The Players Tour Pioneer Metagame Primer

Posted in Competitive Gaming on January 29, 2020

By Frank Karsten

For the upcoming Players Tour events in Nagoya, Brussels, and Phoenix, skilled competitors will bring their best Pioneer decks. Pioneer is a new, nonrotating format featuring cards fromReturn to Ravnicaand forward, and the Players Tour will be the first premier event after the initial wave of bans and the release of Theros Beyond Death. Ahead of the next two weekends of events, let's take a broad look at what you can expect from the Pioneer metagame at the Players Tour.

Overall, I expect a lot of diversity. In published Magic Online decklists, Pioneer Leagues regularly showcase over 50 different 5-0 decks, suggesting a healthy metagame with many viable strategies. What's more, in Preliminary and Challenge events, the top finishers generally play a wide variety of decks.

Nevertheless, some decks appear more often than others. For our purposes I selected ten of the most popular archetypes based on published decklists and what I have faced in Leagues, with a representative decklist for each. I grouped the decks into five categories (Aggro decks, Midrange decks, Control decks, Engine decks, and Combo decks) with two decks each. Join me on a journey through the Pioneer landscape!

Aggro Decks

I consider a deck an aggro deck when it has a low mana curve and multiple one-drops that are best at attacking. Aggro decks may contain disruptive elements, and this is indeed the case for both Mono-Black Aggro and Azorius Spirits.

Mono-Black Aggro - Theo_Jung - 1/19 Pioneer Challenge

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Mono-Black Aggro exploits the most efficient interactive spells in the format—Fatal Push and Thoughtseize—in a shell that can put a lot of pressure on the opponent. Bloodsoaked Champion and Scrapheap Scrounger aren't made for blocking, after all. If the board stalls out, then impactful fliers like Rankle, Master of Pranks can still swoop in for the kill.

The main reason for staying mono-color is that this allows you to fit 4 Mutavault and 4 Castle Locthwain into the mana base. These lands provide an excellent way to mitigate mana flood and offer some mid-game staying power. I expect that Mono-Black Aggro will be one of the more popular decks at the Players Tour.

Azorius Spirits - DaniMRebel – 1/19 Pioneer Challenge

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Azorius Spirits is fairly similar to the Modern version. The plan is to curve out with fliers, to use Supreme Phantom and Empyrean Eagle (the so-called Spirit "lords") to boost their power, and to race the opponent with evasive creatures. The best card in the deck overall is arguably Spell Queller, as it provides interaction, pressure, and the right creature type all in a single package.

There are Bant versions that splash for Collected Company, but the straight-up Azorius version has better mana, can run a few Mutavaults (which is also a Spirit), and is more popular overall. But both Bant and Azorius Spirits can play a good flash game on their opponent's turns. Opponents will have to commit without knowing whether you are holding Spell Queller, Rattlechains, or Nebelgast Herald, and they could easily play around the wrong cards. After sideboard, when opponents also have to be mindful of Settle the Wreckage, it is even more of a nightmare to play against Spirit decks.

Midrange Decks

Midrange decks can switch into an aggro or control role depending on the matchup. Their mana curves are generally higher than aggro decks, with fewer early drops and more four or five mana creatures.

Big Red - Raptor_Nachos – 1/20 Pioneer League

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Sometimes called "Chonky Red" this deck aims to burn opposing creatures early on, cement a board advantage with something like Goblin Rabblemaster when the time is right, and overpower the opponent with Glorybringer. Personally, I personally like the Goblin Chainwhirler builds like the one above.

Although the deck is capable of aggressive draws, the first red creature often won't appear until turn three. (In about two-thirds of the games there may be an early Soul-Scar Mage or Kari Zev, Skyship Raider, but that's hardly reliable.) So don't mistake this for a fast burn deck that is weak to life gain spells. Instead, I view it as more of a midrange deck.

I expect that Big Red will be one of the more popular decks at the Players Tour. It will surely be one of the decks that everyone will be ready for and will have tested against.

Steel Leaf Stompy - kanister - 1/19 Pioneer Challenge

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Llanowar Elves and Elvish Mystic are arguably the best one-drop creatures in the format, and this deck uses them to ramp into five-power creatures as early as turn two. The dream is to follow up with Surrak, the Hunt Caller on turn three and to give Ghalta, Primal Hunger haste on turn four. Although the deck is aggressively minded overall, the huge monsters can also play defense if the matchup calls for it.

While some lists stay mono-green with Burning-Tree Emissary and Aspect of Hydra, the above list splashes black. Black provides Rotting Regisaur, which enables a two-mana The Great Henge. Black also provides several interactive sideboard cards. This splash seems worth it to me, as the cost to the mana base is minimal.

Control Decks

One of the defining features of control deck tends to be a reliance on global creature sweepers like Supreme Verdict, along with card advantage spells and a late game that goes over the top of most midrange decks. In this category, two Pioneer decks stand out.

Niv to Light - urlich00 - 1/19 Pioneer Challenge

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The namesake cards are Niv-Mizzet Reborn and Bring to Light, both fueled by a five-color mana base. With access to the best cards in every color pair, the dream is to use Sylvan Caryatid to ramp into a turn-four Niv-Mizzet Reborn and to grab, say, Teferi, Time Raveler; Bring to Light; Dreadbore; and Abrupt Decay from your top ten cards. That should be enough to take over the game.

Niv to Light kind of straddles in between midrange and control, as the above list has only a single Supreme Verdict in the main deck. However, I labeled the archetype as a control deck because the card Bring to Light can reliably find the sweeper against aggro decks, because I've seen builds with other sweepers, and because the card Niv-Mizzet Reborn goes over the top of midrange decks like Big Red.

