Ikoria: Lair of Behemoths and its companion cards have warped every format they've touched. There are all sorts of intense debates raging about them on social media, like the one centered around if Lurrus of the Dream-Den is really that broken and game-defining compared to the mistakes of the past, especially Legacy's Brainstorm. I have experienced the joy of playing Lurrus of the Dream-Den off Black Lotus—and the pain of playing against it—and it's reasonable to say that the consistency companions provide isn't a great fit for the Vintage format, which evolved a one-of restriction list to get around players always having their best cards.
On the other hand, companions have been surprisingly fun in Pioneer. They seem at home around more recent cards, and don't have the same game-breaking power and broken synergies they have in older formats. Magic Online has offered a ton of competitive options over the past weeks, and for whatever reason I've found myself focused mostly on Pioneer, due to some combination of their events being scheduled at good times for me, the more reasonable field sizes compared to massive Limited events, and the simple positive feedback loop of me doing pretty well.
It has also been a lot of fun, and the companions have played a part. There's a ton of experimenting and brewing converting to results, so the metagame is constantly evolving on a day-to-day basis. In just the past week there have been some major innovations and surprising results, so today I'm looking at all of the developing trends.
Pioneer's top deck going into Ikoria was Dimir Inverter, but the archetype seemed to miss out on the companion craze, and was starting to look like a relic of the past as players flocked away from it in droves. Its card prices on MTGO crashed as its popularity fell to just few percentage points of the metagame. But now the rise of companion decks like Lurrus of the Dream-Den Sram, Senior Edificer Auras has brought about a resurgence of Lotus Breach to prey on it, and that makes a disruptive deck like Dimir Inverter look pretty attractive.
By last weekend Dimir Inverter put itself back on the map by winning the Pioneer Super Qualifier, but even more startling was the deck just behind it in the Top 4 (there only because its pilot conceded the semifinals to the winning player): an 80-card Dimir Inverter deck adapted to support Yorion, Sky Nomad.
The move from 60 to 80 cards is costly to a combo deck looking to put specific cards together, as it's less likely to draw them, but the secret of Dimir Inverter is that it's more of a midrange deck than combo anyway. This is especially true after sideboarding, where in the majority of matchups it tends to shift away from combo and toward a more fair game plan. Yorion, Sky Nomad is a natural extension of that, and combined with a few key card choices to unlock its value, Yorion is a very useful tool for supporting the deck's midrange capabilities.
The key card for making the most of Yorion, Sky Nomad is Omen of the Sea, which already had precedent in the archetype and was at one time commonly used as a one-of. By the time Ikoria came out the best lists had removed it, but it goes from borderline-playable to a true staple when combined with the potential for value with Yorion, Sky Nomad, and the necessity of reaching 80 cards.
Trial of Ambition is on its way to becoming a Pioneer staple given its great interaction with Yorion, Sky Nomad, and as a black removal spell it's a fine fit into Dimir Inverter alongside Fatal Push. Together with Omen of the Sea and the addition of more Narset, Parter of Veils, the deck has a strong value base for Yorion, Sky Nomad—not to mention the nice scry value Yorion gets by blinking Thassa's Oracle.
Add a couple Neutralize, which has the makings of an Eternal staple, and you have an 80-card Dimir Inverter deck that looks and plays just like the old one, except with Yorion, Sky Nomad looming over the opponent the entire time.
In the Pioneer Super Qualifier where it broke out I was playing White Devotion and put up a good run, but when I saw the new Dimir Inverter deck I was quick to put it together for the Pioneer Challenge the following day. It felt great all day, which I wrapped up by losing for Top 16 to the mirror against Edgar Magalhaes, who I believe is the deck's original creator. I locked up game three, but timed out against his own clock with mere seconds left—what a match.
While I beat most of my opponents using Dimir Inverter, I did have two tough losses against two varieties of red aggro deck. Both strategies have companions of their own and are quickly rising in the metagame.
My first loss came at the hands of Boros Heroic, which essentially takes the Lurrus Sram Auras plan but with a different slant. It's proving quite effective as the deck won the second Pioneer Challenge of the weekend.
Instants and sorceries aren't as good as Auras with Lurrus of the Dream-Den, so on paper the companion isn't quite as good here as in Orzhov. In practice though Lurrus still quite good, and is a perfect addition to another strategy that always needs bodies in play. The Heroic deck does play more creatures than Orzhov, and returning them to play will always be the go-to for Lurrus—it's especially strong when returning one of the deck's haste creatures.
