A new format like Pioneer is much more than simply an expression of where to use your freshly rotated Standard cards. To me, the most exciting aspect of Pioneer is how it will recontextualize our old favorite cards.
While a good rule of thumb when first thinking of Pioneer is examining overlap between it and Modern, there's so much more space for strong Standard cards and even entirely new ideas to sprout up as a result of a different sandbox.
After all, context is everything.
Completely new metagames that will be iterated upon rapidly are complex ecosystems, and there's a lot more to unpack here than is possible in a single article, so today will be a different type of preview. Instead of looking toward the future, we're going to be reminiscing on the past, highlighting some cards from over the years given new life (or additional purpose!) within the umbrella of Pioneer.
Return to Ravnica
The very first Pioneer-legal set does a good job of demonstrating the contrast between this new format and Modern.
Deathrite Shaman is one of the most powerful creatures ever printed.
Similarly, shock lands are some of the best mana fixing ever printed.
Both cards are strikingly different in a format where fetch lands are banned.
Mana bases will be different, with a focus on more dedicated two- and three-color shells that require heavier commitment.
Deathrite Shaman, while still an excellent card that could play a role, is no longer the de facto must-play one-mana creature accelerant.
This is the first example of many that will showcase the difference in feel between Modern and Pioneer.
The Azorius Senate made out like bandits in Return to Ravnica, and Sphinx's Revelation is one of the most iconic control cards of modern Magic. As it turns out, gaining resources coupled with additional time to use them is a winning recipe.
There are quite a few aggressive standouts from Gatecrash, but here are two you shouldn't sleep on:
A staple of the "Aristocrats" deck, Boros Reckoner has plenty of interesting combo potential but also happens to be a strong, sticky threat due to its ability to get in combat easily and dodge damage-based removal.
One of the strongest all-in aggro cards ever printed, Burning-Tree Emissary doesn't have much of a home currently in Modern due to a larger emphasis on combo decks and the need for aggressively slanted strategies to also pack discard and disruption. Pioneer should give more breathing space for these types of aggro cards to thrive.
Although not the strongest set, Dragon's Maze does contain one big standout:
Voice of Resurgence is another card that has fallen by the wayside in Modern due to its emphasis on being excellent in combat and fighting traditional blue control—strategies that look poised to make a comeback in Pioneer.
Magic 2014 is full of hits, particularly in its two-drops. Scavenging Ooze and Young Pyromancer have been staples of Eternal formats for some time now and will play central roles in a variety of Pioneer strategies over time.
In Modern, Mutavault is typically relegated to simply being a tribal card, but in Pioneer, Mutavault is one of the strongest creature lands due to its efficiency. Mutavault is capable of threatening planeswalkers quickly in a game and, with less stretched mana bases, should be showing up a lot in the new format.
Writing this article made me realize I love a lot of Theros cards, but for the sake of brevity, let's not focus on Xenagos, the Reveler; Purphoros, God of the Forge; or Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx, and instead highlight two slam dunks.
Thoughtseize may prove to be the defining card of Pioneer. Unmatched in efficiency, Thoughtseize is a staple of nearly every format it is legal in and will continue to do an excellent job of propping up midrange strategies and keeping degeneracy in check.
One of the most format-warping planeswalkers in its respective Standard environment, Elspeth can do it all, from clearing beefy battlefields and gumming up small ones to closing the door in a matter of turns due to her powerful ultimate ability.
Born of the Gods
Courser of Kruphix is another famously powerful value-accumulation engine. While notably weaker without the inclusion of fetch lands, Courser was still a mainstay in Standard without them and could play a key role against aggressive decks if they become popular.
Journey into Nyx
Eidolon is exactly the type of powerful engine card that becomes stronger over time but is often incapable of going toe-to-toe with the raw efficiency of what the best decks can put up in larger formats. This makes it one of my biggest potential sleeper hits in Pioneer, especially with a return to Theros right around the corner!
Keranos has frequently functioned as an unattackable "planeswalker" in the sideboards of Modern blue-red control decks. Don't be surprised if this powerful God plays an even larger role here.
Artifact build-arounds are another class of card that get progressively stronger over time, and Ensoul Artifact is no exception.
In a similar vein, so do tutors. Chord of Calling has a lot of potential—allowing decks to be built with interlocking combos and powerful bullets alongside a full suite of rate creatures.
Free cards are usually pretty strong. To keep our M15 discussion on topic, redundancy is a really big factor in Constructed Magic. A critical mass of burn is another card class to keep an eye on, and something players should prepare for in a brand-new format.
While not especially efficient, Perilous Vault will be one of the few cards in the format that can cleanly answer any type of permanent.
