Like a True Pioneer: An Exploration of the Ascendancy Cycle
New Capenna is upon us, and with it has come the return of Shards and the focus on these three-color pairings. The return to Shards also comes the return of both Charms and Ascendancies, the latter of which Bradcifer breaks down and brews here.
Let’s Ascend Together
New Capenna is upon us, and with it has come the return of Shards and the focus on these three-color pairings. They’ve been treated in a similar way to the wedges of Ikoria in that they’ve each been given a new moniker to go by: Brokers, Obscura, Maestros, Riveteers, and Cabaretti. Of course, we’re familiar with them as Bant (GWU), Esper (WUB), Grixis (UBR), Jund (BRG) and Naya (RGW). With the return to shards also comes the return of both Charms and Ascendancies, with today’s focus being entirely on the latter. But every cycle has a beginning, and for that we need to return to the original Ascendancies.
In Pioneer, there’s really only ever been one deck focused on any of the Ascendancy cards; Jeskai Ascendancy combo. If you’re interested in reading more about that deck and its current role within the Pioneer meta, I previously wrote an article on it. The other existing Ascendancies never seemed to really find a home, so what better place to start than with the original cycle?
First up, we have Sultai Ascendancy. The entirety of its gameplan is graveyard-centric. At the beginning of your upkeep, the Ascendancy allows us to look at the top two cards of your library and choose to put any of them in your graveyard or on top of your library. This allows us to set up our draws every turn which can go a long way in any midrange strategy. To take advantage of this, we’re running a plethora of graveyard payoffs.
Deathrite Shaman is a supremely powerful one-drop that has yet to showcase its true power in Pioneer thanks to the absence of Fetchlands in the format. Here, it’s able to take advantage of excess lands we decide to mill over or exile a creature in a pinch to help us stabilize against more aggressive decks. Our other one-drop is Stitchers Supplier, a key piece in filling the yard for our Deathrite Shaman and some other key threats like Grim Flayer and Brokos. Seeing that we’re centered around an enchantment that looks to fill the yard, we’re naturally going to stumble into Delirium often.
Grim Flayer presents an aggressively-slanted two-drop that allows us to set up our draws when we don’t have Ascendancy out and fills the yard to ensure we reach Delirium. Satyr Wayfinder allows us to find our important land drops to ensure we can drop Ascendancy on turn three and for our larger threats in the mid-late game. These mid to late-game threats include Sidisi, Brood Tyrant, Brokkos, Apex of Forever, and The Scarab God. Sidisi is wonderful in that it actively mills on entry and every time she attacks – and since we’re running 23 creatures, the odds of filling the board with 2/2 Zombies is fairly high. Brokkos is an excellent target to mill over as we have plenty of targets to mutate over from the graveyard. Turning a top-decked Satyr Wayfinder that isn’t doing much for the board into a 6/6 trampling threat is great for the late game. Brokkos is also simply a solid card to drop naturally on turn five.
Our other five-drop is a previous menace of Standard: The Scarab God. Again, we’re actively filling our graveyard so having a sticky threat that needs to be exiled to be dealt with, that can bring back 4/4 tokens of our smaller creatures from the graveyard is extremely valuable. Finally, we round out the deck with our utility spells: Grisly Salvage to find creatures and lands and Witherbloom Command to act as maindeckable removal for graveyard hate and active removal, lifegain, and a mill accelerant. Bala Ged Recoverycan recur our threats in a pinch and help us hit our land drops. Tamyio, Collector of Tales finds our threats, mills over cards, and can return cards from the graveyard just as Bala Ged can. If you like graveyard strategies but are still a midrange player at heart, this deck is for you.
Originally, the idea was to just have a bunch of four-power threats just swarm the board and draw cards over and over until you beat your opponent to a pulp. After looking around at other decks for inspiration, I found that taking a page out of Mono-Green Storm was a match made in heaven. Mana dorks allow us to accelerate into a turn-three Ascendancy, or just go straight into the mono-green gameplan of a turn-three Kiora or Old Growth Troll. Trying to turn on Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx as quickly as possible to just go off with Storm the Festival, hitting any of our 4+-powered creatures like Savage Knuckleblade and Cavalier of Thorns. The big thing however is that Storm the Festival does say permanents so you can hit your ascendancy off of it as well. And, if the ascendancy enters alongside another 4 power creature, they will see each other hit at the same time and draw a card – with the same being true for Kiora! Some fun additions to make our card draw just insane are Keruga and Panharmonicon. A board with Kiora, Temur Ascendancy Keruga, and Panharmonicon will get out of hand quickly for our opponent. Somewhere, I can hear Saffron Olive giggling with glee over this idea.
