The best decks in Pioneer


I tend to fall in love with some of my favourite Standard cards. Rotation never feels that great because you know that splashy five-drop you love (The Scarab God) will never make it’s way to Modern. But as of this past week, we’re being offered a new format to explore. Something younger and less boring than Modern — Pioneer.

If you’ve been hiding under a rock lately, this format starts with Return to Ravnica and is a non-rotating eternal format. The one caveat to that is that the Khans of Tarkir fetch lands are starting on the banned list.

Courtesy Magic on Twitter.

With all of this in mind, I still thing this format is going to be way too broken for random five-drops from Standard’s past to be good right now. But there’s still hope! In the early stages of this format, Wizards have told us they intend to ban aggressively and often to clean up the mistakes. So I come to you today with a mission — to break the format in half as many times as possible in the coming weeks. Every degenerate combo or busted three mana planeswalker that makes its way to the banlist brings us one step closer to The Scarab God’s triumphant return to the top tables.

This is my to do list. I would be unsurprised to find any of the cards on the ban list by February — now to take matters into my own hands.

The secret to enabling Deathrite Shaman in this format isn’t Evolving Wilds or cycling lands, it’s Stitcher’s Supplier. Smuggler’s Copter and Scrapheap Scrounger enable busted Amalgam draws while also presenting a reasonable aggressive plan, which is crucial for a couple reasons. The first is that all of the great graveyard hate from Modern like Rest in Peace, Leyline of the Void and Grafdigger’s Cage is legal in this format so shoving all in on cards like Merfolk Secretkeeper and Creeping Chill is a liability. The other is that the selection of additional ways to cheat from the graveyard are fairly limited and less powerful than leaning into Elder Deep-Fiends to close the game, so it’s important to set up a threatening battlefield so we can still time walk and kill them even if the recursion plan isn’t coming together cleanly.

We don’t necessarily need to splash green here, but the way manabases work in this format we might as well. Essentially the enemy colours have excellent mana and the ally colours are much worse, so it’s mostly free to turn an ally-coloured deck into one of the Khans wedges. Also the sideboard options for Sultai are excellent in this format; efficient removal for anything your opponent could play, combo interaction in Thoughtseize and counterspells, as much burn hate as you want, and powerful midrange mix-up threats like Oko, Thief of Crowns or Tireless Tracker to take the game long when opponents board in narrow interaction. Red and white by comparison are pretty lackluster on this front and will largely be reliant on raw aggression or access to other colors to present a cohesive 75 against the format, and may need both to keep up.

How about we try to cross as many of those cards off our list at once? The main thing to get across here for building shells with the energy theme is that Servant of the Conduit is no longer a playable Magic card in a format with real acceleration. Also, as appealing as trying to pair Gilded Goose with Emry is, your mana dork turning off after you cast Rogue Refiner turn two isn’t really acceptable, and being unable to crew Smuggler’s Copter is a big hit.

These rules also carry over to Saheeli/Felidar combo decks, so four color versions of those are unlikely to be particularly feasible and we’ll have to make do with the tools in Jeskai. Oh, and while we’re talking about Saheeli, can she be the one that gets banned this time? The mythic versus uncommon concern doesn’t matter anymore when the cards are out of print and Felidar is a lot more likely to add something interesting to the format than yet another three mana planeswalker.

This is another deck that doesn’t necessarily need to be Sultai but is because the suite of cards it gains access to is so powerful compared to a Temur or Simic shell. It also allows us to transition to a more midrange backup plan more cleanly in the face of combo hate like Teferi, Time Raveler or Unmoored Ego. We could use some reasonable backup hits off Marvel here, but I’m hesitant to play Ulamog since it’s such a dead draw. We could turn to another top-end card or two like Ishkanah, Grafwidow that also plays defense well in the midgame to bridge us to hard-cast Emrakul. Glint-Sleeve Siphoner and Tireless Tracker are additional options as threats that churn card advantage if Emry or Copter doesn’t work out, but I want to start with the most broken option and the self-mill does a nice job of dragging Emrakul’s casting cost down into reasonable territory.

Look, we’re probably not going to get Emry banned by slotting it into independently broken decks, so let’s just try to cast it on turn one and go from there. Once we put Ornithopter in our deck we need either a powerful card draw engine or a high impact way to convert spare bodies into meaningful threats. The Great Henge serves the first role while being an artifact itself so that Emry gives us more reliable access to it, and Ensoul Artifact does the latter while enabling Henge itself. Oko is another way to beef up Ornithopter, an excellent card to cast off Springleaf Drum turn two and a format staple on-rate so it slots in nicely here. From there we fill in with artifacts and high power creatures as necessary to keep everything enabled.

