A Guide to Explorer on MTG Arena

With the new premier play system only a few months away Pioneer has risen from the ashes. While the pandemic put the new paper format on hold, it’s now back with a vengeance, seeing a revival at both the paper and Magic Online level. With the announcement of MTG Arena’s new premier play system also came the announcement of a new format to the client: Explorer. 

Explorer is essentially Pioneer lite. It contains the exact same banlist as Pioneer and you can only use Pioneer-legal cards in Explorer. It’s a format designed to mimic Pioneer in every way. This also means that there will be no digital rebalances and that cards will not be suspended. 

Explorer Event with New Prize Structure on MTG Arena

However, Explorer only contains cards and sets that are currently on MTG Arena. This means that there are a handful of Pioneer format staples that have yet to make their way onto the client. While MTG Arena won’t be adding every single Pioneer set to the platform it will include new cards in bundles from time to time, slowly making its way back to be a digital version of Pioneer. 

When it comes to deckbuilding for Explorer there are a few things to keep in mind. In actuality, multiple Pioneer decks just include cards from the last few years, which would all be available on MTG Arena. There are some decks only missing a handful of cards that could potentially be replaced. Let’s look at the most popular cards in Pioneer that are currently not available in Explorer:

The first big one from this list is Monastery Swiftspear. Monastery Swiftspear is arguably the best one-drop in the Mono-Red decks of the format. Explorer decks currently miss out on the more explosive prowess draws the deck can have with Swiftspear and Soul-Scar Mage.

Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet is another card that’s found itself in sideboards and maindecks of various Rakdos strategies. While there are other cards similar to it in Explorer this is one the helps smooth out the aggro matchup for many decks. Dreadbore is also one of the premier removal spells in these Rakdos decks, since it can take out The Wandering Emperor and Teferi while hitting a multitude of other creatures.

Sylvan Caryatid is a staple in the five-color Niv-Mizzet Reborn decks, while Elvish Mystic and Nykthos are staples in various Nissa, Who Shakes the World strategies. Voice of Resurgence has shown up in a variety of decks but is most notably featured in Naya Winota.

There are a couple other cards missing from Explorer that are or have been staples in Pioneer.

Day’s Undoing and Collective Defiance have recently found their way in various Narset Izzet decks. These decks aim to safely land a Narset, Parter of Veils and take away the opponent’s hand with either of these two spells.

Lastly another big hole in Explorer is Lotus Field combo. This popular deck is missing the following cards from the Arena format:

With Hidden Strings and other base cards of the deck not on Arena this strategy won’t see play anytime soon in Explorer. I’m sure Lotus Field will have a home at some point in the Explorer format, but it’s unlikely that this strategy will be viable unless they decide to print a bunch of the deck’s cards at once. One weakness of Explorer is that in the format announcement it was discussed that not every single set will be released in Explorer. Cards will be added gradually and the format will focus on staples and move backwards. This means that not every rare from every Pioneer set will be given the same level priority.

Last but not least is Izzet Phoenix. While Arclight Phoenix and multiple spells in the Pioneer version of the deck are available on MTG Arena already, multiple cards will not be found in Explorer. Most notably are Thing in the Ice, Treasure Cruise, Lightning Axe, and Temporal Trespass. This means the most commonly played version of the deck won’t be available. While the mana base, other threats such as Crackling Drake, and spells such as Inventive Iteration are legal, this deck is missing key cards to the recent competitive lists. I’m not confident in Phoenix being an Explorer mainstay at the given moment, but we’ll have to see if cards like Treasure Cruise and Thing in the Ice will be implemented soon.

While these groups of cards are not available in Explorer yet (at least for the foreseeable future) some strategies suffer less than others for having cards missing. Let’s take a look at some of the strongest and weakest decks of the Explorer format that come straight from Pioneer.

Azorius Control (Yorion)

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Azorius Control carries over pretty much every card in the strategy except for Supreme Verdict. Losing Verdict is a bit of a drawback, but the deck has options to various other wraths at least. In recent times the Azorius Yorion decks have been playing some amount of Settle the Wreckages in the maindeck and sideboard. The Explorer version can just go up on copies of Settle the Wreckage in the 95, while also adding potential copies of Doomskar or Depopulate from Streets of New Capenna.

