Pioneer’s Rules of Engagement

It’s not every day that we are gifted with a brand new format. The announcement of Pioneer, which encompasses all sets from Return to Ravnica onward, has sent players scrambling through their boxes of forgotten staples from Standard’s past or scouring the internet for technology from the short-lived Frontier format. Brews are being posted fast and furious on Pioneer Decklists and the first decklists from Magic Online are coming in.

The beginning of a new format is a strange and wonderful thing. “Brewer’s paradise” is a phrase that gets thrown around often, and if that doesn’t apply to times like these, when does it ever apply?

The truth is that successful brewing is actually quite difficult when a metagame is completely undefined. We cannot attack a meta from unexpected angles if we ourselves have no idea what to expect.

One solution is to simply take a wait-and-see approach: tons of creative energy is going to be focused on Pioneer, and in a few weeks’ time a metagame might eventually emerge and settle. In the meantime, though, we will have to sift through confusing and fragmentary information: curated deck dumps from Magic Online and anecdotal proclamations on social media that such-and-such a deck is “the real deal” or “felt great” across a statistically meaningless sample size of games.

Or, we could theorize what is actually good in Pioneer, and then dive headfirst into the fray. This article is designed to equip you to do just that. I will outline the fundamental constraints on the format given the available card pool, and the archetypes that are likely to arise in Week 1 that will function in turn as gatekeepers to successful brewing. How you choose to use this information in your own deckbuilding efforts is up to you. Let’s get started!

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The first thing that stands out about Pioneer is what is lacking in the card pool, especially in comparison to what we might be accustomed to from past iterations of Standard, Frontier, or Modern. Most notably:

• The lack of fetch lands has ripple effects not just on mana bases, but also on former powerhouses like Deathrite Shaman, delve cards (Treasure Cruise, Dig Through Time, Gurmag Angler, Become Immense), Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy, Tireless Tracker, Drown in the Loch, and even Fatal Push.

• Fastlands are arguably the most powerful lands in the format, and only available to enemy colors. Ally colors will have to be content with shocks and checklands. Aggro strategies will need to be either enemy colored, mono-colored, or else rely on less satisfactory options like Mana Confluence, Unclaimed Territory / Tournament Grounds, Aether Hub, or Spire of Industry. Mono colored decks benefit from Mutavault and pain deserts.

• Very few cards produce multiple mana or tap for more than one mana, outside of Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx and Shrine of the Forsaken Gods. Eldrazi are legal, but Eldrazi Temple is not. Mana dorks exist (Llanowar Elves, Elvish Mystic, Gilded Goose) but they mainly produce green and are vulnerable to removal. Big mana, such as it is, must lean instead on things like Wilderness Reclamation, or casting a lot of Growth Spirals.

• Generic prison pieces are mostly absent from the format. There is no Blood Moon, Ensnaring Bridge, or Chalice of the Void, or even generic taxing effects like Thalia or Meddling Mage. Instead, available hate pieces either target specific zones (notably the graveyard or the stack) or simply provide one-shot counterplay against specific colors (Veil of Summer, Mystical Dispute, etc.).

• Efficient removal is mainly limited to black. Red has trouble killing three-toughness creatures and struggles to go to the face outside of Stoke the Flames and Skewer the Critics. White’s removal options are particularly weak: no Path to Exile, no Oust, no On Thin Ice, no Winds of Abandon. Green and blue also lack enticing removal options.

• Powerful discard does exist via Thoughtseize and Duress, but countermagic lags behind, outside of perhaps Drown in the Loch.

• Cantrips and card selection are limited. Opt is the best available in blue (no Serum Visions, Thought Scour, or Sleight of Hand). Green has better options in Once Upon a Time, Oath of Nissa, and Traverse the Ulvenwald. Tutors are quite limited (Chord of Calling, Wishclaw Talisman, Traverse).

