While many of you have come to expect a Standard analysis from me come hell or high water, the last big Standard event before Mythic Championship VI has just finished and many people want to know where to start in the newly announced Pioneer format. It's important to get out in front of this format because Pioneer PTQs start this Friday—and not only are there PT-Qualifying events in this format, the first round of PTs next year will be Pioneer, as well as the PT Finals that they all feed.

Let's start with the first big weekend of results we have: Sunday's MTGO Pioneer Challenge.

You know, for a format where the only bans are fetch lands, this is surprisingly fair and diverse for a first Top 8. Let's look at the Top 32 then?

Alright, so that's a little worse, but it's really not that bad outside of the 28% metagame share of various Copycat builds. The other "combo" culprits in the metagame are the green ramp strategies leaning on Leyline of Abundance, the second most represented macro-archetype at just under 19%. Everything else looks pretty well split and there are a lot of fringe decks that got on the scoreboard.

Many people expected a far more unfair and fast metagame, myself included, but decks like Izzet Phoenix, Sultai Midrange and the various aggro decks actually managed to keep the more degenerate decks in check despite popular expectations. A large part of this is that the fair decks in Pioneer need to have a high density of removal to answer Copycat and other creature-combo decks. Treasure Cruise and Dig Through Time let them find the answers necessary for multiple combo attempts without actually having too many copies in their deck. Meanwhile the successful aggro decks all have just a bit of disruption to go with their fast and/or evasive threats, allowing them to capitalize on the window where the opponent is off-balance.

Before I bury my editor in word count, let's get to this week's analysis. Keep in mind that this is a brand new format and I'm writing this on Monday evening—things will likely adapt at a significant pace, so focus more on the why than the what in this tier list.

Decks to Beat

Sultai Midrange

The fairest of them all. This is your Thoughtseize-plus-removal deck, and since Tarmogoyf isn't legal in Pioneer, Jace, Vryn's Prodigy is the all-star two-drop in this deck. Abrupt Decay is the best removal spell in the format, Thoughtseize is the most efficient disruption in the format, and Jace, Telepath Unbound allows you to flash it all back to do it again. Looting is also deceptively powerful when your deck is full of narrow but powerful answers and legendary threats.

There are two main variations of this deck: one with Gilded Goose and more planeswalkers, and another leaning on a full playset of Oko, Thief of Crowns and playing Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet and Scavenging Ooze to take over the board. However, both decks use the card advantage and selection from Jace and Dig Through Time to win more drawn-out games of Magic.This is the top control deck because it is the best suited to answering the format's most prevalent pillars: Copycat, three-mana planeswalkers, disruptive aggro and ramp. All of these decks rely on low-converted-mana-cost setup, and unlike Azorius Control, Sultai doesn't need any one card to pull a lot of weight like Supreme Verdict, so cards like Thoughtseize aren't as back-breaking. Once the format slows down and the pillars change Sultai may not have all the answers, but until then I think this is one of the best decks in the format.

Four-Color Copycat

Copycat is the two-card bogeyman of the format. Much like Splinter Twin before it, Copycat threatens to kill you any time you leave the shields down. This exerts a huge amount of pressure on opponents in play and even in deckbuilding, demanding that opposing decks either have an answer to the combo or a clock so fast they can afford to ignore the combo. Very few decks can reliably do the latter, so until this deck gets banned every deck in the format needs to have an answer to the combo.

Because of this pressure, more linear versions of Copycat like the Vannifar Cat build I was championing early on in the format became the victim of their own success, and more midrange-centric energy builds like Four-Color Copycat were the most successful, followed closely by the control-focused Jeskai Copycat version. Not all versions of Four-Color Copycat play a ton of energy cards, but Rogue Refiner is a solid roleplayer and helps enable Aether Hub, which is one of the cards that allows such a greedy manabase alongside Gilded Goose.

One-mana accelerants are quite powerful in Pioneer, as only red and black have one-mana answers and playing a three-mana planeswalker on turn two is extremely difficult to answer outside of Abrupt Decay and Spell Pierce. This is what allows the midrange builds of Copycat to succeed despite the pressure of decks like Bant Spirits and Mono-Red Aggro, as you don't stay the aggressor for long if your turn two begins facing down Oko, Thief of Crowns.

Jeskai Copycat

This is the more controlling version of Copycat, acting much more like old-school Splinter Twin, trying to answer a few things and set up a safe, clean kill. Teferi, Time Raveler is the master of safe and clean, denying your opponent most forms of interaction on your turn.

