There’s no denying that Pioneer is the new hotness. The appearance of the format out of the clear blue sky, with wide-open possibilities as far as a banned list (only the five Khans fetchlands), is undeniably exciting.
Pioneer reminds me of what we used to call Extended, or what Modern was in the early days before it grew to an enormous size over time. One thing I like about the format is it is designed to be played with cards that follow a similar philosophy in terms of design. Modern is a unique combination of pairing up powerful new spells with broken old ones that operate on a “they don’t make ‘em like that anymore!” premise:
It’s clear the format will be defined as much by what was excluded as included, at least in terms of how it differs and is distinct from its Modern or Standard counterparts. There’s always an element of starting with Bolt, Snapcaster, Aether Vial, Tron Lands, etc and working outward around these stellar cards. Well, the training wheels are off and time will determine what the new build-around me powerhouses will be.
When I game, whether MTG, 40K, or a board game, I like to understand the context of the game before I dive in, especially for games that are pay-to-play and require I purchase my game pieces individually. I also want to see what some of the defining decks are before I commit to a strategy or strategies to develop. One of the most confusing elements of the format for me was figuring out exactly which Core Set cards were in or out of Pioneer. When Modern was rolled out, it was fairly easy to know by the border what was legal.
Are Titans in? Thundermaw Hellkite? Jace Beleren? There’s no easy way to know without pinpointing exactly which Core Set a card was last released in. So what sets are legal in Pioneer?
Pioneer includes the following Core Sets: 2014, 2015, Core Set 2019, and Core Set 2020. I’d also throw out that Magic Origins and Dominaria feel like Core Sets because they have generic flavor as opposed to other more distinct expansion blocks. The later two are easier for me to mentally keep track of the cards for some reason. Origins is the planeswalker “Muppet Babies” set with young versions of the ‘Walkers and Dominaria is the Historic, Dominaria-themed set. I think it has to do with the fact that these sets have more distinct expansion symbols that I associate with the included cards, whereas Core Sets have less distinct symbols.
I decided to go deep into Core Sets to figure out what was in or out for Pioneer. I’ve actually been doing something similar for all of the blocks in order to generate a spreadsheet of what I deem to be the playable staples. However, it seemed particularly important to have a grasp of the Core Set cards because they are more difficult to distinguish based on flavor alone.
Today I want to share that work to help other Pioneers gain a footing on the new terrain.
I’ve broken the four sets down by category (color, multicolor, and colorless) and listed the cards I deemed most notable in terms of the likelihood that I could see myself playing them in a constructed deck, or have played them in the past.
Will every card become a Pioneer Staple? Clearly, no. However, at this point in time the metagame is so undefined it is difficult to tell what types of decks will thrive, or fall short, and so I’m open-minded about not writing off cards I’d consider to be ‘long shots,’ off the bat. I looked through roughly 1500 Core Set cards and these were the ones I felt had the most potential. I’m sure there are some I overlooked or missed, but I think this creates a solid baseline for thinking about the format.
I also think this is an article savvy MTG finance people would be wise to take notice of. There are clearly a bunch of inexpensive cards in here that have real potential to become staple players depending upon how the format shakes out (especially, but not exclusively, if there are bannings before the Pioneer Magic Fest Season begins).
The most important inclusion to this category are the Apocalypse painlands. Obviously, these are great mana fixing lands, as they see Modern play. They are also Tri-Lands for anybody looking to cast <> Waste spells, i.e., Eldrazi.
Mutavault also strikes me as a fantastic card. It’s a creature land that can be played in mono-color and benefits from tribal themes. Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth has a “they don’t make ‘em like that anymore” feel. Sliver Hive is terrific fixing/value for a Slivers deck, should one develop.
Artifacts are all over the board in Core Sets, but there are some nice ones sprinkled throughout.
Perilous Vault and Ratchet Bomb are both colorless sweepers and worth knowing about.
Phyrexian Revoker is also a nice aggressive-but-also-prison card that helps with powerful planeswalkers (of which there are many in Pioneer). Steel Overseer is also legal, which I wouldn’t have realized without looking. Obviously, the old “Affinity” template loses much in the transition from Modern to Pioneer (Mox Opal, Inkmoth Nexus, Blinkmoth Nexus, and Arcbound Ravager) but the hate is much less punishing without Stony Silence, Shatterstorm, and the like in the mix. Darksteel Citadel is also fair game.
Grafdigger’s Cage is also a nice sideboard card in case things get too broken. At the least, it’s a nice answer to Collected Company.
Elixir of Immortality is also quietly in the mix if you want to loop your library.
These are mostly recent cards, but there are a few gems. Heroic Reinforcements has potential for sure. It’s hard to argue Nicol Bolas isn’t an above-average four-drop.
Core Set Pioneer white cards were underwhelming, but there are still a bunch of solid roleplayers in the mix.
Ajani, Caller of the Pride was always an impressive card and I’d expect it to see some play somewhere. Brave the Elements is one of the more powerful cards I found. It’s the kind of card that makes me want to play a White Weenie deck. I don’t know how deep one can reasonably go on enchantments, but Starfield Mystic is unique as well.
Blue has solid options whether you are looking to go control or tempo:
Quicken is a big game, especially in a format without many cheap cantrips. Omniscience is randomly legal–good to know. I also think Tidebinder Mage is a great sleeper card against green aggro decks that have been putting up strong results early one. If there’s a blue aggro deck, Tidebinder is in it.
I don’t know what Red’s identity will be without copious undercosted Burn, but I suspect Amonkhet Ramunap Red is a good template.
There are also a lot of solid Goblins sprinkled in, but also throughout all of Pioneer sets. Burning Earth is a neat one that used to crush me back in the day. I don’t know if it will be too slow, but it’s certainly powerful. I know for a fact there are a bunch of readers who love Young Peezy and he’s on the table as well! I could actually see Pyromancer being a top-shelf threat in Pioneer.
Leyline of the Void is top-shelf graveyard hate for black. Waste Not is also an interesting combo-cog that I’d forgotten even existed. There’s always Doom Blade, Disfigure, and Sign in Blood if you want to build a sweet Pauper mono-black deck.
I have a feeling Lifebane Zombies will be a sick sleeper card for Pioneer. I know the times have changed, but this card was so utterly warping to Standard back in the day, I’m convinced it should see play.
For people who complain that green always gets everything…. Yup. Well, it would appear that is the case when it comes to Pioneer.
Bramblecrush is a nice one to know about, as it can go after lands and walkers (among other things). Acidic Slime didn’t make the cut. Reclamation Sage also seems like a powerhouse card that will play a big role.
Eight Elves (Llanowar Elves and Elvish Mystic) is also a crazy solid base for a green-based creature deck or devotion strategy. Satyr Wayfinder seems like a potentially format-defining card for graveyard decks. I’m hoping to Whip (of Erebos) up a Hornet Queen deck at some point.
Gladecover Scout, Witchstalker, and Vine Mare provide options for a Hexproof deck. A Mono-green hexproof deck with Elves and Blanchwood Armor could be spicy.
Bow down before Scavenging Ooze, King of Bears.
It’s crazy how even a smaller Modern format has so much ground to cover at the onset! At the very least, I hope today’s article was a nice little cheat sheet that puts the Core Sets of the format into clear focus and perspective. I would have liked to include Dominaria and Origins, but the article was already starting to feel a bit cumbersome in terms of scope. So, don’t forget to scour those sets for playables as well!