Last week I wrote about how the hiatus on paper Magic tournaments has led to a Magic Online boom, which has grown even bigger since the announcement of new Super Players Tour Qualifiers. Open to any player and awarding two invites to the tour, these events are seeing massive attendance numbers and have created a rich new source of decklists and information on constructed metagames.
Pioneer has been the most commonly featured constructed format for the Super Qualifiers, which has only accelerated its growth as the program's most popular. Hundreds of players competing for high stakes is a perfect recipe for innovation, and these events have been full of it. There haven't been any real new breakout decks, and while most of the technology has been further fine-tuning of the known top decks like Dimir Inverter and White Devotion, there have been some surprises.
As of writing, there have been two Pioneer Super Qualifiers held, and the Izzet Ensoul Artifact deck earned a qualification in both of them by reaching the finals of the first event and outright winning the second. These finishes essentially came out of nowhere, and they bring into focus a deck that most players had written off.
Izzet Ensoul appeared soon after the format's creation, but it faded away after the Smuggler's Copter ban gutted the format's best artifact. Now with favorable metagame developments and some innovations of its own, the deck has re-emerged as one of Pioneer's top contenders. It's a great option for anyone looking for an aggressive strategy in a format currently defined by combo decks.
A major innovation for the strategy has been the addition of Ornithopter, which wasn't played in earlier iterations. As a 0-power creature unable to crew Smuggler's Copter, it didn't make sense in that era, nor in the more midrangesque decks that came afterward using Emry, Lurker of the Loch and a mix of countermagic and burn. Ornithopter allows the deck to fully embrace its most aggressive potential, offering a great evasive body for Ensoul Artifact and Skilled Animator or for holding Ghostfire Blade. It also helps the deck make the most of its other main addition, Steel Overseer.
As a staple of the Modern Affinity and Hardened Scales decks (R.I.P. Mox Opal), Legacy artifact aggro decks, and even Vintage Mishra's Workshop decks, Steel Overseer is certainly strong enough for Pioneer—but it's contingent on having a good cast of creatures to combine with, and Ornithopter helps it reach a critical mass. Steel Overseer's ability to take over a game if left unchecked makes it one of the most powerful things the deck can do, and putting the onus on the opponent to stop it helps fill some of the role Smuggler's Copter played.
The other big change from previous versions is the lack of removal spells like Wild Slash in the maindeck, which at one point was played as a four-of. In those days Llanowar Elves and Elvish Mystic defined the format, as did Mono-Black Aggro and its small creatures, but now Wild Slash struggles to find a good target in most matchups. Historically Affinity-style decks have been best when focusing on their synergies and not playing much disruption, and supporting cards like Steel Overseer and Ornithopter requires doing away with them. Shrapnel Blast can fill in as removal in a pinch, but it's best used for killing the opponent. In today's combo-defined metagame, the disruption of choice is Metallic Rebuke, which can stop the opponent's critical card and buy another turn to hopefully finish them off.
Disruption spells are better suited in the sideboard, and they can be brought in only when they will be most effective. Essentially the entire sideboard is made up of this specialty disruption, and it gives the deck a wide range of tools for attacking the metagame. The sideboard of this decklist is relatively straightforward, with a nice mix of staples, but the other qualifying decklist took its sideboard to the extreme.
Thoughtseize and Fatal Push are simply the best disruption spells in the format, and this decklist is able to support them with its five-color enabled manabase.
Backing up, this decklist goes even deeper on Ornithopter with Springleaf Drum, taking another page from the Modern playbook. Beyond its acceleration abilities, it fixes mana, which along with Spire of Industry and other five-color lands allow the deck to play essentially anything it wants, similar to Mox Opal-era Affinity.
For the maindeck, that means replacing Skilled Animator with the powerful All that Glitters. Cranial Plating has long been the most powerful payoff in Modern Affinity, and access to that sort of effect helps to power up the Pioneer version. It does require having plenty of creatures to enchant, so it's yet another card enabled by the unassuming Ornithopter.
For the sideboard, having access to any color means having access to the best spells, and there are few in all of Magic better for disrupting combo decks than Thoughtseize. If it's a removal spell you're after, Wild Slash might get the job done, but Fatal Push will do the same and a lot more for the same cost, so it's another big upgrade from getting greedy.
Whether in smooth consistency of the Izzet deck or the fully-powered Five-Color version, both of these decks have shown that artifact strategies are not just still viable in Pioneer, but are among the best things to be doing in the format.
