Pioneer Challenger Decks 2021

Tom Anderson Pioneer, Products

Who’s ready for a challenge?!?

It was easy to miss amid the huge raft of new Magic goodies WotC announced last week, but as paper play continues opening back up, we’ll have ourselves a brand new set of Challenger Decks to choose from! 

Challenger Decks in general are my favorite preconstructed deck products. They offer terrific value in cards alone, and they’re legitimately strong enough to compete at FNM right out of the box. For those unfamiliar, each precon is built to recreate a popular, successful tournament decklist, giving you key rares, powerful lands, and a full 15-card sideboard. That’s everything you need to start playing in Constructed events! 

While in the past, these decks have been created to help people get into Standard, the upcoming round of Challenger Decks are actually built for Pioneer: a non-rotating format which allows any cards printed since 2012. These rules allow for a vast range of strategies, but more importantly, it means that these Challenger Decks will remain a useful (and legal!) tournament option for years to come.

This might be the perfect low-commitment way to try out the thrills and spills of competitive Magic. Let’s take a look at the four Pioneer Challenger Decks coming October 15th.

MONO RED BURN

4 Bomat Courier
4 Soul-Scar Mage
4 Bonecrusher Giant
4 Ghitu Lavarunner
4 Monastery Swiftspear
4 Viashino Pyromancer
4 Light Up the Stage
4 Wild Slash
4 Lightning Strike
4 Wizard’s Lightning
4 Ramunap Ruins
16 Mountain

1 Chandra, Torch of Defiance
4 Roiling Vortex
3 Goblin Chainwhirler
4 Searing Blood
3 Magma Spray

The last few years of Standard mark one of the very rare times in Magic without a traditional red burn deck in the metagame, as WotC experimented with moving red’s power away from direct damage. But if you’re still carrying a torch for the classic low-curve red aggro list, then this is the Challenger Deck for you!

The foundation here is a smorgasbord of all red’s best one-drops from the past decade: the hand-refilling Bomat Courier, the blocker-melting Soul-Scar Mage, and of course, the beloved Monastery “Taylor” Swiftspear. Clear a path for these early attackers with efficient burn like Wild Slash and Wizard’s Lightning while pumping up their prowess damage! Impulse draw from Light Up the Stage and bonus burn from Ramunap Ruins ensures you won’t run out of gas as you sprint to the finish line.

Affordable Upgrade: This baseline deck will already be lethal enough, but you can take one very powerful step up by adding Lurrus of the Dream-Den as your companion. Even if you can’t afford a set of Sacred Foundries, you can support the splash with cheap duals like Needleverge Pathway, Battlefield Forge, Inspiring Vantage and Furycalm Snarl. Splashing white also lets you add the flexible Boros Charm to your burn package, and grab sideboard options like Chained to the Rocks and Wear//Tear. Alternatively, you can get some extra staying power in red from Eidolon of the Great Revel, Zurgo Bellstriker and Den of the Bugbear.

ORZHOV AURAS

2 Stonecoil Serpent
4 Sram, Senior Edificer
4 Alseid of Life’s Bounty
4 Hateful Eidolon
4 Selfless Savior
3 Karametra’s Blessing
4 Cartouche of Solidarity
4 Ethereal Armor
4 Gryff’s Boon
4 Sentinel’s Eyes
4 All That Glitters
4 Caves of Koilos
4 Concealed Courtyard
7 Plains
4 Swamp

1 Lurrus of the Dream-Den
1 Thoughtseize
3 Hushbringer
4 Apostle of Purifying Light
3 Dead Weight
3 Duress

This deck may superficially resemble all-in Auras decks like Modern Bogles, but in many situations, it plays out as a unique, resilient midrange deck. Built around the powerful card-draw engines of Hateful Eidolon and Sram, Senior Edificer, your incredibly low curve ensures that every card drawn is immediately put to use growing your board.

The key threats here are Auras; All That Glitters and Ethereal Armor transform any available body into a lethal force. But the decisions about when and where to commit your Auras involve a lot of skill and foresight — will you prioritize the lifelinkers to help win the race against aggro decks? Do Stonecoil Serpent or Apostle of Purifying Light have relevant protection for this match-up? Or will buffing Sram himself actually put him out of removal range? With access to both tempo plays from Karametra’s Blessing and grindy ones from Lurrus and Sentinel’s Eyes, this deck inevitably finds a way to win.

Affordable Upgrade: The synergy between our core creatures and Auras is too good to disrupt, but we can look at boosting our utility and sideboard spells. More copies of Stonecoil Serpent and Thoughtseize are good to have, or you could add some instant-speed removal to the sideboard in the form of Fatal Push. Hushbringer and Damping Sphere will also help round out your sideboard – Hushbringer is a strong enough Aura target that you can even play a few in the main! But if you can spare the cash, I would simply recommend shoring up the land base: 4 Godless Shrine and 4 Brightclimb Pathway makes a huge difference in a deck with almost no generic mana pips.