• There are few maindeck-able taxing effects or disruptive creatures, outside of Eidolon of the Great Revel, Spell Queller, Mausoleum Wanderer, and Kitesail Freebooter. That said, cheap interactive tools are available like Thoughtseize, Stubborn Denial, Spell Pierce, and Blossoming Defense, plus sideboard options like Veil of Summer, Blossoming Defense, Mystical Dispute, Dive Down, and color hosers.

• Cheap single-card threats do exist, in the form of Dreadhorde Arcanist, Young Pyromancer, Curious Obsession, Tireless Tracker, or planeswalkers, but these are better suited toward snowballing an advantage rather than ending the game. There is no Tarmogoyf, Delver of Secrets, or Death’s Shadow; Gurmag Angler and Thing in the Ice are weakened.

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Once we have taken stock of what is missing, the next step is to see what remains. In a vacuum, the most powerful tools available in the Pioneer card pool are the following:

• Monastery Swiftspear, Soul-Scar Mage, and friends.

• Thoughtseize plus Fatal Push.

• Saheeli copycat combo.

• Three mana planeswalkers, notably Oko, Thief of Crowns, Teferi, Time Raveler, and Liliana, the Last Hope.

• Emrakul, the Promised End.

• Artifacts and their sidekicks, notably Hangarback Walker, Walking Ballista, Smuggler’s Copter, Steel Overseer, Hardened Scales, Ensoul Artifact, Sai, Emry, etc.

• Collected Company.

• Combos that function within grindy midrange decks: notably Saheeli combo, Rally the Ancestors, Kethis, the Hidden Hand, or Aetherworks Marvel.

• Control, writ large (big Teferi, Torrential Gearhulk, Dig Through Time and friends).

• Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx

Each of these packages can and will form the backbone of an excellent Day 1 deck, as their track records of success in past formats can amply attest. If we assume that each of these strategies will be significant players in Pioneer, we can now postulate some of the basic rules of engagement for Day 1 of the new format.

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Given what is available in Pioneer’s card pool and what is missing, here are the most likely rules of engagement for building a competitive deck out of the gates:

1. Red aggro will be the gatekeeper deck, on Week 1 and likely beyond. Several years’ worth of Standard formats have been dominated by red aggro, and now all of these cards will be legal at the same time. Monastery Swiftspear, Soul-Scar Mage, Atarka’s Command, and Ramunap Ruins will headline these strategies, but the roster is deep and the hits go all the way down the curve, including Become Immense + Temur Battle Rage.

Monored has plenty of tools for fighting the expected top strategies: Eidolon of the Great Revel against combo, Goblin Chainwhirler and Searing Blood against creature decks, Smash to Smithereens and Abrade against artifacts, Rampaging Ferocidon against Saheeli, Ferocidon and Skullcrack against lifegain, Hazoret or Experimental Frenzy against the mirror.

Only a few quibbles can be found with red’s card pool: the burn options aren’t great at dealing three damage cheaply (conditional Bolts like Skewer the Critics and Wizard’s Lightning are possible) or at going to the face. The most attractive splash color (green, for Atarka’s Command and perhaps Destructive Revelry to combat Leyline of Sanctity) lacks fastlands to support it. Other than that, red has few obvious weaknesses and should farm MTGO Leagues on Day 1 as other people test out their more optimistic brews.

If you are not playing Red, come prepared with copious tools to fight back, ideally featuring cheap removal and incidental lifegain in the main deck. Collective Brutality, Fatal Push, Charming Prince, Courser of Kruphix, Siege Rhino, and the Food engine come to mind.

2. Black, and specifically BGx, has excellent tools for fighting the most obviously powerful strategies: Thoughtseize to attack combo and synergy decks (that may be light on redundancy for their key pieces), Fatal Push and Liliana, the Last Hope for fighting creatures, and Collective Brutality for staying afloat against red.

Dipping into green yields Abrupt Decay and Vraska, Golgari Queen, the cleanest ways to take out an opposing Oko or Teferi, as well as Assassin’s Trophy for emergencies and all-purpose creatures like Scavenging Ooze and Tireless Tracker. Blooming Marsh makes the mana excellent.

