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Nick's Introduction to the Pioneer Format

There are a few ways to look at the Pioneer format in its early days. I say early because as of now there are only five cards banned (the Khans/Onslaught fetch lands). This will quickly and often change for the foreseeable future with bans being announced every week. For me it’s the wild west and we should focus on these deck building concepts early on:

  1. Abuse the cards that are banned in other formats or were previously banned in Standard.
  2. Build Modern decks that port closely to Pioneer decks and are built primarily with RTR forward cards.
  3. Improve the "best decks" from prior standards.
  4. Play cards that could potentially be banned until the time that they are banned.

Method 1

Treasure Cruise and Dig Through Time are banned or restricted in every format but Pioneer. Ostensibly, without fetchlands these cards are not as terrifying. I posit that these cards are still as powerful as ever if, and only if, your deck is built to abuse them. The best ways to do this currently is with cheap cantrips and self mill effects. Dig Through Time is most playable as a generically powerful card, but in my opinion is only ban-worthy if it’s finding combo pieces, which is mostly what got it banned in every other format.

UR Phoneix

Maindeck

  • 4 Thing in the Ice
  • 4 Arclight Phoenix
  • 2 Crackling Drake
  • 4 Opt
  • 4 Chart a Course
  • 4 Thrill of Possibility
  • 4 Treasure Cruise
  • 4 Tome Scour
  • 4 Wild Slash
  • 2 Finale of Promise
  • 2 Mission Briefing
  • 4 Steam Vents
  • 4 Sulfur Falls
  • 4 Spirebluff Canal
  • 4 Island
  • 4 Mountain
  • 2 Shivan Reef

Sideboard

  • 2 Lightning Axe
  • 4 Mystical Dispute
  • 2 Fry
  • 2 Narset, Parter of Veils
  • 2 Sweltering Suns
  • 2 Improbable Alliance
  • 1 Disdainful Stroke

There are some packages I’ve included here to maximize Treasure Cruise. Tome Scour is an awful magic card but when it fuels Treasure Cruise, Mission Briefing, Finale of Promise, and Arclight Phoenix it actually does quite a bit for one mana. I’m actually terrified this deck might be better than the modern version. I love Treasure Cruise but I think once people figure out how to build with it it’ll be gone.

Sultai Midrange

Maindeck

  • 4 Jace, Vryn's Prodigy
  • 4 Satyr Wayfinder
  • 3 Deathrite Shaman
  • 2 Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet
  • 2 Scavenging Ooze
  • 4 Oko, Thief of Crowns
  • 4 Fatal Push
  • 4 Thoughtseize
  • 4 Abrupt Decay
  • 3 Dig Through Time
  • 2 Assassin's Trophy
  • 2 Drown in the Loch
  • 2 Fabled Passage
  • 4 Overgrown Tomb
  • 4 Watery Grave
  • 2 Swamp
  • 2 Forest
  • 2 Island
  • 2 Hinterland Harbor
  • 2 Woodland Cemetery
  • 2 Drowned Catacomb

Sideboard

  • Pithing Needle
  • 4 Veil of Summer
  • 3 Mystical Dispute
  • 2 Narset, Parter of Veils
  • 3 Disdainful Stroke
  • 1 Cry of the Carnarium

This shows off the “fair” side of Dig Through Time in a control/midrange deck. It also includes another card banned in most formats, Deathrite Shaman. Both of these cards need a little help and are why we don’t see a full playset of either. To assist them we have Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy and Satyr Wayfinder. To top it off we have four Oko, Thief of Crowns. All three of these cards, less so Deathrite Shaman, may no longer be with us in a few months after the bans play out. For now, this is raw power and the best place to start if you want to play fair magic.

Method 2

Modern is an old format with a wide range of cards that are simply not compatible with modern card design. Choke, Blood Moon, Tron lands, etc. are all not only too powerful for Pioneer, but also they make it so that not many Pioneer decks will resemble Modern decks, and that’s a good thing! That isn’t to say there aren’t some overlaps. I classify these two as roughly the same deck archetype of disruptive aggro.