This 11th place build has a lot of card selection and early interaction, allowing it to set up the kill safely quite often. The biggest weak point of a deck like this is still running out of the win condition. While Anticipate, Dig Through Time and Thrill of Possibility are good for digging to what you need, cards like Thoughtseize combined with Abrupt Decay or a swarm of creatures and one good piece of disruption can really make it hard to combo off before getting buried. This deck is all about safe combos, but it takes time to set up that safety, and this deck doesn't have a plan B.

All those weaknesses aside, this is still one of the most successful archetypes of the event, and remains in my decks-to-beat list.

Green Devotion Ramp

Remember how I said one-mana accelerants were very strong in Pioneer? There are eight unconditional one-mana accelerants and Leyline of Abundance makes them twice as powerful. This archetype is capable of some truly absurd starts, casting Nissa, Who Shakes the World on turn two and/or making some horrifically large Hydroid Krasises (Krasi?) on turn three.

Leyline of Abundance generating two devotion to green for zero mana makes Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx incredibly powerful. While the Simic versions gain access to some resiliency in Hydroid Krasis and Oko, Thief of Crowns, the Mono-Green versions have access to some really explosive draws because Burning-Tree Emissary generates mana with Nykthos in play instead of being merely free. When your opener has Leyline and a turn-one dork, turn two Nykthos and Burning-Tree Emissary generates SIX mana.

These decks are all blisteringly fast with or without a splash, and gain a lot of consistency from Once Upon a Time allowing them to find mana dorks, Nykthos or payoffs—not the least of which is Walking Ballista, the deck's Copycat insurance. Nykthos is frankly right behind Copycat for a ban, so get in while the getting is good.

Decks People Will Play, but Shouldn't

Vannifar Cat

It hurts me to say this, but this is no longer how you should build Copycat. I put a lot of work into making this the leanest, meanest, fastest copycat deck in the format, but fast isn't what matters now. You need to interact a little more, be a little more resilient to Abrupt Decay, and have a little more threat beyond the combo.

The Prime Speaker Vannifar package is very powerful at consistently allowing you to combo off, but takes up a lot of space that could otherwise be used for more resiliency and midrange threats. Abrupt Decay is very good against this deck as it can stop your Vannifar chain or kill Saheeli Rai, and opponents can wait through most of the combo before doing so to deny you a follow-up combo and largely turn your Vannifar into dead weight.

This deck is still likely to thrive in the Leagues where people are trying out all sorts of stuff, but while it's fun to be the litmus test of the format, everyone in a tournament metagame will be ready to pass that test.

Azorius Control

I don't think this is the way to build control right now. Copycat decks are all playing Teferi, Time Raveler and there's very little that this archetype can do to really stop that besides running Jace, Architect of Thought and using its +1 to shrink all of the Cats. Unfortunately, that pressure stops this deck from actually using Jace for card advantage, means that they often get buried in card advantage themselves.

Once the format narrows a bit after some bans I can see this archetype succeeding, but right now Thoughtseize, Copycat and Teferi, Time Raveler make me very wary of registering Azorius Control.

Tribal Aggro

While Spirits is probably the best aggro tribe, I don't think that tribal aggro is where you should be in the format right now. Sultai Control is an excellent example of why. The pressure points of this format drive answer decks to play efficient answers like Oko, Thief of Crowns, Abrupt Decay and Fatal Push to keep up with the demands of the other aggro decks in the format and the combo threats, and this incidentally makes these types of decks much stronger against synergy-based aggro decks.

Spirits does have Spell Queller which makes the matchup against Copycat and sweepers much better, but Abrupt Decay and Fatal Push still do a number against this deck and Collected Company only goes so far in allowing this deck to recoup.

Decks People Won't Respect

Izzet Phoenix

It sounds odd to say that a deck that took second place in the Challenge won't get enough respect, but people simply won't respect it. Veil of Summer is an easy answer to getting dunked on by Thoughtseize and Abrupt Decay, but there's not nearly as clean an answer to Izzet Phoenix.

Thing in the Ice // Awoken Horror, Arclight Phoenix, Jace, Vryn's Prodigy, The Royal Scions. This deck has an excellent split of threats that largely demand different answers. Admittedly Oko is very good against all of them except The Royal Scions, but The Royal Scions is an important sideboard juke that allows you to pressure people trying to lean on specific haymakers against you and punish anyone playing too reactively. Part of the strength of this deck is that it's a bunch of card draw and answers and threats that reward you for casting spells. The second-place list even included Chandra, Torch of Defiance as an Abrupt Decay-proof threat that ends the game incredibly quickly left unanswered.

