Metagame Mentor: Dominaria United Hits Pioneer

Posted in NEWS on September 15, 2022

By Frank Karsten

Hello and welcome back to Metagame Mentor, the weekly column in which I highlight the decks to beat in Constructed on the path to the Pro Tour. Today, to help you get ready for upcoming Pioneer Regional Championship Qualifiers, I'll focus on the impact that Dominaria United has had on the Pioneer metagame thus far.

For my analysis, I used all Magic Online decklists from Pioneer Preliminary and Pioneer Challenge events held since the release of Dominaria United, as well as top decklists from last weekend's Regional Championship Qualifiers in Osaka and Tokyo. In total, this yielded 224 decks.

The 10 Most-Played Cards from Dominaria United

Across all main decks and sideboards, the most-played non-basic cards from any set were Fatal Push, Thoughtseize, Fable of the Mirror-Breaker, and Bonecrusher Giant—all with over 200 copies in total. This should not come as a surprise, as these cards are time-honored staples of the format, and it's hard for newly released cards to crack that. Yet Dominaria United did make an impact.

The most-played Dominaria United card by a mile is Liliana of the Veil. At 162 total copies in my data set, she's seeing a lot of play already. This is largely driven by the dominant popularity of Rakdos Midrange, as Liliana fits perfectly into any black midrange deck that is looking to exchange resources. Yet Liliana also slots into Abzan Greasefang as a discard outlet.

The second most-played Dominaria United card, at 39 copies, is... Sheoldred, the Apocalypse? Wait, did I accidently run my analysis on Standard decklists?

I had to double check, but no, Sheoldred is really making an impact on Pioneer as well. Even though she's often merely a one-of, Rakdos Midrange is a huge percentage of the metagame, and all these singletons sum to a large total.

Sheoldred is contextually powerful. She punishes opponents for drawing cards with Treasure Cruise, raises your life total to get out of Skewer the Critics range, and has enough toughness to block Bonecrusher Giant. Sheoldred may not line up well against Fatal Push or Dreadbore, so her popularity came as a surprise to me, but her abilities and size are excellent in a variety of matchups.

Sulfurous Springs, at 36 copies in total, is the first of several pain lands that are new to Pioneer. Since the mana bases of Rakdos Midrange, Rakdos Sacrifice, and Jund Sacrifice were already good, these decks often added only one or two copies of Sulfurous Springs, if any. But again, many singletons sum to a large total, and Sulfurous Springs is the most-played new pain land by the raw numbers.

Phoenix Chick, also with 36 copies, is the first red one-drop with flying ever printed in Pioneer. Thanks to flying, it can trigger spectacle consistently and can soar in for the final evasive points of damage. Phoenix Chick's recursive effect also makes it the perfect sacrificial fodder for Liliana of the Veil. Accordingly, Phoenix Chick has found a home in Mono-Red Aggro and in Atarka Red, a new brew made possible by Karplusan Forest.

For most of Pioneer's history, mana bases have been kinder to enemy-color decks. For example, Boros Heroic had access to Battlefield Forge and Inspiring Vantage, whereas Azorius Heroic lacked Adarkar Wastes or Seachrome Coast. Although aggressive blue-white decks haven't shown up yet, Adarkar Wastes has already appeared in Jeskai Ensoul, Engimatic Incarnation, and Bant Spirits. In Bant Spirits, it has supplanted Secluded Courtyard, which makes it easier to cast sideboard cards like Portable Hole or Lofty Denial.

This new one-drop has not only made a strong impression on Standard but also revitalized Mono-Black Aggro in Pioneer. Evolved Sleeper doubles a good turn-one play and a solid mana sink in the late game.

Leyline Binding has shown up in Niv to Light and Enigmatic Incarnation. In a properly built Enigmatic Incarnation deck, you can cast Leyline Binding on turn two and then turn it into Titan of Industry or Agent of Treachery on turn four.

Impulse is an iconic card selection spell. When it was previewed, I figured it would require some strategic planning, but I did anticipate a shimmer of possibility. As it turns out, Impulse has indeed found a home in Izzet Control and Lotus Field.

Fires of Victory made it into several Izzet Prowess and Izzet Phoenix lists. In the early game, it kills pretty much everything for two mana. In the late game, it's a cantrip that pings something small. This flexibility is great.

Temporary Lockdown, mostly found in the sideboard of Azorius Control or Orzhov Greasefang, is an efficient sweeper against low-to-the-ground aggro decks. At 14 copies in total, it's the tenth most-played new card from Dominaria United across all Pioneer decks I considered.

