When Pioneer was first revealed back in October, it came along with the announcement that the new format would be featured at the highest competitive levels of the game in 2020, as part of the new Players Tour series. Putting Pioneer under the spotlight for a wider audience will be great for the popularity of the format, but it also puts the format into the sights of the pros. The first of these events is now under a month away, and with their livelihoods on the line, we can be certain professional players are hard at work. A look at Magic Online results reveals that many of them are grinding it out like everyone else, and their decklists provide a rare and honest look at part of their testing process.
While the goal of every player is to find some secret deck that's a level above the rest and crushes the competition, or "breaking it", the vast majority of preparation for most pros will not be nearly as flashy. It will instead focus on experimenting with and refining the top decks already established in the field, because rapid iteration on Magic Online has matured the Pioneer metagame faster than any format in history and already revealed most of its secrets. I don't expect to see many (if any) groundbreaking new decks appear at the Players Tour, but I would bet that the pros will hone these existing decks into razor-shape blades.
Take for example Mono-Black Aggro, currently the most popular deck in Pioneer, and the most consistently successful in its history. It's sure to be a very popular choice among the pros. The robust deck has shaken off the Smuggler's Copter banning, but its many proponents have yet to form a consensus on the exact cards to play. This uncertainty is the perfect space for pros to explore and develop the tech, and 2019 Magic Pro League member Grzegorz "Urlich00" Kowalski has filled it with some innovative technology.
The most contentious part of Mono-Black currently is its one-drop slot, which opened up after the Smuggler's Copter ban rendered Night Market Lookout inferior to other options. The space tends to be filled by either Gutterbones or increasingly Dread Wanderer, which offers less efficient but more reliable recursion in the late game. Grzegorz made a sensible split of two and two, but then goes deeper into the one-drop rabbit hole with some unique options virtually unknown to the format.
Bone Picker isn't technically a one-drop creature, but it can be a one-mana play as early as turn two, offering a tremendous discount on a powerful piece of board presence. Anytime it comes down for one mana it will be great, and it compares surprisingly well to Spawn of Mayhem, a popular two-of, offering around three-fifths of its offensive power but at only a third of the cost. Unlike Spawn of Mayhem and most of the other creatures in the deck, Bone Picker also plays well on defense with its deathtouch ability, which will be especially valuable in this metagame dense with green decks. Bone Picker had a successful history in Standard Black aggro decks, so it's certainly not out of the question for it to see play in Pioneer. It's serviceable at best at full-rate, but Grzegorz helps make it more reliable with another unique pseudo-one mana creature in Fungal Infection.
Fungal Infection is an efficient removal option in a format with few of them, with Fatal Push likely the best in the format and a big part of the deck's success. While Fungal Infection is not nearly as powerful, there's something to be said for doubling down on what black does best, especially in this metagame, which Grzegorz astutely figured out.
Fungal Infection screams out to kill green mana acceleration creatures Llanowar Elves and Elvish Mystic. However, it's truly at its best in situations where the 1/1 token it creates can pull double-duty as a potent blocker, turning Infection into a true two-for-one—like in the mirror match and its many X/1 creatures, or against aggressive red decks with Bomat Courier or Viashino Pyromancer. The token is also great for crewing Aethersphere Harvester, which sits in the sideboard for these same matchups.
Of course the token can also do work offensively, and the shrink effect can be used as a combat trick, so it's likely to make a positive impact in most matchups. It's also less dead than normal removal spells against creatureless opponents like Azorius Control because it can be used on one's own X/2 or better creature to at least convert into something tangible and get out of the way of Castle Locthwain.
Grzegorz's technology continues to the sideboard with a pair of Epic Downfall. It's an elegant solution to Rekindling Phoenix specifically, which has become a staple in a variety of red decks and is otherwise costly for the black deck to deal with. Downfall goes further by being a great sideboard card against all variety of green decks, whether by ignoring the death trigger on Cavalier of Thorns from Green Ramp, or just trading with Steel Leaf Champion from Green Aggro.
Yuta "Dazai" Takahashi is a former pro and active grinder online. While I don't know that he's playing in the Players Tour, he is someone I'd look to for tech, and this week he revealed some in a 5-0 Preliminary finish with Azorius Control.
A stock Azorius Control list isn't really exciting to even the most diehard control lovers. However, hiding in there are three copies of Isolate, which gives the deck a unique removal spell that (much like Fungal Infection) looks very well suited for this metagame.
