On Monday it was announced that an update to the Banned & Restricted list is coming next Monday, and I expect Pioneer will be the focus. Dimir Inverter is likely on the chopping block in some way, and we'll see the metagame open up as a result of its decreased market share, even if it's just a support piece like Dig Through Time that's banned. If Inverter of Truth itself goes, it will take the entire archetype with it, which would drastically reshape the metagame. The obvious winners from a ban would be the other top decks in the field, and they'll expand to fill the new space, but a ban would also provide opportunities to second-tier strategies still looking for their big break.
I've taken notice of a handful of intriguing strategies in Pioneer that haven't put up high-profile Top 8 finishes in big events, but show plenty of promise 5-0 runs in Magic Online Leagues. With further development, and maybe a lucky break from the banned list, these decks could be future stars.
The "Enchantress" strategy, named after Argothian Enchantress, sees play in every format where creatures with this card drawing ability are legal.
It's not surprising the enchantment-themed Theros Beyond Death provided a great new one in Setessan Champion, which acts as a card drawing engine and threat wrapped into one. Along with Eidolon of Blossoms as another payoff, the strategy now has the critical mass of these effects it needs to function in Pioneer, and the resulting deck is off to a good start.
The constellation creatures are joined by Herald of the Pantheon as a minor payoff and cost reducer—something like the deck's Goblin Electromancer—that helps to speed it up considerably. Wolfwillow Haven is another new tool, and it provides the ramp effect the deck is accustomed to in Eternal formats with Wild Growth.
At the top of the curve sit Sigil of the Empty Throne and Starfield of Nyx as card advantage engines and win conditions, and they are supported by a large cast of removal spells. Baffling End, Banishing Light and Cast Out give the deck great answers to almost any permanent, and Sphere of Safety is an oppressive hoser against creature decks.
The deck also wields a sideboard full of potent enchantment hosers, with Gideon's Intervention standing out as particularly useful. It was used in the maindeck of the White Devotion Heliod Combo deck that took first place in last weekend's Pioneer Showcase Challenge, where it acts as a fantastic hoser against Dimir Inverter. It's a huge tool for this deck as well, and potentially worthy of maindeck consideration.
Calix, Destiny's Hand is another new pickup for the deck, and the planeswalker adds an appealing new angle to a strategy that typically doesn't use 'walkers. It's a great tool against decks without much ability to pressure it loyalty, where it will generate card advantage digging into enchantments. Its removal ability adds more utility, as does the powerful ultimate, so it adds up to a great tool for a deck that's in the unique position to fully utilize the planeswalker.
Theros Beyond Death's Gallia of the Endless Dance and its ability to draw cards has inspired a new aggressive Gruul strategy, where it even provides a bit of Satyr tribal synergy with Firedrinker Satyr.
Gallia's real payoff is its ability to generate card advantage, which goes beyond one net card with the potential to turn a dead card like an extra land into two fresh cards. That's quite powerful on a two-drop creature and worthy of building around, but consistently attacking with three creatures does require a deck made up almost entirely of them. This list includes many one-drops and the effectively free Burning-Tree Emissary. It gives the deck very powerful draws when combined with Reckless Bushwhacker as another payoff for the high creature count, a combination that once served as the backbone of red aggro decks in Standard.
Any extra devotion to red also benefits Anax, Hardened in the Forge, which can grow large quickly in a deck that floods the battlefield. Its passive ability of converting dead creatures into Satyr tokens helps to keep the deck's aggression going even in the face of blockers or removal spells, and even gives extra value to Gallia's anthem.
The deck's creature-dense environment is an ideal fit for Embercleave, which has grown to define red decks this Standard season and will be even more impressive with Pioneer's cheaper and faster curve of creatures. Ghor-Clan Rampager used to fill a similar combat trick role as Embercleave when it was in Standard, but when both cards are combined they create a massive dose of damage that's likely to win any game.
Rounding out the deck as the only other noncreature spell is Atarka's Command, which was such a defining feature of red decks during its time in Standard that it lent them their name—Atarka Red. Adding an anthem effect to a burn spell gives the card incredible capacity to deal damage in a way few cards can compare to in terms of mana efficiency, with 5 or more the norm, exceeding something Boros Charm. Along with its added utility functioning as a Skullcrack for maindeck life gain hosing, or as an Explore for mana acceleration, it's truly one of the finest cards in Pioneer with the kind of support this deck provides.
By combining some of the best red cards of the past with some great new releases, this deck attacks Pioneer from a unique angle, and it's having good success. It first appeared two weeks ago with an unassuming 3-2 run in a Preliminary, but three 5-0 League finishes later in the hands of various players lead me to believe this deck could be the real deal.
