Despite the trepidation in Standard over the last few months, there is a breath of fresh air to Magic. A few weeks ago saw the announcement of a new non-rotating format called Pioneer. Inspired from the once-popular Frontier format, Pioneer uses cards as far back as Return to Ravnica and will incorporate Standard-legal sets going forward. Modern was initially created as a bridge between Legacy and Standard seven years ago, and Modern came about when Return to Ravnica came out, so it makes sense that Pioneer begins in the same set. Pioneer fills the current gap between Standard and Modern and offers an affordable way to get more mileage from your collection.
Going forward, I will be extending my budget content to include Pioneer along with Modern. However, due to the recent introduction of the format and the current demand, creating budget content is challenging at present. The announcement last week radically increased the demand for Pioneer-legal cards, and their prices still haven't stabilized. Over the next few months, I expect prices to level out once the format has settled, possibly after an update to the ban list. Despite this, I'm excited for Pioneer, as it presents more value for your Standard cards and creates a smaller gap to enter into Modern if you choose to. Pioneer offers plenty of flexibility and mitigates Standard rotation significantly, all while helping players indulge their nostalgia for older Standards.
Last week saw the first Pioneer Challenge on Magic Online as well as the first data dump of 5-0s from the Pioneer Leagues. While I can't provide budget content this week, I'll be looking at the data from the weekend and see if any new strategies have emerged. Many players are taking inspiration from pre-existing Standard lists, which will be a common theme in the coming months.
Let's begin by looking at the Pioneer Challenge. An evolved take on Golgari Midrange won the event, expanding into blue for the ever-dominant Oko, Thief of Crowns and Jace, Vryn's Prodigy.
Although it may seem odd to exclude Deathrite Shaman, this list is a great starting point for Pioneer. Golgari-based strategies always perform well within a constructive environment, as there are plenty of options and answers. Deathrite Shaman can be included in these lists; however, it does lose the potency it once had in Modern and Legacy due to the omission of fetch lands. Adopting Gilded Goose, Llanowar Elves or even Elvish Mystic is a more comfortable line to take as you want to ramp into your threats sooner. Deathrite Shaman remains an excellent card and will see play in Pioneer, but it won't be as powerful compared to its influence other formats. Once the format has settled, I expect to see Golgari-based strategies be the norm as they are so flexible in their options and can tailor to the metagame efficiently.
Although the banning of Faithless Looting in Modern saw a myriad of strategies fall out of contention with Izzet Phoenix being hit hardest, Pioneer looks to offer a revival of the Izzet spell-slinging strategy. Three copies of Izzet Phoenix achieved a Top 8 finish in the Pioneer Challenge.
With Pioneer looking slower compared to its Modern counterpart, the omission of Faithless Looting is not a hindrance in this case. Cards such as Chart a Course and Izzet Charm offer a discard outlet for your Arclight Phoenixes while ticking down your Thing in the Ice // Awoken Horror. By casting so many spells, you are meeting an affordable discount on Dig Through Time which synergises excellently with Crackling Drake. Although it is tough to predict how the Pioneer landscape will settle, I expect to see Izzet Phoenix become a regular in the format. Izzet Phoenix remains explosive and has enough card draw to keep going, even without Treasure Cruise. The rest of the Top 8 was rounded out by Four-Color Saheeli Cat Combo and Mono-Blue Tempo. Copycat will be a frequent theme in Pioneer as Felidar Guardian can reset other potent planeswalkers such as Teferi, Time Raveler and Narset, Parter of Veils. Plus, the energy mechanic allows optimal mana fixing (thanks to Aether Hub) in a format which struggles to supply it—so expect energy to be a regular motif within the format given how tough it is to interact with.
We also saw the first data dump of the 5-0 lists from the Pioneer Leagues which saw a wealth of archetypes achieve success. Although there is a temptation to play two or three-color strategies despite the omission of fetch lands, you can comfortably adopt a mono-color approach with an emphasis on tribal. Take Goblins as an example:
In a metagame which is unknown and unsolved, adopting an aggressive method is always a safe line to take. It's common to see a 'Red Deck Wins' strategy in the early life of an unsolved format, and this remains true for Pioneer, which will be a motif in the upcoming weeks until the format settles into a more established groove. Adding Embercleave to a go-wide strategy provides inevitability and it will always be cast at a discounted rate due to Legion Warboss and Goblin Rabblemaster spewing out tokens. The list is light on removal because you want to hit as hard as possible, however, incorporating Stoke the Flames could be a line to take if you're going to clear the path to victory.
Mono-Black Vampires was another aggressive deck that nabbed a 5-0, with Gray Merchant of Asphodel providing additional reach.
The biggest draw to playing a mono-color strategy is having access to Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx, which creates a mana advantage to deploy more threats. Given we are returning to Theros next year, we're likely to see devotion again, which will only bolster these strategies further in Pioneer. This Vampires list does hit hard but doesn't go as wide to the Goblins list. However, you have a fantastic disruption package in Thoughtseize and Fatal Push. You also have the option to go long with Castle Locthwain if you fall short with aggression. Also, Mutavault adds an axis of attack and will likely be one of the best man lands in the format, encouraging tribal strategies as a result. Notwithstanding, I expect to see other tribes such as Zombies, Merfolk and Knights to come to fruition in Pioneer given the broad pool on offer.
It's vital to play with what you enjoy and what is independently powerful in the format. Wizards is choosing to take a proactive approach with bannings, by allowing players to find what is broken so they can adjust the format accordingly. Expect Pioneer to change in the near future, as Wizards issues new bans and players develop new archetypes we haven't seen before. Wizards hopes to build Pioneer into a fairer and healthier landscape compared to what we are seeing in Modern and Standard currently, and by throwing the gauntlet to the players, this should be easy to achieve in a modest amount of time. I'm excited to see where Pioneer goes and the future Standard sets that will support this new format—let the brewing begin!
Emma Partlow is a writer and Modern enthusiast based in Suffolk, England. She's been involved in Magic since Khans of Tarkir back in 2014, and loves helping players dive into the game's most diverse format.
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