Isolate is at its best against Mono-Black Aggro, where as an exile effect it efficiently answers any of the one-mana recurrable creatures that are otherwise so troublesome for control. Its value also shows against Red Aggro, which became popular partly in response to the increasing popularity of Azorius Control, where it can deal with many of their threats. It also gives the strategy a nice way to deal with mana creatures that give opponents a head start, and so will find a target in most matchups. In those where it's dead, it's really no different than other situational removal spells like Blessed Alliance, which is often used in the maindeck.
In the sideboard rests another piece of tech, which is not Yuta's and has been used for weeks, but should be mentioned. Summary Dismissal gives control decks a clean answer to the otherwise maddening on-cast triggers of Oblivion Sower, Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger and Hydroid Krasis, so it's an ideal sideboard card in a metagame with green ramp decks. It's possible this slot could soon be filled by the freshly spoiled Theros Beyond Death card Whirlwind Denial. It does the same job for a mana less, but at the risk of the opponent being able to pay. That's risky indeed against decks designed to make a lot of mana, especially once they know to play around it, but it might have a place somewhere in the format.
Piotr "kanister" Glogowski is a prolific deckbuilder and MTGO grinder, as well as the most recent Mythic Championship winner, which makes him the player to watch going into the upcoming Players Tour events. He's played all sorts of strategies in the format over the past months, but seems to keep coming back to red decks, and his latest list from a Pioneer Preliminary event showcases some unique technology that has to be seen.
There are a variety of red strategies in the format, and this maindeck doesn't stand out as anything particularly special. It is a burn-heavy version, playing a minimal number of creatures and maxing out on burn spells including a set of maindeck Searing Blood, which is the biggest piece of tech in the maindeck. However, it's the sideboard that's truly interesting.
Kanister is set up to completely transform into a midrange deck with Chandra, Torch of Defiance and Glorybringer, supported by a full set of Mutavault to help pay for the increased curve. Sideboarding into a more midrange deck post-sideboard is a tactic used by aggressive decks for ages, but this particular pairing of hard-hitting, card advantage-generating cards was seen during their time together in Standard, and remain some of the strongest red cards in Pioneer. The idea behind this plan is to take on a more controlling role against other aggressive decks like Green and Black, where the big red cards line up well against threats like Steel Leaf Champion and Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet, allowing the red deck to out-grind opponents. Kanister adds a new element to this package with Chandra, Acolyte of Flame. The key ability is the -2 ultimate, which can be used to generate value from the graveyard and cements the midrange plan, while easily transitioning into a threat to help close out the game.
Dedicating an entire sideboard to this plan is a big commitment, but it works well because these same cards can also be used very effectively against controlling opponents, which covers just about the entire metagame beyond combo decks. Against creature decks these big cards will typically come in to replace smaller threats. Against more controlling decks like Azorius Control, they can replace the weakest burn spells, which increases the threat density of the deck and makes it that much harder to stop—especially because both Mutavault and the planeswalkers are immune to Supreme Verdict.
Sometimes tech from the pros does extend to an entire archetype, but I imagine that any breakout deck at the Players Tour will be less of a brand-new deck and more about surprising the competition with an under-respected rogue deck—perhaps with some new technology that puts it over the top. A great candidate for such a breakout is the Soulflayer deck, which had a big finish last weekend with a Top 8 in the Pioneer Challenge. Further support for the deck could be found just beyond the Top 8 in the hands of pro Simon "TombSimon" Nielsen.
I'm sure Simon has an affinity for graveyard-centric decks after his incredible performance with the Hogaak, Arisen Necropolis-powered Bridgevine deck last summer, winning Grand Prix Las Vegas after losing the finals of the prior GP. So maybe we shouldn't read too far into his choice to play Soulflayer. Still, he brings attention to one of the most potentially broken and still unexplored places in Pioneer.
The Soulflayer deck is far from Bridgevine and really only tangentially related to the graveyard, and that's part of its charm. Beyond Soulflayer itself, (the only real graveyard payoff in the deck) it's a midrange deck filled with solid and relatively versatile creatures, with Throne of Eldraine providing two major tools in Questing Beast and Murderous Rider, along with their potent keywords. When the deck does put together Soulflayer and its main payoff Zetalpa, Primal Dawn it's playing on easy mode. However, it's more than capable of playing a fair game, especially after sideboard when it can bring in disruption like Thoughtseize and Fatal Push to become a true midrange deck.
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.