Khans of Tarkir
Khans is a completely loaded Magic set, even in spite of the fact that it enters Pioneer with five banned cards (the fetch lands). The wedges represented here will dictate a lot of the initial three-color strategies in our new environment.
Part combo card, part value engine, Jeskai Ascendancy has seen play as the central aspect of both combo and aggressive decks. Although, really, even the aggressive decks are doing pretty unfair things with this on the battlefield—like with the aforementioned Stoke the Flames.
You didn't actually forget about this one, right?
These cards are no joke, but without fetch lands, they become far more fair. Delve is one of the strongest mechanics ever printed, making these some of the best card-draw options available.
A centerpiece of both an old Standard deck and an off-and-on-again Modern deck, Hardened Scales turbocharges its respective strategy—and notably Pioneer will contain two of its best XX buds, to be showcased shortly.
Soulfire Grand Master is an especially unique effect. This two-drop is secretly a powerful control card in disguise, allowing decks to convert their burn spells into additional life points and threatening to completely bury an opponent with its recursion ability.
One of the strongest "OTK" (one-turn kill) cards printed in Magic, Temur Battle Rage can support both wide creature decks with pump spells or a stocky midrange deck like Death Shadow in Modern. It should go a long way toward keeping the format honest.
One of the most powerful planeswalkers ever printed, Ugin is another powerful top-end tool for control and midrange decks, instantly stabilizing the battlefield against whatever shenanigans your opponent is up to, even trumping other powerful options like Elspeth, Sun's Champion.
Dragons of Tarkir
Dragons of Tarkir is another standout set for the amount of impact it will have on Pioneer.
Starting off, the big hit:
Collected Company will help define all the creature strategies early on. There are bound to be many different shells that pop up using this card, from all the various tribal strategies to simply the strongest green creature shells.
One of my favorite control threats ever made, Dragonlord Ojutai creates a tense subgame of whether to risk the offensive and threaten to snowball the game or sit back and hope the squeeze he puts on an opponent will keep them off balance.
Almost every single one of these cards has seen extensive Standard play, and many have even shown up in some Eternal formats. They cover a wide variety of bases and all have the potential to hit in Pioneer.
Also on the short list of strongest two-drops ever made, Jace puts a lot of pressure on an opponent to answer him before doing quite the Snapcaster Mage impression. Jace will define many of the midrange and slower-leaning decks in the format.
My favorite flip-walker (which is saying a lot), Nissa is an extremely strong bridge-turns-threat card and stacks green's powerful three-drop options even higher.
Another powerful build-around in the vein of Eidolon of Blossoms.
Potential to be ubiquitous XX artifact number one, friend of Hardened Scales, and mass token maker. Hangarback Walker can literally go into any strategy and pull its weight as a strong defensive option with plenty of synergy potential.
Good luck, if you're into this sort of thing
Battle for Zendikar
One of white's strongest four-drops, Gideon plays well in almost any macro strategy, gumming up the board in midrange and control decks while threatening to be a powerful Glorious Anthem as the top end of aggressive decks.
Oath of the Gatewatch
Kalitas closes the door hard on aggressive and graveyard-based strategies. Expect him to be a big player if either of those, or even other burn-heavy strategies, pop up.
Oath of Nissa can fit into a variety of strategies, especially any that might eschew Collected Company. Oath has picked up a strong supporting cast recently, especially Teferi, Time Raveler; the floor of recycling your own Oath of Nissa is an extremely strong engine.
As a general rule of thumb, it's probably reasonable to try out banned Standard cards in the beginning of Pioneer. Reflector Mage is undoubtedly one of the defining tempo cards of the format.
Shadows over Innistrad
Dominant as a defender, a strong attacker, and an overall tricky card that can reward various sacrificing (or perhaps casting various XX artifacts for zero mana) effects, Archangel Avacyn is on the short list of premium white top-ends and serves as an excellent bullet in green Chord of Calling decks.
Humans, as in Modern, are likely to be one of the strongest initial tribal strategies with Thalia Lieutenant as their marquee lord. Thraben Inspector is both an excellent one-drop for aggressive decks and a strong early play for any deck that cares about counting artifacts or can leverage small bodies and grind effectively.
While it is much harder to turn on delirium in Pioneer than it is in Modern, Traverse the Ulvenwald is still one of the best payoffs for building your deck in a creative way to maximize card types. Likely a staple in any black-green-x strategy as both a mana-fixer and redundancy on your threats.
Thing in the Ice largely tried and failed to make an impact in Standard but was part of an iconic duo with Arclight Phoenix in Modern until the banning of Faithless Looting. Thing is another card that benefits dramatically from a larger card pool—with the ability to flip the script on a game instantly—and is poised to return to glory with its firebird friend here.