Kroxa, Titan of Death's Hunger started life completely overshadowed by Uro, Titan of Nature's Wrath, which emerged as the most hyped card in the set. While Uro went on to become a player in every format, even winning the Pioneer Players Tour in Europe as part of Sultai Delirium, Kroxa has sat on the sidelines. It's only recently that Kroxa has started to get its due as a card advantage engine no less effective than Uro, as reflected by its price more than doubling in just the last week of February.
Kroxa finally found a good home as a two-of in Modern Jund, where its ability to grind down the opponent's hand and life total is a good fit. Kroxa has plenty of fuel for escape with Jund's plentiful disruption like Thoughtseize and Fatal Push. Those same cards provide a great base for Kroxa in Pioneer, where it's a great centerpiece for a new Rakdos Midrange deck that earned at least two players League 5-0 trophies this week.
This deck is almost a direct port from Modern Jund—if not in the exact same cards, then in a similar form and function. Glint-Sleeve Siphoner provides card advantage like Dark Confidant, Murderous Rider is a like a do-it-yourself Bloodbraid Elf that always finds the Maelstrom Pulse it's hoping for, while Gifted Aetherborn and Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet hold down the battlefield against aggressive decks like Tarmogoyf would. Liliana of the Veil is replaced by Liliana, the Last Hope, which adds some card advantage and can help fuel the graveyard for Kroxa's escape, while Chandra, Torch of Defiance is one of the best red cards in Pioneer and a star here.
This cast of creatures and planeswalker is supported by disruption like Agonizing Remorse as a more expensive but more versatile Inquisition of Kozilek, and Kolaghan's Command as a flexible card advantage tool and Eternal format staple. Along with a typical Jund-style sideboard full of hosers like Leyline of the Void, Anger of the Gods and Damping Sphere, the deck has all of its bases covered, so it does a pretty convincing job applying Jund's classic gameplan in Pioneer.
A unique approach to Pioneer's black midrange strategy revolves around Wasteland Strangler, a card that inspired a Modern deck that never quite broke through, but which could be better suited for Pioneer.
Beyond Wasteland Strangler, the deck dips into blue for Ulamog's Nullifier as another payoff for exiling the opponent's cards.
Leyline of the Void is the primary enabler, and this maindeck graveyard hoser is one of the major appeals to the strategy. Both Dimir Inverter and the Lotus Breach deck suffer against graveyard hosers, so much so that some White Devotion Heliod Combo decks have started playing Rest in Peace maindeck, and this deck goes further.
For that reason this deck is probably best if those combo decks remain in the format, but that's not to say Leyline of the Void won't be effective in whatever metagame arises next. It does play Thirst for Meaning to pitch extra copies, but one idea that would help make the most of the Leyline would be adding some Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx to turn it into a mana ramp. It would be useful for powering cards like The Scarab God, or a payoff like Blight Herder in a purely mono-black build that could support a full playset of the land.
When Pioneer began Arclight Phoenix got off to a great start, but it fell flat as the metagame caught up and eventually left it behind in favor of sleeker, and especially more consistent, strategies. Izzet Phoenix decks tend to live and die based on how many Arclight Phoenix they can find, and without the ability to dig with Faithless Looting or Modern's blue cards like Thought Scour and Serum Visions, the Pioneer version just doesn't find it as early and often as it needs to. It also lacks a good backup plan, since Thing in the Ice is too slow without free spells like Manamorphose and Gut Shot.
Maybe a better approach is to give up blue altogether and play more like Mono-Red Phoenix in Modern, which relegated Arclight Phoenix to a minor role in favor of prowess creatures as the primary gameplan. With Theros Beyond Death providing Ox of Agonas to fill for the card advantage role Bedlam Reveler plays in the Modern version, the strategy has really come together in Pioneer.
Monastery Swiftspear and Soul-Scar Mage benefit from the same spells that trigger Arclight Phoenix, providing a more consistent payoff. While the Modern version eventually moved past Arclight Phoenix with the loss of Faithless Looting, the Pioneer ports of the prowess deck haven't quite had the same success. Without the cheap and free spells like Manamorphose and Lava Dart that work so well with prowess, nor powerful burn spells like Lightning Bolt, the hyper-aggressive plan of the deck doesn't have the finishing power it needs to consistently win fast enough. The deck needs something else, and that's the long-game grinding power provided by cards like Arclight Phoenix and Ox of Agonas.
If Pioneer does happen to escape any changes on Monday, these decks still could become factors in format. After all, they have put up their strong results despite the metagame being filled with Dimir Inverter, so they must have some game. Whether they rely on heavy disruption or lightning speed, these decks have the tools to tangle with Pioneer's current crop of broken decks, and any more that come.