Pioneer Challenger Decks Upgrades

Michael RappPioneer

With Pioneer RCQ season coming up in a couple of months, players unfamiliar with the format may be looking to get their feet wet beforehand. In order to practice and play, you’ll need a deck, but buying into a deck before you know if you like it could be a pricey endeavor. 

Luckily, the two rounds of Pioneer challenger decks are excellent entry points to Modern, and can be easily updated into high tier decks. Azorius Spirits, Lotus Field, Izzet Phoenix, Gruul Stompy, and Orzhov Humans are all affordable options to hit your local Pioneer scene to start getting reps before you decide to move forward with one of these decks, or move on. Let’s take a look at the base challenger deck lists, and compare them to lists that have posted strong tournament results to see where the possible upgrades are.

Azorius Spirits

The Azorius Spirits challenger deck provides a strong base for any of the Spirits archetypes in Pioneer. Whether Mono Blue, Azorius, or Bant is the preferred version at the given moment in time, there is more or less always some kind of Spirits deck floating around in the Pioneer metagame. Spectral Sailor, Rattlechains, Shacklegeist, Supreme Phantom, and Lofty Denial provide a strong core no matter the particular flavor of Spirits you choose to build into. 

At the moment, the generally preferred Spirits deck is Azorius which works out well for our comparison purposes. The Spirits challenger deck is more white than most builds of Azorius Spirits decks right now, so Watcher of the Spheres and Empyrean Eagle are likely to hit the bench once you start upgrading, but are absolutely serviceable to start out. Below is ThiasM’s version of Azorius Spirits which they piloted to a top 8 finish in a recent MTGO challenge. Lets see what has changed from our base list!

The differences seem to be as follows:

Now, I get it, this looks like a lot of changes, but many of them are upgrading the mana base, and building a sideboard tuned for the current metagame, as the one in the challenger deck was made in 2021. The good news is that very few of these changes impact how the deck functions on a core level. Better news yet, a good chunk of the available upgrades are common or uncommon, which means that they will likely be cheap to pick up. 

The upgrades to the mana base in totality are going to come in under $150, and are all transferable to other decks in the Pioneer metagame should you decide to branch out as well; investing in lands is generally a worthwhile endeavor. Once you get through the lands, everything else in the deck is under $10/card, with the standouts being Wedding Announcement, which is an all-star in any white creature deck, and Mausoleum Wanderer, which is Spirits exclusive. 

If you’re a fan of tempo oriented flash style decks, Spirits is a good place to look. If upgrading to Azorius looks a little out of range, you can pivot to the Mono Blue version for less, and it is still quite strong.

Total upgrade cost ~$215

Lotus Field

Lotus Field is the de facto best combo deck in Pioneer most of the time, so if you’re a combo player Lotus Field is both a solid entry point and a strong deck. Once again, the Lotus Field challenger deck was in the first run in 2021 so it has received some upgrades since then, but the deck comes with the full engine right out of the box. 

Similar to Spirits, and a trend that most of the remaining decks follow, most of the money is in the mana. Boseiju, Who Endures, and Otawara, Soaring City really drive up the price of decks they’re in, and Lotus Field happens to play a lot of them. The good news is that most green decks in most constructed formats play Boseiju, which means if you have been playing other formats you likely have these, or if you want to branch out at some point Boseiju will be useful in other places; the same goes for Otawara

Lotus has the least transferable cards, and honestly one of the highest learning curves. I would recommend goldfishing the deck to get a feel for how things play, because the keepable hands and sequencing can be tricky if you’re not familiar, but once you learn the deck it is a powerful option. The good news is that the spells are where a lot of the potential power gain comes from, and they’re on the cheap side. 

The win condition has become more refined since the printing of the challenger deck, and is now centered around Emergent Ultimatum. Lier, Disciple of the Drowned is the safety valve to make sure that if your Mastermind’s Acquisition ends up in the graveyard that you can still tutor for Approach of the Second Sun to win the game. Combo players rejoice in both an easy entry to the format and a strong deck to upgrade over time!

