With Pioneer the most stable it has been since its inception, I wanted to do a bit of a different metagame article this week. With a full two weeks since the last banning, we can talk about stable pillars and best cards in the format. Some of the trends in the past two weeks are pretty obvious, but I want to dig into the underlying reasons for the current metagame.
These are the most powerful mana accelerants in Pioneer, and they largely define green's space in the format. Llanowar Elves and Elvish Mystic form a very redundant core that allow pretty consistent access to three mana on turn two and often five mana on turn three. Gilded Goose is only going to jump the curve once without assistance, but can power out Oko, Thief of Crowns and grants access to more colors of mana than the other one-mana options.
Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx is much more of a mana engine than an accelerant. However, it often produces huge quantities of mana very early on, allowing players to cast cards like Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger very early in the game. While there are some applications in red and black devotion archetypes, this is primarily a green card that further amplifies the acceleration provided by mana dorks.
It's very clear here that green has access to the most mana in the early game, and that's one of the big reasons why devotion strategies have remained a large part of the metagame through several bannings. Hardened Scales decks have started playing a full eight mana dorks because jumping the curve is just that powerful. Being on the draw against an unanswered Llanowar Elves is absolutely backbreaking.
I usually frame these metagame articles around deck archetypes as pillars rather than card archetypes, but with a format this large it's important to address play patterns rather than just decks. Mana dork into three-drop is a play pattern in Golgari Field, Simic Stompy, Hardened Scales, Mono-Green Devotion, Elves and even Mono-Green Ramp. If your deck isn't capable of answering or ignoring that play pattern, you need to reassess what you're doing.
The big reason you absolutely must account for mana-dork-into-three-drop is that Once Upon a Time and two playsets of mana dorks means that play pattern is going to occur the overwhelming majority of the time. The London mulligan incentivizes players to just send back hands that don't have a dork or Once. The power of these decks with and without a dork on turn one is absolutely night and day, so there's no reason to play a game without your best start.
The second most powerful consistency tool isn't ubiquitous in green decks, but it is an absolute staple of aggro decks. Smuggler's Copter is a well-statted evasive threat that provides incredibly valuable card selection in an archetype that really wants to avoid the wrong mix of lands and spells.
Mono-Black Aggro really wants to hit the first four land drops, but doesn't want to flood out and is more than capable of leveraging its graveyard. Izzet Ensoul has enablers and payoffs and really wants to draw the right mix of both. Basically any aggressive creature deck should be playing Smuggler's Copter because of how much consistency it gives for essentially no cost.
The last spell on this list is perhaps the one that has been the most dominant as of late. Hour of Promise is a very powerful ramp spell, but in Pioneer its power is largely in its ability to consistently find specific lands. Field of the Dead, Sanctum of Ugin and Shrine of the Forsaken Gods are the powerful lands that archetypes are built around, but there are a lot of powerful utility options in the format as well. Double Demonic Tutor is a very powerful effect even when narrowed down to a single card type.
Much like the Eternal formats, Pioneer heavily rewards consistency. Even if your deck is powerful, if it's not capable of carrying out its plan on a regular basis you're going to lose to the top decks in the format a lot. There's very little room for error here. The winners metagame will be consistently putting you to the test, making you answer or beat their strategy every. single. game.
If you want to avoid having your strategy beat, what are the threats in the format that are the hardest to interact with?
Field of the Dead is hands-down the hardest threat to interact with in Pioneer. The card pool just doesn't have very good land destruction, and the hate cards are basically all answered by common interaction. Very few interactive decks can beat an endless stream of Zombies, and aggressive decks need to get around a fairly wide board of Zombies to kill you. Field of the Dead is also incredibly easy to find and enable with Once Upon a Time, Elvish Rejuvenator and Hour of Promise. There's basically no threat in the format that is harder to answer or disrupt.
Wilderness Reclamation may seem like an odd inclusion on this list, but it is deceptively hard to interact with. Disenchant or Naturalize effects are often relegated to the sideboard and a four-mana enchantment dodges Oko, Thief of Crowns and Abrupt Decay. This makes it very easy to untap with Wilderness Reclamation against non-blue decks and go off with Dig Through Time and Nexus of Fate. Demanding that your opponent have countermagic or one of their few sideboard slots to stop you is a powerful place to be.