Bant Spirits

Maindeck

  • 4 Gilded Goose
  • 4 Mausoleum Wanderer
  • 2 Spectral Sailor
  • 4 Rattlechains
  • 4 Supreme Phantom
  • 2 Selfless Spirit
  • 4 Empyrean Eagle
  • 4 Spell Queller
  • 2 Reflector Mage
  • 4 Collected Company
  • 2 Teferi, Time Raveler
  • 2 Oko, Thief of Crowns
  • 4 Botanical Sanctum
  • 4 Temple Garden
  • 4 Breeding Pool
  • 4 Glacial Fortress
  • 4 Sunpetal Grove
  • 1 Island
  • 1 Plains

Sideboard

  • 3 Veil of Summer
  • 3 Mystical Dispute
  • 3 Knight of Autumn
  • 2 Bygone Bishop
  • 2 Phyrexian Revoker
  • 2 Deputy of Detention

This deck very closely resembles modern spirits with a few clear downgraded but acceptable substitutions. The general plan of disruptive flashing in spirits, Collected Company, and lords is a tried and true strategy, and was once the best deck in modern. Throw in Oko/Teferi and this deck can disrupt combo decks while thumping creature decks. There’s no Tron to ruin Company decks so I have a feeling they will dominate early if they have a plan for the Saheeli lists.

Humans

Maindeck

  • 4 Thraben Inspector
  • 4 Zulaport Cutthroat
  • 2 Jace, Vryn's Prodigy
  • 4 Charmed Prince
  • 4 Cartel Aristocrat
  • 4 Thalia's Lieutenant
  • 4 Reflector Mage
  • 4 Xathrid Necromancer
  • 2 Grim Haruspex
  • 4 Collected Company
  • 2 Rally The Ancestors
  • 4 Concealed Courtyard
  • 4 Blooming Marsh
  • 4 Unclaimed Territory
  • 4 Temple Garden
  • 4 Hallowed Fountain
  • 2 Watery Grave

Sideboard

  • 4 Kitesail Freebooter
  • 3 Hostage Taker
  • 3 Anafenza, the Foremost
  • 2 Thalia, Heretic Cathar
  • 2 Imposing Sovereign
  • 1 Knight of Autumn

This is a bit of a hybrid of a deck from many seasons ago, 4 Color Rally with some Modern Humans vibes. It can play attrition, combo, or aggro, which is a lot of potential game plans for a deck with this many creatures. The gameplan is to play your aggro game with Thalia’s Lieutenant, Reflector Mage, and Collected Company until you can’t (your board gets trumped or wiped or you’re about to lose to a combo) and then you move to the attrition/combo plan with Rally the Ancestors and the sacrifice creatures. The varying gameplans is what Modern Humans was all about and between this hybrid approach and the sideboard that resembles Modern Humans, this deck could be a real contender.

GB Scales

Maindeck

  • 4 Hardened Scales
  • 4 Winding Constrictor
  • 4 Walking Ballista
  • 4 Hangarback Walker
  • 4 Steel Overseer
  • 4 Stonecoil Serpent
  • 4 Chamber Sentry
  • 4 Animation Module
  • 4 Metallic Mimic
  • 2 Fatal Push
  • 4 Overgrown Tomb
  • 4 Blooming Marsh
  • 4 Llanowar Wastes
  • 2 Karn's Bastion
  • 4 Forest
  • 4 Hashep Oasis

Sideboard

  • 2 Evolutionary Leap
  • 2 Thoughtseize
  • 3 Veil of Summer
  • 2 Abrupt Decay
  • 1 Assassin's Trophy
  • 2 Scavenging Ooze
  • 3 Leyline of the Void

Arcbound Ravager is a messed up magic card, and not having it here hurts. Still, we’re looking at a very fast deck with nut draws that are are unreal. In Modern, this deck has fallen out of favor but in Pioneer, a large part of the power level remains and the replacements are all pretty reasonable.