-2 Fae of Wishes
-4 Opt
-4 Strategic Planning
-2 Peer into the Abyss
-2 Dig Through Time
-6 Forest
-3 Island
-4 Yavimaya Coast
-1 Blink of the Eye
-1 Void Snare
-1 Negate
-1 Sweltering Suns
-2 Wilt
-2 Shifting Ceratops
-2 Thought Distortion
-1 Tormod’s Crypt

+2 Voyaging Satyr
+1 Lier, Disciple of the Drowned
+4 Impulse
+3 Bala Ged Recovery
+2 Dark Petition
+1 Behold the Beyond
+3 Emergent Ultimatum
+1 Ritual of Soot
+3 Boseiju, Who Endures
+1 Breeding Pool
+4 Botanical Sanctum
+2 Otawara, Soaring City
+2 Pithing Needle
+2 Narset’s Reversal
+1 Tear Asunder
+1 Cyclonic Rift
+1 Path of Peril
+2 Supreme Verdict
+2 Dragonlord Dromoka
+1 Approach of the Second Sun
+1 Zacama, Primal Calamity

Total upgrade cost ~$360

Izzet Phoenix

Izzet Phoenix is one of the most loved decks in Pioneer. This likely has to do with Arclight Phoenix being one of the most loved cards and decks in Modern before the banning of Faithless Looting sidelined our flappy friend. Phoenix is a high velocity deck with a lot of micro decisions involving cantrips such as Consider, Opt, and Pieces of the Puzzle. The name of the game is to get Arclight Phoenix into the graveyard and cast three instants and/or sorceries to bring Phoenixes back to apply a ton of pressure to your opponent. Thing in the Ice is good at pressuring decks that want to commit to the board, such as Mono Green, by bouncing all of their creatures, and putting them on a fast clock. Crackling Drake rewards you for interacting with your opponent with a large flying creature which often ends games in short order.

Once we start talking upgrades Phoenix gains access to Galvanic Iteration to copy powerful effects like Treasure Cruise and Temporal Trespass. Ledger Shredder is a multiformat player that is worth investing in if you play Modern, but is powerful in its own right in Pioneer Phoenix. An additional flying threat that pays you for casting multiple spells in the same turn is already attractive, but Shredder also gives you another way to discard Arclight Phoenix

Lands are yet again the name of the game, as Phoenix sports a traditional mana base of four shock lands, four pathways and four fast lands. Spirebluff Canal and Steam Vents are popular Modern lands as well, so owning them for Pioneer could aid into getting into another format as well!

-3 Crackling Drake
-2 Flame-Blessed Bolt
-2 Chart a Course
-3 Izzet Charm
-1 Treasure Cruise
-2 Expressive Iteration
-4 Island
-4 Mountain
-2 Sulfur Falls
-4 Shivan Reef
-4 Temple of Epiphany 
-2 Abrade
-1 Invasive Surgery
-2 Lava Coil
-2 Sweltering Suns
-2 Mystical Dispute
-3 Narset, Parter of Veils

+4 Ledger Shredder
+2 Arclight Phoenix
+2 Fiery Impulse
+3 Spell Pierce
+2 Spikefield Hazard
+2 Galvanic Iteration
+1 Pieces of the Puzzle
+2 Temporal Trespass
+2 Hall of Storm Giants
+4 Riverglide Pathway
+4 Spirebluff Canal
+3 Steam Vents
+2 Stormcarved Coast
+1 Otawara, Soaring City
+1 Chandra, Torch of Defiance
+2 Aether Gust
+2 Disdainful Stroke
+2 Young Pyromancer
+2 Brotherhood’s End

Total Upgrade cost ~$370

Gruul Stompy

Gruul Stompy looks a bit different than the challenger deck, but had some of the same cards and a similar plan. Instead of rumbling with the likes of Questing Beast and Glorybringer, the upgraded version opts for a vehicle package with Skysovereign, Consul Flagship, and Esika’s Chariot. That being said, the plan is still just to play oversized creatures ahead of schedule with the help of some friendly elves. Pressuring the opponent with large creature after large creature backed up by some removal has been a successful Magic strategy for years. 