With the printing of Farewell in Neon Dynasty, the deck has access to a lot of potent wraths, so losing Verdict isn’t the worst thing in the world. What’s more important actually is that the deck stays pretty intact, barely losing any cards from its transition to Explorer from Pioneer. Azorius Control has the tools to attack the metagame, as well as a plethora of sideboard options to adapt to depending on how the Explorer meta shapes out.

I do think there are some inherent weaknesses in the deck, however. With Ob-Nixilis, the Adversary releasing in Streets of New Capenna, I’m unsure if the Yorion deck is suited to deal with multiple planeswalkers while also being attacked from other sources of damage. The new Ob Nix even gets around cards like Absorb and Dovin’s Veto to get a copy onto the battlefield. Nevertheless, I still think Azorius Yorion is an easy top deck of the format.

Naya Winota

One of the inherent weaknesses of Pioneer (and now Explorer) as a format is that the removal is severely lacking. While there are a plethora of removal spells there aren’t many clean removal spells at one and two mana. Some recent additions to the format have helped smooth out Pioneer’s removal suite, such as March of Otherworldly Light, it still doesn’t have as cheap removal as Modern has. This allows for decks that can snowball quickly to be quite strong in the format. Enter: Naya Winota.

Naya Winota is a deck that is so powerful in that it can bury an opponent in only a matter of turns. Building a board state and eventually triggering a Winota, Joiner of Forces a few times, this deck seeks to amass a board state early and create an army that the opponent can never truly beat.

Another strength of this deck is that there aren’t many wraths in the format, and they mainly exist in Azorius Control. Even though The Meathook Massacre exists, there are times where Winota will put a Tovolar’s Huntmaster into play, thus making the threats out of range. The deck can assemble some nasty combos as well, such as flipping over a Fable of the Mirror Breaker and combining it with cards like Tovolar’s Huntmaster to grow the board or Prosperous Innkeeper to gain incremental life against aggressive strategies.

Rakdos Variants

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Prior to Streets of New Capenna’s release there are a couple of different flavors of Rakdos floating around Pioneer. First, you have Rakdos Sacrifice variants, decks that usually revolve around amassing a board state of tokens with cards like Oni Cult Anvil, and then chipping away at the opponent through incremental points of damage. In these decks you can also one hit KO your opponent with The Meathook Massacre.

Jund Sacrifice is another variant of the strategy that takes after the older (and highly successful) Standard version of the deck. It attacks decks from a variety of angles, through incremental damage with Meathook Massacre, Cauldron Familiar, and Mayhem Devil, while also acruing cards through Korvold and Trail of Crumbs.

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While this deck can be pressured by cards like Farewell, it’s highly resilient and can set up a powerful engine. With the new Ob Nixilis from Streets of New Capenna you can even have some busted draws, such as a turn two Ob Nixilis by sacrificing your Gilded Goose.

Four-Color Yorion Fires

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Four-Color Yorion is another deck that stays mostly intact from Pioneer to Explorer. Using Transmogrify this midrange deck aims to quickly put an Agent of Treachery into play. While this deck has legs to it it does seem a bit weak to Azorius Yorion as well as Winota. With the new Ob-Nixilis I’m apprehensive about playing this strategy. The deck is mostly intact on MTG Arena, however, only missing out on Chained to the Rocks. You can use March of Otherworldly Light as a fine replacement that might be super helpful vs Teferi and Winota.

Greasefang Variants

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Yet another deck that is kept mainly intact is Greasefang, Okiba Boss variants. This deck can enact some pretty fast combos, aiming to put a Parhelion into play by turn three.

Looking at this Mardu list, for example, the deck doesn’t miss out on any cards except for Lightning Axe. I think this deck is a bit fragile (as all combo decks are) but its draws can be pretty explosive. I also like that this list has Kroxa and Fable of the Mirror-Breaker as a backup midrange plan, and Fable acts as another discard outlet.

