Pioneer is Magic’s newest Constructed format, and it’s been the talk of the Magic community this week. It’s a non-rotating format whose card pool extends back through Return to Ravnica, one of the first sets released after the creation of the Modern format. Return to Ravnica also came out during a time of unprecedented player growth in Magic (I myself picked up Magic the summer before the set’s release), and a massive cohort of Magic players is eager to dig up their Standard cards from years past.
But, like any format with a larger-than-Standard card pool, Pioneer will be an unforgiving environment for testing brews. Those favorite cards that were never quite good enough for Standard won’t cut it in Pioneer unless they synergize with cards from other sets. Even the most powerful Standard decks of years’ past will be forced to contend with faster aggro and combo decks than existed in their original metagames.
If you’re building a deck for Pioneer, here are the cards you’ll need to keep in mind.
Unlike Modern before it, Pioneer launched with a liberal banned list: only the five Khans of Tarkir fetchlands are off-limits. That leaves plenty of room for the heaviest hitters from past Standard formats to run wild. The following are some of the most powerful cards printed in recent Standard sets, and they’re the first cards I’ll be exploring as I build decks for the new format.
This cat may look innocuous, but it was part of one of the scariest combo decks of the past seven years. Combine Felidar Guardian with Saheeli Rai and you can make as many hasty cat tokens as you’d like. In Pioneer, “Copy Cat” represents a turn-four combo kill, and if you can make the mana work, a turn one Gilded Goose will potentially get you there a turn sooner. You can also add Teferi, Time Raveler to the mix to protect your combo from instant-speed interaction.
Editor’s Note: Felidar Guardian was banned in Pioneer on November 4, 2019.
Kaladesh block also gave us energy, one of Magic’s most powerful mechanics, and one of the best things you could do with your energy was activate Aetherworks Marvel. With the help of cards like Attune with Aether and Woodweaver’s Puzzleknot, Temur decks could generate the necessary six energy by the time Marvel came down on turn four. While there is some luck involved, Pioneer Marvel decks should be able to put Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger into play with surprising regularity.
These two cards from Khans of Tarkir are among the best card-draw spells ever printed. They’re banned in Modern and Legacy and restricted in Vintage (plus, Treasure Cruise is banned in Pauper). While Treasure Cruise and Dig Through Time will be harder to cast in a format without the Khans fetchlands, players will undoubtedly find cheap spells to cast and other ways to fill their graveyards.
Oko may not be banned in any formats, but players are already wary of this card’s potential effects on Pioneer (and Standard, too, for that matter). Two- and three-mana Planeswalkers have been warping the metagames of non-rotating formats recently, and Oko is no exception. It may be too soon to tell, but I expect to see a lot of elk in Pioneer.
The Fair Cards
Pioneer has no shortage of good build-around cards, from Jeskai Ascendancy to Paradoxical Outcome. But if you don’t enjoy playing combo decks – or fear that your favorite combo will be banned – then what should you do? Here are a handful of “fair” cards to get your gears turning.
Along with some other cards on this list, Collected Company pushed the limits of what was considered “fair” in Standard. “CoCo” decks could put opponents behind on both tempo and card advantage by putting creatures with valuable “enter the battlefield” abilities directly into play from the top of your library. Many of these decks played the best one-to-three-mana creatures in certain colors (usually Bant); you could go that route in Pioneer, or use Collected Company in a tribal Spirits, Humans, or Elves deck.
Collected Company decks had plenty of cheap creatures at their disposal, but Reflector Mage was a perennial favorite target. Small though it may be, Reflector Mage had a powerful effect on Standard: if your creature didn’t do something when it entered play, you effectively wasted your turn. The Reflector Mage Test will be in effect in Pioneer, so be sure to prioritize creatures with ETB effects – or play Reflector Mage yourself!
Now here’s a card that passes the Reflector Mage Test with flying colors! Siege Rhino was everywhere during its run in Standard, and it will go down as one of the most polarizing cards in competitive Magic history. If you’re building a midrange creature deck, Siege Rhino is an ideal starting place.
If control decks are more your jam, Pioneer offers no shortage of win conditions: Elspeth, Sun’s Champion; Approach of the Second Sun; shuffling your graveyard into your library forever with Elixir of Immortality. While all these cards have had their moment in the Standard spotlight, Teferi, Hero of Dominaria may be your best bet in Pioneer. He generates card advantage, protects himself well, and allows you to avoid losing the game if you can’t find a way to win outright. Blue-White Control has gone through many iterations, and I’m sure players will be excited to finally combine this card with Supreme Verdict and Sphinx’s Revelation.
Then, there’s Rally the Ancestors: the linchpin of one of the best creature-sacrifice decks ever to exist in Standard. Four-Color Rally decks sacrificed creatures to Nantuko Husk with Zulaport Cutthroat in play to drain opponents’ life totals, then used the deck’s signature card to bring the creatures back and do it all over again. With an expanded card pool, Rally has access to even more sacrifice outlets and payoffs.
Around the same time that Rally decks were taking over Standard, Hardened Scales made a few deep runs on the tournament circuit. This card revolutionized Modern Affinity decks, and it may have a place in Pioneer, too. Hardened Scales, Walking Ballista, and Steel Overseer never got time in Standard together, but you can combine them all in this new format.
Answers and Hate Cards
We’ve barely scratched the surface of what’s possible in Pioneer, and we’re already looking at a metagame that rivals Modern in diversity. In such a varied field, any reactive deck will need catch-all answers – not for specific cards per se, but for broad strategies. While many of Modern’s premium answers lie outside Pioneer’s card pool (Blood Moon, Ensnaring Bridge, Chalice of the Void), there are still options for players looking to play midrange and control strategies.
Thanks to a reprint in Theros, Pioneer has access to Thoughtseize, one of the best discard spells ever printed. While Inquisition of Kozilek is out, we may see Duress make some appearances in Pioneer sideboards as well.
Notably, Pioneer lacks two of the most common removal spells in Modern: Path to Exile and Lightning Bolt. This is relatively good news for creature decks, but they’ll still have to contend with a full suite of black removal spells. Fatal Push, Abrupt Decay, Assassin’s Trophy, and Hero’s Downfall are among the most efficient and flexible removal spells in Pioneer, and black- and green-based midrange decks will likely make good use of them. (Fatal Push loses some utility without fetchlands, but if aggro decks dominate the format, it may still prove useful.)
There are also many Pioneer cards that punish specific strategies. Of these “hate” cards, however, cards that work against graveyard strategies will likely be the most in-demand. Rest in Peace, Grafdigger’s Cage, and Leyline of the Void are all legal in Pioneer; if you’re looking for a more proactive card that incidentally punishes graveyards, try Scavenging Ooze.
Finally, with so many powerful artifacts and enchantments running around, you’ll need some answers for them, too. Creature decks such as Collected Company can consider Reclamation Sage for their sideboards; Wear//Tear and Disenchant are good options as well.
Be a Pioneer!
Every new format is a puzzle to solve, and I’m excited to start building decks for Pioneer. If you’re also nostalgic for the last seven years of Standard, I encourage you to join me! Feel free to send me your latest brews at @HallieMTG, and let’s explore this new landscape together.