Instead of Auras this deck uses instants and sorceries, and instead of Sram, Senior Edificer as its card advantage engine, it uses Dreadhorde Arcanist. If you can get Arcanist going even one turn, it feels just as game-ending. The deck's large suite of prowess and heroic creatures gives it great consistency, and with the addition of Boros Charm for double strike to get double the use from its pump spells, it almost feels like you're playing a combo deck.
My second loss came against a more classic mono-red aggro deck, adapted to support Obosh, the Preypiercer as a finisher.
Red aggro decks in all formats rely on their one-mana plays, so embracing odd mana costs is a natural fit for the archetype. Eidolon of the Great Revel is a notable even-cost sacrifice, but the other two-drops seen in Pioneer mono-red decks like Viashino Pyromancer, Kari Zev, Skyship Raider, Ash Zealot, Rimrock Knight and Lightning Strike are unexciting, entirely replaceable cards. Shifting up to three mana provides staples old and new, an all-star lineup of Goblin Rabblemaster, the once-banned-in-Standard Rampaging Ferocidon, and Bonecrusher Giant.
All of these cards (and every other damage source in the deck besides Mutavault) are double-charged by Obosh, the Preypiercer, which fills the same role as Torbran, Thane of Red Fell with its finishing power. It's an incredible addition given that it's always accessible, especially as a free eighth card. Red decks play by the "Philosophy of Fire", using every card like a burn spell to count up to 20 damage as fast as possible, so drawing eight instead of seven is a big deal.
As such, it's not surprising that Boros Burn has been one of the best-performing Lurrus of the Dream-Den decks in both Modern and Pioneer, but this Obosh, the Preypiercer angle has some great merits of its own—namely, the advantage of staying mono-red, as well as its raw finishing power compared to the more grindy Lurrus. The deck went on to Top 8 the first Pioneer Challenge and did one better with a Top 4 in the second, so it's definitely a viable alternative.
Shark Typhoon looks like a great addition to the Fires of Invention Planeswalker deck with Yorion, Sky Nomad that broke out two weeks ago, and made the finals in last weekend's first Challenge with the cycler.
Shark Typhoon is great technology with Fires of Invention because it essentially lets you cheat a third spell into the turn, since mana isn't necessary for the first two. The ability to do it at instant speed on the opponent's turn, which Fires of Invention usually forbids, makes it even better.
The second challenge Top 4 also contained the biggest Pioneer surprise of the week, a dedicated cycling deck powered by Zirda, the Dawnwaker as its companion.
The cycling strategy has emerged as the best archetype in Ikoria Draft, risen into a competitive Standard deck, and has now made the jump into Pioneer, centered around Flourishing Fox and Zenith Flare as powerful payoffs.
Pioneer's one-mana cyclers Censor, Cast Out and Hieroglyphic Illumination are better than any of Ikoria's colorless one-mana cyclers, and playable cards on their own, so embracing the strategy doesn't require a sacrifice in card quality or the requirement to play any useless cards. Neutralize and Shark Typhoon add more quality cycling cards, and together form the base of a control deck that is rounded out by some staples in Azorius Charm (which basically cycles) and Supreme Verdict.
It's topped off by Zirda, the Dawnwaker, which is primarily just a nice bonus as a free eighth card and a 3/3 body. It joins Flourishing Fox to help the deck take the initiative and play a more aggressive Delver of Secrets-style game, which is important against decks like Lotus Breach that only grow stronger over time. Its passive ability does help a bit with cycling lands, but is really impressive with Shark Typhoon. The curve of Zirda, the Dawnwaker on turn three and Shark Typhoon on four, maybe with a Flourishing Fox thrown in earlier, is explosive, and contrasts nicely with the deck's typical, passive control game.
Another Yorion, Sky Nomad deck to watch, from the second Challenge Top 8, is a variation of the White Devotion deck that takes a more blue approach with Omen of the Sea. With the additional enchantment joining those the deck already plays, it fully enables Archon of Sun's Grace as a potent threat, and a killer combo with Yorion, Sky Nomad that has the potential to produce many tokens.
The deck ditches Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx, but keeps Heliod, Sun-Crowned and its combo with Walking Ballista, which it has increased access to with Karn, the Great Creator and a wishboard. This adds another whole angle to the deck, and is especially attractive for accessing hosers like Damping Sphere that can be critical for beating broken decks.