Mono-Red Aggro

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While this deck is still missing Monastery Swiftspear I believe Mono-Red will be a big contender in the format, especially in best of one play. I’m not sure if Fervent Champion, Bomat Courier, Voldaren Epicure, or another one drop is a viable replacement, but the deck can have some explosive draws while attacking from multiple angles. Cards like Chandra, Dressed to Kill and Ramunap Ruins can provide some snowballing damage that can close out games. Roiling Vortex and Rampaging Ferocidon can also close out games against gain life gain effects, and Chandra, Torch of Defiance can close the window versus control strategies. Without Swiftspear, however, this deck is arguably much weaker, but it’ll be a solid choice for both best of one and best of three play.

Mono-Green Ramp

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Mono-Green ramp variants have been taking down Pioneer tournaments on Mtgo recently, but without Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx I’m not sure how explosive the deck can be in Explorer. However, Nissa, Who Shakes the World is such a powerful card to begin with, it’s not out of the question that there could be a top Pioneer deck with it. I like that in the Pioneer Mono-Green versions, Karn, the Great Creator, can search for sideboard hate pieces against other decks. Most notably are Grafdigger’s Cage against Naya Winota and graveyard hate pieces against Kroxa or Greasefang decks.

There probably is a deck out there with Nissa, Growth Spiral, and Hydroid Krasis. There were Sultai variants in Pioneer that had Krasis, Languish, and Thoughtseize, but these decks also used Uro, Titan of Nature’s Wrath as its backbone. While I’m not sure if Nissa will make it in week one decks, it’s definitely a card to keep on the radar. `

The Best Cards from Streets of New Capenna

It’s worth mentioning that an entire new set just dropped on MTG Arena. While I’m not sure how much impact Streets of New Capenna will have on Explorer, let’s take a look at some of the strongest cards from the set.

It’s no surprise that Ob Nixilis is by far the strongest card of the set. This card easily slots in the various Rakdos decks of the format. You can easily copy Ob Nix with cards like Shambling Ghast, Voldaren Epicure, Cauldron Familiar, and Oni-Cult Anvil. The reason why this card is so powerful in these decks is that it’s very easy to make a copy of the planeswalker and also protect them. Oni-Cult Anvil and Cauldron Familiar give you blockers every turn to put your opponent’s creatures at bay while you inevitably win a Meathook Massacre.

The Tri Lands also smooth out the mana bases for other decks. I think there’s a viable Esper Yorion control deck that uses both the new Esper land and Void Rend. This deck can also use some of the powerful cards found in other Black midrange decks, such as Go Blank, Thoughtseize, and Graveyard Trespasser. Black also gives you access to more wraths such as Extinction Event and Languish.

The new lands also help out pre-existing decks, like giving a Naya tri-land to Winota. The Bant tri-land could give legs to a Bant Nissa/Teferi deck potentially. The Jund tri-land is pretty important to Jund Sacrifice, the Korvold, Fae-Cursed King deck. I’m not sure where the Grixis tri-land ends up, but I wonder if any potential Izzet Phoenix or Izzet Control decks would want it for cards like Graveyard Trespasser, Thoughtseize, and Go Blank.

Incandescent Aria is a nice inclusion to Four-Color Yorion Fires, since it gets around the tokens you want to Transmogrify. I’m not sure if this card ends up in any other strategy though.

This cycle of sideboard hate cards is also intriguing. Out of all of these my favorite is probably Out of the Way. While I don’t think this card is as flexible as Aether Gust, I do like drawing cards at instant speed while putting my opponent of pressure. If Nissa is the best Green strategy, however, Aether Gust is better. Knockout Blow is also strong versus Red decks but Sunset Revelry is probably similar enough. One mana is pretty nice playing as a control or aggro strategy against Red. These cards are more suited for Standard but I could see them popping up in Explorer.

Overall Explorer is looking to be a great substitute for Pioneer on MTG Arena. While it won’t contain every Pioneer-legal set for the forseeable future, many of the top decks of the format are legal on MTG Arena already. While Explorer won’t be a 1:1 copy of Pioneer, it will be a great resource to learn some of the popular card interactions in Pioneer.

As always, thanks for reading!