Last week was the final week people could slack off in Pioneer. Coming up are back-to-back Regional Players Tour weekends followed by a Pioneer PTQ on Magic Online.
Last week I said that the format would get faster, midrange's days were numbered, and Jeskai Ascendancy was the deck to play. This past week proved me right in some ways and wrong in others.
Here is the winners metagame compiled from Sunday's Showcase Challenge combined with all the lists that earned a 4-1 or better in a Pioneer Preliminary.
For those who want just the Showcase metagame, I'll include that as well:
Last week I gave the following tier list based on my analysis:
Decks to Beat
Decks People Will Play, but Shouldn't
Decks People Won't Respect
What I'd Play
People came ready for the decks to beat, packing cheap spells and a lot of disruption. Big Red performed incredibly poorly, barely avoiding "other" status. Azorius Control did alright in the Showcase but was nearly absent in the Prelims. Five-Color Niv was the sturdiest of the three, but still dropped significantly in metagame share. Graveyard decks and various versions of Lotus Field and Underworld Breach were in a terrible spot this weekend as graveyard hate spiked heavily. Nobody was ready for Mono-Black Aggro, and it showed.
So I nailed the metagame, right? Almost. The deck I chose was based on the analysis that people would be vulnerable to quick kills and weren't interacting much, but the answer to that was not Jeskai Ascendancy combo. With the rise of Mono-White shortly after I wrote my article and a general uptick in combo hate thanks to Underworld Breach, the deck proved to be much weaker in the metagame than anticipated.
What should I have chosen as my deck for the week? I have full benefit of hindsight here, but Izzet Ensoul checks all the boxes I was looking for in Jeskai Ascendancy without being weak to the hate cards people were bringing. Both decks can struggle against disruption, but Izzet Ensoul is fast, plays to the board immediately to punish any stumbles, and was far more resilient to this week's post-board games.
I let my bias and assumptions from early Pioneer shape my judgement of Izzet Ensoul. When Thoughtseize, Abrupt Decay and turn-two Oko, Thief of Crowns defined the format, Izzet Ensoul was a weak strategy with a lot of vulnerability. In current Pioneer very few decks can support Abrupt Decay, the Thoughtseize deck can't remove an Ensoul Artifact, and the midrange decks can only play one spell a turn and are much weaker to fast clocks and Stubborn Denial.
The other deck I wrongfully ignored was Azorius Spirits. If disruption and early plays are the name of the game, this is the deck that will succeed. Where Izzet Ensoul has a faster clock, Azorius Spirits has much better disruption. Both decks exploited the midrange decks of the format while punishing combo decks, and together made up almost a quarter of the metagame. Both decks were much weaker when Abrupt Decay was the premier removal spell, and both decks didn't get nearly the respect I should have given them in the current context.
All of these lessons learned should shape how we view the format going forward. We're back to aggressive decks setting the pace, and any deck that can't keep up is going to get crushed. Five-Color Niv won the midrange battle and is now the face of midrange in the format. Other midrange decks don't have access to the same swath of cards at the same level of consistency: Bring to Light is the big reason the deck can survive casting one spell a turn. It's always the spell that matters.
Dimir Inverter and Mono-White Devotion variants are new on the scene, and probably the most stable form of "combo" in this metagame despite functioning largely like midrange decks. After a bad week graveyard decks might have some more leeway if people slack off, but I wouldn't count on it just yet. A lot of people are going to take the best decks from last week, and that means your graveyard deck gets hosed.
As we get into the tier list, remember that "Decks to Beat" means that these are the decks you need to be able to beat to succeed this week. They're often the most popular decks because they're the most powerful, but they're also the decks people will be trying to exploit the most. There's a reason why What I'd Play often deviates from Decks to Beat.
This deck has become the "Burn" of Pioneer. It's been around for the whole format and waxes or wanes with the speed of the format. Any time people try to get too big and mopey, Mono-Black Aggro is around to punish people for their arrogance. Also, Thoughtseize is a messed up Magic card and possibly the strongest card in the format.
Pairing Thoughtseize with removal is pretty standard, but pairing both of those with aggression means that this deck is capable of exploiting that window where the opponent is off balance, and that's very important right now. The big reason that Thoughtseize, removal and "win eventually" doesn't work right now is that Five-Color Niv will drown you with sheer card quality.
I slept on this deck before, but I won't anymore. This deck has changed with the format and become almost an Affinity-like aggressive deck with some powerful finishers in Shrapnel Blast and Ensoul Artifact. You want to deal damage in chunks of 5, but throwing Ghostfire Blade on evasive creatures is going to get the job done just as well. It's a lot more like Infect than Bogles.
Most of the tuning in these lists depends on the split of instants used to interact and what sideboard removal and countermagic you want access to. People are starting to play Disdainful Stroke, but I think Metallic Rebuke does the job just as well against spells that cost that much mana while being usable earlier. I like Kiethverin's use of Hangarback Walker as additional resilience against removal-heavy decks, especially Mono-Black Aggro.
Azorius Spirits has often looked unimpressive to me, but at this point the results speak for themselves. Current lists are very tempo-oriented, with full playsets of both Brazen Borrower and Nebelgast Herald. These decks have a lot of redundancy and the curve ends at three, which means not only are they going to "always have it," they're also very capable of double spelling and punishing bait spells.