The Pioneer Metagame with Dominaria United

To provide a useful breakdown that combines both popularity and performance, I assigned archetype labels to all decklists and awarded to each deck a number of points equal to its net wins, i.e., wins minus losses. For example, a deck that went 5–1 in the Swiss in a Challenge event followed by a loss in the quarterfinals was assigned three points.

The sum of these numbers for every archetype was then used to determine its record-weighted metagame share, which represents its share of total net wins. Each archetype name hyperlinks to a well-performing decklist that is close to the aggregate of the archetype.

Archetype Record-Weighted Metagame Share
1. Rakdos Midrange 21.50%
2. Green Devotion 15.50%
3. Azorius Control 8.50%
4. Mono-Red Aggro 7.50%
5. Izzet Phoenix 6.70%
6. Bant Spirits 5.10%
7. Jund Sacrifice 4.50%
8. Abzan Greasefang 4.20%
9. Mono-White Humans 4.00%
10. Mono-Blue Spirits 3.30%
11. Mono-Black Aggro 3.10%
12. Izzet Creativity 2.40%
13. Boros Heroic 1.90%
14. Izzet Prowess 1.50%
15. Enigmatic Incarnation 1.30%
Other 9.00%

The "Other" category, mostly comprised of archetypes that appeared only a single time, includes Lotus Field, Jeskai Ensoul, Izzet Control, Bant Company, Rakdos Sacrifice, Affinity, Gruul Transmogrify, Dimir Control, Grixis Midrange, Niv to Light, Orzhov Greasefang, Goblins, Bant Humans, Gruul Celebrant, Elves, and Atarka Red.

The breakdown in this table could be interpreted as a winner's metagame, i.e., a distribution of the types of decks that you can expect to face at the top tables if you make a deep run in a Pioneer tournament. As you can see, Rakdos Midrange and Green Devotion are dominant, and together they form over 1/3rd of the record-weighted metagame.

The Pioneer Decks To Beat: Rakdos Midrange and Green Devotion

To figure out what a good, typical list looks like for these two top-tier archetypes, I used a proprietary aggregation method that combines popularity and performance. The core of the method was explained in an article, but I have since extended it by considering win rates, sideboards, land counts, and other relevant aspects, inspired by the theory behind artificial neural networks. It provides a systematic way to pinpoint decklists for the two "Decks to Beat" in Pioneer right now.

Aggregate Rakdos Midrange

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Rakdos Midrange already was the premier midrange deck in Pioneer, but the addition of Liliana of the Veil has put it over the top. From a 12.4% record-weighted metagame share several weeks ago, it's now a whopping 21.5%.

Liliana fits the deck perfectly because her forced discard and sacrifice get better the fewer cards your opponents have access to. When I introduced Rakdos Midrange in the very first edition of this article series, I gave the following advice: "When playing against this deck, you should mulligan slightly less aggressively than you otherwise might because you'll need all the resources you can muster. If you mulligan aggressively in search of certain key cards, then that will often be foiled by Thoughtseize and Dreadbore. When they deprive you of further resources with Kroxa, Titan of Death's Hunger, mulligans look even less appealing. Against Rakdos Midrange, you need raw cardboard, so a mediocre seven-card hand is often better than a synergistic six-card hand." This advice becomes even more important with Liliana of the Veil in the mix.

To make room for Liliana, every Rakdos Midrange player is shaving different cards. The aggregate decklist shown above, compared to the one from several weeks ago, shaved a Tenacious Underdog, a Graveyard Trespasser, and a Chandra, Torch of Defiance. Tenacious Underdog was a flex slot, and even though it can break the symmetry of Liliana's +1, something has to go. Graveyard Trespasser has to be cut in some numbers for mana curve reasons. And the double-red Chandra is harder to fit in when Liliana of the Veil demands a black-heavy mana base. Moreover, we now have Sheoldred as a four-mana alternative. However, these cuts are just one possibility, and there's no consensus yet.

Aggregate Green Devotion

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The other major deck in Pioneer right now, at 15.5% of the winner's metagame, is Green Devotion. Although it gained absolutely nothing from Dominaria United, it can still go over the top of Rakdos Midrange.

