Theros Beyond Death has arrived… and not really shaken up the format that much. There's certainly a lot of potential to cards like Heliod, Sun-Crowned and Underworld Breach, but so far these cards and their archetypes have largely fallen flat. Let's look at the weekend metagame, counting the Top 32 of Sunday's Challenge and the 4-1 and better lists from Friday's Preliminary.
The biggest splash so far has been from Uro, Titan of Nature's Wrath making its way into ramp decks and some builds of Five-Color Niv-Mizzet Reborn. I will say, though, that despite the prevalence and success of Big Red and Five-Color Niv, I don't think "slow" is where you want to be going forward. For now, these decks are warping the format in a very slow direction, but going over the top with last weekend's counter-heavy Azorius decks and graveyard-based black-green decks feels very wrong to me. All of these strategies are very slow, with many decks having four or even zero spells to cast on turn one. A cardpool this large should not sustain this level of midrange arms race, and it's only a matter of time before decks properly capable of punishing this arise.
We've been in a small lull in high-stakes Pioneer events since Pioneer Week, but that's about to change. Pioneer is the format of the upcoming Players Tour which means a lot of very skilled players are going to be trying to break the format. I simply don't believe that playing one spell a turn for turns two through five is the best we can do in this cardpool. We may no longer have Once Upon a Time or Oko, Thief of Crowns, but the format is still capable of very fast curves and powerful combo decks.
The cards I would personally watch out for are Jeskai Ascendancy, Underworld Breach and Lotus Field. Ascendancy and Lotus Field decks already exist, with plenty of room to improve. A lot of people jumped to Underworld Breach in Lotus Storm, but I think that simply makes the deck more fragile, even if it is more explosive. I've personally been working on various Mox Amber-based combo builds of Underworld Breach but haven't found the right plan to dodge Rest in Peace and its ilk yet. Jeskai Ascendancy is the most explored combo deck of the three, but hasn't been popular despite its fairly consistent early kills.
Long-term forecasting aside, let's get to bit you came for. Welcome to the first Hot Take Tier List™ of 2020.
While Big Red was the most publicized midrange deck, this one is the biggest and baddest. Five-Color Niv has access to the best cards in every color, Siege Rhino to make up for some of the slowness of the deck, and Niv-Mizzet Reborn to refill your hand with more two-for-ones.
There's not a lot to say about this deck. The goal is to get to five mana quickly and then cast either Niv-Mizzet Reborn or Bring to Light, and then just play more powerful cards than your opponent every turn after that. The biggest weakness of this deck is obviously the mana, and people have been playing Self-Inflicted Wound to take out the hexproof mana dorks the deck relies on.
Five-Color Niv is pretty weak to countermagic and combo decks, but it does a very good job out-muscling other midrange decks. I expect to see a lot of this on MTGO for the foreseeable future.
Azorius Control has waxed and waned over the course of Pioneer as decks have been faster or slower. The biggest weakness of the deck remains that all the removal costs two or more and is often pretty conditional. When nobody is punishing that fact and many are opening themselves to countermagic with expensive top-end threats, Azorius Control is powerful.
The time of countermagic and Dig Through Time is now. Big Red and Five-Color Niv are two of the most popular decks, and some of their biggest predators are incredibly weak to Rest in Peace. Azorius Control is also pretty safe against combo, and will likely remain strong unless people return to mono-colored aggro or Thoughtseize-based attrition decks.
Sometimes called "Chonky Red," this deck aims to just play haymaker after haymaker until the opponent folds under the weight of the curve. These decks have limited interaction and instead rely on invalidating opposing threats with pressure and card quality.
There are two main versions of Big Red: Mono-Red and Rakdos. The black version splashes for Scrapheap Scrounger, Cut // Ribbons and sometimes Unlicensed Disintegration, plus a host of sideboard cards. The trade-off is that the mana isn't nearly as smooth, and it doesn't get to play as many Mutavaults.
This deck is fine and people will play it, but Pioneer can do better than this, and decks wanting to trash it should just play cards like Chandra's Defeat and Doom Blade. Big Red has some powerful cards on each spot of the curve, but it's incapable of double spelling effectively until turn six or so. Punish that.
This deck is fairly strong against Big Red and even Five-Color Niv, but the fail rate on it is too high for me to recommend as a strong deck. I think the Sultai Graveyard decks can apply similar power with greater consistency, and they have a better beatdown plan in the presence of graveyard hate.
I would not be so far down on this deck were graveyard hate not on the uptick thanks to the recent success of Sultai.
Sultai Graveyard had some success recently in the hands of Ross Merriam, but like Dredge decks in Eternal formats it too is the victim of its own success. Pioneer still has access to Rest in Peace, Tormod's Crypt, Grafdigger's Cage, Leyline of the Void and Ashiok, Dream Render.
In weeks where opponents are skimping on graveyard hate, this deck is quite powerful, but afterward everyone will be prepared. Right now everyone will be prepared, even the good matchups. Give it a break, but expect it to be back soon enough.
People are not respecting one-drops in this format. They're not respecting Thoughtseize, they're not respecting Mutavault, and they're simply not ready to keep up with Mono-Black's action economy. Right now is a great time to remind everyone that Azorius Control has a terrible Mono-Black matchup, and that Sylvan Caryatid and Paradise Druid won't save your slow deck from dying to one-drops.
Theo_Jung has basically the new stock list of Mono-Black Aggro, with a split of Grasp of Darkness and Ultimate Price to punish Big Red. Self-Inflicted Wound punishes the Niv-Mizzet decks, while Leyline of the Void and Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet beat up the graveyard decks. This list is clean, and you can use it as-is in your events this week.
I think non-graveyard combo decks as a whole are in a great spot right now, but Lotus Storm is the one putting up results most recently. This specific version is playing the Underworld Breach/Chronic Flooding package, but isn't all-in on it, and still plays Sylvan Scrying and Wolfwillow Haven. It's very capable of winning through Rest in Peace, and with unimpeded access to its graveyard it can assemble a deterministic kill pretty quickly.
Jeskai Ascendancy is currently underplayed and underexplored. The deck can pretty consistently kill on turn four and plays both a lot of cheap spells and early interaction for opposing creatures. This makes it a combo deck that isn't as weak to aggressive strategies as other combo decks but is still very capable of punishing big midrange decks.
This deck may play Underworld Breach, but here it's much more like an extra few copies of Treasure Cruise, delving away six or nine cards to "draw" cards from your graveyard. In Jeskai Ascendancy there's not the same fear of Rest in Peace or other graveyard hate just turning off your combo lines. Sure, it's annoying that you can't really use Underworld Breach or Treasure Cruise, but there's enough spells in the deck to combo off with just Sylvan Awakening and Jeskai Ascendancy.
For anyone trying to still break Pioneer despite this seemingly stable and slowly adapting metagame: keep going. This format isn't done yet, and I'm positive by this time next week we'll have some new decks at the top of the format. Get leaner, get meaner, and shame these single-spell midrange decks for playing so slowly. Show me more combo decks that win through Rest in Peace, show me that the endgame of this format isn't just Azorius Control. It wasn't before and won't be now. Pioneer ain't this slow and fair.
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 Standard and Pioneer and the art of deckbuilding.
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