A couple of days ago, my testing team and I were having a big discussion about which Pioneer decks we considered hard to play. This inspired me to write this article, where I will be ranking the twelve most popular Pioneer decks in order of difficulty.
“But PV, why does that even matter?”, you might ask. That’s a valid question – after all, we’re not interested in bragging rights and, even though this might be cool as an intellectual exercise, it wouldn’t be worth a full article if it wasn’t useful. Luckily, I think talking about this can actually be quite helpful to your preparation and understanding of the format. The way I see it, there are three big reasons for trying to figure out if decks are easy or hard to play:
The first reason is knowing how much practice you need to be able to play it at a good level. If you have a month of playing Magic full time then it’s likely that you can pick up any one deck and learn it, but that’s not the case for the majority of people. Some people can only play one day a week; some people can’t playtest at all before a tournament. Some people thought they were going to play a deck and then decided to audible to something else at the last minute. In these spots, it’s important to understand the limitations of your schedule and situation, and to pick something that you will be able to pilot properly with the amount of time that you have to dedicate to it. If you unknowingly decide to play a deck that’s very hard with minimal practice, it will not go well for you.
The second reason is for the validity of public results. The easier a deck is to play, the more reliable the public data is for it. One good example is a past standard format where the public results for Gruul Aggro were somewhat consistent with the professional results for Gruul Aggro, but the results for Dimir Rogues were vastly better in professional tournaments than anywhere else – Dimir Rogues was a very hard deck to play and its win percentage dropped a lot once results from people who were not experts were included.
The third reason is for playtesting purposes. Some decks will give you accurate results if they’re played by anybody, and some will only give you accurate results if they’re played by someone who is experienced with them. This is important to recognize when you’re testing for a tournament, and something that we include in our calculations even inside our professional team – if a deck is very hard to play, then we trust the results a lot more if the pilot is experienced, whereas if it’s an easier deck then the results can be reliable regardless of who was playing.
The methodology I will be using to rate these decks is quite simple. Some days ago, I made an open poll where everyone could vote on the difficulty level of the 12 most popular decks from 1-10, and I will be presenting these decks in this article from easiest to hardest.
As a point of comparison, I also polled my testing team and a couple of pro friends of mine. All these players are experienced at a high level and have been playing a lot of Pioneer in preparation for the PT. This might give you an idea of which areas you (and the general public) overrate and underrate in terms of difficulty.
Finally, I’m also giving my personal difficulty grade at the end of each deck, as well as my explanation for giving it and where I think the difficulty in that particular deck lies.
With all that said, let’s begin!
Public vote: 3.02
Pro team average: 1.81
My grade: 2
Angel was deemed by both the public and our team to be the easiest of the major decks in the format (though I personally don’t agree – see below). There’s just not much that’s complicated with the deck – you play your cards on curve and they sort of automatically work.
If I had to pick one spot in which people might mess up it’s sideboarding – in particular oversideboarding. It’s a deck with 4 Collected Company and 4 Kayla’s Reconstruction, so you need to either keep a large density of creatures in your deck or you need to take some of those out. Sometimes people take out 4-6 creatures for things like Portable Hole, Pithing Needle and Shaper’s Sanctuary and then the rest of the deck becomes nonfunctional. Apart from that, though, not much that can go wrong with Angels and it’s a safe deck to pick up.
#11: Mono-White Aggro
Public vote: 4.190
Pro team average: 3.72
My grade: 4
Mono-White Aggro is another deck that’s not that hard to play, but it’s harder than Angels because you usually have more choices on what to do with your mana. Some games you’re still going to curve 1-2-3, but in other games you’ll have to make the choice between activating Mutavault or playing another creature, getting in for some damage with Brave the Elements or not, where to put your Luminarch counters, and so on.
Sideboarding is also a potential danger here, though the issue is more about messing up your curve – there are a lot of three-mana cards in the deck and in the sideboard and you need to pay attention to them otherwise your deck will become too clunky.
#10: Gruul Vehicles
Public vote: 4.194
Pro team average: 3.09
My grade: 1
Gruul Vehicles very narrowly edged out Mono-White in the public vote. Personally, I think it’s significantly easier than Mono-White – I’d say it’s similar to Angels in how you just play your cards on curve and that’s good enough the vast majority of the time, except it’s even easier because you usually only have one card you can play at each point. With Angels, there’s at least a choice of 2 and 3 drops, which cards to get with Company, and so on – Gruul is literally just put the blinders on and attack every turn. I’m honestly surprised this got such a high grade, comparatively.
