A Change of Scenery…
Three weeks ago, the flame of hope for a lot of Magic players swiftly sparked back to life with the announcement of the return of the Pro Tour. Chasing the Pro Tour dream was truly a way of life for a large number of players, so it’s no surprise that the masses were pleased when the news dropped. It’s not all back-to-the-old-grind though, as with the announcement came the word that the first RPTQ format, as well as the format for the PT itself, would be newcomer Pioneer, a format that many of the previously mentioned pro-tour hopefuls had just spent the past year or so proclaiming the death of. Even though I’m still rubbing my neck from the whiplash of everyone jumping back on board with the format, it’s clear that there’s a lot of modern grinders and experts who are sailing into new waters for the first time in a while. My hope is that this article will help to draw some lines between the modern format knowledge that you already have and this strange new world you’re jumping into.
There are many cards which you’re likely already used to playing in the Modern format that also see extensive play in pioneer. We will get to the decks that contain these cards in a moment, but as a selling point:
White in pioneer, similarly to modern, has gotten a huge shot in the arm recently from Kamigawa with the likes of March and Wandering Emperor. The impact of these powerful cards is still being measured as decks try to splash for them or otherwise fit them into their existing strategy. On the whole, white in Pioneer does as white does, and leans extremely hard into either the control role or the aggressive role, backing both up with the best sideboard cards in the format.
Blue tends to lend itself to the more tempo oriented decks, as well as being the definitive combo color of the format. It allows for the best digging of any color by a huge margin thanks to the likes of consider and the delve spells Treasure Cruise and Dig Through Time. Any player who already loves playing blue will have a very easy time finding a deck that they enjoy in this format.
Black is easily the single best color in Pioneer. I’ve mentioned it several times before, but it bears repeating that Thoughtseize and Fatal Push are some of the most high-skill rewarding cards in the game, and are the basis of many of Pioneer’s top decks. The color generally likes to sacrifice things in this format, whether it be creatures or artifacts, to gain incremental value on repeat. Black is the color for anyone who enjoys a grind.
Red, in this format, sits in a weird position. You see, Wizards of the Coast, a division of Hasbro Inc., has made the executive decision that Lightning Bolt is too strong a card for Pioneer, to the dismay of many Basic Mountain enthusiasts. That isn’t to say that there aren’t powerful things to be doing in the color though. Red is primarily a spell-slinging secondary color, outside of the traditional mono-red aggro decks like Burn. Whether it’s clearing the way for a Thing in the Ice to attack, generating value in the midrange decks, or creating insurmountable tempo advantage in a deck like Feather, Red is easily the best secondary color (second best color?) when it comes to deck building in Pioneer. It’s flexible and can adapt to any circumstance while offering powerful means to close out the game.
Green may not see a lot of varied play at the moment, but that isn’t to say that the color is without its uses. Many decks splash into Green for the sake of two of the strongest cards in the format, Collected Company and Esika’s Chariot. The real power in Green, though, comes from its stellar mana ramp package headlined by the OG, Llanowar Elves themselves. Green was one of the first powerhouse colors to emerge in the format, and has held a place in the hearts of many ever since.
Crossing the Formats
Bridging the gap between Modern and Pioneer is actually relatively simple, given the decent amount of overlap between the card pools. There are a decent number of decks whose lines of thought and muscle memory will serve well for those making the transition. If you’re looking to pick up the pieces to convert your modern deck into something pioneer playable, you may not have much more to acquire.
UW Control: The pioneer version of this list plays extremely similarly to how the modern version pans out, with its instant speed interaction and beefy planeswalkers in the four and five drop slots. While the counter suite is shifted one mana up the curve for the most part, the cantrip selection and later game payoffs being in general the same cards between the formats means that anyone versed in controlling the modern format will have a much easier time navigating this new Pioneer frontier as well.
Burn: While modern burn is all about casting as many copies of lightning bolt as possible, Pioneer burn leans more on its creatures as a means of recurring damage, due to the lack of efficient three damage spells. Trading Goblin Guide for Soul-Scar Mage, along with the Eidolons and Swiftspears to create a formidable offense will give you an excellent base to build the rest of the deck around. From there, you have the option to lean into blood tokens and artifact based burn with the likes of Voldaren Epicure and Shrapnel Blast, or keep it traditional by including a couple more one drop threats such as Kumano Faces Kakkazan and Ghitu Lavarunners to back up the Shocks and Lightning Strikes.
