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12 Pioneer Decks to Build Around

On October 21, a new format was announced: Pioneer. Its card pool starts with Return to Ravnica and moves forward from there.

What's Legal in Pioneer

The Manabases of Pioneer

The ban list starts with the five allied-color fetch lands, which implies that most mana bases will largely rely on the 10 check lands (e.g, Glacial Fortress), the 10 shock lands (e.g., Hallowed Fountain), the 10 Temples (e.g., Temple of Enlightenment), the 5 enemy fast lands (e.g., Inspiring Vantage), the 5 enemy pain lands (e.g., Battlefield Forge), the 5 allied shadow lands (e.g., Game Trail), and the 5 enemy creature lands (e.g., Needle Spires) for fixing.

Glacial FortressHallowed FountainTemple of EnlightenmentInspiring VantageGame TrailNeedle SpiresBattlefield Forge

These lands will enable good mana bases, but you will have to make choices and can’t just run everything. That said, five-color decks could benefit from Aether Hub, Fabled Passage, Mana Confluence, Unclaimed Territory, and/or Spire of Industry.

So what kind of decks might we see in this new format? To gather competitive inspiration, I glanced over the current top-tier Modern decks and the Top 8 decks of previous Standard Pro Tours, which inspired me to build the following 12 decks. They are rough, suboptimal first drafts that merely aim to showcase what is possible, but they offer a first glance into this new format.

Pioneer Deck Ideas for a New Format

Burn

4 Sacred Foundry
4 Inspiring Vantage
4 Battlefield Forge
5 Mountain (343)
3 Ramunap Ruins
4 Monastery Swiftspear
3 Soul-Scar Mage
3 Bomat Courier
3 Abbot of Keral Keep
4 Eidolon of the Great Revel
4 Wild Slash
1 Shock
4 Skewer the Critics
4 Light Up the Stage
4 Searing Blood
4 Boros Charm
2 Stoke the Flames

Sideboard
3 Rest in Peace
2 Goblin Chainwhirler
2 Bonecrusher Giant/Stomp
2 Hazoret the Fervent
2 Skullcrack
2 Deflecting Palm
2 Rampaging Ferocidon

Not legal: Goblin Guide, Lava Spike, Rift Bolt, Lightning Bolt, Lightning Helix, Searing Blaze.

Red Aggro decks are a thing of all ages and all formats. Martin Dang won Pro Tour Dragons of Tarkir with a Red Aggro deck, and Joel Larsson did the same at Pro Tour Magic Origins. Later, Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa won Pro Tour Hour of Devastation with Ramunap Red, which eventually prompted the ban of Ramunap Ruins in 2018. Despite the ban, Wyatt Darby still won Pro Tour Dominaria with Mono-Red. The above list combines cards from all these successful decks, although it chooses to go more spell-centric than creature-centric.

I considered a green splash for Atarka’s Command and the Become Immense / Temur Battle Rage combo, but I settled on white for mana base reasons: we do have Inspiring Vantage but don’t have Copperline Gorge. Another good option may be to splash blue for Treasure Cruise, but that will probably require a different build, and I’ll have a red-blue Phoenix build with Treasure Cruise later.

As I mentioned, my decks are rough first drafts only, and there are many things I am unsure about beyond colors. For example, do we want Runaway Steam-Kin? What is the best mix of burn spells? I don’t have an answer yet, but I am fairly sure of one thing: red creatures and burn spells will be a competitive strategy in Pioneer.

