The announcement of Pioneer as Magic's newest format was the biggest news since the creation of Modern, and it's only a matter of time before it becomes an even more important and popular format. Pioneer is especially exciting because of the very liberal approach to its banned list, which beyond the fetch land ban offers a completely clean slate for players to work with. This is in comparison to the very conservative bans at the start of the Modern format, which seem to have characterized the format. Modern has seen a ban or unban in each calendar year of its existence.
Where Modern started nerfed, Pioneer started fully-powered, which has led to a wild ride that is only just starting. It's made only more wild by the fact that new bans are inevitable. The format was announced explicitly stating bans could happen up to every week at the discretion of Wizards of the Coast, and now we've seen our first round of them. Removing Felidar Guardian (which is like Modern's banned Splinter Twin) and Oath of Nissa (something like Ponder) means we should expect to see the format follow a similar philosophy, but it's happening from a much more organic place that hopefully leads to a healthier format in the long run.
Monday's bans certainly opened up a lot of space, seriously nerfing Mono-Green Devotion and completely removing the Copycat combo. There are other top-tier decks like Izzet Phoenix, Sultai Midrange and Simic Nexus that will take most of their share, but what's more interesting are the new decks that will arise in the transition, with potential to rise to the top levels of the metagame as the format evolves.
When Pioneer was announced, one of the first strategies to be hyped was Aetherworks Marvel, since looking to cards that have been previously banned is naturally a great place to start. The deck might have worked for some people in the very early days of the format, but it turns out that so far the card just doesn't cut it—in this week's release of Pioneer decklists, not a single copy of the deck earned a 5-0 finish.
It looks like a better approach to Energy in Pioneer is with a faster, sleeker but no less powerful card: Electrostatic Pummeler, which earned multiple 5-0s this week.
Instead of finding an overpowered threat to end the game like Aetherworks Marvel, Electrostatic Pummeler does it itself. When combined with pump spells it really doesn't take much more energy to get lethal, and the advantages of not having to play with clunky, hard-to-cast creatures it obvious. The deck also plays a better "fair" game with other energy creatures. Longtusk Cub and Bristling Hydra are both capable of winning games too. Add in the Temur Battle Rage + Become Immense combo for good measure—one of Pioneer's most underrated interactions so far—and you have the makings of a deck that looks a lot more appealing than just spinning the wheel that is Aetherworks Marvel.
It's also telling that another approach to Electrostatic Pummeler also 5-0ed. This one uses Rotting Regisaur as a massive threat that is sort of like an already-pumped Electrostatic Pummeler, and forms a similarly lethal combination with Temur Battle Rage.
Using Dreadhorde Arcanist as an addition threat is fantastic because of its interaction with pump spells, but even casting Attune with Aether, another previously banned card, will feel great.
Another old Standard strategy 5-0ing leagues is Heroic, which has actually seen a quasi-return to Standard because of Feather, the Redeemed and Tenth District Legionnaire. Both cards make the Pioneer build even better than the old Standard deck.
Reckless Rage is another pickup for the strategy, and surprisingly strong with both Favored Hoplite and Monastery Swiftspear as one-mana plays that survive it, along with the rest of the creatures up the curve. Flame Slash doesn't exist in Pioneer so red decks have to work for their damage with cards like Lightning Axe that can turn a downside into a payoff. Reckless Rage fills the same role in this deck, and will be especially important for offing Thing in the Ice // Awoken Horror, which is so strong against creature-based decks. There's a lot of development to be done here, but the potential is there.
During Pioneer's first week online when the metagame was still relatively unknown, I was curious about the top trophy leaders, hoping their deck choices would provide some insight. When I looked I was surprised to see my friend Timr0d sitting right near the very top. I know him as a feared Limited player and not someone I associate with 60 card decks at all, so I was startled to see he'd amassed seven-plus trophies in under a week. I knew the deck must be really good to keep him grinding Constructed, but I could not have imagined the deck he did it with. His deck was revealed in the first League decklist dump, but here's his more recent decklist that cashed the Challenge last weekend.
The deck has a simple, classic formula: combining a curve of aggressive creatures with pump spells and removal. Versatile creatures including Ghor-Clan Rampager and the new Bonecrusher Giant, which is seeing play in Modern and even Legacy, allow the deck to run pump and burn effects while maintaining a high density of creatures.
It's also a Smuggler's Copter deck, and one of the best-performing in the format so far. Embercleave gives the deck a quick and powerful finisher, and is another example of the card's rise beyond Standard (it's also appearing in the Stoneforge Mystic toolbox in Modern).
The strategy is starting to really catch on. In the most recent release of decklists it appears five times, which also highlights the depth of the cardpool it has access to.
This version loads up on eight mana-acceleration creatures to power out Goblin Rabblemaster and Legion Warboss, along with Lovestruck Beast as another hard-hitting threat. These mana creatures and any tokens play well with Atarka's Command, an old Standard-and-sometimes-Modern staple with great prospects in the format.
Another route for red-green is to go bigger by playing Eldrazi as the top of the curve, which gives access to the disruptive Thought-Knot Seer against the unfair decks of the format.
Of course, maybe the best play of all for a red-green deck is to just splash blue for Oko, Thief of Crowns, like Pascal Maynard.