Murktide / Phoenix: While the threat package of phoenix isn’t quite as good as yesteryear in the modern format, the birds still tear it up in Pioneer, being one of the formats consistently best decks. Here, you’re packing the same cantrip package while slotting in the pioneer removal suite as well as swapping out the Dragons for the Birds. The transition here is more one of muscle memory than of straight card overlap, as a lot of the play lines between the two decks are extremely similar. Both decks are looking to amass a graveyard full of interactive and cantripping spells in order to power out their difficult-to-deal-with threat around turn three or four and protect it as they ride it to victory.
Yawgmoth / Winota: another example of decks with very little overlap running extremely similar lines of play, both of these creature combo decks are near the top of their respective meta games for their ability to pull a win out of nowhere while playing an otherwise innocuous creature ramp / beatdown strategy. Fans of Yawgmoth might enjoy the relative ease they’ll find in piloting Winota as there are no tutor considerations to be made while still accomplishing a similar game plan.
Boomer Jund / Rakdos Midrange: The classic Thoughtseize Fatal Push deck is alive and well in Pioneer, taking advantage of the color with the best removal suite and mixing it with the best support color in the format. Rakdos Midrange loves to play that 1-for-1 attrition game to set itself into the situation where it’s topdecking because on the whole, all of its cards are better individually than its opponents. The deck then looks to finish things off via planeswalker value or a classic beatdown by some highly efficient creature threats, just like we did back in 2015.
5c Humans: While this deck isn’t particularly popular in the Pioneer or Modern meta games at the moment, the strategy is held dear in the hearts of many. Disruptive creatures clearing the way for synergistic threats to deliver the one-two punch to any opponent ill-prepared for the onslaught, all while being able to play around the traditional banes of creature beatdown decks thanks to Collected Company and Mantis Rider. If you’re one of those who still has their Modern Humans deck in a binder somewhere, or one of those hopefuls who never left the deck in the first place (shout out to Max from Ohio), the Pioneer version plays all of your favorite hits such as Thalia, Guardian of Thraben, Reflector Mage, and newcomer bombshell Adeline, Resplendent Cathar.
Lotus Combo / Storm // Twiddle-Storm: If there’s one thing I’ve learned in my years playing competitive modern, it’s that there’s an uncountable number of players who really enjoy taking a 19-minute turn while moving dice on Pokemon Energy cards as they track mana. Pioneer’s storm combo deck is a strange hybrid mashup of Tron and UR Storm, wherein it spends its first two turns setting up some lands thanks to come cantrips and Sylvan Scrying, and then explodes out of the gate with a tremendous turn full of untapping, casting, and drawing cards. I am no expert with the Lotus Field deck, so for those interested I’d point to community expert Bryant Cook who has put in a lot of hours building his own variant, or our in-house Lotus aficionado Ricky Linn.
2016 Affinity (RIP) / Jund Sacrifice: “There’s like barely any artifacts in there” hush hush ush shush shhh, hear me out. Ravager math is difficult, but was a big reason that Affinity saw success back in the day. Pioneer similarly has a sacrifice themed deck that has access to complicated mathematical lines that a good number of players just dont want to count and keep track of. The Jund Sacrifice deck looks to take advantage of the food mechanic from Throne of Eldraine, as well as the myriad other sacrifice synergies available in the format to play the beatdown game backed up by some nonsense-math damage that makes your opponent think that you might be cheating, but you did it so confidently that they just scoop it up anyway. For those that have been missing that moment where you stare at your board of 7 permanents and go “I thiiiiink you’re dead here”, this is an excellent deck to pick up and learn.
Pioneer is a deep and fun format that feels extremely similar to the Golden Age of Modern back in 2015, where exploration and innovation abound and the top decks all feel uniquely powerful. Where a player can graft a deck into their own identity and truly master an archetype while seeing the rewards for their efforts. It’s a format that’s wide open to anyone looking to dive in, and has made people excited to play the game again. It’s easily the best non-rotating 60 card format that the game has to offer, and the last bastion of freedom from direct-to-format cards that ruin the game and destroy your wallet. Now is the perfect time to get into pioneer. Make sure you come back every day this week as we have more and more content for people looking to dip their toes into the best experience that Magic has to offer right now.