Pioneering a new format


Pioneer, eh? That’s pretty neat. I figured that I’d be stuck writing about a Standard format that’s somehow stayed stale through the banning of one of its most prominent strategies, but the powers that be blessed me, nay, blessed all of us, with a bountiful offering of new lands to explore.

The problematic colonialist language of this framing aside, Pioneer is an exciting variant on the now-dead Frontier, an unsanctioned format defined initially by the Khans of Tarkir block, the oldest cards legal. Frontier had a pretty good run in the Toronto area thanks to persistent support from Face to Face Games, and persisted even longer in Japan at Hareruya. Now, I used to play quite a bit of Frontier, which gives me a unique perspective with which to look at Pioneer, an understanding of which strategies rise to the top, and also which ones are doomed to fail. I spent the first half of this week delving deep into decklist archives, as the Frontier enthusiasts of the time were quite meticulous about cataloguing tournament results, and am proud to present you with a Frontier-inspired version of a week one Pioneer metagame. I will, of course, be spending a bunch of time on this format and neglecting Mythic Championship prep, so be sure to stay tuned to this column for more content in the future and analysis of the developing metagame.

Before I jump into any specific strategies, I’d like to talk a bit about the format as a whole. Frontier was defined largely, during its most popular iteration, by the tension between efficient aggro decks and multicolour monstrosities, be they Aetherworks Marvel, Four-Colour Control, Rally the Ancestors or any number of other viable decks. The format was diverse, not because all these decks operated at the same power level, but because it was overwhelmingly a casual format, played by enthusiasts rather than people trying to grind out the best deck. Mana was awkward but very good, based on the fetchland-centric manabases of the Khans Standard era. This, of course, has to change thanks to the prescient banning of these obnoxious shufflers. It’s definitely for the best: as you’ll see later, the introduction of shock lands to Frontier served to be quite ridiculous.

As is, in Pioneer, we’ll have to make do with the shock land/check land manabases of Guilds of Ravnica Standard, presumably with some help from cards like Attune with Aether, Traverse the Ulvenwald and Kaladesh fast lands. There are some other implications to the loss of fetch lands too, of course: Delve and Delirium are much less powerful mechanics, and individual cards like Fatal Push and Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy get a nerf. I haven’t quite solved all of this format’s mana puzzles, so the lists presented here should come with the caveat that their manabases are likely far from optimal, but rather a starting point from which to work off of.

Now let’s get to work. Atarka Red was one of the most dominant decks in the format once the metagame settled, but porting it into Pioneer leaves us with a big problem: the ally-coloured manabases are quite poor. Sure, we have Stomping Grounds, but options like Rootbound Crag and Game Trail are mediocre at best for a mono-red deck looking to splash a single green card. Enemy manabases are much more palatable, and the inclusion of Gatecrash, and thus Boros Charm, to the format, encourages us to try that colour combination instead.

This deck is chock-full of powerful cards, but could struggle against the blight upon Magic that is Oko, Thief of Crowns. At its core, it’s a powerful 20/20/20 Sligh deck that randomly gets to play a bunch of four-damage burn spells, typically impressive in a low-powered format. The other approach to take with a burn strategy involves the Spectacle cards from Ravnica Allegiance, but they play quite poorly with the Prowess creatures, so they’re left on the sidelines. I’ll be exploring Atarka Red with its new toy, Burning-Tree Emissary, on a later date, so we’ll leave Monastery Swiftspear here for now.

Return to Ravnica might bring us face to face with Rest in Peace, but Rally the Ancestors has always done a great job of winning regardless of whatever graveyard hate it’s faced with. This was consistently one of the most powerful decks throughout the history of Frontier, with people packing embarrassing cards like Hallowed Moonlight in an attempt to gain equity in the matchup. Sure, the mana isn’t what it used to be, but Stitcher’s Supplier is a huge quality of life upgrade for this noble deck. The mana is very iffy here, and the loss of fetchlands is monumental. I think that if Rally fails to put up numbers at some point in Pioneer, it’s less a feature of the strategy and more of an issue with the mana. Either way, I can only hope and pray that I get to play with one of my favourite decks of all time. It’s possible that Kethis, the Hidden Hand ends up being the superior graveyard combo strategy thanks to its access to Teferi, Time Raveler and Oko, Thief of Crowns as part of its Legendary suite, but I haven’t quite cracked that case, as of yet. In the meantime, try out some Rally.