Abzan Midrange

1 Blooming Marsh
1 Hissing Quagmire
3 Overgrown Tomb
4 Fabled Passage
3 Field of Ruin
2 Temple Garden
2 Godless Shrine
2 Swamp (339)
1 Plains (331)
2 Forest (347)
3 Deathrite Shaman
3 Grim Flayer
3 Smuggler’s Copter
2 Scavenging Ooze
2 Tireless Tracker
4 Siege Rhino
2 Tasigur, the Golden Fang
4 Thoughtseize
4 Fatal Push
3 Abrupt Decay
3 Collective Brutality
3 Liliana, the Last Hope
3 Once Upon a Time

Sideboard
4 Leyline of the Void
3 Duress
2 Dromoka’s Command
2 Kaya, Orzhov Usurper
2 Anafenza, the Foremost
2 Ashiok, Dream Render

Not legal: Noble Hierarch, Tarmogoyf, Dark Confidant, Liliana of the Veil, Inquisition of Kozilek, Path to Exile, Lingering Souls.

Siege Rhino dominated Standard for several years. The 4/5 was played by Ari Lax when he won Pro Tour Khans of Tarkir. It brought Kazuyuki Takimura his victory at Pro Tour Battle for Zendikar. Seth Manfield took down the 2015 World Championship. Heck, Siege Rhino was even a Modern staple—at Pro Tour Fate Reforged, Abzan was by far the most popular deck. So I couldn’t pass up Siege Rhino when building Pioneer brews. Meanwhile, Thoughtseize and Fatal Push are likely to be among the interactive pillars of the format.

An interesting question is whether Deathrite Shaman is going to work out. Although it never dominated Standard, it was banned in Modern because it was too powerful in conjunction with fetch lands. My list has Fabled Passage, Field of Ruin, Grim Flayer, and Smuggler’s Copter to provide fuel for Deathrite Shaman. Is that good enough? I’m honestly not sure. Maybe we need Traverse the Ulvenwald and Satyr Wayfinder to up the graveyard theme. Speaking of…

Dredgeless Dredge

2 Aether Hub
2 Mana Confluence
4 Overgrown Tomb
4 Watery Grave
4 Breeding Pool
2 Blooming Marsh
2 Botanical Sanctum
4 Stitcher's Supplier
3 Minister of Inquiries
4 Satyr Wayfinder
3 Deathrite Shaman
2 Bloodsoaked Champion
4 Scrapheap Scrounger
4 Narcomoeba
4 Smuggler's Copter
2 Haunted Dead
2 Glowspore Shaman
4 Prized Amalgam

Sideboard
2 Grisly Salvage
2 Creeping Chill

Sideboard
4 Leyline of the Void
3 Assassin’s Trophy
3 Thoughtseize
3 Oko, Thief of Crowns
2 Negate

Not legal: Stinkweed Imp, Life from the Loam, Gravecrawler, Vengevine, Hedron Crab, Bloodghast, Shriekhorn, Glimpse the Unthinkable.

We may not have access to the best Modern graveyard enablers and payoffs, but we can still fill up our graveyard with Stitcher’s Supplier, mill Creeping Chill for value, and recur Prized Amalgam via creatures like Scrapheap Scrounger or Narcomoeba.

Looking over the deck, I fear it is going to be too slow and clunky (and also it will require testing to figure out the right mix of enabler and payoff spells) but there are many good graveyard-based cards in the format that are just asking to be broken.

Emry Ascendancy

4 Spire of Industry
3 Hallowed Fountain
3 Steam Vents
1 Plains (331)
3 Sacred Foundry
3 Fabled Passage
2 Spirebluff Canal
2 Island (335)
1 Mountain (343)
4 Emry, Lurker of the Loch
2 Crashing Drawbridge
3 Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy
2 Sai, Master Thopterist
4 Jeskai Ascendancy
2 Saheeli, Sublime Artificer
4 Mox Amber
4 Witching Well
4 Astral Cornucopia
2 Terrarion
4 Opt
3 Dig Through Time

Sideboard
3 Roast
3 Metallic Rebuke
3 Tormod’s Crypt
2 Teferi, Time Raveler
2 Pithing Needle
2 Narset, Parter of Veils

 

Not legal: Urza, Lord High Artificer, Arcum’s Astrolabe, Engineered Explosives, Mishra’s Bauble, Mox Opal.