LOTUS FIELD COMBO

3 Fae of Wishes
4 Arboreal Grazer
4 Vizier of Tumbling Sands
1 Mastermind’s Acquisition
2 Peer into the Abyss
4 Hidden Strings
4 Sylvan Scrying
4 Strategic Planning
4 Pore Over the Pages
2 Dig Through Time
4 Opt
4 Lotus Field
4 Thespian’s Stage
4 Yavimaya Coast
2 Temple of Mystery
6 Forest
4 Island

1 Peer into the Abyss
1 Omniscience
1 Approach of the Second Sun
1 Sweltering Suns
2 Shifting Ceratops
3 Thought Distortion
1 Void Snare
1 Blink of an Eye
1 Tormod’s Crypt
1 Negate
2 Wilt

In my experience, combo players are perhaps the most committed of any group to their particular playstyle. It makes sense – once you’ve experienced the thrill of a deck that really “breaks it,” how can you go back to playing boring old “fair” Magic ever again? 

Like all the best combo decks, this precon is its own little puzzle box at first glance: a haphazard stack of cantrips, tutors and utility creatures, but which rewards the player who learns its strengths and masters every obscure line. 

The goal here is to amass ungodly amounts of mana through tapping and untapping Lotus Field. As a hexproof land, Lotus Field is incredibly resilient, and we can easily get as many as we like via Thespian’s Stage and Sylvan Scrying. With multiple Fields in play, you’ll net a gross amount of colored mana each time you cast Hidden Strings, with which we can draw through our deck and repeat the cycle enough to finally cast Peer into the Abyss!

Of course, that spell won’t always be poised to deal lethal damage, in which case our Fae of Wishes can grab Approach of the Second Sun for the backup kill – perhaps with Omniscience to make it easier. Thought Distortion by itself can leave control and combo decks dead in the water, while the remaining options are silver bullets to clear away opposing countermeasures. This is why the deck is so notorious for always having an out, even in game one! With so many resources and such flexibility, the only limit is your imagination.

Affordable Upgrade: There’s even less leeway to tinker with such a finely-balanced engine than we had in upgrading the Sram list, but there are some parts of the deck we’re allowed to touch! One of them is the sideboard – you could add Alpine Moon for the mirror, Jace, Wielder of Mysteries to replace Approach, Nine Lives as a stopgap against aggro, or Niv-Mizzet, Parun as an even more punishing anti-blue threat. We can also squeeze a little more out of our lands — whether it’s consistency from a set of Botanical Sanctum, or utility from Blast Zone and Bala Ged Recovery.

AZORIUS SPIRITS

1 Brazen Borrower
2 Mausoleum Wanderer
2 Remorseful Cleric
1 Selfless Spirit
4 Rattlechains
3 Shacklegeist
4 Supreme Phantom
2 Spell Queller
4 Spectral Sailor
4 Watcher of the Spheres
4 Empyrean Eagle
4 Lofty Denial
2 Spell Pierce
2 Glacial Fortress
4 Temple of Enlightenment
7 Plains
10 Island

2 Spell Pierce
3 Isolate
3 Aether Gust
2 Seal Away
1 Devout Decree
2 Silkwrap
2 Light of Hope

Azorius Spirits packs 31 creatures in the main deck, so I’m sure I’d get some raised eyebrows if I started calling it “the control deck precon.” But when you look more closely at what those creatures actually do, I think you’ll agree that it more or less fits the bill!

Like Dimir Rogues in recent Standard, this deck uses its swarm of cheap, evasive creatures in place of a traditional “battlecruiser” control wincon such as Dream Trawler. This has several strategic benefits: you’re better able to capitalize on stumbles from your opponent in the early game, and you never need to go fully “shields down” in the late game just to deploy a threat. 

Mausoleum Wanderer and Selfless Spirit limit your opponents’ options while beating down, pairing well with the buffs from Empyrean Eagle and Supreme Phantom. The constant pressure from your ghostly host will force even cautious opponents to make desperate plays into your open mana. All the better for Rattlechains or Spell Queller to flash in and blow them out!

Affordable Upgrade: This one is fairly straightforward to improve; simply add more good Spirits! Mausoleum Wanderer, Selfless Spirit and Spell Queller can all be bumped up to max copies, and a couple of Skyclave Apparitions give us even more ways to interact. Settle the Wreckage is huge for the sideboard, since ground-based creature decks are often forced to race us with all-in attacks. And while I hate to sound like a broken record, the best bang for your buck is probably better dual lands; we really don’t want Temples in a deck that wants to deploy creatures while keeping mana open.

THE PIONEER’S ROAD BEGINS HERE

As you can see, each of these decks is an absolute weapon already, and with only a few more dollars, you can have a 1:1 match for Pioneer’s winningest decks. If you’ve been on the fence about this format — or even Constructed Magic more generally — I really do recommend taking this chance to get your feet wet. Playing with and against optimized Constructed decks has many charms, even if you aren’t out to make the Pro Tour, and at the very least, you’ll broaden your understanding and appreciation of Magic

In fact, these decks are such a good deal that I can see the advantages of picking up two at once, or even all four! You can experiment with how different match-ups work, or just play them with friends as a set of Pioneer duel decks.

You can preorder these powerful, rare-filled precons from Card Kingdom (individually or as a set!) starting in late September.