The deck has always excelled primarily thanks to the robustness of its plan – it’s able to fill out the board with nonsense, but that nonsense will invariably do lethal damage to you when paired with a Rally the Ancestors. When you try to get too cute, sometimes you’re just hit with a lethal Nantuko Husk swing out of nowhere. It’s a deck to be reckoned with, for sure.

Various control archetypes always saw play in Frontier, if only thanks to Magic players’ borderline-degenerate proclivity towards this style of play, and while the rise of unbeatable three-mana planeswalkers and nonsense green cards have turned the trend away from truly reactive strategies as of late, the return of Thoughtseize to the baseline of Frontier gives a fair Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy deck a chance to shine.

Anyone who’s ever played a Torrential Gearhulk to flash back a Kolaghan’s Command knows that the game ends immediately upon taking that action, so many of this deck’s fundamentals should be a pretty easy sell. It’s quite similar to the Sultai deck that won the first Pioneer Challenge on Magic Online, but taking a more robust approach to advantage that doesn’t rely on sticking a planeswalker or a Tireless Tracker can have upsides. I’d be a little concerned about this deck’s ability to out-muscle Arclight Phoenixs, but if Treasure Cruise gets the axe at any point, then hoo boy are we ever off to the races.

Many immediately flocked to turbo Aetherworks Marvel as a starting point for Pioneer, but in order to approach this archetype properly, we have to look at its development and history in Frontier. Many might remember the popular Standard iteration of the deck, before its banning, where it was just trying to play and activate Aetherworks Marvel as much as possible, as quickly as possible. Admittedly, there isn’t that much room for innovation in the Energy shell that Marvel forces us into playing, but as the deck evolved in the Frontier format, people got more interested in a more controlling, maybe more midrange angle for the deck to approach. Less Servant of the Conduit, more Ishkanah, Grafwidow and Search for Azcanta. This deck was actually quite good with Vessel of Nascency, so using it to find Marvels while fueling graveyard synergies was a reasonable strategy. Creatures got you down? Ishkanah is one of the best walls ever printed, and Kozilek’s Return can legitimately have two modes in a Marvel deck.

Marvel has one big problem in Pioneer, however: the printing of Teferi, Time Raveler. Like many other powerful cards, Teferi randomly blanks the activated ability on Aetherworks Marvel, for no discernable reason. We’ll have to see if Teferi is actually so prevalent in this format that it keeps Marvel down, or if Saheeli decks are simply much faster, but Marvel should definitely stay on your radar going forward, especially through some bans.

Most Frontier decklists come from years ago, when the format was somewhat popular across the world. As it faded into obscurity through 2018, the metagame stopped evolving, and decklists with new cards are hard to find. There are some outliers, however: Hareruya held a God of Frontier tournament a little over a month ago, and the metagame was absolutely dominated by absurd four and five-colour Saheeli decks, taking advantage of the format’s fetchland/shockland manabase. We don’t have the luxury of putting Siege Rhino, Saheeli Rai and Thraben Inspector in the same deck, so we have to take a slightly more conservative approach. One of the most creative decks from that Top 8, however, belonged to pro player Matsumoto Yuuki, who used the recent Interplanar Beacon in an Esper shell to cast both Saheeli Rai and Teferi, Time Raveler. With the introduction of Thoughtseize to the format, this is where I’d like to go with what might be Pioneer’s most powerful deck.

The sideboard is, of course, loose, what with it being a new format, and the mana will still need some tuning, but it’s important to remember, while looking at this, that this deck absolutely dominated a very similar format, and probably just gets better with the new cards being added. In the Pioneer I’ve played so far, there’s been an absolute dearth of Thoughtseizes going around, and I think that’s a sin, considering how many Saheelis people are jamming. There’s a lot of air in peoples’ decks in the form of mana dorks. Everyone’s trying to go fast, but nobody’s trying to go disruptive. Let’s get consistent. Let’s Thoughtseize.

I’ll leave you today with a pair of bonus decklists, a pair of mono-coloured aggro decks that are quite cheap to assemble, if you’d like to punch some faces in at a paper event coming up. Good luck!