I expect that Niv to Light will be one of the more popular decks at the Players Tour. However, players are discovering effective ways to combat the deck. Attacking their mana base is one of them. For example, Self-Inflicted Wounds from the sideboard are rising in popularity because without Sylvan Caryatid, Niv to Light players may be unable to cast their spells.

Azorius Control - WaToO - 1/19 Pioneer Challenge

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Azorius Control in Pioneer does basically the same as in every other format. It plans to say "no" to spells with Sinister Sabotage, "no" to creatures with Supreme Verdict, and eventually locks up the game with a planeswalker. Once the deck gets to cast Dig Through Time or Sphinx's Revelation on a stable board and/or stick Teferi, Hero of Dominaria for multiple turns, victory ultimately becomes inevitable.

A new addition from Theros Beyond Death is Dream Trawler in the sideboard. As a mix between Baneslayer Angel and Prognostic Sphinx, it is the perfect win condition that control players have been dreaming of.

Engine Decks

The following two decks don't really fit into the classic aggro-midrange-control mold. Instead, they are built around a single key card or a mana ramp plan. I labeled them as "engine decks" for lack of a better term, but you might as well think of them as "other decks".

Golgari Soulflayer - TombSimon – 1/18 Pioneer Preliminary

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The plan of Golgari Soulflayer is to use Gather the Pack or Grisly Salvage to enable a two-mana Soulflayer with a ridiculous set of abilities. By delving Zetalpa, Primal Dawn, Gifted Aetherborn, Sylvan Caryatid, and Questing Beast, you produce a 4/4 with flying, double strike, vigilance, trample, indestructible, deathtouch, haste, hexproof, and lifelink. Such a creature can come down as early as turn three. Good luck beating that.

The deck is weak to cards like Leyline of the Void in post-sideboarded games, but if opponents don't have an answer to the graveyard and don't have a way to counter or discard Soulflayer, then usually they will get flayed.

Mono-Green Ramp (by Granham, 5-0 in a Pioneer League on January 20)

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The plan of Mono-Green Ramp is to use a variety of mana ramp creatures, mana ramp spells, and mana ramp lands to help cast heavy-hitting spells far earlier than intended. This deck can consistently cast Ugin, the Spirit Dragon on turn five and/or Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger on turn six.

Since the release of Theros Beyond Death, there are new versions popping up that splash blue for Uro, Titan of Nature's Wrath. It's basically an Arboreal Grazer with upside, which is exactly what the deck is looking for. In any case, Mono-Green and Simic can be a little slow out of the gates, but their late-game is one of the most powerful in the format.

Combo Decks

Combo has not been a big part of Pioneer yet, but two recent additions from Theros Beyond Death may change that: Heliod, Sun-Crowned and Underworld Breach.

Heliod Scales - xfile- 1/19 Pioneer Challenge

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Heliod, Sun-Crowned plus Walking Ballista is a two-card combo: If you give a 2/2 Ballista lifelink and ping your opponent, then Heliod will put back the +1/+1 counter. This way, you can keep pinging as often as you like.

The combo is worse than Saheeli Rai + Felidar Guardian (which is banned in Pioneer) because normally you don't have the mana to both build a 2/2 Ballista and to give it lifelink on turn four. But even as a turn-five combo, it is powerful.

The big question is where it fits. Personally, I believe a Hardened Scales shell is one of the best homes. Hardened Scales is already a competitive strategy in Pioneer, and the enchantment synergizes nicely with both Walking Ballista and Heliod. This way, Walking Ballista and Heliod become reasonable Magic cards by themselves when you don't draw the other combo piece, and I believe that will be a key aspect to making this combo work.

Lotus Breach Storm - Yuyan – 1/19 Pioneer Challenge

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Lotus Storm decks, which aim to copy Lotus Field with Thespian's Stage, have been around in competitive Pioneer for a while. With Lotus Field on the table, Hidden Strings and Pore Over the Pages turn into rituals, enabling a powerful combo turn. But the new addition of Underworld Breach—effectively a two-mana Yawgmoth's Will that allows you to keep recasting the same spell multiple times—may put Hidden Strings decks over the top.

The key combo is with Chronic Flooding. If you control Underworld Breach and Chronic Flooding, then you can repeatedly cast Hidden Strings to mill your entire deck. After all, Hidden Strings untaps lands to pay for its own mana cost, and the trigger on Chronic Flooding pays for escape. This combo doesn't even require Lotus Field. After milling your entire deck, the game is won by casting Thassa's Oracle from the graveyard.

Given the potential power of this combo, I expect that the best deck brewers will be trying to break the format by finding the best build. For example, should there be Lotus Fields? Does the deck need more self-mill? What is the best sideboard plan to beat Damping Sphere and Rest in Peace in Games 2 and 3? Whoever can find the right answers to these questions might just crush the Players Tour.


This article provided a broad look at the Pioneer metagame by going over the most popular archetypes from recent Magic Online events, but it merely represents the tip of the iceberg. There are many other competitively viable decks in Pioneer: for example, Mono-Black Vampires, Izzet Ensoul, Izzet Phoenix, Gruul Aggro, Jeskai Ascendancy, and many more. I have faced a huge variety of decks on Magic Online myself, and I expect that this diversity will shine through at the Players Tour. I can't wait to see what will end up on top of the standings, as the format is still very fresh.

Live streaming coverage of Players Tour Brussels will start on Friday, January 31; timeshifted coverage of Players Tour Nagoya will start on Saturday, February 1; and live streaming coverage of Players Tour Phoenix will start on Friday February 7. The first two days of each event will start with a Theros Beyond Death draft, with the Pioneer rounds right after. Catch up on all the details for the next two weekends, then tune in to watch your favorite competitors and to see the Pioneer metagame develop!

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