The Wheel of Colors
Pioneer may have had its shakey starts with the relatively bad timing of the format announcement and its lining up with some other things happening on the planet at the time, but it appears that things are starting to warm back up in the cardboard world. The snow is melting, the birds are singing, and the Magic player emerges from their cave dwelling once again, looking for new and exciting ways to feed their addiction. With what some are calling a second Pioneer renaissance, we are sure to expect a lot of new interest in the format from enfranchised and beginner players alike. If you (or your “friend”, we won’t tell) are looking to get into the next big format, I’d like to introduce you to some of my favorite strategies and show you all of the features of this bountiful landscape. In the first of this multi-part series, I’ll be taking you on your first steps into the best way to play Pioneer. Let’s begin by discussing the color wheel, and what you can expect from each individual color in this format.
The range of sets in pioneer covers a strange span of time in Magic’s history, where white is generally considered a bad color who doesn’t have access to a lot of impactful card choices. We’re seeing that paradigm begin to shift as more sets are being released these days, but that’s a transition that we’re still very much in the thick of. That said, white still has plenty of things that it’s always been good at here. We have access to a lot of the traditional white themes of taxation, token and weenie spam, and soul-crushing “symmetrical” effects which typically take the form of board wipes. Not to mention that white in Pioneer, similar to other formats, is the best color for sideboarding options hands down.
Players who’ve been tapping basic Plains for mana for a while will be familiar with my of these concepts. White also offers an interesting suite of cards that fall into the “juuust not powerful enough” category in other formats as well. From vehicles to auras to angel tribal, playing a 60 card version of your commander deck has never been easier.
White excels at providing answers to anything, and creating threats that put the opponent’s removal suite to the test. It has access to cards and synergies that let it hyperfocus and really sit in its lane. While formats like modern and legacy also have access to the cards that really let you specialize like this, pioneer is slow enough a format that you’ve got a bit more time to develop your board. Many games are played “on the battlefield” in this format, which is where White absolutely thrives.
Where white lacks in this format shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone who’s ever visited the Magic: The Gathering Subreddit before. Card advantage, planeswalker utility, and standalone threats are some of the color’s biggest misses. These are some of the more popular aspects to gameplay, which is why White gets a bad rep, but I think that White in the Pioneer card pool is one of the more skill-testing colors to slot yourself into. If you are down for a rewarding challenge or just really enjoy annoying your opponents, white is an excellent playground for you.
Blue is in a weird spot in pioneer. At its core, there are roughly three busted cards in the color worth playing and building around, then a lot of filler is required to make the deck make sense. All of blue’s most well known archetypes are represented in Pioneer, and each is helmed by some combination of those three broken cards. We have access to some astounding card advantage to help plow through our control and tempo decks and find the pieces we need, disruptive creatures with strong tribal synergies, and huge finishers that come packed with tremendous tempo swings.
Blue in pioneer is largely a support color to help turn a “sort of ok” plan into an excellent one by means of digging through your deck at lightning speed. Cantrips like Opt and Consider are the backbone of a lot of multi-color strategies that typically cap themselves with the more powerful delve draw spells. Sticking to blue on its own will usually land you in the realm of tempo, though, flavored as either spirits or a deck centered around Curious Obsession. While the counterspell suite isn’t nearly as strong in Pioneer as it is in other formats, players are seeing success with the myriad of “Cancel, but sometimes it’s cheaper” variants available in the format given that things are slightly slower on average.
Blue’s struggles in the format are less easily quantified as it’s less a case of “Blue can’t do this” and more “Blue has one card that does this”, which leads to situations where decks and lists that want access to a certain effect or playstyle end up looking similar to every other list. It isn’t great at presenting clean answers to threats off the stack or making one play that can turn the tide of a game. A lot of Blue’s strongest plays include chaining together multiple spells per turn, which creates situations where it flops when in top-deck mode. The property of lacking in individual card quality is no stranger to anyone who’s used to adding blue to their mana pool however, and most lovers of the color won’t need selling as soon as they read those powerful words: “Draw 3 cards.”
“I’m not trying to say that Black is the best single color in Pioneer, but…it’s close.”
Thoughtseize. Fatal Push. Go Blank. Black in Pioneer is the clear winner when it comes to having the strongest answers to whatever nonsense the opponent has going on. These cards, backed up by the excellent threats and recursion that the color has access to, are one of the pillars of the Pioneer format and one of the best choices to build a deck around. Other formats have Force of Will and Brainstorm, we get Thoughtseize and Fatal Push. That’s not to say that Black doesn’t have access to other strong plans either, the color is one of the best in the format because of its flexibility and adaptability. On top of strong tribal synergies and powerful creatures that are difficult to kill and keep dead, we also have access to powerful sacrifice synergies that attack on an axis that a lot of opponents aren’t prepared for.
One of Black’s strongest features is, of course, its access to Lurrus of the Dream-Den. Most black decks in the format take full advantage of the Nightmare Cat, loading up on cheap and efficient threats to loop on repeat while simultaneously taking advantage of the intense disruption suite that Black offers. Not to be a one trick pony, Black also has access to perhaps the strongest and most well supported tribal archetype in the format, Vampires, which looks to use and abuse the power of Sorin, Imperious Bloodlord. I’m not trying to say that Black is the best single color in pioneer, but…it’s close.