#9: Abzan Greasefang
Public vote: 4.43
Pro team average: 4.72
My grade: 5
Abzan Greasefang is not a super complicated deck to play, but it does have some complex elements to it. The spread on my team was actually kinda funny, because most people seem to think it’s much harder, but two people gave it a 1 so it averaged to only 4.7.
The reason a lot of my team thinks this deck is hard is the presence of the card Thoughtseize. I’ll agree that traditionally Thoughtseize is a hard card to play, but I feel like in this deck it isn’t that hard, because you’re usually trying to either take away their answers to your stuff or something that would kill you faster than you’ll kill them. In other decks, you sort of need to map out the whole game to properly resolve a Thoughtseize, so it becomes harder.
The hardest thing about this deck, in my opinion, is knowing when the “fair game” is good enough and when you need to go for broke. You need to have some knowledge of matchups to know which are “Charot / Skysovereign matchups” and which are “Parhelion matchups”. This is something that happens both during the game (do you try to win with Chariot or do you play Grisly Salvage to try to hit Parhelion?) and during sideboarding (which ones do you take out and which ones stay in your deck?) and is not extremely intuitive (or at least it isn’t to me), because it changes from deck to deck and you need to have some practice against everybody.
Once you’ve acquired this knowledge, though, I think the gameplay itself isn’t hard.
Public vote: 5.31
Pro team average: 5.09
My grade: 6
Everyone seems to be in some agreement when it comes to Spirits, though the graph is kinda interesting – it’s not flat like the Greasefang one where most people vote in the middle, but rather it’s a bell curve where some people think it’s very easy and some people think it’s very hard.
I think that some games with Spirits are very easy, and some are very hard. Namely the ones you’re winning are easy – you just play creatures, draw cards and counter whatever is relevant – but the ones in which you are losing and need to outmaneuver your opponent can be complicated. Basically the hard part for me is when to play conservatively and when to throw caution to the winds and start pressuring them, which is not necessarily that intuitive.
#7: Mono-Green Devotion
Public vote: 5.32
Pro team average: 7.54
My grade: 9
This is the first huge difference between the public perception and our internal perception. I think Mono-Green is a deck that seems easy to play, because a lot of the time it just throws its hand into the battlefield, but it actually has some aspects to it that are quite hard. Personally, I consider it the hardest deck to play in the format (though perhaps that’s partially because of where my personal strengths lie).
Mono-Green is the type of deck that is not hard in the traditional sense – it’s not about interaction, creature combat, selection spells and so on. Instead, Mono-Green is hard because a lot of things about the deck are specific to the deck. There’s a lot of counting involved, an infinite loop that’s quite convoluted, and just the card Karn in general can be very hard to play with. You don’t need to be a Magic genius to play Mono-Green, but if you don’t have experience with the deck in particular, you will not play it properly even if you are a Magic genius.
Mono-Green has two saving graces that keeps it from having a higher grade. One of them is that one of the hardest elements of Constructed Magic – Sideboarding – is not nearly as present here. However, this is a double-edged sword, because people assume there’s no sideboarding, and that’s definitely incorrect. A lot of the time, you’re supposed to sideboard with this deck and people just resubmit their 60 instead, spewing a ton of value.
The second positive element is that it is a somewhat forgiving deck. You might not identify the proper cards to get with Karn, but just getting Cityscape Leveler will get the job done a lot of the time. Sometimes you’ll need to make a fancy play, but a lot of the time the “ordinary play” of just throwing your hand into play is going to be good enough to win.
Overall, though, I would be very scared of playing a tournament with Mono-Green if I didn’t have a lot of specific Mono-Green experience – ideally multiple weeks of testing. In this regard, I think it’s the hardest deck in the format. If you’re one of the people who gave this deck a 5 or lower, I urge you to consider the fact that the professional players consider this deck a 7.5, so it’s likely that you are not getting as much as you can out of this deck.