This deck won't get a ton of respect because it doesn't do anything degenerate or even anything particularly powerful, but it just quietly and cleanly plays a strong tempo game and will remain strong in doing so.

Hardened Scales

This is one of the decks I am personally most surprised to see absent from the Top 32. It's a synergistic aggro deck, admittedly, but it's also one of the better Thoughtseize aggro decks and it naturally carries Walking Ballista, which is one of the single best threats against Copycat. It also strains Abrupt Decay and sideboards Evolutionary Leap, a very powerful tool against spot removal and an Oko-proof engine card (not that Oko is particularly good against creatures with +1/+1 counters on them).

If I had to guess, I would say the prevalence of spot removal is what's holding these decks back, but I have faith they can adjust to play more cards like Animation Module, Blossoming Defense, Veil of Summer and more planeswalkers of their own.

What I'd Play

Sultai Midrange

Are you kidding me? I love my degenerate Vannifar Cat deck, but this is the kind of Magic I truly enjoy. Midrange slogfests with a slight edge against everyone, but without the feel-bads of Jund. We get interaction, Dig Through Time and some really solid threats. Not sure we need all three Courser of Kruphix, and a part of me wonders if we're allowed to play Traverse the Ulvenwald, but I really like the way this deck is set up against the metagame. It's the Wild West, but you have answers to just about everything but Emrakul, the Promised End. This deck looks sweet and is probably the next League I run before I try and make Kethis, the Hidden Hand work…

While I don't recommend Vannifar Cat for the MTGO PTQ on Friday, I will leave you all with the list I submitted for this Sunday's Challenge along with a much-requested sideboard guide.

Vs. Sultai Midrange

These numbers can change a bit depending on the build, but you won't be as safe to just Vannifar-chain against this deck and want some more grinding power. Abrade is a hedge against Pithing Needle that also kills Jace, Vryn's Prodigy and Scavenging Ooze, which can be surprisingly annoying to deal with when you want to chain up with Vannifar because it exiles Corridor Monitor in response to Renegade Rallier's trigger.

Vs. Copycat

This is another matchup that varies by build, but unless they're the Jeskai version or some other control configuration, Oko is a lot less exciting and you want your removal and Spell Pierce to fight early and try and go off first. Neither of you is particularly well suited to a drawn-out game because there's just not enough interaction. Mana dorks are big game in this matchup—make sure you have a hand that goes off fast or can stop them from doing so.

Vs. Green Ramp

This is another racing matchup and I'm not sure of the sideboard split yet. Still, Leyline is one of the keys to their busted draw, so I want the answers to that and some removal to deny the first ramp turn in order to go off first. Being on the play with a turn-one dork is a huge part of this matchup from both sides; mulligan accordingly.

Vs. Red Aggro

You need stability and you need bodies. Voice may be good in grindy matchups but it's also good here because their creatures do so much damage, and getting in front of them matters a lot. Spell Pierce is also strong here because they don't have spare mana to pay for it and it's often just one mana to gain 3 life or protect Saheeli to go off.

Vs. Blue Aggro

These decks fly over you or use evasive blue threats and Smuggler's Copter, and Voice of Resurgence doesn't actually slow them down. They're too good at pressuring Oko down and Prime Speaker Vannifar is the most exposed part of the combo into countermagic, getting hit by Spell Queller, Mystical Dispute and Disdainful Stroke. Abrade kills their threats and Smuggler's Copter, and Last Breath is just bonus removal here.

Vs. Izzet Phoenix

Oko, Thief of Crowns is very strong in this matchup, turning off all their non-planeswalker threats and giving you lots of time to set up. Rest in Peace is very strong against them as well, but it isn't lights-out so don't rely on it just KO-ing them. Veil is too narrow here. Spell Pierce is the one-mana interaction you want for the stack. It can deny them Chandra, Torch of Defiance, The Royal Scions, or even just counter spells like Thrill of Possibility and cost them a lot of resources.

Vs. Hardened Scales

This is honestly the nightmare matchup: Thoughtseize, Walking Ballista, a quick clock, access to Assassin's Trophy and Abrupt Decay. Wear // Tear, Abrade, and By Force are all very strong here though, and if you can get one through Thoughtseize it'll swing the game significantly. Veil of Summer is tempting, but you simply can't afford to draw it when they don't have Thoughtseize and they can absolutely punish you for having dead cards in hand. Whenever possible, kill or bounce Walking Ballista before they untap, that card is not beatable once it's online in this deck.


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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