The sideboards of these decks consist mostly of hate and countermagic, but Settle the Wreckage has been getting more popular as a way to buy that extra turn to win in the air against other aggressive decks.
At this point, it's clear to me that people love this deck and it's good enough that it isn't going away. It is the best midrange strategy, and the only one left standing that isn't a combo deck. For all the shade I throw at Five-Color Niv, it's a reasonable choice, and the mana works well enough that you get paid off in card quality.
That said, remember that changes to these decks aren't free, and that when you make significant changes you should be adjusting the manabase as well. It's not a fetch/dual manabase, and there's a lot of tap lands involved. Paradise Druid and Sylvan Caryatid can pull a lot of weight, but they're not Prismatic Omen.
Small recent changes that I think are excellent include the maindeck Unmoored Ego to fight the rise of combo decks, Infernal Reckoning to combat the Izzet Ensoul, and more cards like Uro, Titan of Nature's Wrath and Questing Beast that help bridge you to your top end.
Azorius Control was an excellent choice when midrange was a sizable chunk of the metagame, but the rise of Spirits, Mono-Black Aggro and Izzet Ensoul has hurt this deck significantly. The archetype is still very reasonable, and did put five copies into the Top 32 of the Showcase, but I believe the upcoming metagame will be more hostile to this deck.
I've highlighted this list because it had the highest finish, but there are still no two people who can agree on a 75. Thassa's Intervention and Elspeth, Sun's Nemesis have made their way into several lists, but I'm honestly not sold on either myself.
The time of "Chonky Red" is over. If you insist on playing Mountain and Mutavault, there are more aggressive versions I recommend instead. If you're stubborn and love Glorybringer, this is probably the cleanest Big Red list I've seen yet.
The Eldrazi package gives you better game in bigger matchups, and Eldrazi Obligator cuts you a lot of slack when your creatures are outsized. It's a real shame that we don't have the black-red pain land in Pioneer, because Scrapheap Scrounger is just so much better than Kari Zev, Skyship Raider in most matchups.
Underworld Breach has two major versions, Izzet and Temur. Both are fairly strong solitaire decks, but fold to an unfortunate amount of hate in the format right now. Getting caught by Deafening Silence, Rest in Peace and Damping Sphere is a really rough place to be currently. I think these decks are powerful and once refined will be a force, but they need a more favorable metagame.
Ramp decks are still reasonably strong, but Five-Color Niv is a midrange deck that can go toe-to-toe with them, which is bad news. Midrange decks and Azorius Control are supposed to be this deck's favorite prey, but with favorable matchups on the downswing I'm not sure where this deck is getting its edge.
This deck exploded over the past few days and put up some very good numbers in the Showcase. It's a combo-midrange deck that isn't weak to graveyard hate and is resilient to spot removal when winning with Thassa's Oracle. A lot of people aren't going to be ready for this deck yet, because it looks like a meme at first glance. This is definitely a real contender, and you will want a plan for it this weekend.
Right after I wrote my last article, KPonceMTG (Kevin Poncelet) 5-0d back-to-back leagues with a Mono-White Devotion list built around Arcanist's Owl, Board the Weatherlight and Knight of the White Orchid. It was all over MTGO for the next few days and saw a good amount of iteration, but PASDEJAMBON really took this deck to the next level by splashing Collected Company.
People initially wrote off Heliod, Sun-Crowned/Walking Ballista as a combo that was too clunky and vulnerable. Then they realized it could be built as a midrange deck with a combo finish, and then they realized that midrange wasn't nearly as good as they thought it was. Collected Company gives the beatdown plan more teeth and allows the archetype to play through removal much better than before. I'm not sure if Mono-White Devotion will be a top-tier archetype, but Collected Company is a lot more powerful than Arcanist's Owl, and this is what I would consider the new stock build.
It may seem odd to say people won't respect the deck that won the Showcase, but far too many people think this is just another Big Red deck. This is very deliberately a lower curve deck trying to double spell far earlier in the game and capable of a very quick clock. It may still have Torbran, Thane of Red Fell and Goblin Chainwhirler to annihilate opposing creature decks, but it also has twelve prowess creatures and twelve burn spells to close games out in short order.
People might even get more aggressive than this moving forward and return to Bomat Courier builds with twelve one-drops, Hazoret the Fervent and Eidolon of the Great Revel, and I think that's a reasonable place to be. Don't be one of the people dropping at X-2 in the first few rounds to these decks.
I think this is still a good week for Izzet Ensoul. The metagame is fairly hostile to Abrupt Decay, and Emry, Lurker of the Loch and Hope of Ghirapur lock out a lot of nonsense in the format. Shadowspear is tech that's been showing up in small numbers and I think it's potentially a better game-one card than Aethersphere Harvester because it can come down faster in matchups where lifegain doesn't matter as much. By Force is definitely a greedy sideboard card, but it will pay dividends in mirrors. I haven't had a chance to play with this list yet, but it's almost certainly what I'll be running in Friday's Prelim.
Pioneer is getting much faster, much more efficient, and much less fair than it used to be. It's not stable yet, but decks like Big Red, Sultai Graveyard and Ramp are going to need to adapt or die. I'm looking forward to the first round of RPTs this weekend, and while split weekends may seem unnecessary to some, I'm excited for two full weekends of high-level Pioneer coverage. The best players in the world are going to be trying their best to break it, and you better believe next Wednesday I'll have the full breakdown from Brussels and Nagoya.
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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