From there it is a question of choosing how to win the game. Abzan, enabled by Concealed Courtyard and Shambling Vent, gives access to Siege Rhino and more lifegain options, as well as potentially powerful sideboard tools like Rest in Peace.

Dipping into the Sultai wedge, with the help of Botanical Sanctum, gives access to another multi-purpose format giant in Oko, Thief of Crowns, as well as Unmoored Ego for combo matchup emergencies. A delirium package, headlined by Traverse the Ulvenwald, could also utilize Grim Flayer, Smuggler’s Copter, and Deathrite Shaman while topping out on Ishkanah and Emrakul. Alternately, an energy-fueled manabase with Attune with Aether, Rogue Refiner, and Glint-Sleeve Siphoner could in theory support Aetherworks Marvel.

The choice between these endgames will depend on what other endgames you fear from the opposing midrange, combo, and control shells, but the basic Thoughtseize-Push-Brutality package to survive the early game is what makes this possible in the first place. Thoughtseize into Oko is likely to be a headliner strategy as long as these cards are legal.

3. Artifact decks have the tools to fight against both creature-based aggro and midrange/control strategies, largely thanks to Hangarback Walker. Walking Ballista provides some counterplay against Saheeli and small Teferi. The other artifact-related cards are powerful as synergy pieces but somewhat unimpressive against removal.

One could lean hard into snowballing synergies with green support cards like Hardened Scales, Winding Constrictor, Nissa, Voice of Zendikar, Metallic Mimic, or Verdurous Gearhulk.

Dipping into blue (thanks to Botanical Sanctum, as well as Spire of Industry) yields versatile midrange tools like Oko, Emry, Gilded Goose, and Metallic Rebuke.

Alternately, a more aggressive build could take advantage of Ensoul Artifact, All That Glitters, or Ghostfire Blade, possibly in conjunction with Gingerbrute.

4. Each of the strategies outlined so far includes ways to punish small creatures and especially X/1s: Goblin Chainwhirler (plus cheap burn in general), Liliana + Fatal Push, and Walking Ballista. For this reason, think carefully before leaning too hard into Llanowar Elves + Elvish Mystic, or blue tempo with 1/1 fliers. Gilded Goose, with that crucial second point of toughness, may prove to be the most reliable accelerator, and also a lifegain tool against red. Goose + Botanical Sanctum will, in turn, make Oko a logical splash into most green decks.

5. The Saheeli-Copycat combo has few natural predators. Only Thoughtseize comes to mind, and even that is a dubious plan against a combo that can be grafted into any number of midrange cores. The obvious build is likely to be modeled on the successful Standard and Modern midrange core of Oath of Nissa, Teferi, Time Raveler, Gilded Goose, and Oko.

Removal by itself will not defeat a 4c Saheeli core. If relying on specialized hate cards to avoid a herd of lethal cats, make sure your weapon does not fold to Veil of Summer, Teferi, or Oko. This means that an Unmoored Ego, a counterspell, or a creature like Ballista, Ferocidon, or Manglehorn will not be enough. It is safer to go underneath this deck or attempt to go way over the top.

6. By contrast, other attractive combo engines will have to fight through numerous effective hate pieces. Kethis combo and Rally the Ancestors will need to fight through Rest in Peace, Leyline of the Void, and especially Grafdigger’s Cage (likely to be popular as a multi-purpose tool against Collected Company). The same applies to any “dredge” variant seeking to harness Prized Amalgam, Narcomoeba, and Creeping Chill (likely with the aid of Stitcher’s Supplier, Minister of Inquiries, Satyr Wayfinder, or Merfolk Secretkeeper).

Aetherworks Marvel is shut down by Teferi, Time Raveler, and is somewhat vulnerable to Oko, both likely to be popular main deck cards.

