Fresh off the heels of another Pioneer ban, we are left with even fewer green cards in the format. At this rate, I’m starting to get concerned about my paper investment in green cards, but until they ban literal basic Forest, I’m here to lay out why Mono Green Devotion is the best deck in Pioneer, how to play it, how to sideboard with it, and why it’s likely still the best choice this weekend despite the large target on its back.
When Pioneer initially came out, the first deck I built was Green Devotion. Not because I knew it was busted (though that started to become clear quickly), but because it was my favorite archetype during its Standard legality. To this day Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx is my favorite Magic card of all time because it encourages the exact type of game I believe to be most enjoyable. Jockeying for board control and being rewarded for getting ahead.Though the exceptional design of Nykthos is a topic for another article. Today, let’s talk about the specifics of why Green Devotion is so good in Pioneer despite having three cards banned from it in a two week span and how it all starts and ends with this card.
When Once Upon a Time (OUAT) was first printed, I said on stream that It was going to create a consistency imbalance for green akin to what bluehad with Preordain. I think I may have undershot on my hot take.
This card has warped how green decks function in almost every format and has had a particularly profound impact on Devotion when paired with the deck’s explosive accelerants. Having eight Llanowar Elves in the format alongside OUAT means you almost always start with a Turn 1 accelerant. Pair that with its ability to find your payoffs moving to the late game and it’s just incredibly rare to encounter the all ramp, no payoff draws that green players are all too familiar with. This fundamental consistency advantage is a large part of why this and other green decks have been having so much success in Pioneer. So, in a format where all the green decks have an edge on everything else, you want to be playing the green deck that beats all the other green decks, and in this case that’s Mono-Green Devotion.
All of the other OUAT decks have at least one of two problems. They’re either not explosive enough to race Devotion, or not interactive enough to stop it. Devotion is not only the most explosive OUAT deck, but it’s also the most interactive thanks to the deck’s two main payoffs.
One key thing people underrate with Devotion decks is the importance of having flexible payoffs. Nykthos does not create a deterministic amount of mana, so you aren’t trying to create a curve that hits a specific threshold.You’re trying to assemble as much devotion as your opponent will allow and cast a payoff that scales as well with that variability as possible. Voracious Hydra and Ballista are both slam dunks because they can be played effectively as early as Turn 2, and scale alongside Nykthos. Credit to Todd Anderson, who was the first on Hydra as the last missing piece. He correctly identified that OUAT forcing everything to green meant having your payoffs kill creatures was optimal. I was still on Genesis Hydra, trying to respect more controlling decks. Close, but no PTQ Top 8. Having the ability to interact incidentally has always been key to these strategies, but they’ve never lined up so well with the deck’s mana production. The other card that fills this role and many others is Vivien, Arkbow Ranger.
I first arrived at this card when I was looking for four drops to cast on Turn 2 via the initial deck’s Leyline of Abundance curves, and it quickly became apparently how perfect this card was for the archetype. Amusingly, the three green pips in the mana cost may be the least relevant thing this card brings to the table, but that’s more so because of how great she is at everything else. One fundamental problem with ramp decks is their propensity for drawing too many mana producers, leaving you without adequate action and a horde of mopey creatures in play. Vivien, Arkbow Ranger’s +1 allows you to turn your stray mana creatures into legitimate threats, making it much more difficult to flood out. Pair this with the -3 being able to turn those pumped creatures into removal and we have a card that is really using every part of the buffalo.
However, in my opinion, far and away the most important part of the card is the -5. When you have an Ulamog, Ceaseless Hungerer in your sideboard, Vivien’s -5 becomes very close to reading, “win the game if you have ten mana”, which, given her three pips, can happen as early as Turn 4 with Nykthos in play. The threat this poses really has a warping effect on the game, which can cause your opponent to be overly aggressive in trying to knock it below five loyalty, allowing for a +1 fueled crackback to start winning a race. One thing to note is that i’ve encountered a surprisingly large number of board states where I can only produce nine mana after playing Vivien. This has lead me to consider Void Winnower in the sideboard, but I’m not quite there yet given the opportunity cost.
So with all that in mind, let’s take a look at the decklist that I would play at the SCG Invitational this weekend.
4 Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx
2 Castle Garenbrig
4 Once Upon a Time
4 Elvish Mystic
4 Llanowar Elves
4 Burning-Tree Emissary
4 Jadelight Ranger
3 Polukranos, World Eater
4 Vivien, Arkbow Ranger
4 Nissa, Who Shakes the World
4 Voracious Hydra
4 Walking Ballista
4 Hunt the Hunter
2 Scavenging Ooze
3 Shapers’ Sanctuary
2 Thrashing Brontodon
1 Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger
3 Whisperwood Elemental
The maindeck is fairly stock given that the first 57 cards are largely locked in, but I think using the flex slots on Polukranos will be important for this weekend given the prevalence of the mirror and green creature decks in general. The most important thing in the mirror is being able to disrupt your opponent, and slamming the door shut once you get ahead. Polukranos is much better at the latter than the former, but considering we’re already playing the full eight copies of Voracious Hydra and Ballista, I’m fine with the World Eater on cleanup duty. The main strides of innovation take place in the sideboard where I believe I’ve developed a solid plan to give you more play on the draw in the mirror.