In previous articles, I distinguished between Mono-Green variants; versions with Vraska, Golgari Queen; and other variants. Now, I have now labeled all of them as "Green Devotion". Looking at the aggregate list above, you can probably understand why. Some might describe it as a mono-green deck, arguing that apart from Teferi, Who Slows the Sunset, which you plan to put onto the battlefield via Oath of Nissa or Storm the Festival, all spells in the main deck are mono-green. Others might argue that thanks to several green-white duals and the combination of Kiora, Behemoth Beckoner and Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx, you can hardcast Teferi normally, so it's a Bant deck. Yet others might claim that tapping Nykthos for blue is too unlikely, but the presence of Glass Casket and Portable Hole as Karn, the Great Creator targets in the sideboard means that it should count as a Selesnya deck. All perspectives have merit, but I find it better to avoid discussion and use "Green Devotion" as an inclusive name.

Speaking of Teferi, Who Slows the Sunset: This is a relatively recent addition. Several weeks ago, the off-color planeswalker of choice was Nicol Bolas, Dragon-God, but by now Teferi has become commonplace in this flex slot. Teferi's main power lies in his +1 ability. It gets you out of burn range, makes it easier to ramp into an early Storm the Festival, and can temporarily wipe out countermagic mana or blockers.

More importantly, Teferi makes it easier to set up The Chain Veil combos. Suppose you control the legendary artifact alongside Teferi, Llanowar Elves, and Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx with five devotion to green. Then with Teferi's +1, you can untap The Chain Veil, Llanowar Elves, and Nykthos. You tap your land and creature for mana, activate The Chain Veil again, and loop to gain infinite life. This is a powerful, easily achievable combo.

Seven Pioneer Archetypes Fueled by Dominaria United

You can also expect to face archetypes like Azorius Control, Izzet Phoenix, Bant Spirits, Mono-White Humans, or Mono-Blue Spirits at upcoming Pioneer events. However, their aggregate lists have stayed largely the same. Instead, I'll highlight seven decks that have benefited considerably from Dominaria United.

Aggregate Mono-Red Aggro

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As I already mentioned, Phoenix Chick is an excellent one-drop for red aggressive decks. Mono-Red Aggro is a big part of the format at 7.5% of the record-weighted metagame, and there's also the revived Atarka Red at 0.2%.

But something strange is going on in the aggregate Mono-Red Aggro list shown above. What happened to Embercleave? Or Eidolon of the Great Revel? Wait, there's no Burning-Tree Emissary or Lightning Strike either?

The answer can be found in the sideboard. While it's not a universal choice yet, the hot new thing is to run Obosh, the Preypiercer in the companion slot. This explains why the deck has no cards with mana value two, four, or six. I am not immediately convinced that this is better than an Embercleave version, but I do admit that gaining a free spell out of the sideboard is sweet.

But how does all this tie in to Phoenix Chick? The flier arguably better than alternative one-drops like Fanatical Firebrand, Ghitu Lavarunner, or Falkenrath Pit Fighter, but the difference isn't that large at first glance. If we wanted to run Obosh decks in Pioneer, we could have done that before, but we didn't. What about Phoenix Chick makes it so special?

I believe the answer lies in the spectacle mechanic. Given that you can't run two-drops, you would sometimes really like to cast Light Up the Stage or Skewer the Critics on turn two. Unfortunately, previous one-drops would often just run into a blocker, say Bloodtithe Harvester or Sylvan Caryatid. Phoenix Chick, however, flies over them and makes it so much easier to enable spectacle. As a result, you're more likely to use all of your mana in the early game, which improves the curve-out potential of Obosh builds.

In case you would be interested in trying this deck in Explorer, the online true-to-paper format featuring all Pioneer-legal cards that appear on MTG Arena, then you'll be missing Monastery Swiftspear and Rending Volley. Sadly, there are no clear replacements, and I'd stick with an Embercleave build in Explorer.

Aggregate Jund Sacrifice

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Jund Sacrifice, at 4.5% of the winner's metagame, has eclipsed Rakdos Sacrifice, and the aggregate list uses several Dominaria United cards. There's Sulfurous Springs in the main deck, Tear Asunder in the sideboard, and Weatherlight Completed to prove new strategic options.

Weatherlight Completed can be triggered at will thanks to Witch's Oven, and it can provide a lot of value for the deck: Card selection early on, card advantage later on, and a 5/5 flier to dominate the skies. It takes a slot that was typically occupied by Trail of Crumbs or Priest of Forgotten Gods in previous lists.

The above Jund Sacrifice list is fully legal in Explorer.