Here, Ugin, the Spirit Dragon represents the whole category of planeswalkers that cost more than three mana, but Ugin is also the undisputed king of the endgame. Many decks simply cannot beat a resolved Ugin, and there are several decks capable of presenting an Ugin ahead of schedule. Nissa, Vital Force, Nissa, Who Shakes the World and Gideon, Ally of Zendikar have also been popular lately because these planeswalkers dodge common forms of removal and present a very quick clock if left unanswered.
This brings us to the premier interaction of the format. Given these threats, the multitude of accelerants, and the consistency of the format, what are the best answers?
Fatal Push is simply the best small removal spell, taking care of everything from Llanowar Elves to Thought-Knot Seer. Even without enabling revolt (which isn't trivial in Pioneer), so many of the important creatures in the format cost two or less. Thing in the Ice // Awoken Horror, Winding Constrictor, Smuggler's Copter, Monastery Swiftspear, every single mana dork. Being both efficient and instant-speed is the real key to Fatal Push, allowing you to break serve on the draw and answer curves that would otherwise leave you on the back foot.
Thoughtseize isn't instant-speed, but it is the interaction spell with the widest range in the format. For a single black mana you can take a look at the opponent's hand and take their best card. Planeswalker, creature, instant, it doesn't matter. As long as it's not a land you can trade your Thoughtseize for it. That kind of resource exchange on your terms is incredibly powerful, and the combination of Thoughtseize and Fatal Push is why black is so prominent in Pioneer right now. Redundant, efficient interaction at one mana is something no other color has in Pioneer.
Abrupt Decay rounds out the holy trinity of interaction in Pioneer. A happy medium between cheap and flexible, Abrupt Decay is very efficient and scales very well into the later stages of the game against most strategies. This card is a lot of why payoff or engine cards that cost four or more mana (usually a huge cost) are actually more desirable in Pioneer.
So the format is about black interaction, green acceleration, consistency and expensive payoffs. Where does this leave the format? Well, the top decks are unsurprisingly heavily skewed toward black and green, and are incredibly consistent.
Mono-Black Aggro is the aggro deck of Pioneer. You get the best interaction in Thoughtseize and Fatal Push, you get some of the best aggressive one-drops in the format, and you're an aggressive deck with a ridiculous amount of Staying Power. Full playsets of both Mutavault and Castle Locthwain mean you're able to play a lot of lands and still get a lot of mileage out of them in your aggro deck.
Playing 24 lands in a deck this aggressive is a privilege afforded by Smuggler's Copter and a plethora of mana sinks. There's no end to recursive threats and lands to activate, allowing you to make full use of your mana on almost every turn. This kind of efficiency and consistency make the deck everything Ramunap Red was in its heyday. You have a better curve than everyone else, and it's basically impossible to truly flood out.
Murderous Rider even allows you to crush the expensive planeswalkers from decks trying to dodge Fatal Push and Abrupt Decay. This deck sideboards efficiently into a midrange deck against other low-to-the-ground decks. Virulent Plague and Blightbeetle are very potent hate cards available in the sideboard. If this isn't the best deck in the format it's definitely in the top two, and if you're not playing it you damn well better have a plan against it.
Golgari Field is the spiritual successor to both Mono-Green Ramp and Golgari Midrange decks. You get the Field of the Dead endgame and the interaction package of Fatal Push, Thoughtseize and Abrupt Decay. This deck is just the best of both worlds and one of the top decks in the format, vying with Mono-Black for #1.
Once Upon a Time, Elvish Rejuvenator and Hour of Promise form the backbone of this deck, allowing it to find Field of the Dead and other utility lands with regularity and just drown the opponent in Zombies, card advantage or both.
Tireless Tracker seems kind of small ball in a big mana deck, but it provides some very nice card advantage allowing it to grind through a lot of disruption and punish people trying to solely answer Field of the Dead. This deck is secretly about how efficient it is, making cards like Disdainful Stroke far weaker than they should be against a big mana deck. Everything is cheap and deployable but scales into the later stages of the game.
