Three weeks and four bans in to Pioneer, there is a clear best color in the format: green. While the first MTGO Pioneer League decklist dump featured over 100 different archetypes, the Top 8s of Pioneer Challenges and PTQs have consistently featured several of the same, or similar decks, and this last weekend was no exception. Mono-Green continues to dominate tournaments, with Once Upon a Time as the most played card in the format. White, on the other hand, has disappeared almost entirely, other than when paired with blue for Spell Queller or Teferi, Time Raveler (or both).
It's easy to look at these factors and arrive at the obvious conclusion: green is overpowered, and white is underpowered. Many great players and writers of the format have already said so, and the results back it up. For the most part, I assumed people were generally pretty correct here.
Until I got sent a message over the weekend, telling me I would be interested in this decklist:
That this 5-0ed a League is awesome, and I'm happy to see some of my favorite cards played in Pioneer! But the deck seemed fairly low power for Pioneer, especially some of the individual card choices. A single 5-0 wouldn't convince me that the deck was good enough.And then… it showed up again.
And the person who had messaged me did as well:
Decided to try out bostephen94's 5-0 GW Tokens list (Pioneer) with minor tweaks (mostly based on my own collection)... and 5-0'd immediately! Deck is a blast to play and seems very good vs most decks tbh. #mtgpioneer pic.twitter.com/MafvbGZn0d— Björn Andreasson (@beakid) November 11, 2019
When a deck that I really hadn't seen in the format suddenly starts getting multiple trophies, that's about when I think it's time to sit up and take notice. It obviously hasn't taken the format by storm yet, otherwise we would see it also taking down Pioneer Challenges and PTQ Top 8s. Instead it hasn't been seen at all. However, the deck's core is good enough that it is starting to see success, even if the deck isn't optimized yet.
Further, the Veil of Summer ban might quietly shift the meta to make White Aggro a lot more viable. Specifically, losing Veil of Summer likely drops the stock of Nexus of Fate decks packing piles of Fog effects. So much, in fact, that people I know who were working on the deck for the SCG Invitational this weekend have abandoned the deck very quickly. This is likely to be a huge boon to aggro decks.
When I look at this deck, I see cards with two different goals in mind: aggro and midrange. Cards like Legion's Landing, Saproling Migration and Raise the Alarm are looking to win the game quickly by playing multiple bodies, and then using the brief mana advantage from Adanto, the First Fort to dump the rest of your hand on the table like a makeshift Affinity deck. Voice of Resurgence, Emmara, Soul of the Accord and Trostani Discordant all try to out-pace an opponent on cards while applying some pressure.
The bridge between these two strategies is Smuggler's Copter, a card which wasn't even in its Standard format as long as Field of the Dead (although, hopefully, Oko, Thief of Crowns will be gone faster than it). The card applies pressure, works with the multitude of 1 power bodies and payoffs like Nissa, Voice of Zendikar or Appeal // Authority, while also filtering out land drops to prevent flooding.
A mix of strategies might have worked in Standard, which rarely has decks fast enough to truly be considered pure aggro due to a lack of cards focused on the task, but in Pioneer, walking that line game one sounds like asking for trouble. It strikes me as much better to try and go fast game one, and then sideboard into stickier threats after sideboarding, especially when flipping a turn-three Legion's Landing provides acceleration short-term and long-term pressure.
My first pass at a more focused build looked something like this:
This deck has one goal in mind: flip Legion's Landing. The broken starts with this deck all involve playing a one-drop, a two-drop, and then flipping Legion's Landing on turn three and playing four mana worth of spells that turn. Venerated Loxodon has never had access to so many bodies for so few cards, and is going to consistently be zero mana in this deck as well, setting up particularly lethal follow-up turns with Appeal // Authority, Nissa, Voice of Zendikar or Gideon, Ally of Zendikar to crash through the opponent's board state.
For matchups with Supreme Verdict or Sweltering Suns, a plethora of planeswalkers out of the sideboard feels like one of the better ways to sidestep the problem. Ajani Steadfast specifically seems kind of interesting as a way to pump other planeswalkers as well and play a "superfriends" type of game. Against everyone else, there are several answers that can slot in by shaving elements that might not be as useful: Declaration in Stone against aggro, Rest in Peace against graveyard decks, Pithing Needle against planeswalkers like Oko, Thief of Crowns, etc.
