Felidar Guardian is banned.
Leyline of Abundance is banned.
Oath of Nissa is banned.
The first three bans of Pioneer came out late yesterday and we've got a lot to unpack. The two-card combo of the format is understandably too consistent and too powerful, and has direct and harsh demands on what you are allowed to play in a format with very limited removal. The other "two-card combo" was Leyline of Abundance and Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx and has also been removed from the format. These two combo shells were very much dictating what you were and weren't allowed to do, as ignoring either meant you could die as early as turn three.
Oath of Nissa may be the most surprising ban of this trio, but I really think this helps the format out. As I said last week, the four pillars of the format were Leyline Devotion, three-mana planeswalkers, Cat Combo and Thoughtseize + Abrupt Decay. Oath of Nissa was a large part of three of the four pillars and enabled a lot of "good cards" decks that they tried to avoid with the fetch land bans. There are just a lot of sideways synergies for the card that was also the single best cantrip in the format. As Sam Black put it: Oath makes more sense when I get that it's banning Astrolabe, not Ponder.
These bans combined means there's a lot more room for slowed-down play and a lot less demand for decks to interact on turn one. Mana accelerants and three-mana planeswalkers are still going to be very powerful, Nykthos is still going to make a lot of mana, but these strategies are no longer threatening to kill you as early as before and that makes room for slower, more powerful answers. That's the macro scale of changes, but I want to dig into the major players in the format and how these bans affect the metagame on a deck-to-deck basis.
These decks are obviously dead, but I wanted to harp on something specific here. Four-color planeswalker midrange is going to take a pretty big hit, and they can no longer lean on one-mana accelerants beyond Gilded Goose to produce anything other than green mana. This means that their mana will hurt more or their construction needs to get more conservative. Gilded Goose and Oko stick around, but these decks no longer get access to nearly as many early planeswalkers or as many colors of sideboard options. Energy midrange likely ceases to exist outside of decks built around Aetherworks Marvel and/or colorless Eldrazi.
The witch is not dead. These decks still have up to twelve one-mana accelerants, Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx is still legal, and they still are going to punish people trying to skip interaction in the first few turns. Don't get me wrong, this deck is no longer oppressively strong, and might even be relegated down a tier, but Burning-Tree Emissary is still going to be behind some really unfair starts. There are likely better green-based ramp decks for the time being, such as RagingTiltMonster's 6th place list from Friday's PTQ built around the Standard Scapeshift core of Arboreal Grazer and Elvish Rejuvenator.
I need to touch on the final pillar of this format that revolves around early planeswalkers and plays Thoughtseize + Abrupt Decay. These decks got beat up a lot after their early success by Veil of Summer and better-built combo decks. Still, they remained reasonable because Abrupt Decay was the best removal spell in the format and Thoughtseize and Fatal Push gave this deck early interaction in spades.
A lot of these things change with this announcement. While Abrupt Decay remains a powerful and versatile removal spell, it's no longer the clear best one with the change in context and the ability for decks to go further up the curve. Fatal Push similarly gets a lot more conditional if people move away from accelerants, but remains a very efficient spell.
Thoughtseize, however, remains as strong or stronger in the format as we go forward, granting a lot of information about the opponent's deck and picking apart their hand. Sultai was the "good stuff" fair deck of the format leading into the bans, but there are a lot of ways to play Thoughtseize and good cards. Especially as things lean fairer and space opens up for ramp strategies, Aetherworks Marvel, and the like, people will adjust their Thoughtseize and removal midrange decks to the colors with the appropriate answers. Sultai will live on in spirit, but the decks as currently built are not the way forward.
This is probably one of the strongest decks entirely untouched by the bans. Izzet Phoenix is a very efficient tempo deck as well as the single best home for Treasure Cruise in the format. Thing in the Ice // Awoken Horror and Arclight Phoenix attack opponents from multiple angles with the same enablers and none of this changes with the bans. In fact, Phoenix strategies probably benefit as the format shifts slower and fairer, as the combination of Arclight Phoenix, Thing in the Ice // Awoken Horror, Treasure Cruise, and planeswalkers can make life difficult for midrange and control decks, and the quick, evasive clock can punish slower, more powerful strategies like ramp. This deck was one of the most powerful decks before and it will remain so going forward.
Ensoul Artifact-based aggro decks have been just under the top tier of decks, and one of the things holding them back was that they weren't able to interact favorably with Cat Combo or Devotion Ramp and were often a tad slower than these decks. Creating a 5/5 on turn two is simply not very powerful against either of these decks. This style of disruptive aggro can potentially benefit from the format slowing down, as they are now one of the better decks at quickly deploying to the battlefield and then closing out. If the key turn of the format shifts back by a turn or two, Stubborn Denial becomes very powerful protection for this deck's early threats. I don't know that this is better than the next deck, but there is potential here.