Mardu has always been the red-headed stepchild of three color pairings, and it’s time for it to fight back – or in this case, shank back. Mardu Ascendancy cares about going wide and attacking often, so what better way to take advantage of all of the 1/1s it generates than Cavalcade of Calamity? Everytime a creature with one-power attacks, it pings our opponent for one, which can get out of hand once we have a decent number of creatures on board.
To do that, we play mostly one-drops. Scorch Spitter, Mardu Shadowspear, Thornbow Archer, and Viscious Conquistador all either deal one damage to our opponent per attack either via direct damage or life drain. Bomat Courier allows the deck to have an avenue of card draw that can also eat removal early game to set up our other threats safely. Chandra’s Pyreling in the two-drop slot is perfect as every time our creatures or Cavalcade deal damage to our opponent, it gets +1/+0 and double strike until end of turn. Having as little as three triggers makes it so that our Pyreling is swinging in for six damage, and the fun thing is that it triggers itself with Cavalcade. Finally, our curve topper is a fun one: Isshin, Two Heavens as One. His effect is simple but absolutely perfect for this deck, acting as a Panharmonicon for attack triggers. Making our creatures deal two damage per attack on their own is one thing, but with Cavalacade on board, he’ll double all the damage from that as well. Throw in a Chandra’s Pyreling and you’re looking at about 1000 repeated stabbings, resulting in the opponent’s demise.
Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know – this one can be seen from a mile away. It’s a Hardened Scales deck.
The game plan here is as simple as counting “1, 2, 3”.
- Turn 1 Pelt Collector/Experiment One/Stonecoil Serpent
- Turn 2 Winding Constrictor/Conclave Mentor/Luminarch Aspirant
- Turn 3 Abzan Ascendancy
It isn’t pretty or flashy, but it’s efficient and an incredibly easy synergy. We do have some fun inclusions to keep things interesting. Grakmaw grows as creatures die around it, and leaves behind a token as big as he was when he dies. Ajani just acts as additional copies of our Ascendancies (but repeatable) and giving our creatures vigilance is a backbreaker against aggressive decks. Simple, efficient, and fun.
Out with the old, in with the new
Now, we move on to the more topical Ascendancies that have joined the rest in Pioneer. Will these be more powerful than the original cycle? More of the same? Let’s find out.
We’re starting off with something really fun (and one of my personal favorite cards in existence): Hero of Precinct One. Brokers Ascendancy puts a +1/+1 counter on each creature you control and loyalty counter on each planeswalker you control at the start of your end step. Initially, you may think that this is the spot for a Scales deck, but I found that to be both boring and frankly ineffective based on the end step clause. Where a Scales deck wants counters before combat to be aggressive, a Hero deck wants them more to build their presence and clog up the board. The end step counter actually works a bit better here, as the gameplan of Hero is to take a more methodical approach to your board presence. Hero of Precinct One wants us to cast a bunch of multicolored spells, so we’re making use of that here. Starting with a card that makes a ton of sense for this deck: Voice of Resurgence.
Acting as a way to punish our opponent for casting spells on our turn, as well as synergizing with the go-wide strategy of the deck, Voice is a perfect slot in as an additional two-drop beside Hero himself. In the three-drop slot, we have a nice tempo swing in Reflector Mage. Bouncing a creature and not allowing them to recast it the following turn can oftentimes be enough to start the snowball effect of pulling ahead of your opponent.
A new addition alongside Brokers Ascendancy is Jinnie Fay, Jetmirs Second. Originally, I had Rigo in this slot for the card draw, only to realize that the 1/1 Hero made would grow from Ascendancy, making it so they no longer triggered Rigo for card draw. Alas, Jinnie Fay might actually be better. Every time we make a token with Hero, instead of a 1/1 human we can get either a 2/2 cat with haste or a 3/1 dog with vigilance. The key is that her trigger is a “you may” and is not mandatory, so we don’t get punished for having our Voice tokens come in as cats or dogs, for example.
In the four-drop slot we have the head of the Brokers himself, Falco Spara, Pactweaver. Falco enters with a shield counter so he has built-in protection, allows us to look at the top card of our library, and even cast those cards by removing a counter from a creature as an additional cost. Thanks to Brokers Ascendancy, that cost is pretty easy to meet. It’s worth noting that in a pinch, you can even remove his own shield counter for this.