The mirror has largely been a play/draw dependant matchup with very little agency given to the player on the draw. This is because your conventional interactive tools, Hydra and Ballista, come down a turn too late when your opponent has an Elf on Turn 1 on the play. I detest not controlling my own fate, but I’d also be remiss to not play the best deck so I resolved to find a way to have counterplay in the mirror on the draw and what i arrived at was this.
Hunt the Hunter allows you to swap initiative on the draw alongside either your own Elf or a Burning-Tree Emissary. For example: if your opponent plays an Elf on Turn 1 and you have your own alongside Hunt the Hunter, then you would hold your own Elf to protect it from Hydra or Ballista for one until Turn 2. The only three-drop they can have is Jadelight Ranger, which is not particularly punishing. Your main goal is to get to the first planeswalker, so after your opponent has their medium turn three, you can use your two mana to play an Elf alongside Hunt to immediately swap initiative and set yourself up to get four mana first. There are certainly draws your opponent can have involving Burning-Tree Emissary or multiple Elves that run you out of the gym, but those are the games you were never winning anyway. The point is to open the windows given to us, and no card in the format does that better than Hunt the Hunter. It also allows you to bully your opponent while on the play, further cementing your advantage in those games — not to mention the splash damage done to all the other green-based aggressive decks you’ll encounter. I genuinely believe Hunt is the key to gaining a significant edge in the mirror, and anyone putting four in their sideboard this weekend is putting themselves in an excellent position to win.
The other element of the sideboard is the plan against the more interactive decks, which you would think got thinner given the absence of Veil of Summer, but I actually think that ban is a stealth buff because it’s going to force people to play better cards. Shapers’ Sanctuary, for example, is a card I was already swapping in over Veil at times given how much better it is versus red decks. It also plays much better alongside the deck’s core plan, both in fueling devotion and being a card you can play proactively early instead of having to leave up mana every turn. That last part was an underrated problem with Veil: Nykthos creates mana in chunks, which frequently left you with no mana on your opponent’s turn.
That brings us to the other one of our value cards in Whisperwood Elemental, which is essential to have in play against sweepers. I’ve seen other people run Lifecrafter’s Bestiary in this spot, which is fine, but the problem with that card is it slows down the game, playing directly into your control opponent’s gameplan. Spending mana to accrue additional resources in hand drastically slows down your clock, but playing to the board and then cementing that edge with Whisperwood keeps your opponent on their back foot the whole game.
Scavenging Ooze and Thrashing Brontodon are just there to give you some game against oddballs like Kethis or Nexus, respectively. You can also get these in Game 1 via Vivien in a pinch, though I’ve personally only had something like that happen once. Both are also just solid blockers against aggressive decks. Brontodon in particular gets additional value considering most of those decks play Smuggler’s Copter.
Here is a more specific breakdown of how I would sideboard in some of the common matchups:
+4 Hunt the Hunter
-4 Jadelight Ranger
+2 Thrashing Brontodon 2 Scavenging Ooze
-4 Nissa, Who Shakes the World
+4 Hunt the Hunter
-4 Nissa, Who Shakes the World
+2 Scavenging Ooze 3 Shapers’ Sanctuary
-2 Nissa, Who Shakes the World 3 Polukranos, World Eater
+2 Thrashing Brontodon 3 Whisperwood Elemental
-3 Polukranos, World Eater 2 Voracious Hydra
+2 Thrashing Brontodon
-2 Nissa, Who Shakes the World
You may notice that I’m taking out Nissa a fair amount of the time, which I know some people would consider heretical, but that card just isn’t good when you’re falling behind to this format’s aggressive decks. Especially against Simic Stompy with Stubborn Denial — the card just becomes embarrassing. Keep in mind this is just a baseline and I would encourage you to be willing to adapt when necessary. In general, you want Sanctuary against spot removal, Whisperwood against sweepers, and Hunt against other Llanowar Elves decks. Jadelight Ranger is the least essential maindeck card, so if you’re ever unsure what to cut, shaving those is fairly safe. The deck is very powerful straight up, so don’t feel the need to over-sideboard and make your deck worse. The only time you’ll really need to board more than four cards is when you’re being heavily disrupted and need to switch gears.
I’ll leave you with a few parting mulligan and gameplay tips. There has been a lot of discourse in the Magic community recently about the London mulligan and how it makes decks like this too consistent, and that’s probably true. Your deck can generate five-card hands that beat average seven-card hands pretty easily, so don’t be afraid to mulligan aggressively in the dark, especially on the draw. I mulligan 100% of sevens without an Elf or an OUAT. This dynamic changes in post-board games and against black decks where your opponent is likely going to disrupt you, making raw card quantity more important. You still want to be the aggressor in those situations as much as possible, but try to keep in mind what your hand would look like after a Fatal Push, Wild Slash, or Thoughtseize.
Go out there and make a bunch of mana!