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Understanding The Pioneer Metagame

Written by Zach Cramer on . Posted in Competitive Magic, Pioneer

Understanding The Pioneer Metagame

Zach Cramer

Zach is a Northeastern Magic grinder who specializes in eternal formats. When building decks, he has a strong preference to Blue cards, toolboxes and combo decks. With a recent RPTQ finish just short of an invitation, Zach hopes to take his skills to the next level and play on the Pro Tour.

Greetings all! This week I finally got a chance to take some of my ideas and put them on paper. The last few months have been very tumultuous. Apart from a transition into a new job with unique working hours, a new dog, and an abysmal standard format, I haven’t had the bug to really put the time into a good piece of content. Joshua will tell you, I asked several times about a space for an article, only to scrap it due to a feeling that the article’s time had passed. A big part of that has to do with the most inspiring reason to be writing again: Pioneer. Pioneer is a new format with FREQUENT bannings that feels so fresh and enjoyable. I’ve spent a lot of time brewing decks, assessing the metagame and playing tons of games. I’ve tried to put my thoughts on paper, but, a ban always seems looming on the horizon. However, with the format in a mostly stable place, I wanted to take some time to point out the hallmarks of this format and what you should expect to see at your local game stores and MTGO queues. 

Permanent-Based Mana Sources:

One important thing about Pioneer is the unique ways in which you can produce mana. In standard we usually have a 2 mana ramp creature, occasionally a 3 mana ramp effect like Nissa’s Pilgrimage, Elvish Rejuvenator, or Natural Connection. Sometimes, the standard format is dominated by a single one mana ramp creature. Modern, on the other hand, is LITERRED with early ways to get mana. Pioneer takes the middle ground. Not stumbling quickly into Mox Opal territory, but, having access to up to 12 one mana green creatures. A major hole in the format is potent two mana creatures, which allows you to circumvent this issue. Gilded Goose in particular offers a unique resource that improves decks with other potent food cards. Going a little bigger, Sylvan Caryatid offers a hexproof threat that can help focus three-color manabases and make you less vulnerable to one mana removal. Getting much larger, Nissa, who Shakes the World offers a Mirari’s Wake style buff to your forests and threatens a ruthless, never-ending clock. Here, we can also talk about Nykthos. For the cost of playing permanents with loyalty, you get large amounts of mana in the mid-game. Each deck has the ability to play a defensible Nykthos deck.

Green Ramp Spells:

While the permanents don’t make up the whole picture of ramp, they do make up a large part of it. What is left looks like this:

Arboreal Grazer is the cheapest way to put another land into play. Grazer addresses the 2/x threats while accelerating a land which is exactly where you want to be when building a deck that just needs some space to accumulate the necessary resources to complete your plan. Grazer is significantly cheaper than other mono colored spells that ramp. Do yourself a favor and don’t play Ruin in their Wake. Growth Spiral is the 2nd fastest ramp spell in the format, but it requires you to move into blue. Being able to be Instant Speed grants some evasion from counters, and the cantrip ability is very welcome. BOTH require a high land count. 26 lands* at baseline unless you possess more Lay of the Land effects to tutor the lands you aim to put into play. Finally, Hour of Promise is an expensive spell that has recently fallen from grace. Known for getting Field of the Dead, it has now been relegated to ONLY getting Shrine of Forsaken Gods to set up an early monstrously large colorless spell. Jokes aside, a double tutor is nothing to scoff at and helps shape the big ramp decks.

Card Advantage Aggressive Decks:

A hallmark of Pioneer is the permanents, mainly creatures and planeswalkers, framing the point of interaction and playing to the board. The aggressive decks I’m about to summarize are no exception:

Mono Black moves to Vampires which has access to cards like Champion of Dusk and the Castle Locthwain engine. Having access to a card like Sorin gives you a versatile threat that scales replaceable creatures, and offers a level of mana acceleration. Midnight Reaper also offers two cards for one. 

Mono Red has access to Light up the Stage, Chandra, Acolyte of Flame, Bonecrusher Giant, Bomat Courier and Ramunap Ruins. The mindless red deck has access to so many additional cards. 

White Aggressive decks feature less value than Red and Black, but, cards like Worthy Knight, Thraben Inspector, Kytheon, and even knight producing cards like History of Benalia and Gideon, Ally of Zendikar give tools to scale powerful Venerated Loxodon anthem plans. 

Disruptive Aggressive Decks:

When you don’t have the ability to gain extra cards in your deck, you have to close the door quickly. Green decks use the acceleration of Elves and Gilded Goose to power out Steel Leaf Champion, Rhonas, and Lovestruck Beast. Simic grants two key grabs: Stubborn Denial and Oko. The Vampire and Hardened Scale decks both feature the Thoughtseize/Fatal Push interaction lens, while offering flexible removal to address creatures and planeswalkers like Abrupt Decay, Assassin’s Trophy and Midnight Rider.

Dig through Time Combo Decks:

Lotus Field Combo and Nexus of Fate use a strategy of massive mana production through Wilderness Reclamation or Lotus Field. Both decks use extra land drops through Growth Spiral and Arboreal Grazer, but, use different strategies to win. Lotus Field has a storm-esc quality to it, requiring a critical density of spells to combo, while Nexus just needs time and space to construct a highly likely scenario they can manipulate their library enough to draw a Nexus every turn. Both decks have a deep graveyard after completing their setup turns and Dig often costs much less than most decks would manage. Dig through Time really pushes these combo deck’s resiliency, giving them a backup plan after Thoughtseize has picked apart their hand.

Planeswalker-Centered Reactive Decks

UW Control is not a combo deck, but, dabbles with Dig as well as it rises to metagame prominence. Though lacking productive ways to remove creatures, it gains immense benefit to Supreme Verdict to crush creature strategies and stop opposing countermagic. 

Black Green style decks dip into Liliana, Vraska, and sometimes Oko to take control of stalled out game states. The aim of these strategies is to slow the game down and steadily gain value from their card advantage walkers. 

Heart of Kiran exists in the format and, while just on the fringe, gains a lot of advantage from decks that lean harder into planeswalkers. I expect Heart to stay in the format for a while to come. 

Graveyard Decks:

A final sub-theme in the pioneer metagame is the ever-present graveyard. Whether its Traverse the Ulvenwald for Emrakul, Witch’s Oven and Cauldron Familiar, Grisly Salvage for Soulflayer or Stitcher’s Supplier binning Narcomeoba and Prized Amalgam, never mind Rally the Ancestors or other tertiary strategies. Many decks dip into the graveyard with cards like Dig through Time, Scrapheap Scrounger, or random ways to glean value, but, the decks I put in this category thrive in this zone. Aiming to steal wins in game one and then fight through hate, or dodge it completely, these decks keep the sideboard honest and have a sturdy home in Pioneer.

Overall, I hope this article gave you a good idea of what a Pioneer tournament should have you expecting. Later this week, I hope to give you an article that breaks down some of the decklists that I have enjoyed playing in this format; until next time! 

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