To round out our creatures we have Roalesk, Apex Hybrid, Hydroid Krasis, and Tanazier Quandrix. Hydroid Krasis is self explanatory, being a mana sink to help us draw cards and gain life. Meanwhile, both Roalesk and Quandrix fill similar roles, as they add counters to a target creature on entry, with Roalesk putting two +1/+1 counters on a target creature, and Quandrix doubling the amount of +1/+1 counters on a target creature. When Quandrix attacks, he can make a target creature’s base power and toughness equal to his own for the rest of turn, which works great with our 1/1’s, 2/2’s or 3/1s that are a bit smaller than him. Even if we have a 1/1 with a couple of counters on it, he’ll still grow him a bit. I know, math is crazy huh?
It’s also nice to grow our own Hero to help place it out of range in combat to make blocks awkward for the opponent. Meanwhile, when Roalesk dies, he proliferates twice, which works to grow all of our dorks a couple times, place more shield counters on Falco and gain more loyalty counters for our planeswalker, Dovin, Grand Arbiter. I know a bunch of you have absolutely no idea what this planeswalker does (unless you played in War of the Spark Standard, and even then, he saw very little play). Dovin is our three-mana planeswalker that has a plus that makes it so every time a creature you control deals combat damage to a player, he gains a loyalty counter. This is nice because it stacks, so if you hit your opponent with three Hero tokens, he’ll gain three counters. His minus makes a 1/1 Thopter with flying, so he has some built-in protection. His ultimate is Dig Through Time on steroids, as you dig seven cards deep and add three cards to hand. Thanks to Brokers Ascendancy, in addition to our go wide strategy, getting Dovin to reach his ultimate is much easier than you’d think. Outside of creature spells, we have a couple of pieces of interaction and card draw to round out the list. Endless Randevu is a catch-all answer to any spell thrown our way – albeit temporarily – while Brokers charm is sometimes a counterspell, sometimes destroy an enchantment, and most times draw two cards. All in all, going wide with an army that continues to grow, all while having access to forms of card draw and interaction, makes for a solid deck all around.
Obscura Ascendancy wants you to essentially start curving out all over again after turn three, as you fill the board with Spirits that can eventually receive a lord effect from the Ascendancy. So how do we curve out like this? Interaction is key. Our one-drops are standard, removal, card draw, and hand disruption. Dovin’s Veto sits in the two-drop slot, followed by Void Rend
Obscura Charm in the three-drop slot. Void Rend being a catch-all answer to any permanent your opponent can have, and Obscura Charm as a way to bring back Ascendancy or to offer some interaction with your opponent. Settle the Wreckage and Pioneer all-star The Wandering Emperor fill out the fours, and, finally everyone’s favorite planeswalker finishes off the five-drop slot in Teferi, Hero of Dominaria.
Alright, so that’s that deck, we’re done here right? Oh? The adventure spells? I’m glad you noticed. Brazen borrower and Giant killer are exceptional in this attempt to curve out with Obscura Ascendancy, as they serve as two different mana values in one card. Brazen Borrower acts as a two and three-drop, while Giant Killer acts as a one and three-drop. Giant Killer is slightly more awkward since it is the creature side that’s cheaper than the adventure side, but the flexibility is still functional enough in this idea.
What if Rakdos Arcanist was wet, and thicker?
Rakdos Arcanist is a deck that has fallen off in favor of other Rakdos builds. Could Maestro’s Ascendancy be the answer to reviving this archetype? Maestro’s Ascendancy does cost one more mana, and is a bit more color intensive, but it does have something Dreadhorde Arcanist doesn’t: casting at instant speed at any time, even on your opponent’s turn. Yes, it is once per turn, but after seeing the impact Oni-Cult Anvil has had on the format, I’m a bit more wary of throwing cards to the side due to these types of restrictions. If you think about it, it’s about as restrictive as Arcanist is already. Arcanist can only cast spells when it attacks, and spells of equal or lesser mana value than his own power. Though, they are cast for free. Meanwhile, Maestros Ascendancy is three mana rather than two and can cast spells at any time, though just once per turn.
Consider it like this: Arcanist is a card that allows you to snowball value in an aggressive manner, while Maestros Ascendancy is a card that allows you to utilize your graveyard as a true second hand and maintain the defensive. They’re just on different sides of the spectrum.
So, we’re playing Ascendancy over Arcanist, where do we go from here? We need sac fodder for the Ascendancy, and we’ll get that thanks to Young Pyromancer, Sedgemoor Witch, and Poppet Stitcher. Rather than go for the full playset of Sedgemoor, I opted for a 3-1 split between it and Poppet Stitcher, just to have the flexibility of the backside of Poppet Stitcher being able to allow the deck to switch to an aggressive gameplan. Having another win condition to help finesse extraction spells also helps too. The suite of spells we’re looking to take advantage of are card draw and interaction. Consider digs through our deck, while Thoughtseize, Fatal Push, Spark Harvest and Bloodchiefs Thirst make for interaction. Cheap and effective. Throw in one Kroxa, Titan of Death’s Hunger that’s essentially free, and you have the new thicker and wetter sister of Rakdos Arcanist.