It's much harder to make a plan for Golgari Field than it is to make a plan for Mono-Black Aggro. It has a lot of angles, it's resilient to disruption, and it packs disruption of its own for decks angling to go over the top of it. That's why it's good.
This is the last of the top tier. Once the clear best deck, Mono-Green Devotion settles into top three territory amidst the rise of Fatal Push and Thoughtseize. Despite the fairly hostile environment, Mono-Green Devotion is just an incredibly consistent deck. It's the most capable of abusing the fast mana available in the format, and the planeswalker suite has become the go-to endgame.
Nissa, Who Shakes the World and Vivien, Arkbow Ranger offer the deck an early play that dodges Abrupt Decay. The sweet spot of four to five-mana non-creature threat means that you can still play the game if your first creatures die, but you absolutely run away with the game if your board sticks around.
Walking Ballista and Voracious Hydra have become staple four-ofs as the interactive slots in the deck, killing off opposing small creatures and scaling into giant mana sinks with Nykthos online. Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger and similar expensive threats have been relegated to a single slot in the sideboard as a wish target for Vivien when necessary.
This deck is still capable of some busted starts and consistently puts up tournament finishes, but it's no longer far and away the best deck.
Simic Stompy has fallen a decent amount amidst all the cheap removal, but Steel Leaf Champion plus Stubborn Denial is still a hell of a combo. This is the deck that does the dork into three-drop best, and Steel Leaf Champion is capable of ignoring Courser of Kruphix, Gilded Goose, mana dorks and Zombie Tokens. That evasion clause is incredible on such a fast clock.
And it doesn't stop at Steel Leaf Champion. Questing Beast is similarly evasive, and it's not hard to land Ghalta, Primal Hunger early either. This deck hits hard and it hits early. If you don't answer the early board then it hits you even harder. If you do try to interact with the creatures it also has Oko, Thief of Crowns against reactive decks without a good endgame.
Stubborn Denial rounds out this set of plans, allowing Simic Stompy to plow through approximately one interactive spell per game (Abrupt Decay and Supreme Verdict excluded). This is one of the top decks with the weakest sideboard, but Sleep is deceptively powerful, as is Lifecrafter's Bestiary. The game plan is fairly linear, so the sideboard is more about augmenting that than trying to sidestep.
This is a powerful deck, but it's certainly a step down from the top three.
The last deck I want to touch on today is the last remaining combo archetype at the top of the format. Kethis Combo has struggled since the ban of Oath of Nissa, Paradoxical Outcome has yet to come to fruition and Possibility Storm continues to have consistency issues. Wilderness Reclamation and Nexus of Fate live on to carry the combo torch.
These decks don't play any of the premier accelerants, interaction or even consistency pieces, but they do have a very resilient engine in Wilderness Reclamation. There's a lot of value in blanking almost every single interactive spell in opposing decks. Thoughtseize and Stubborn Denial are basically the only maindeckable interaction against this archetype. That's a big deal when consistency is key.
This deck's own consistency comes from Strategic Planning, a lot of early cycling and the incredibly powerful Dig Through Time. Arguably a card that deserves a spot in the consistency discussion above, Dig Through Time means you'll almost always find Wilderness Reclamation by the time you resolve it. If you already have Wilderness Reclamation in play, Dig Through Time basically means you can't whiff.
I don't think this deck quite breaks into the upper echelon, but quietly sits alongside Simic Stompy above the rest of the field. It's one of the few decks I think is capable of punishing Golgari Field by going over the top.
Pioneer is in a stable place with some well defined terms of engagement at this point, and that makes it ripe for two types of players: those who want to take one of the best decks and tune it for this metagame, and those who want to exploit this stability with a new brew. Both are looking for the holes in this metagame, what slips through the cracks, and what matters against the top decks. I've just laid out the basis for Pioneer as it stands now. There's just one question left:
Which one are you?
Adam "yoman5" Hernandez is a streamer, brewer and competitive player with a keen sense for what makes a deck tick. He writes about changes in the Standard metagame and the art of deckbuilding.
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