Mono Red Prowess

Maindeck

  • 4 Monastery Swiftspear
  • 4 Soul-Scar Mage
  • 4 Abbot of Kerall Keep
  • 4 Runaway Steam-Kin
  • 4 Wild Slash
  • 4 Light Up the Stage
  • 4 Fiery Temper
  • 4 Thrill of Possibility
  • 4 Skewer the Critics
  • 4 Experimental Frenzy
  • 16 Mountain
  • 4 Ramunap Ruins

Sideboard

  • 3 Burning Earth
  • 2 Chandra, Torch of Defiance
  • 2 Exquisite Firecraft
  • 2 Abrade
  • 2 Fry
  • 2 Rending Volley
  • 2 Anger of the Gods

Fair warning: I don’t sling just red spells very often but I can’t deny how close to the Modern prowess deck we are here. Yeah, we don’t get Bolt and maybe we’re a turn slower, but this will consistently provide turn 4 kills and should serve as a litmus test on how much your deck needs to interact. I wouldn’t be surprised if the red aggro deck wins big early on if people just try to go bigger with synergy based decks.

Method 3

Improving old standard decks strikes me as the “level one” place to start with deck building as well the most likely to yield poor decks. Standard is a place where we can cast larger spells that care about battlefield advantage. Pioneer and Modern are more liekly to be about simply out muscling your opponent from multiple angles.

UG Marvel

Maindeck

  • 4 Attune With Aether
  • 4 Gilded Goose
  • 3 Vessel of Nascency
  • 4 Woodweaver's Puzzleknot
  • 4 Servant of the Conduit
  • 3 Oko, Thief of Crowns
  • 4 Rogue Refiner
  • 3 Emry, Lurker of the Loch
  • 4 Aetherworks Marvel
  • 2 Ishkanah, Grafwidow
  • 1 Dig Through Time
  • 4 Emrakul, the Promised End
  • 3 Elder Deep Fiend
  • 4 Botanical Sanctum
  • 4 Breeding Pool
  • 4 Aether Hub
  • 2 Forest
  • 2 Island
  • 2 Sanctum of Ugin

Sideboard

  • 3 Wicked Wolf
  • 2 Pithing Needle
  • 4 Veil of Summer
  • 4 Mystical Dispute
  • 2 Disdainful Stroke

Aetherworks Marvel was eventually banned but I maintain it really wasn’t that great of a deck. If it’s good here it’s because it has an absurd supporting cast in Oko and Emry. Like Saheeli, Marvel can end the game on turn 4, or play a longer game that goes over the top of midrange decks in a way Saheeli doesn’t. It’s worth nothing there isn’t a lot of good artifact hate so this might be worth running just based off that. It also plays Oko so there’s that. Ulmaog may also be worth considering here as well.

4 Color Saheeli

Maindeck

  • 4 Gilded Goose
  • 3 Arboreal Grazer
  • 4 Oath of Nissa
  • 4 Oko, Thief of Crowns
  • 4 Teferi, Time Raveler
  • 4 Saheeli Rai
  • 2 Narset, Parter of Veils
  • 4 Supreme Verdict
  • 4 Felidar Guardian
  • 4 Botanical Sanctum
  • 4 Inspiring Vantage
  • 4 Temple Garden
  • 4 Stomping Ground
  • 4 Hallowed Fountain
  • 2 Sunpetal Grove
  • 2 Breeding Pool
  • 1 Plains

Sideboard

  • 3 Wicked Wolf
  • 3 Mystical Dispute
  • 3 Veil of Summer
  • 2 Glorybringer
  • 2 Fry
  • 2 Disdainful Stroke

This build is a bit different, but I’m sure you’ve all seen a hundred different Saheeli lists at this point. This version is focused on having turn two Planeswalker every game and trying to set up turn three Saheeli-Cat combo. Or turn two Oko which is a combo all in itself. The playset of Supreme Verdict makes this great against opposing creature decks, which in turn makes the backup plan of value planeswalkers all the better. For what it’s worth, I don’t think this combo will be in Pioneer long. There are rumblings of an absurd win rate on MTGO.