Riveteers Ascendancy is an extremely powerful card – arguably the most powerful of the cycle. That’s why it has the “once per turn” clause attached to it. This card would be positively broken without it. So, it’s gotta be great in a sac deck right? Well, yes, but maybe not the one you’re thinking of. Jund Food and Citadel are both extremely crowded and it would be hard to make room for a three-drop enchantment. So, let’s think outside the box a bit. The usual suspects are here: Gilded Goose, Mayhem Devil, Prosperous Innkeeper. Of course, we have Deadly Dispute and Village Rites here to draw cards and utilize sac fodder, as well as Oni-Cult Anvil making an expected appearance. Throw in a playset of Shambling Ghast and you have a somewhat unexpected appearance in Pioneer, but one that still makes a lot of sense.
Where this deck deviates however, are a couple of Fabricate creatures: Weaponcraft Enthusiast and Marionette Master. The idea here is to make use of saccing Shambling Ghast for a Treasure, Innkeeper making a Treasure, and Deadly Dispute creating treasures to all be used in tandem with Fabricate – especially Marionette Master. Her ability of draining an opponent for one counts with Treasures because tokens do, in fact, hit the graveyard before disappearing from the game when they are destroyed or sacrificed. So, the idea is to do the usual sac shenanigans, while using Riveteers Ascendancy to bring creatures back, keep making treasures, servos, and constructs to act as fodder to Marionette Master. With Devil out too, each treasure sacced is two damage to the opponent. It’s a unique take on sacrifice that I’m excited to actually explore further.
Last but not least, we have the Cabaretti Ascendancy. Acting as a way to either draw a creature or planeswalker every turn or scry one. This is a card that needs a nice amount of creatures to make use of its ability. Luckily, we’re base Gruul, so that shouldn’t be too hard.
This could essentially go right into a Gruul Aggro deck and you call it a day, but I wanted to make use of the Planeswalker clause as well. Sure I could run Domri, but I wanted to grab some four and five-costed walkers to better curve out after Ascendancy. Personally, I think four-mana Domri is pretty bad, so I didn’t wanna go that route. So, what better Gruul-based planeswalkers are there?
Look no further than Arlinn, the Pack’s Hope. I know in a previous LATP entry I did use the Werewolf tribe as an entry. But as far as aggro decks go within Naya that make use of aggressively-stated creatures and Planeswalkers, nothing will beat the Werewolf tribe.
Ascendant Packleader and Werewolf Packleader are phenomenal one and two-drops to start us off. Brutal Cather is great removal, Tovolar and Kessig Naturalist are formidable lords, and Arlinn is just Arlinn. She’s great in the tribe and even a pretty good planeswalker on her own. We have the ability to haste creatures in with Reckless Stormseer, an unexpected threat to hold up when opponents think we’ve run out of steam in Nightpack Ambusher, and a great top-end threat in Volatile Arsanist. Oh, and just for fun, we’re running a one-of of Jetmir himself. He cares about going wide and Werewolves can certainly fit that bill. What’s worse than a synergistic aggressively-slotted tribal deck going full speed at you? Well, one that draws two cards every turn of course!
We did it; we got through all ten Ascendancies in Pioneer. Between the old and the new,, there seems to be a deck for everyone here. While some of these cards are certainly more powerful than their counterparts, I think they all have a shot at showing up at your local FNM and being the talk of the table for the night. Could some of these be actual contenders in the future? Maybe. It’s hard to justify a mostly do-nothing, three-mana enchantment in Pioneer right now, especially with March of Otherworldly Light running around. That’s why Jeskai Ascendancy is struggling in the meta a bit, and that’s certainly the most powerful of them all. However, the key difference is that in all these other decks, their Ascendancies are acting as additional synergistic support to the deck, rather than being the all-in win condition themselves. So there’s hope for them yet.
If I were to rank which Ascendancies are the closest to being genuine contenders based on power level alone, i’d place them at a respectable top three of
- Riveteers Ascendancy
- Maestros Ascendancy
- Brokers Ascendancy
They may all be part of the new cycle, but that doesn’t discount the power level and pure fun of the other Ascendancies. Sultai is 100% my pick for the most fun deck I played out of these piles. It was a grindy, value-centric gravy train from start to finish.
So, which Ascendancy is your favorite? What direction would you take the wonderful cycle of enchantments in? Join our Patreon and hop into the Playing Pioneer Discord server to show off your own takes on these cards or comment below and think Like a True Pioneer!