Aggregate Abzan Greasefang

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Several weeks ago, I highlighted the rise of Abzan Greasefang and recommended Leyline of the Void for your sideboard. Since then, Leyline of the Void has indeed become more commonplace, and Abzan Greasefang has dropped from 9.5% to 4.2%.

Regardless of these metagame fluctuations, the deck has gained Liliana of the Veil as a powerful new tool. It adds a discard outlet in case you draw Parhelion II, and it also helps play a fair game if you draw a combination of discard, removal, and Esika's Chariot but no Greasefang, Okiba Boss.

Liliana has also prompted the emergence of Orzhov Greasefang. At 0.5% of the record-weighted metagame, Orzhov Greasefang is not putting up major numbers yet, but it's a fascinating new option. Previously, Greasefang players were forced to splash blue, red, or green for discard or self-mill effects. Now, with Dominaria United, you have Liliana of the Veil and Guardian of New Benalia as in-color discard outlets, which makes it possible to compile a consistent combo in a clean two-color mana base. The smoother mana base also enables Serra Paragon, which can conveniently return Greasefang from your graveyard.

Yet Abzan Greasefang is still the dominant version. For Explorer, you're missing Satyr Wayfinder; Tasigur, the Golden Fang; and Abrupt Decay. However, Stitcher's Supplier and/or Mulch can act as replacements for Satyr Wayfinder.

Aggregate Mono-Black Aggro

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Mono-Black Aggro has been around on the fringes of Pioneer before, but since the release of Dominaria United, it has surged to 3.1% of the winner's metagame. There are many similarities with the Standard version, but thanks to Bloodsoaked Champion and Knight of the Ebon Legion, it's more aggressive in nature.

The two major new cards are Evolved Sleeper and Liliana of the Veil. Evolved Sleeper is an excellent early drop that can provide late-game staying power. Liliana of the Veil not only gets rid of pesky blockers but also discards Bloodsoaked Champion for value.

In Explorer, you don't have Bloodsoaked Champion or Mutavault, so there's less of an incentive to play Mono-Black Aggro.

Aggregate Enigmatic Incarnation

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What a beauty! Although there is no consensus whatsoever on the perfect 80 cards—everyone is trying a different assortment of tutor targets for Enigmatic Incarnation—the common factor is Leyline Binding in a Triome-heavy mana base.

The dream is to cast Leyline Binding on turn two or turn three, followed by Enigmatic Incarnation on turn four. This allows you to turn your six-mana enchantment into Titan of Industry or Agent of Treachery, which will rule the battlefield on turn four.

In Explorer, Chained to the Rocks, Nylea's Presence, and Mana Confluence are unavailable, and there are no obvious replacements.

Goblins

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Goblins is not a big part of the metagame yet—it only showed up once—but Rundvelt Hordemaster and Squee, Dubious Monarch have both improved the tribe considerably. Especially in combination with Skirk Prospector, Rundvelt Hordemaster can run through your deck rapidly, and you can finish off a such a big turn with a Hobgoblin Bandit Lord activation for the win.

In Explorer, the Goblin tribe is missing Legion Loyalist and Goblin Piledriver.

Elves

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Elves, which also showed up only once in the tournaments I considered, gained Leaf-Crowned Visionary from Dominaria United. It's great to see these tribal lords make an impact on the format. Leaf-Crowned Visionary increases your damage clock and can combine with Circle of Dreams Druid to draw absurd numbers of cards in a single turn. Eventually, you'll draw Shaman of the Pack for the win. Together with the newly added Tear Asunder seen in the sideboard, it's a good reason to splash black.

In Explorer, the Elf tribe is missing Shaman of the Pack; Llanowar Wastes; and Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx.

Looking Ahead

Dominaria United has improved a lot of Pioneer archetypes, both old and new, and it'll be interesting to see how the metagame will develop in the coming weeks and months. However, premier tournaments in other formats are coming up as well.

This weekend, September 17-18, features the Limited Qualifier Weekend on MTG Arena, in addition to several high-profile tabletop events in the Modern format. These Modern events include the Team $10K at Card Monster Con in Lexington, the Singapore Open, and the Grand Open Qualifier at the Magic Showdown in Paris. The Paris event will have live video coverage.

Next weekend, September 24-25, the Arena Championship 1 will be held. This 32-player event with a $200,000 prize pool represents the apex of the MTG Arena Premier Play pyramid. The formats are Traditional Alchemy and Traditional Dominaria United Draft, and there will be live streaming coverage of the event!