#6: BR Midrange
Public vote: 6.33
Pro team average: 6.54
My grade: 5
I feel like the difficulty with Rakdos Midrange is a bit overstated. It’s not a trivial deck to play, but it’s also not that hard – a lot of your game-plan is just playing your cards. It is, however, a Thoughtseize deck, so my team ranked it as difficult (and in this case I think your Thoughtseize decisions are actually harder, because you need to plan multiple turns in advance). You also have filtering in Fable of the Mirror Breaker and Blood tokens, which adds to some degree of difficulty.
I think part of the reason I don’t consider this deck harder is that I feel like it bails you out a lot. Sure, you have decisions, but most of the time the horrible choice is easily discarded, leaving you with a bunch of choices that are similar in outcome. If there’s a decision but you’re deciding between a play that’s a 10, a 9.8 and a 9.7, sure if you pick the 9.7 you made a mistake, but it might not reflect in the outcome of the game nearly as much, and with this deck you’re never picking the “3” option because it’s obviously bad.
#5: Enigmatic Fires
Public vote: 6.64
Pro team average: 5.81
My grade: 5
Enigmatic Fires is a deck that is very scary, but when all is said and done I don’t think it’s that hard. The lines themselves aren’t complicated, but there are a couple of things that are specific to the deck that you need to pay attention to.
One thing that you do need to know to be able to play the deck is the configuration of the deck by heart. It’s an 80 card deck full of one-ofs, so it’s not exactly trivial to memorize everything, but ideally by the time you sac an enchantment you already know what you’re going to get. Sometimes you sideboard out a creature and then find yourself trying to search for it, and sometimes it’s already dead or exiled somehow, so you need to pay attention to it. But past that, your game plan is sort of the same against everybody, and what to search for is usually not hard – you have default cards for each type of situation and once you know which ones those are, you usually get them every time. So I think you need some practice with this deck before showing up to a tournament with it, but once you have that, the gameplay itself is not hard.
#4: Rakdos Sacrifice
Public vote: 6.62
Pro team average: 6.54
My grade: 7
Rakdos Sacrifice is a deck whose general game-plan is very easy, but that has a lot of small, intricate decisions. Every card in your deck costs one or two mana, so the permutation of things you can do on a turn is very big – whereas most other decks only have one or two plays on turn two, you might have three or four potential combinations. You draw a reasonable number of cards, have decisions on what to sacrifice, and so on.
The upside is that, if you’re playing against a creature deck, sometimes it doesn’t matter what you do – you’re just going to win easily. It is also a deck that has existed in several different formats in some capacity, so you might have experience with the style already. If you don’t, I’d certainly recommend you play a good number of games before the tournament.
#3: UW Control
Public vote: 6.67
Pro team average: 5
My grade: 6
In general, control decks are always overrated in terms of difficulty when it comes to public perception, because there’s this myth that “aggro is brainless and control is hard”. In reality, control decks can be hard or easy depending on what you’re playing against. Against most decks, your goal is just to answer everything they do, and there’s nothing complex about going removal into Counterspell into Wrath into Teferi.
The way I see it, control decks have more decisions in a game, but that’s because they simply play longer games than the aggro decks. The aggro decks have fewer decisions, but these decisions are often more important to define the outcome of the match. It’s much easier to be the person who either casts the Wrath or doesn’t than the person who has to decide if they play around the Wrath or not.
The exception to this, and why the control deck gets a 6 from me, is that some slow matchups can be quite hard if you’re not experienced (such as the control mirror). In these spots, you need to learn to be the right amount of patient – sometimes it’s best to do nothing at all, and sometimes you need to try to force something through. It’s also a spot in which you can go through most of your deck and there is a real question of exhausting all your resources and planning for the very long game. Unless a player gets particularly unlucky, the best player in a control mirror is likely to win.
So, basically, I would say that playing Azorius control versus a proactive deck is generally not hard – I’d give it a “4” in terms of difficulty. However, playing versus another control deck can be complicated, a 7 or an 8 depending on what lists look like, and playing worse in those matchups will be very meaningful. If you want to play control, you should probably practice the mirrors at least a little bit, but it’s also a small enough portion of the field in Pioneer right now that you might be OK even if you aren’t good in that particular matchup.
