The Magic world is abuzz with talk of Pioneer, the brand-new format that incorporated cards from Return to Ravnica onwards. Brews and deck sketches are flying about all over the place, and the format is shaping up to be a very interesting mix of nostalgia and novelty.
Frank Karsten recently went through a stack of existing Modern decks, to see if they could be ported into Pioneer. Today, I’m instead going to look at old Standard decks, to see if they can be upgraded and brought back into the competitive spotlight. We’re going all the way back to 2012 with Mono-Black Devotion, checking in with 2016’s Black-Green Delirium, and will finish up with a deck that was the top dog in Standard until only very recently!
3 Pioneer Decks Ported from Standard
During Return to Ravnica–Theros Standard, three decks were truly dominant. They were White-Blue Control, Mono-Blue Devotion, and Mono-Black Devotion. Frank Karsten covered the first two in his recent article, leaving Mono-Black to still be explored. There have been a good number of powerful black cards printed since Gray Merchant of Asphodel was last putting in work, so let’s have a look at how things stand now in the world of Mono-Black.
16 Swamp (339) 4 Witch's Cottage 1 Castle Locthwain 1 Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx 1 Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth 4 Pack Rat 4 Relentless Dead 4 Nightveil Specter 3 Murderous Rider/Swift End 2 Ayara, First of Locthwain 1 Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet 1 Gonti, Lord of Luxury 4 Gray Merchant of Asphodel 1 Bolas's Citadel 4 Fatal Push 4 Thoughtseize 2 Underworld Connections 3 Liliana, the Last Hope Sideboard 4 Duress 3 Lifebane Zombie 4 Gifted Aetherborn 2 Bile Blight 1 Liliana, Dreadhorde General 1 Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet
For those who weren’t around last time, this deck was both powerful and flexible, able to leverage both fast Pack Rat starts in addition to grindier games with card advantage engines such as Nightveil Specter and Underworld Connections. While the marquee cards remain the same, it’s the support cast that juices this deck up in very exciting ways.
Murderous Rider is a whole lot better than Hero’s Downfall, as it can also provide two devotion to black while still acting as a top-tier removal spell, Ayara, First of Locthwain is another Throne of Eldraine card that is perfect for this list, as it provides three devotion in addition to a set of very relevant abilities in this creature-focused deck.
While fleshing out the creature suite, I looked for cards that have overperformed in old Standard formats while providing devotion to black. Relentless Dead ticks both boxes, although another excellent two-drop is Gifted Aetherborn, which has been relegated to the sideboard. Depending on the speed of the format, they could end up being a better maindeck inclusion.
Higher up the curve, Gonti and Kalitas are both hard-hitting heavyweights that should fit into this deck very nicely. As legends, you get diminishing returns on extra copies, and right now it’s unclear which one is better–so it’s safe to hedge our bets and play both. Finally, Liliana, the Last Hope is perfect in this deck, as she allows you to pick off small opposing creatures and buy back your own creatures, all while providing two devotion for Gary!
Emrakul, the Promised End was good enough to be banned in Standard, and for good reason. This supposed 13-drop usually came at a steep discount, and its Mindslaver ability would end games more or less on the spot. Emrakul is off the leash in Pioneer, however, so it’s time to dig up a Shadows Over Innistrad special to see how we can upgrade it.
3 Overgrown Tomb 2 Woodland Cemetery 2 Hissing Quagmire 3 Blooming Marsh 4 Fabled Passage 1 Evolving Wilds 3 Forest (347) 3 Swamp (339) 3 Field of Ruin 4 Deathrite Shaman 4 Grim Flayer 1 Scavenging Ooze 2 Walking Ballista 1 Tireless Tracker 1 Den Protector 1 Murderous Rider/Swift End 1 Tasigur, the Golden Fang 1 Ishkanah, Grafwidow 2 Emrakul, the Promised End 1 Renegade Map 3 Vessel of Nascency 4 Traverse the Ulvenwald 3 Thoughtseize 2 Fatal Push 1 Abrupt Decay 1 Assassin's Trophy 2 Liliana, the Last Hope 1 Vraska, Golgari Queen Sideboard 2 Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet 3 Duress 1 Abrupt Decay 2 Tireless Tracker 2 Collective Brutality 2 Return to Nature 1 Ramunap Excavator 1 Reclamation Sage 1 Carnage Tyrant
As you would expect, a lot of the deck is retained from its initial configuration from a few years ago. Shadows included very efficient delirium enablers, such as Vessel of Nascency, that it’s not necessary to change too much in that regard. While Grisly Salvage seems like a good alternative, having an enchantment you can sacrifice fuels delirium much more effectively.