When it comes to upgrades, Boseiju, Who Endures inflates the total upgrade cost a significant amount, and isn’t 100% necessary to get the core plan of the deck together. Upgrading to the vehicles package will give you a noticeable power jump, and won’t be particularly expensive to add layer on. Cheap but powerful threats like Werewolf Packleader and Migloz won’t run you more than a few dollars each and will win you more games than a full set of Scavenging Ooze will. After that we come back to the lands, which make up over half of the total upgrade cost. Mutavault can be a bit pricey, but is in a handful of Pioneer decks at this point 

-1 Scavenging Ooze
-2 Lovestruck Beast
-4 Glorybringer
-2 Questing Beast
-2 Chandra, Torch of Defiance
-4 Mizzium Mortars
-4 Abrade
-9 Forest
-7 Mountain
-4 Rockfall Vale
-4 Flame-Blessed Bolt
-4 Cindervines
-3 Shifting Ceratops

+3 Werewolf Packleader
+2 Migloz Maze Crusher
+4 Reckless Stormseeker
+4 Esika’s Chariot
+3 Obliterating Bolt
+2 Embercleave
+4 Copperline Gorge
+4 Cragcrown Pathway
+3 Lair of the Hydra
+2 Boseiju, Who Endures
+3 Mutavault
+3 Stomping Ground
+1 Rending Volley
+2 Back to Nature
+3 Damping Sphere
+1 Thrun, Breaker of Silence
+3 The Akroan War
+3 Skysovereign, Consul Flagship

Total upgrade cost ~$273

Orzhov Humans

Mono White Humans is one of the premier aggro decks in Pioneer, which means that the Orzhov Humans challenger deck is a great place to start. The Orzhov build of the deck is a little slower, but adds more disruption in the form of Kitesail Freebooter, Dire Tactics, and Bloodchief’s Thirst. If the metagame is heavy with other creature decks the added removal may even be a benefit. However, since the printing of the challenger deck, Humans strategies have largely pivoted to be Mono White, and to turn up the aggression.

Dauntless Bodyguard, Thalia’s Lieutenant, and Thalia Guardian of Thraben makes for a good aggressive base. Once you upgrade to Mono White most of your lands will become Plains, but Mutavault stays, and Secluded Courtyard and Unclaimed Territory are both useful to have in your collection. Unlike other decks on the list Mono White Humans gets off easy with regard to upgrading lands as the deck plays 14 basic Plains. Honestly the bulk of the upgrade costs are in Wedding Announcement, and Sword of Forge and Frontier, the latter not being required in all metagames. Adeline, Skrelv, and Hopeful Initiate are the big upgrades to spells, but won’t rack up the bill all that much in comparison to the sideboard, and will be more useful. If you like streamlined aggressive decks the Orzhov Humans challenger deck is an excellent entry point with a clear and powerful upgrade path. 

-4 Bloodsoaked Champion
-2 Dauntless Bodyguard
-4 Thraben Inspector
-4 Kitesail Freebooter
-2 Bloodchief’s Thirst
-2 Dire Tactics
-4 Rally the Ranks
-4 Caves of Koilos
-4 Concealed Courtyard
-1 Godless Shrine
-4 Secluded Courtyard
-4 Unclaimed Territory
-3 Giant Killer
-3 Duress
-2 Containment Priest
-2 Sungold Sentinel
-4 Sunset Revelry

+4 Hopeful Initiate
+4 Recruitment Officer
+3 Skrelv, Defector Mite
+1 Kytheon, Hero of Akros
+4 Adeline, Resplendent Cathar
+4 Brutal Cathar
+4 Ossification
+2 Castle Ardenvale
+2 Eiganjo, Seat of the Empire
+2 Mutavault
+12 Plains
+1 Portable Hole
+2 Guardian of Faith
+2 Sword of Forge and Frontier
+4 Wedding Announcement
+3 Reidane, God of the Worthy

Total upgrade cost ~$230

End Step

Hopefully if you are looking to get into Pioneer this could answer some tough questions about entering the format, and give you a solid long term plan. In many cases, buying the challenger deck, and the upgrades will save you a few bucks, but the cards you’re replacing don’t just disappear, they still add value to your collection!

As always you can find me on Twitter at @RappaciousOne for questions, comments, and feedback. I’ll catch everyone back here next week!