Jeskai Ascendancy combo carried Lee Shi Tian to a Top 8 at Pro Tour Khans of Tarkir, where he was continually tapping and untapping Sylvan Caryatid. That may also be a viable route, but I decided to focus on the combo with Emry, Lurker of the Loch and two Mox Ambers. There are a bunch of artifacts and some other legends in the deck to support this.

This deck also exploits a delve spell. Indeed, Treasure Cruise and Dig Through Time are legal! These cards have been on the Modern ban list for quite a while, but we get to play with them in Pioneer. Sure, they are not as powerful without fetch lands, but a cheap Dig Through Time is still a great fit for a combo deck like this.

Mono-Blue Devotion/Tempo

23 Island
4 Siren Stormtamer
4 Cloudfin Raptor
4 Merfolk Trickster
4 Tidebinder Mage
4 Thassa, God of the Sea
4 Master of Waves
4 Tempest Djinn
1 Bident of Thassa
2 Dive Down
2 Wizard's Retort
4 Curious Obsession

Sideboard
3 Negate
3 Spell Pierce
3 Entrancing Melody
3 Jace, Architect of Thought
3 Surge Mare

Mono-Blue decks have claimed multiple trophies. In 2013, Jeremy Dezani took Mono-Blue Devotion to victory at Pro Tour Theros. In 2019, Autumn Burchett did it with Mono-Blue Tempo at Mythic Championship I. The above list is a rough amalgamation of both of their decks, which can surely be improved by diving deeper into the whole card pool.

In any case, Tempest Djinn does fit quite nicely with Master of Waves.

Bant Spirits

4 Hallowed Fountain
2 Mutavault
2 Unclaimed Territory
1 Port Town
2 Glacial Fortress
4 Breeding Pool
4 Hallowed Fountain
4 Temple Garden
2 Botanical Sanctum
4 Mausoleum Wanderer
4 Spectral Sailor
3 Rattlechains
3 Selfless Spirit
4 Supreme Phantom
4 Spell Queller
3 Deputy of Detention
3 Reflector Mage
4 Collected Company
3 Spell Pierce

Sideboard
3 Rest in Peace
2 Teferi, Time Raveler
2 Oko, Thief of Crowns
2 Damping Sphere
2 Ceremonious Rejection
2 Knight of Autumn
2 Dromoka’s Command

Not legal: Drogskol Captain, Path to Exile, Aether Vial, Seachrome Coast, Noble Hierarch.

Bant Spirits has been a popular deck in Modern after the printing of Supreme Phantom, and it’s also possible to build it in Pioneer. Featuring excellent disruption in Supreme Phantom and a relatively fast clock, the deck could certainly be competitive. A straight-up white-blue build is also possible, but Collected Company seems like it’s worth it. Brian Braun-Duin won the 2016 World Championship with Collected Company for a reason.

Copycat Combo

3 Botanical Sanctum
3 Breeding Pool
2 Spirebluff Canal
2 Hallowed Fountain
4 Temple Garden
4 Stomping Ground
3 Mana Confluence
4 Gilded Goose
2 Elvish Mystic
4 Heart of Kiran
2 Paradise Druid
4 Felidar Guardian
4 Teferi, Time Raveler
4 Once Upon a Time
4 Oath of Nissa
3 Metallic Rebuke
4 Saheeli Rai
4 Oko, Thief of Crowns

Sideboard
3 Leyline of Sanctity
3 Veil of Summer
3 Rest in Peace
3 Disdainful Stroke
3 Knight of Autumn

The powerful two-card combo of Saheeli Rai and Felidar Guardian led to the Standard ban of Felidar Guardian in 2017. We can still play it in Pioneer, where we can add acceleration and new planeswalkers. Heart of Kiran into Oko seems pretty good too for the games where we didn’t draw the Copycat combo.

The mana of this four-color deck is a mess and needs far more attention that I have given it now. Things aren’t easy without fetch lands.