There are some welcome delirium enablers that are new to the deck, however. Walking Ballista is a multi-format all-star, while Renegade Map is an unassuming card that also helps with the artifact count. Additionally, we can beef up the planeswalker suite with Vraska, Golgari Queen, who also helps to fill up the ’yard.
The interaction and disruption in this deck is taken to the next level thanks to the wider aperture of the Pioneer format. We get to play with a Modern-tier disruption suite, complete with Thoughtseize, Abrupt Decay, and Fatal Push. And best of all, this is a shell in which Deathrite Shaman can do some work. With “fetchlands” in Fabled Passage and Evolving Wilds, this card, which was banned in Legacy, is back in business.
Finally, for those who have never played with Traverse the Ulvenwald: don’t underestimate this card. It’s powerful at all stages of the game, and enables a toolbox-style creature component, hence the many one-of “silver bullets” that shine in certain specific situations.
Field of the Dead may have got the axe in Standard, but that doesn’t mean the card’s career is over. It’s seeing play in Modern Scapeshift, and there’s no reason to think it won’t have an impact in Pioneer as well. The old pre-rotation Scapeshift shell is ready to be adapted to the new format, bringing back some powerful old mainstays from years past.
4 Field of the Dead 1 Hallowed Fountain 2 Temple Garden 2 Breeding Pool 1 Hinterland Harbor 1 Glacial Fortress 1 Sunpetal Grove 1 Azorius Guildgate 1 Selesnya Guildgate 1 Simic Guildgate 1 Temple of Mystery 1 Temple of Enlightenment 1 Temple of Plenty 1 Lumbering Falls 1 Memorial to Genius 1 Fabled Passage 1 Field of Ruin 1 Blast Zone 4 Forest (347) 1 Island (335) 1 Plains (331) 4 Teferi, Time Raveler 4 Scapeshift 2 Supreme Verdict 2 Detention Sphere 4 Growth Spiral 4 Courser of Kruphix 4 Circuitous Route 3 Hour of Promise 3 Sphinx's Revelation 1 Elixir of Immortality Sideboard 3 Tireless Tracker 3 Veil of Summer 1 Supreme Verdict 3 Knight of Autumn 1 Crucible of Worlds 2 Rest in Peace 2 Dovin's Veto
While we don’t get Farseek, tragically, the ramp suite can still be meaningfully enhanced with Hour of Promise, a way to go and find those copies of Field of the Dead (or any other utility land). The mana base gets some meaningful improvements made to it, too. No longer do we have to play with Woodland Stream and the like, as the full complement of Temples come in, in addition to a creature land in Lumbering Falls.
There are a lot of other upgrades, too. Time Wipe becomes Supreme Verdict; Prison Realm becomes Detention Sphere. Anyone too embarrassed to register Arboreal Grazer can instead make use of one of the best green three-drops ever printed in Courser of Kruphix. This defensive creature helps to stall out the board and buffer your life total and is the perfect fit for a 29-land deck.
Most excitingly, however, is the Sphinx’s Revelation/Elixir of Immortality “combo.” This means that you can beat any number of sweepers, any amount of creature disruption, anything that prevents you from attacking with your zombies. You can continue to loop through your deck, gaining squillions of life and drawing squillions of cards, then shuffle in the lands and the Scapeshifts to do it all again. This is inevitability taken to a whole new level!
These three decks are just a sample of what’s possible with Pioneer–taking old Standard decks and applying upgrades to them with cards both old and new alike is a lot of fun, and will give you a good sense of where the format is headed. I’m looking forward to seeing which other old decks come out of the woodwork!