It wasn't a complete surprise to players paying attention, but the aggressive variation of the White Devotion deck that I called out last week followed up its Modern Challenge Top 16 with an impressive Top 4 finish in the first Pioneer Super Qualifier.
The idea here is to maintain the same lethal combo of Walking Ballista and Heliod, Sun-Crowned of the combo build, but to support it with a faster and more aggressive beatdown plan, compared to a more value-driven midrange approach. Doing so with nearly all lifelink creatures helps to make the most of Heliod when the combo doesn't materialize, while unlocking Ajani's Pridemate as another powerful angle of attack.
With the Mono-White Devotion deck established as one of the top two decks in Pioneer, it shouldn't be too surprising that its defining combo is starting to succeed in alternative shells. In fact, this build was the most successful of any Heliod deck all week, which overall was not particularly good. It failed to reach the Top 8 of the second Super Qualifier, as well as the Pioneer Challenge, so maybe a massive shift is exactly what the strategy needs if it's to survive in a metagame that appears to be shifting. Given the success of decks like Izzet Ensoul and the Mono-Red Aggro deck it beat in the finals of the second Super Qualifier, it makes sense that a more aggressive approach rose to the top.
Modern has also had a Super Qualifier, and it brought surprises of its own, like a new and improved Temur Taking Turns deck from Daniel Wong himself, infamous for the quadruple-sleeved Taking Turn decks he took to the Top 8 of GP Vegas in 2018.
A year ago at MagicFest Toronto I remember my surprise at seeing Daniel in a feature match playing for Top 8 with an Izzet version with Lightning Bolt, and a look at his decklists since shows he's taken the deck to further extremes with cards from each successive over-powered set release in the last year. Modern Horizons added Wrenn and Six, which in addition to being a value engine for the early game becomes an effective hard lock when its ultimate combines with Time Walk effects. Throne of Eldraine added Fires of Invention, which offers an incredible mana advantage in a deck full of expensive spells, and by eliminating the downside of Savor the Moment opens it up as a new tool. Theros Beyond Death has now added Uro, Titan of Nature's Wrath, which is rising to prominence in every format where it's legal.
As a ramp spell Uro is a nice fit into a deck that really doesn't start its game plan until it has five mana, but it also serves as a perfect capstone to the midrange plan the deck has been shifting toward over the past year. With disruption spells and planeswalkers, the deck has some ability to play a fair game and grind down the opponent, and Uro helps the cause while adding a reliable creature finisher, which the deck has never previously had beyond Snapcaster Mage.
This list goes even deeper down that midrange rabbithole with a sideboard featuring three Bonecrusher Giant, which can kill a creature before turning into a threat as a nicely packaged two-for-one. Add in more removal and some countermagic, and you have a deck that can win without ever having to chain together Time Walk effects. It makes one wonder if the Time Walk aspect is even necessary, since there are so many good midrange cards in Temur, and it's a question answered by the 9th place deck in the very same Super Qualifier.
"Snowko" Temur Midrange decks were briefly a thing when Oko, Thief of Crowns was around, but its banning took them away as quickly as they appeared. Temur is now seeing a sort of renaissance in the new breed of Urza, Lord High Artificer decks, but this decklist takes a more traditional midrange approach.
Naturally the deck is all about Urza, Lord High Artificer, with lots of fetch lands and disruption spells to hit the graveyard and support its escape. It's joined by Tarmogoyf, long a staple of Temur decks as an honorary blue card, and a large cast of planeswalkers.
The deck also uses Blood Moon, but it's interesting because it takes a turn away from the more typical blue-centric builds with Snapcaster Mage and Cryptic Command in favor of green and the Arbor Elf-Utopia Sprawl package seen in Gruul decks. This acceleration works very well for accelerating into planeswalkers, getting them down before the opponent has a footing and allowing them to run away with the game, or simply for getting Uro down on turn two.
One strong finish from a new deck doesn't necessarily mean it's great, but a deeper look shows the pilot has put up multiple League 5-0 finishes in recent weeks, and that it's something they've been developing for a while. Their latest result might be a sign of even bigger things in its future.
With more Super Qualifiers to come, including Legacy and even Pauper on the schedule for this week, it's a very exciting time to be playing Magic Online, and I'm excited to see the innovations that their high-stakes competition will surely continue to drive.