Hardened Scales

4 Overgrown Tomb
4 Blooming Marsh
2 Llanowar Wastes
2 Hissing Quagmire
2 Mutavault
1 Inventors’ Fair
1 Karn’s Bastion
4 Forest (347)
4 Stonecoil Serpent
4 Hangarback Walker
4 Walking Ballista
4 Winding Constrictor
4 Steel Overseer
4 Hardened Scales
4 Animation Module
4 Once Upon a Time
4 Nissa, Voice of Zendikar
4 Thoughtseize

Sideboard
3 Veil of Summer
3 Grafdigger’s Cage
3 Pithing Needle
3 Fatal Push
3 Assassin’s Trophy

Not legal: Mox Opal, Arcbound Ravager, Arcbound Worker, Throne of Geth, Ancient Stirrings.

Hardened Scales has spearheaded an entire Modern deck, and even though a large part of the supporting cast isn’t available, it’s still possible to build around the +1/+1 counter theme in Pioneer. My list drew inspiration from the Black-Green Constrictor decks that were a thing in Standard for a while.

Esper Control

4 Hallowed Fountain
4 Godless Shrine
4 Watery Grave
3 Glacial Fortress
3 Isolated Chapel
3 Glacial Fortress
1 Island (335)
1 Plains (331)
1 Swamp (339)
2 Fabled Passage
4 Supreme Verdict
3 Teferi, Time Raveler
2 Narset, Parter of Veils
2 Sphinx’s Revelation
2 Dig Through Time
3 Teferi, Hero of Dominaria
2 Syncopate
3 Fatal Push
2 Absorb
2 Detention Sphere
2 Opt
2 Hero’s Downfall
3 Thoughtseize
2 Censor

Sideboard
3 Monastery Mentor
3 Gideon, Ally of Zendikar
2 Disdainful Stroke
2 Rest in Peace
2 Dovin’s Veto
2 Ceremonious Rejection
1 Ashiok, Dream Render

Not legal: Jace, the Mind Sculptor, Stoneforge Mystic, Snapcaster Mage, Path to Exile, Force of Negation, Celestial Colonnade, Spell Snare, Cryptic Command, Mana Leak.

I’m no control expert, and I wouldn’t try to take a reactive control deck into a wide-open format. However, there are certainly some tools for control players. Supreme Verdict and Sphinx’s Revelation carried Ivan Floch to victory at Pro Tour Magic 2015, and even though this all seems a bit slow for Pioneer, there is surely a way to build around them.

I did have a hard time finding good, cheap removal in blue-white, so I decided to splash black in this first draft.

Aetherworks Marvel Emrakul

4 Aether Hub
3 Breeding Pool
3 Stomping Ground
2 Steam Vents
2 Botanical Sanctum
1 Spirebluff Canal
3 Forest (347)
1 Mountain (343)
1 Island (335)
1 Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger
1 Elvish Mystic
4 Servant of the Conduit
2 Whirler Virtuoso
4 Rogue Refiner
1 Ishkanah, Grafwidow
4 Emrakul, the Promised End
2 Emry, Lurker of the Loch
4 Attune with Aether
4 Woodweaver's Puzzleknot
4 Aetherworks Marvel
3 Vessel of Nascency
4 Harnessed Lightning
2 Oko, Thief of Crowns

Sideboard
2 Ceremonious Rejection
3 Kozilek’s Return
3 Veil of Summer
3 Grafdigger’s Cage
2 Aethersphere Harvester
2 Pithing Needle

 

Emrakul got banned in Standard in January 2017, and then Aetherworks Marvel got banned several months alter. Later, in 2018, Attune with Aether and Rogue Refiner got banned as well because the energy mechanic proved too powerful. So how about we put all of these previously banned cards into the same Pioneer deck?