Jeskai Ascendancy, once a top contender in Frontier when paired with Sylvan Awakening + cantrips, will now need to contend with Thoughtseize and Abrupt Decay and might crumble due to lack of redundancy. The absence of fetchlands also punishes this strategy, seemingly demanding a high shockland count that in turn makes the deck even weaker against Red Aggro. 

7. Collected Company decks seem like a safe choice so long as the format allows generic midrange creature decks. The base power of a random CoCo deck is likely to be slightly above average, thanks to cards like Spell Queller, Tireless Tracker, Reflector Mage, and Deputy of Detention. Spell Queller, in particular, stands out because it is hard to kill with Shock or Fatal Push, has strong synergies with Oko and Teferi, and leans into the flash aspect of CoCo.

The ultimate viability of the strategy will depend on how well these creatures line up against the field and/or how many relevant hate cards can be shoehorned into the 75. If Charming Prince, Knight of Autumn, Gilded Goose, or Spell Queller provide effective counterplay against other top decks, then Company decks should do well, although the lack of generically powerful removal in the Bant colors is a slight concern. Most likely, Company decks will want to also lean on walkers like Oko or Teferi, or lean into an aggressive slant with something like Spirit or Human tribal.

8. Control decks will face several existential threats right out of the gates: blistering speed from Monored, punishing three mana walkers in Oko and small Teferi, and a nigh-unbeatable endgame threat in Emrakul, the Promised End.

The good news is that if the metagame narrows down, control decks have excellent tools. If Monored proves to be the dominant aggro deck (due in part to the expected format pressures against X/1s), those can be exploited with Blessed Alliance, Collective Brutality, Oath of Kaya, etc. If graveyard decks are ascendant (even something with light graveyard synergies like BGx Delirium), Rest in Peace is available. If combo proves popular, they are likely to be light on redundant pieces and thus vulnerable to counterspells or Thoughtseize. If BGx or CoCo midrange decks are popular, UWx can go over the top with big Teferi, Dig Through Time, Into the Story, Sphinx’s Revelation, Mystic Sanctuary, Torrential Gearhulk, etc. Generically excellent cards like Supreme Verdict, Field of Ruin, both Teferis, and Search for Azcanta mean that control decks are not lacking in tools.

Notwithstanding Emrakul and Ulamog, control decks have a decent chance of having inevitability against most of the field, with the possible exception of “big mana” Nykthos or Field of the Dead strategies. The challenge will be in not losing the early game, whether to lethal damage from red decks, a snowballing Oko or Teferi, or a well-timed Thoughtseize or Veil of Summer. Control has plenty of powerful tools, but they aren’t necessarily any more powerful than what other decks will have access to.

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Plenty more could be said, as there are literally hundreds of strategies that players are likely to attempt in the opening skirmishes of the Pioneer format. The basic principles, however, are likely to revolve around the cards and archetypes outlined above. These are the most abstractly powerful cards and archetypes in Pioneer, and they also boast the strongest pedigrees of past success in Standard, Frontier, and Modern.

The rules of engagement can thus be summarized as follows:

• Have a plan for Mono-Red, as well as the sideboard cards that Mono-Red will likely have against you.

• Do not fold to a single Thoughtseize.

• Do not rely too heavily on X/1 creatures.

• Have a plan for Saheeli combo that is more robust than just removal spells.

• Be prepared to go toe to toe with Oko, Teferi, and Collected Company.

• Bring hate for artifacts and graveyards, and do not fold to these hate cards either.

• If playing for the long game, be ready to fight against BGx, control, and Emrakul.

It is entirely possible, of course, that these pillars are exploitable. Together with the brain trust at the Faithless Brewing Podcast, I fully intend to start probing the format’s pressure points the minute the format goes live on MTGO. But the first step of successful brewing is always understanding the constraints of the existing metagame, and on Day 1, you will need to envision that meta yourself before you can attack it. Hopefully these guidelines will equip you to do just that.

Happy brewing!

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