Where does Black struggle? Aside from the classic answers of “It doesn’t have any answers to artifacts or enchantments”, Black’s main worry is that it relies very heavily on individual card quality. If your one big payoff card gets answered, you need to dedicate a lot of time to remounting your position. This creates situations where decks such as Blue/X control decks can really stomp on Black’s plans, or Green/X Aggro decks can present threats that outclass what black has put out. Black may have access to the answer to everything, but it can have a difficult time providing the answers to everything all at once. Black is the color for the experienced Pioneer player who knows exactly how they want to attack the format, while also being new player friendly in its ability to introduce you to some of the more complex decision lines available. It’s a challenging color to navigate, but extremely rewarding when done correctly.
When in doubt, burn ‘em out. Red in Pioneer does a handful of things extremely well, and several of those things are “inflict direct damage to the opponent”. From the classic red burn deck to Phoenix’s bevvy of burn spells to the relatively new “8 Eidolons” deck, Red is all about slinging spells that cause harm to others as efficiently as possible. Why fix what ain’t broke? That’s not to say though that all Red knows is the fires of hate; the color is also quite strong when it comes to providing and interacting with artifacts. Several new archetypes have sprung up in the past year that take excellent advantage of artifact synergies available in red, and its future as a mainstay in the format is almost assured.
Red excels at playing swiftly. Whether that’s in the form of the burn deck dropping its hand full of one-drop creatures and spells in the first three turns or the midrange variants generating extra mana to speed out their threats via Treasure Tokens, Red prefers eating lunch than going to time for the seventh round in a row at the big tournament. This mentality can throw some of the other colors for a loop because they may have been expecting to have the time to build and establish their board presence. Playing swiftly like this can give Red decks a lot of power by getting under bigger opponents and finishing things before they even get started. This lets Red act as a sort of check to the format, to keep things from going too slow. By keeping the decks that want to go large on their toes, they’re less likely to overtake the format and cause meta games to go stale.
On the other side of that same coin however, lies Red’s greatest weakness in the fact that it’s very prone to running out of gas. Red decks will frequently charge through their first seven to eleven cards within a couple of turns, hopeful that that plan is good enough. If a deck is prepared for that sort of wave of aggression though and is able to survive the initial onslaught, they will typically have all the time they need to stabilize themselves and eventually overtake due to higher individual card quality. Red decks are for those who like to make a statement. Those who like to live fast, die young, and leave a nice smelling corpse. Its a color that requires a different line of thinking to traditional Magic, where you don’t have the time to plan for the long term and need to make the most of what’s in front of you.
Finally, we come to Green. The backwoods survivalist who shoots first every time and keeps within its own borders. Green in Pioneer is similar to blue in that it’s a fairly narrow color that’s largely warped around one very strong core; in this case the cheap and hyper efficient ramp provided by Llanowar Elves and Elvish Mystic. While there are a couple of different strategies available that take advantage of these format pillars, on the whole Green is relatively restrained in the things that it’s good at. It can go wide, go tall, or go resilient, all of which are done ahead of schedule by taking advantage of the mana dorks.
Green in Pioneer is frequently on the “all or nothing” plan with whatever it’s got going on. Whether on the go wide elf tribal flavored plan or going taller with some fat three-drops on turn two, Green very heavily relies on its ability to dump out a large board presence in the first few turns with the aim to overwhelm an underprepared opponent. The color also has access to an interesting suite of toolbox cards as seen in the popular Green Planeswalkers lists. These sorts of lists can sift through their sideboards to find whatever card best fits the job of answering what the opponent has going on. Once board stabilization is established Green’s classic board domination plan comes next, usually in the form of a tremendous creature threat.
The downside to Green lies hidden within its biggest strength. Without access to the fruits of spending its first handful of turns setting up the mana dorks, Green’s game plans are typically horrendously slow and easily matched in pace if not left completely in the dust. While playing a big three-drop on turn two can be back breaking, waiting around until turn three gives even poorly constructed decks enough time to find an answer, with similar stories as you move up the mana curve. Disrupting the dorks or otherwise losing access to them via mulligans are the easiest ways to keep a Green deck tame. While Green can have some of the strongest plays in the format when all goes well, its fragility makes it ideal for players who share that wild heart. Green truly reflects that aspect of nature where you are the top predator one day, and being carried off to a giant eagle’s nest the next. Asking if an opponent has the answer so early in the game is a very appealing strategy to a lot of players though, and Green thrives in the times that it’s allowed to flourish. It offers fun and compelling gameplay while still maintaining an air of simplicity in its design.
Pioneer offers a bountiful new realm of exploration and possibility to Magic players new and old alike. The format has a deep card pool with limitless potential, a reasonable pace of play even at the higher tiers and levels of competition, and one of the best communities of zealous fans in the game. The format is far and away the best way to enjoy your favorite hobby card game, and is ripe for fresh minds to take on the new challenges it holds. We see interesting and innovative strategies popping up every day, most of which are sure to be covered on this very site in future articles. Stay tuned as we keep our fingers on the pulse of Pioneer and help walk you through all of the fun and excitement that’s sure to be coming our way. Until next time,
Stay safe, play smart, and thanks for reading.