Abzan Whip

Maindeck

  • 3 The Cauldron of Eternity
  • 3 Whip of Erebos
  • 3 Murderous Cut
  • 4 Stitcher's Supplier
  • 4 Satyr Wayfinder
  • 4 Glowspore Shaman
  • 4 Deathrite Shaman
  • 4 Siege Rhino
  • 3 Obzedat, Ghost Council
  • 3 Angel of Serenity
  • 3 Hornet Queen
  • 2 Blooming Marsh
  • 2 Concealed Courtyard
  • 4 Godless Shrine
  • 4 Overgrown Tomb
  • 4 Fabled Passage
  • 2 Forest
  • 2 Swamp
  • 2 Plains

Sideboard

  • 3 Sin Collector
  • 2 Lifebane Zombie
  • 3 Veil of Summer
  • 3 Rotting Regisaur
  • 2 Abrupt Decay
  • 2 Knight of Autumn

I wanna live in a world where a deck like this is viable but we might still be a few ban announcements away. On its surface, this goes way above most other decks and completely destroys any deck trying to have a battlefield presence, or attack life totals. For now I think Siege Rhino remains a relic.

4 Color Kethis

Maindeck

  • 4 Kethis, The Hidden Hand
  • 3 Emry, Lurker of the Loch
  • 4 Sai, Master Thopterist
  • 4 Diligent Excavator
  • 4 Oath of Nissa
  • 4 Hope of Ghirapur
  • 4 Fblthp, The Lost
  • 3 Lazav, Dimir Mastermind
  • 4 Mox Amber
  • 2 Paradox Engine
  • 4 Overgrown Tomb
  • 4 Breeding Pool
  • 4 Hallowed Fountain
  • 4 Blooming Marsh
  • 4 Botanical Sanctum
  • 4 Concealed Courtyard

Sideboard

  • 2 Tamiyo, Collector of Tales
  • 3 Urza's Ruinous Blast
  • 3 Collective Brutality
  • 2 Oath of Kaya
  • 3 Oko, Thief of Crowns
  • 2 Teferi, Time Raveler

Lastly, I can’t not talk about Kethis, the other elephant in the room. Kethis was never banned in Standard, but there’s a good chance if the deck was discovered earlier it would have been. Certainly, a consistent turn 4 kill with a lot of redundancy is something to worry about. Something I’m not sure if people have really talked about is how you can get infinite mana and cast triggers with Paradox Engine, which, by the way, is legendary. Kethis is the biggest question mark for me. My guess is that it will be the Summer Bloom of Pioneer, where we don’t know it’s as broken as it is for a while yet.

The fourth method, play cards you think will be banned, is a bit harder to do. For me it’s abusing Treasure Cruise, Oko, and Saheeli. Luckily, I think Cruise will stick around at least a little while, but if I were prepping for an early Pioneer tournament I would play one of those three cards.

Here’s my only truly original list of this article, and the deck I plan on jamming in this weekends PTQ:

Mono Blue Dredge

Maindeck

  • 10 Island
  • 2 Drowned Catacomb
  • 2 Sulfur Falls
  • 2 Steam Vents
  • 2 Watery Grave
  • 4 Arclight Phoenix
  • 4 Narcomoeba
  • 4 Prized Amalgam
  • 4 Merfolk Secretkeeper
  • 4 Tome Scour
  • 4 Treasure Cruise
  • 4 Creeping Chill
  • 4 Chart a Course
  • 4 Drowned Secrets
  • 4 Opt
  • 2 Mission Briefing

Sideboard

  • 4 Brazen Borrower
  • 2 Ashiok, Dream Render
  • 2 Jace, Wielder of Mysteries
  • 2 Mystical Dispute
  • 2 Disdainful Stroke
  • 2 Void Snare
  • 1 Narset, Parter of Veils

This is a mix of all the methods. It has cards that are banned in other formats, a card that will be banned, a successful modern strategy ported to Pioneer, and a deck that has seen success in Standard. I’ll admit, the list looks really strange but if you’ve never seen Treasure Cruise in action, it really makes this deck churn. It regularly kills on turn four and I’ve even killed on turn three. Once people play any significant number of Rest in Peace or Leyline of the Void this deck is toast, but I’m not sure sideboards will be that well tuned early on. I’m still working on beating those cards and it starts with Brazen Borrower. The graveyard package is explosive enough that one turn with the hate card not in play is often enough.

There is SO much more I could talk about it’s almost overwhelming. There are tons of decks, great ones even, that I missed here. I have to say that so far this is the best magic format I’ve played in a long time. I love the broken ness, the nostalgia, all of it. I’m really excited to share more decks, brew more decks, and maybe even play a little bit! Hopefully the power stays on in California for longer than a few days.