Beyond Oko, Thief of Crowns, Pascal's deck is all creatures, which means Collected Company will consistently produce a lot of value. It's one of the best cards in the format given its historical pedigree, and it's still a very minor player in the format relative to its potential. This deck is just one example of putting it to good use.
Beyond being just a value and tempo play, Collected Company also has a history of putting together creature synergies and outright combos, like in the old Standard Golgari Aristocrats self-sacrifice deck that is threatening to make it in Pioneer with this 5-0.
There's really not a whole lot to this deck besides getting a lot of creatures into play and then churning them into a game-win with Zulaport Cutthroat and Nantuko Husk. Still, it will often get the job done.
The best old Standard decks making their way into Pioneer is not a big surprise, but it's also no surprise that many of them don't quite have what it takes. While Aetherworks Marvel in Pioneer was a good concept, the fact that it relies on block-specific energy cards mean it's restricted in what it can play, and can't truly utilize the full wealth of the large cardpool. Even the Electrostatic Pummeler deck, which shares a similar problem, was able to add extra synergy by using non-block cards like Become Immense and Temur Battle Rage. Strategies that are able to use cards from the full range of available cards will be stronger for it.
If old Standard decks can make it in Pioneer, then even better are old Modern decks, which explains why a deck like Izzet Phoenix is one of the very best in the format. If a strategy could cut it in the more powerful Modern format than it's certainly good enough for Pioneer—if it can make the transition. Izzet Phoenix does that beautifully by taking advantage of cards from the full range of the card pool.
So when looking for the next big Pioneer strategy, looking to recreate old Standard strategies is one thing, but porting any Modern strategy could pay off even bigger. That's why the Selesnya Auras "Bogles" list that finished 5-0 is so intriguing.
The deck retains Gladecover Scout, but with no Slippery Bogle it's forced to play the more expensive Bassara Tower Archer. It also retains its key enchantment payoff, Ethereal Armor, but the real kicker is it gained a new payoff: All That Glitters from Throne of Eldraine. Once Upon a Time adds yet another way to increase consistency. The deck takes a wide assortment of enchantments, all capped off by Season of Growth as a sort of stand-in for Kor Spiritdancer. With its scry ability and immunity to creature removal, it's much better besides the fact that it can't wear enchantments itself.
One of the most quietly powerful cards in Pioneer is Prized Amalgam, a staple of Dredge strategies in every format back to Vintage. While the dredge mechanic isn't in Pioneer, and bannings in Modern have brought about a decline there, Prized Amalgam itself has seen increased play in non-Dredge decks, like the new blue Vengevine deck, and it's now showing signs of life in Pioneer in a new breed of blue-black quasi-graveyard deck.
It earned two 5-0s this week alongside Scrapheap Scrounger and Haunted Dead as its prime enablers and fellow graveyard payoffs. Also appearing were Stitcher's Supplier as a Legacy-proven way to fill the graveyard, and the once-banned Smuggler's Copter as the perfect pairing for a creature-based graveyard deck. From there though, the strategies diverge.
This list puts Prized Amalgam in a very aggressive shell alongside Dread Wanderer and Bloodsoaked Champion as two more enablers and graveyard payoffs. It also uses Rotting Regisaur as another way to enable the graveyard, and as simply one of the largest and most imposing threats in the format. Add Thoughtseize and Fatal Push for disruption, and you have a solid aggressive deck with an incredible ability to grind out against removal and win any war of attrition.
This list takes an even more value-centric approach with Cryptbreaker and Emry, Lurker of the Loch as graveyard enablers that can generate value over time. The deck also includes Cauldron Familiar, which is great for triggering Prized Amalgam, and a set of Witch's Oven for its great interaction with the Cat. Witch's Oven might seem out of place otherwise, but it actually looks like a pretty strong sacrifice engine for a deck that can constantly recur creatures like Prized Amalgam. If it's able to stock up Food tokens over the course of the game, then Cauldron Familiar becomes a threatening win condition.
Fires of Invention looked like the most broken card in Throne of Eldraine, but so far it has yet to live up to expectations. In Standard it has been overshadowed by Field of the Dead and Oko, Thief of Crowns, and it might not be quite good enough for Modern without more broken interactions, but Pioneer could be just right. This 5-0 decklist uses a playset to enable no less than eight unique planeswalkers across all five colors.
The deck also uses Fae of Wishes, which has been slowly breaking out as a legitimate tool in Modern. It's a great follow-up to Fires of Invention, and beyond the usual sideboard hosers the deck has some really spicy things to find. Deploy the Gatewatch is a huge haymaker that is likely to dig into a couple planeswalkers and bury the opponent.
While Pioneer will be a bumpy ride for a while, it will also be a very fun one, and in the long run I think this new approach to the banned list will lead to the evolution of a great metagame and format. I can only wonder about Modern's trajectory had it shared a similar birth. The first Modern event was Pro Tour Philadelphia, dominated by combo decks like the obscure Blazing Shoal/Inkmoth Nexus, the more familiar Izzet Storm, and the winning Splinter Twin deck. Yet Stoneforge Mystic was banned, and stayed so for eight years until its unban months ago. I can't help but wonder if it should have been around the whole time, and this approach to Pioneer will make sure a similar story doesn't happen in the new format.
Adam Yurchick is a competitive Magic player and writer. He writes about Modern and Eternal formats and keeps a weather eye on shifts in the metagame.