One thing that I realized building the mana base, though, was how much work this deck had to do to play Nissa, Voice of Zendikar. The deck wants the ability to play a white one-drop, but also to hit double green for Nissa around turn four. Just to make this work, I had to turn to one of my least favorite land cycles of all time and play Fortified Village from Shadows Over Innistrad—and I still had to include some number of Sunpetal Grove to go alongside 11 basic lands. While 15 sources of white should be plenty for a turn-one Legion's Landing or Thraben Inspector, sometimes variance is going to hit pretty hard with this deck.
Nissa, Voice of Zendikar is incredibly powerful, but the goal of this deck might be to put the pedal to the floor so fast that she isn't necessary. Benalish Marshal has some drawbacks, like removal ending its buff effect, but it's actually pretty trivial to slot them in:
The green in this deck has dropped to a minimum, which means that we no longer have to bend over backward to try and support a double-green three-drop in our white deck. Funnily enough we start to look like the old red-black aggro decks in terms of our manabase, playing just enough green to support a splash. The downside is that the sideboard options in just white are… not great. With fewer planeswalkers in the maindeck, and less ability to play non-white planeswalkers, it's harder to transition into a midrange planeswalkers deck after sideboard.
At this point, the deck is playing green for two cards: Saproling Migration and Appeal // Authority. They're both good reasons to be in green in this strategy, but are they necessary? The deck is going to be excellent at flipping Legion's Landing, but that's never been that hard to do, and it's possible that we don't need green whatsoever.
In the meantime, between Servo Exhibition, Smuggler's Copter and Thraben Inspector, there's an artifact subtheme that hasn't been exploited at all yet. Perhaps the deck should be looking to take advantage of one of white's other best one-drops from the last few years: Toolcraft Exemplar.
Here, we're looking to achieve a virtual win on turn three, through some combination of flipping a Legion's Landing, attacking on turn two with a powered up Toolcraft Exemplar, playing a zero-mana Venerated Loxodon, and putting an Anthem effect (Benalish Marshal or Gideon, Ally of Zendikar's emblem) into play. The Westvale Abbey might be too greedy with Benalish Marshal, but I'd rather use the slot on a little bit of flood mitigation rather than another Plains or Castle Ardenvale.
Like usual, white sideboards are decidedly weaker than any other colors, as there's just fewer worthwhile options available to us. Where other colors can bring in one-mana countermagic and ways to disrupt our opponents, most of what we have is just more of the same sort of thing: medium one-for-one answers. Declaration in Stone remains the exception, where it can meaningfully clean up a number of Arclight Phoenix, or a Thing in the Ice // Awoken Horror that would otherwise brick wall the deck.
There's also one more option that I haven't really seen pop up yet: Boros Bushwhacker.
I'm still kicking around numbers on this one, and I haven't had a chance to try it out at all, but the goal is incredibly straightforward: Bushwhack them. Red actually smooths over a lot of mana problems with the superior enemy-colored lands in Pioneer, grants a lot of extra power in the one-drop slot in the form of Bomat Courier and Monastery Swiftspear, and also adds some reach in Stoke the Flames. Red doesn't provide too much in the way of a sideboard, but there are at least some reasonable options that are worth trying.
I've actually forgone another impressive card, Hordeling Outburst, which seems pretty perfect with Venerated Loxodon in a lot of ways, as it can allow the deck to play a one-drop, a turn-two Smuggler's Copter, and still play a free Venerated Loxodon off of a Hordeling Outburst on turn three with no other cards. The trouble is that I wanted to avoid double red to keep the land count low.
White feels like it has a lot of promise if people stay to the lanes that are designated for it: fast and aggressive. It doesn't have the tools to compete with midrange decks, and its control cards exist only to be paired with blue and are otherwise too lackluster. But there are a lot of blisteringly fast starts available to it that I think can, and will, give it a home in Pioneer.