Perhaps the strongest card in its respective Standard environment, Emrakul is sure to make an immediate impact on Pioneer. Functioning both as a strong ramp payoff and a powerful finisher for highly interactive decks, Emrakul is likely to debut as the strongest top-end threat in the format.
Sometimes it's easy to sleep on Zombies as a tribe, but it won a Pro Tour in this era, beating a sea of Aetherworks Marvel players at Pro Tour Amonkhet! Dark Salvation is flexible and strong, ranging from the potential to be a one-mana removal spell to being a threat on its own.
Liliana, the Last Hope is strong enough to have cascading effects on the format. 1-toughness creatures become much harder to justify playing if she is showing up in high numbers, making her one of the best tools for keeping small-creature strategies in check while also serving as a threat and recursive value engine.
Although barely missing in Standard, Bedlam Reveler has made large waves in Modern, and I expect it to have a similar showing in Pioneer. While potentially butting heads initially with the delve card draw, there should be unique ways for both to slot into the metagame.
Elder Deep-Fiend is one of the most challenging and rewarding cards I've ever played with in Standard. From both gameplay and deck-building perspectives, the Eldrazi poses unique questions—how to balance enablers versus your payoff, and even the right times to cast the card. There's a really high ceiling here, and Deep-Fiend is worth the energy trying to figure it out.
Artifact sets are notoriously strong, and Kaladesh is no exception, giving a lot of colorless choices to slot into many types of decks in Pioneer.
While Torrential Gearhulk and Verdurous Gearhulk are the most infamous here, almost all of them have seen some play, with Cataclysmic Gearhulk notably showing up in Modern white-blue sideboards quite recently.
A format-defining card, Smuggler's Copter can be synergistic or just played for raw rate in aggressive decks. While there are many more ways to contain the Copter than there were in its respective Standard format, it doesn't mean it won't be one of the strongest early frontrunners.
Aetherworks Marvel will suffer more than Copter in a larger format; needing a critical mass of energy generation makes for a deck that doesn't benefit from a bigger card pool. That said, Marvel could still be the centerpiece of a ramp deck, giving it an explosive plan A.
Electrostatic Pummeler is one of the sweetest cards in Kaladesh. Although it also needs energy to tick, it does have the potential to simply full itself once, which may be enough. The supporting cast of pump spells for an "OTK" deck was pretty light in Kaladesh Standard, but picking up better pump and Temur Battle Rage means the Pummeler might have a shot at living out some turn-four kills.
The infamous Cat portion of the copy-cat duo with Saheeli Rai, Felidar Guardian is a unique effect able to immediately blink planeswalkers—which in the case of Saheeli makes an arbitrarily large number of Cats. The threat of this combo puts a lot of immediate pressure on an opponent, but as seen by its impact in Modern, it's possible Pioneer can support the combination rather than live in fear of it.
Sram has always just barely been on the outside looking in, known for his various combos involving zero-mana artifacts. Maybe Pioneer can serve as the sweet spot for these types of decks.
I haven't highlighted many generic removal spells or staple effects, but Fatal Push is likely to be so defining that I'd be remiss not to include it on this list. As formats get larger, the pressure to be as efficient as possible with the cards you play gets higher, and Fatal Push is one of the best cards ever printed for removing small/medium creatures. Time will tell if the lack of fetch lands is significant enough to dethrone the card, but I suspect it won't be, at least not in the short term.
One of the strongest top-end red creatures, Hazoret is difficult to remove from the battlefield and makes quick work of opponents. Expect to require ways to handle this powerful God early in the format.
This card is so unique and goofy that I feel like I should call it out. I can't wait to see what kinds of strange combos this card will open up in a larger format such as Pioneer.
Hour of Devastation
While not traditionally the type of card that shows up frequently in larger formats, The Scarab God is so effective at putting a chokehold on games that I wouldn't be surprised if it did. It is very difficult to come back against an opponent who has activated this powerful God, making this another card to keep an eye on despite its lack of an enters-the-battlefield effect.
There's more pressure to play monocolor decks, and Ramunap Ruins was strong enough to receive a ban in Standard. It's hard to imagine not trying this in initial red decks.
One of the most powerful Ramp cards printed in recent memory, the ability to get any land is so powerful that Modern decks have frequently used it with no Deserts to benefit from the bonus Zombies.
Needless to say, there's a ton of ground to explore here. I didn't even touch a large portion of the basic removal spells, card draw, and disruption that define the average deck. The amount of new space opened up for build-arounds and combining both new and old strategies into brand-new ones is massive in a new format—and Pioneer is no exception!
I hope this has inspired you to think about how to play with your old cards and encouraged you to make connections with new ones.
Enjoy your new playground!