Fae-Cursed King, which has additional synergy with Fabled Passage and Clue tokens from Tireless Tracker.
To help power this plan, the deck turns to Fires of Invention, which defines the deck almost as much as Ugin's Nexus. It's a Standard staple still very unexplored in Pioneer given its high potential, and this deck's bulky curve makes great use of it. With some powerful planeswalkers backed by card advantage and acceleration, it all comes together into an effective deck and one of the most creative new strategies in Pioneer.
Another promising application of Fires of Invention is in the Grixis deck that finished in the Top 16 of last weekend's Pioneer Challenge.
This is a true midrange deck, using the best disruption suite in Pioneer—not only Thoughtseize and Fatal Push, but also Thought Erasure and Censor. It's a package proven very effective in Dimir Inverter, and a great foundation for a midrange deck. It's further supported by another proven staple in Murderous Rider, which as two spells in one works well with Fires of Invention
It's best follow-up is Nicol Bolas, the Ravager, not only as a turn-four play, but also later in the game when it can immediately flip and act as the deck's big combo finish. The Scarab God also functions in this role when untapped mana can be sunk into eternalizing a creature.
I'm honestly not sure that Fires of Invention is actually the best fit in the deck, since it does have a relatively low curve and not many expensive haymakers to take full advantage of it, compared to the Standard version bloated with five-mana plays. It seems that its synergy with Nicol Bolas, the Ravager and The Scarab God is more powerful than I give it credit for, and Hostage Taker and Thief of Sanity add their own ways to fuel it with action. I can't argue too much with the result.
A new build of "Temurge" based around Uro, Titan of Nature's Wrath has appeared, and with one player's 4-1 Preliminary run followed by a Top 8 in last weekend's Pioneer Challenge, it's one of the most promising new decks in the format.
Uro, Titan of Nature's Wrath has continued to impress as one of the best cards in Theros Beyond Death, and it has stretched its reach back to Legacy and even Vintage, where it was part of last weekend's Vintage Challenge-winning deck. It has the potential to be an all-star in the right home in Pioneer, and the Temurge deck might be a perfect one.
The strategy has traditionally used Satyr Wayfinder and Champion of Wits as both fodder for its centerpiece Elder Deep-Fiend and to enable the graveyard for Traverse the Ulvenwald and Kozilek's Return. Now they're great for setting up the escape of Uro, which is decent fodder for Elder Deep-Fiend in its own right.
With Uro helping to accelerate, this evolution of the deck takes a new direction with the addition of further ramp elements Nissa, Who Shakes the World and Cavalier of Thorns (which can be emerged away to trigger its death trigger). The extra mana the deck produces can be channeled into everything from the eternalize of Champion of Wits to the top-end package of Ugin, the Spirit Dragon and Emrakul, the Promised End, which helps the deck to overpower anything it might run into. The other new staple, Bonecrusher Giant, adds the ability to play small-ball to help survive until the Eldrazi take over, but it's also more fuel for emerge.
My favorite deck to appear last weekend is this white-blue strategy that combines a Thassa, Deep-Dwelling blink plan with a tribe of Humans featuring enters-the-battlefield triggers.
Humans have risen to become among the most powerful tribes in Magic—certainly in Modern—and this Pioneer version shares a surprising number of the same staples.
The highlight is Reflector Mage, which can outright lock an opponent from the game with Thassa, Deep-Dwelling, but every Human in the deck produces some sort of value. Thraben Inspector and Militia Bugler generate card advantage, while the anthem effect on Thalia's Lieutenant is the deck's primary piece of Human synergy that ties the deck together.
Elite Guardmage, Cloudblazer and even Agent of Treachery add more strong Blink elements not typically found in Modern, while Teferi, Time Raveler adds some disruption and the potential to "blink" one's own creature with its bounce effect. The deck does miss Aether Vial, but a set of Irrigation Ditch along with Castle Ardenvale and Castle Vantress do help it pack extra value into the mana base and give it further ability to grind. This deck looks like it can play the long game much better than the Modern version, which is full of aggressive and disruptive cards but lacks any real value engine.
Azorius Blink earned a 4-1 in a Preliminary event, so it's competitive, and I expect to see more of it as Pioneer continues to evolve. It will only get better as more Humans are printed.
Another card that benefits from every new release is Dreadhorde Arcanist, a Legacy and Vintage staple that has yet to really make a mark in Pioneer. This take on the white-red Heroic strategy that has given it a home in Standard adds blue for the powerful effect of Slip Through Space, which really helps to fuel Dreadhorde Arcanist and to get it into the red zone.
Adding blue is a subtle change and not without cost, but by pushing the power level to the limit it helps to elevate a strategy that hasn't quite been able to break through without it. A 4-1 Preliminary run is a good sign the deck is capable of stringing together some wins, and that it's worth a second look.
The Heliod, Sun-Crowned and Walking Ballista combo in the White Devotion shell has risen to become one of the most successful decks in Pioneer, where it's nearly as popular as Dimir Inverter. The deck is starting to see its own innovations, like the increasingly popular blue splash for Teferi, Time Raveler, Spell Queller and Dragonlord Ojutai. Another approach that follows a much more aggressive White Aggro game plan fought its way to 11th place in the Pioneer Challenge.
This take on the Heliod, Sun-Crowned strategy fully embraces both its potential as an aggressive threat by filling the deck with cheap white cards to enable early devotion, and as a +1/+1 engine by combining it with a wealth of life gain creatures.
Ajani's Pridemate adds a big payoff for this effect, and it headlines a cast of aggressive creatures that comprise the bulk of the deck.
It's not quite a game-ending combo, but one very powerful Pioneer interaction is Risen Reef's ability combined with the Elemental-producing Master of Waves.
Converting every devotion into an Explore effect is a great way to lock in some value from the card even if it dies and takes its tokens with it, and a deck based around the cards had a great run into the Top 16 of the Pioneer Challenge.
It turns out that this player has actually been using this strategy for months, with solid 5-0 League and 4-1 Preliminary results all the way back into last year. This Challenge run is the highlight, and it brings renewed attention to the Mono-Blue Devotion strategy that's still waiting for a real breakout in the format.
It's still firmly in the "League 5-0" speculative category, but a deck built around Narset, Parter of Veils and its hand-destroying combo with Day's Undoing is having some success.
The interaction had a brief moment in Modern before disappearing, but maybe Pioneer is a more appropriate place for it.
A cool facet of this deck is that it adds redundancy to its main combo with Commit // Memory, which in addition to the general disruption of Commit can be cast as Memory with aftermath—or by Torrential Gearhulk, as a substitute for Day's Undoing.
Engulf the Shore adds a sweeper and Blink of an Eye some pinpoint removal, and they work especially well at instant speed before untapping and shuffling an opponent's hand away. Rounded out by Censor and Disallow as countermagic and Opt as card selection, it's a clean one-color deck that supports some colorless utility lands (Blast Zone is welcome removal). It's probably more of a fun concept than a truly well-rounded competitive deck, but there's something here worth exploring.