Izzet Phoenix

4 Steam Vents
4 Sulfur Falls
4 Spirebluff Canal
5 Island (335)
4 Mountain (343)
2 Fabled Passage
4 Thing in the Ice/Awoken Horror
4 Arclight Phoenix
2 Merchant of the Vale/Haggle
2 Monastery Swiftspear
2 Crackling Drake
3 Wild Slash
4 Chart a Course
4 Cathartic Reunion
3 Izzet Charm
2 Fiery Temper
4 Opt
3 Treasure Cruise

Sideboard
2 Ceremonious Rejection
2 Entrancing Melody
2 Roast
3 Sweltering Suns
2 Disdainful Stroke
2 Negate
2 Fiery Temper

Not legal: Thought Scour, Serum Visions, Manamorphose, Lightning Bolt, Pyromancer Ascension.

We may not have Faithless Looting or all the awesome one-mana spells that Modern players have access to, but we can still build around Thing in the Ice and Arclight Phoenix. Meanwhile, Chart a Course and Fiery Temper do reasonable Thought Scour and Lightning Bolt impressions. And in contrast to Modern, we can play Treasure Cruise, which is pretty exciting.

Affinity

4 Darksteel Citadel
3 Concealed Courtyard
4 Hallowed Fountain
2 Glacial Fortress
3 Spire of Industry
2 Mutavault
4 Plains (331)
4 Ornithopter
4 Gingerbrute
4 Toolcraft Exemplar
3 Hope of Ghirapur
4 Scrapheap Scrounger
4 Smuggler’s Copter
3 Ghostfire Blade
4 Ensoul Artifact
4 All That Glitters
4 Springleaf Drum

Sideboard
3 Metallic Rebuke
3 Emry, Lurker of the Loch
3 Rest in Peace
3 Grafdigger’s Cage
3 Pithing Needle

Not legal: Arcbound Ravager, Mox Opal, Cranial Plating, Master of Etherium, Signal Pest, Vault Skirge.

Smuggler’s Copter got banned in Standard in January 2017, but it’s definitely still legal in Pioneer. This deck can crew it with Gingerbrute or Hope of Ghirapur…or turn those 1/1s into huge threats via Ensoul Artifact or All That Glitters.

This has nothing to do with Affinity, so the name I gave to this deck is a bit suspect, but this is certainly an artifact-based aggro deck with tons of sweet synergies, and I’m excited to give this a try.

What other archetype-defining Modern cards are not legal?

The following cards are not legal in Pioneer:

Urza’s Tower

Eldrazi Temple

Amulet of Vigor

Stinkweed Imp

Vengevine

Mox Opal

Valakut, the Molten Pinnacle

Champion of the Parish

Death’s Shadow

Thopter Foundry

Ensnaring Bridge

Goryo’s Vengeance

Restore Balance

Through the Breach

Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker

Ad Nauseam

Heritage Druid

Hedron Crab

Griselbrand

Devoted Druid

Arcbound Ravager

Glistener Elf

Past in Flames

Slippery Bogle

This means that key cards for Eldrazi decks, Tron, Amulet Titan, Dredge, CrabVine, Affinity, Stoneblade, TitanShift, Humans, Grixis Shadow, ThopterSword, Prison, Reanimator, Electro-Balance, TitanBreach, Ad Nauseam, Elves, Mill, Neobrand, Devoted Vizier, Hardened Scales, Infect, Storm, Bogles, and many other decks are not available. As a result, the Pioneer format will look completely different from Modern, and that’s quite exciting.

I only scratched the surface in this article because there are so many Pioneer build-arounds that I haven’t even touched. There’s Rally the Ancestors. Dragonlord Ojutai. Favored Hoplite. Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx. Kethis, the Hidden Hand. Lord of the Accursed. Inspiring Statuary. God-Pharaoh’s Gift. Elvish Clancaller. Elder Deep-Fiend. Field of the Dead. Thought-Knot Seer. Mantis Rider. And so on. Out of those, Kethis is probably the most promising because there are good graveyard enablers in the format, but it won’t be trivial to build the best version of such a deck.

It’s an exciting new world, and the potential for brewing is nearly endless. What decks are you going to be trying out in Pioneer? Which cards have I missed so far?

Discussion

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