This deck took down the Nerd Rage Gaming Championship Trial this past weekend and boasts some truly incredible starts. This is the one deck that will keep decks honest about answering cheap threats efficiently, because Hardened Scales or Winding Constrictor allow this deck to present a brutally fast clock with incredibly cheap creatures. The more people skimp on Wild Slash or Fatal Push the more they're going to die to this deck.
Robert identified that these decks can't abuse artifact creatures quite the same way as the Hardened Scales decks in Modern, and that Once Upon a Time and Winding Constrictor mean that you want more ways to set up counters on turn one. Experiment One and Pelt Collector are a powerful set of cards that all attack for 3 on turn two with a Winding Constrictor as the follow-up, and they don't stop scaling. Both creatures benefit greatly from additional counters, gaining evasion or resiliency as they grow larger and larger. This is one of the archetypes I'm most looking forward to after the bans.
This is the breakout deck of the past weekend, and it's completely untouched by bans. Wilderness Reclamation didn't get any fairer with better Fogs and better instants, and if decks get too slow Wilderness Reclamation strategies threaten to play fun police. While this isn't the same degree of oppressive as Cat Combo was, these decks still threaten to just kill you for tapping out and the interaction they demand is narrower. That said, Wild Slash and Thoughtseize are still incredibly potent against this strategy provided you have the pressure to close the game out before they recover. Closing the game is a necessary part of disrupting Wilderness Reclamation because given enough time, they go so wildly over the top of what most other decks are capable of. I like these lists a lot going forward, and would definitely want to respect this archetype in my 75s for the week.
This archetype hasn't picked up steam yet, and that's primarily because its matchup against Cat Combo and devotion was frankly pretty bad. With those out of the way and a potential rise in fair decks I think this deck has a lot of potential. This deck is capable of some very fast, context-agnostic starts that involve a Splendid Reclamation putting three or more lands in play on turn three or four, generating a ton of Zombie tokens. Magmatic Insight, Growth Spiral and Pieces of the Puzzle allow this deck to really consistently find Splendid Reclamation and Field of the Dead in order to just completely ignore a lot of board states. That said, this deck likely needs to strongly consider Wilderness Reclamation decks in its sideboard because the deck is so bad at beating Fog.
The surviving combo deck of the format, Kethis Combo is significantly hurt by the Oath of Nissa ban. This is a greedy four-color deck that was able to abuse the legendary supertype on Oath of Nissa to get a large amount of both consistency and inevitability. Going forward this archetype likely needs to respect its mana a bit more and find other ways to allow Kethis, the Hidden Hand to grind out removal-heavy opponents.
All that said, this is a very powerful archetype that gets to play a lot of strong midrange elements. The strength of the Copycat decks was largely due to their ability to both combo-kill and play a fair game, and Kethis Combo similarly has both axes of play. While Kethis's combo-kill is much easier to attack than Cat Combo, Kethis plays a much stronger fair game. Keep an eye on this as the format evolves.
This archetype lives in the weird purgatory between combo and aggro. There's a lot of setup but the goal is to present a very powerful, singular threat that is hard to interact with and closes the game very quickly. This deck is obviously weak to graveyard hate, but there's a surprising amount of card advantage built into it, and Once Upon a Time can find Caustic Caterpillar to remove most forms of graveyard hate in the format. This archetype obviously needs a lot of refining but I think it gets a lot of breathing room with the removal of Leyline of Abundance and Felidar Guardian. I'd personally still like to see more Ghor-Clan Rampager in these decks.
The other devotion deck that rose to prominence in the format, largely in the hands of indefatigable Magic Online grinder CLYDE THE GLIDE DREXLER. I keep thinking this deck looks way too fair but Clyde has been on an absolute tear with this deck. With just the right mix of aggression and late-game power, this is probably a great place to start if you still want to max out on Fatal Push and Thoughtseize. The Vampire aggro plan is surprisingly important for supplying some much-needed velocity and closing power in an otherwise glacial midrange deck.
Last but definitely not least is Mono-Red. These decks are just fast, efficient, and very capable of contesting opposing creatures. It struggled to keep up with some Leyline starts or even just Leyline and Oath of Nissa making Nylea's Disciple a brutal stabilizing tool, but very little of that applies now. I don't think this is the best deck in the format going forward, but I do think it is among the top tier and is going to keep a lot of people honest in the first few days. A lot of dreams are going to die to burn spells and Smuggler's Copter.
What am I going to work on? Honestly there's still so much of Pioneer I haven't had time to try out firsthand, but my top three for the weekend would be Hardened Scales, Splendid Reclamation and Izzet Phoenix. I think playing a proactive deck with a wide range of plans is going to be a very powerful as the format gets shaken up, and I would be wary of playing anything too fair in the face of some of the late-game options that have opened up. If I wanted to break the format however, Kethis Combo is absolutely on the top of my list as the next busted thing and I expect to see multiple copies in the Top 32 for Friday. If you want to catch my live testing for Pioneer don't forget to check out my stream tomorrow over at twitch.tv/yoman5!
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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