The main thing we lack in Simic is a clean answer to creature based combo, since it can be difficult to hold up counter-magic and apply meaningful pressure against an opponent also playing to the board. The Phyrexian Revokers aren’t the cleanest answer to Saheeli Rai, but they allow us better means to tap out in the midgame so that we’re on the front foot and can hold up interaction once they reach enough mana to combo from hand. Stubborn Denial and Metallic Rebuke both being online in our deck is also a major boon, as we get a significant upgrade in disruption quality compared to other blue decks in the format and at only a single mana. If the format turns out to be light on aggression and heavy on big spells, some of those could slot their way into the maindeck.

One quirk of this format is that there are extremely limited options for combo disruption. Cancel variants don’t really hold up when it’s this easy to cast a planeswalker on turn two, and many of the remaining options are either too narrow to play in large numbers (Negate, Ceremonious Rejection, Disdainful Stroke) or require enablers that don’t really exist in the format at a sufficient rate to justify playing them (Silumgar’s Scorn, Drown in the Loch). The options that remain are Thoughtseize, Spell Queller, Spell Pierce and Metallic Rebuke — artifacts are so ubiquitous and powerful in this format that I’m giving Rebuke a pass on the enabler front for now. While it’s certainly possible to build decks with these, they all share a common drawback — given time they go dead as your opponent reaches the stage of the game where they have spare mana to pay the tax and live draw steps to find a hay-maker. So pending some drastic shakeups, decks that intend to play counter-magic by necessity must also be aggressive enough to close the game out before we get there.

While we just missed the window on Delver of Secrets, Toolcraft Exemplar does a pretty reasonable impression here as a threat that’s both cheap enough to come down before our counterspells and high impact enough to close the game in time. Smuggler’s Copter also pulls its weight nicely here, digging towards more gas to replace spare lands, interaction that doesn’t apply to the present situation, top-end clunking up our draw in a race, or spare one-drops past their expiration date. That free card selection is crucial to allowing disruptive aggro decks to play a low enough curve to keep pace with the full on aggro decks without fizzling out on turn six against interactive decks that can answer the first wave of threats.

The value of the looting from Smuggler’s Copter shines even more in a tap-out disruptive aggro shell that’s obligated to play more narrow removal and less generic disruption. Bomat Courier, Glint-Sleeve Siphoner and Goblin Rabblemaster quickly snowball the game as our disruption and removal clears a path through blockers and wards off combo kills and removal spells. This shell is unlikely to get anything banned just yet, so we may need to set it aside for a couple weeks down the line, but it has the speed, resilience, and flexibility to make it a promising lead in the new format.

Another thing to illustrate here with the hay-makers in the sideboard is the awkwardness of removal in this format. Hyper-efficient removal like Fatal Push and Fiery Impulse exists to keep pace on early plays, but without fetch lands revolt is extremely difficult to enable so you’re easily stranded with a dead card once your opponent starts casting potent threats.

The removal for those certainly exists as well, but is largely too clunky to be playable if your opponents are regularly casting one-drops. Dreadbore can play both ways well enough, but runs into issues as a sorcery in a format with vehicles and creature combo kills. Meanwhile white’s removal suite is just lackluster across the board with the sole exception of Supreme Verdict or Kaya’s Wrath.

The net result is that threats like Hazoret, Kalitas, Glorybringer, and just three-drops with high toughness in general, are surprisingly difficult to bring down and can easily take over the game against an opponent who showed too much respect for Bomat Courier. Cards like Enigma Drake or Steel-Leaf Champion may find their way into the format as ways to punish your opponent for being unwilling to play inefficient answers and quickly close the game before they can recover.

Burning-Tree Emissary and Leyline of Abundance plus Nykthos is a lot of mana but not necessarily a ton of consistency. Fortunately, Once Upon a Time and the London mulligan are here to make as many wildly broken opening hands as possible without missing a step. The keys to finishing out the rest of the deck are to make sure we actually kill our opponent, not just go big and give them time to counter with a combo finish, and to make sure we have something to do at every point in the curve so we don’t fall behind between the initial burst of mana and our expensive top end.

Emrakul is the answer to the first problem, as it represents an unassailable endgame against slower decks as well as a fast clock and major disruption against the linear decks. Nissa bridges the gap between “some mana” and “all the mana” quite nicely, Oko holds down the fort as a turn two play to start pulling ahead, and Tireless Tracker, Walking Ballista and Hydroid Krasis round out the curve, threatening to quickly take over if our mana production is left unchecked while still having relevant impact if it isn’t. Smuggler’s Copter rounds things out nicely as a way to filter through redundant legends and excess mana while fueling delirium along the way.

This doesn’t cover every card on my to-do list, and I’m sure there are more to reach if we do clear all of those successfully, but it’s a solid start and some of the combo decks we’ll need to get our hands dirty to really understand how to build them. Once the first wave or two of bans hits we can revisit the format and see if we’ve successfully freed The Scarab God, or at least Siege Rhino.

Until then, go out there and get some cards banned!