#2: Izzet Phoenix
Public vote: 7.52
Pro team average: 8
My grade: 9
I consider Izzet Phoenix to be a very hard deck to play. Much like Rakdos Sacrifice, a lot of your cards cost one mana and can be played in any sequence that you want, except you also have to take into account scries, milling cards for consider, connive triggers from ledger shredder, putting cards in the graveyard for the Delve spells and saving enough spells in your hand to return Arclight Phoenix So the issue is not only that you have several different card combinations to play, but also that each card offers another potential decision, and that sometimes it’s correct to play nothing at all!
Izzet Phoenix in Pioneer also has a particularity in that, even though it’s a deck that’s existed for a very long time in different formats, it does not play the same way as these decks – it’s a much less aggressive build. If you’ve played Phoenix in Historic, Modern or a past Standard format, there’s actually some stuff you need to unlearn (such as the mulligan strategy), which adds to the difficulty.
The saving grace (or bigger issue, depending on who you are) is that not a lot of the Phoenix difficulty is specific to Phoenix – a lot of it is just Magic. You still need to be familiar with the mechanics of the deck, of course, but if you’re a very good player, then you will not need so much time to learn this deck and matchups specifically – you’ll be able to think of stuff on the fly. Basically, Izzet Phoenix is more about being good at Magic, whereas a deck like Mono-Green is more about being good at Mono-Green. So if you are a very strong player, you can pick up this deck and play it with less specific Phoenix experience. If, however, you’re not an experienced player, you might play this deck for a full month and still not get there, because it’s just very hard.
Another thing that’s good about this deck is that, if you do learn it, you’ll be learning concepts you’ll apply to many other decks. Learn Mono-Green or Lotus will still be useful in general terms, but if you want to play a different deck or format, then a lot of the knowledge you acquired will be wasted. Learning Phoenix will force you to become a better player in the most general sense because it deals with concepts that can be applied to all decks and formats.
#1: Lotus Field
Public vote: 7.72
Pro team average: 8.36
My grade: 8
Lotus Field is a very scary deck to play. If you asked me “I’m going to play a tournament with no matches of practice, what’s the worst deck for me to play?” I’d say Lotus Field is the answer. It’s a combo deck that operates outside the parameters we’re used to and you need to learn a bunch of specific things about it – floating mana, which keeps are right, the correct sequences, ultimatum piles, sideboard strategy, etc – and if you don’t know what you’re doing you’re never going to win. A deck like Mono-Green can just play Old-Growth Troll and beat down, the Phoenix deck can play Phoenix, but the Lotus deck is just hopeless if you don’t have a clue what’s going on.
If Lotus Field is so complicated, then why is it only an 8 for me? Because I think that, once you get through this initial hurdle, then the games themselves are not that complicated. It’s similar to Mono-Green in that you have to be good at Lotus Field rather than being good at Magic, and I think it takes less time to become fully proficient with the deck than it does to become fully proficient with Mono-Green. There are also more repetitions with this deck – your game plan is almost always the same and you’re working towards finding the same cards, so each game state is very similar from the game before. With Mono-Green, I feel like you can “memorize” things less, because each situation is going to involve very different cards. So Lotus is a deck that absolutely requires Lotus expertise, but I believe this expertise is easier to achieve and that, once you do, it’s more likely to be enough.
Overall, some of this is going to come down to personal style – if you’re used to combo decks then the Lotus Field and Mono-Green decks might be easier for you, if you’re used to aggro decks then Mono-White might be easier, and so on – but I think it paints a reasonable picture of which decks are hard and which decks are not. I’d say roughly that:
- Angels, Gruul, Mono-White, Greasefang are the easiest decks and you should be able to pick them up with little practice.
- Spirits and BR Midrange are a little bit harder in general terms but they should not provide big challenges, and you don’t need very specific knowledge to play them them.
- UW control is easy to play versus a proactive deck and hard to play versus another reactive deck.
- Incarnation, Rakdos Sacrifice, Mono-Green and Lotus are decks that require specific experience. Incarnation is the easiest of those, and you can get by without playing a lot of it, but I would not play Rakdos Sac without a decent amount of experience, and I would not play Mono-Green or Lotus without a lot of experience with these particular decks.
- Izzet Phoenix is a very hard deck and I would not pick it up unless I was already a very good Magic player, though it requires less focused experience than both Mono-Green and Lotus.
- Mono-Green Devotion is the most underrated deck (in terms of difficulty) by the public compared to the pros, and UW Control is the most overrated.
See you soon,