The new Pioneer format includes cards back to 2012’s Return to Ravnica. That cutoff seems somewhat arbitrary, but it seems like an attempt to solve card availability issues—the digital-driven surge of popularity in the game from 2009-2012 meant Return to Ravnica and subsequent sets were heavily printed. For real: you can still find sealed boxes from this era under $100.

If you were an active player or drafter in the last five years, you probably have a stack of Standard-playable cards you loved enough to keep after they rotated into irrelevance. I’m more excited about Pioneer than I have been for Magic since Battlebond. So let’s get started with some concepts—and the first thrilling bits of data to back them up!

First things first: in a format where everything (besides Fetches) is permitted, your first goal should be to break it. Modern’s first tournament was a glorious field of completely broken corner cases—Blazing Shoal exiling Progenitus for the full ten poison counters was a line of play—that resulted in the first course correction of the format immediately afterwards. Pioneer doesn’t have anything that degenerate, but it does have combo decks, robust aggressive decks backed up with potent card selection, and control decks packed with almost a decade of powerful planeswalkers.

Last week, Wizards published the lists of the 5-0 decks from the Pioneer League. It’s a great info dump, but obviously, nothing is defined this early.

I initially gravitated toward Aetherworks Marvel, but the prevalence of Teferi, Time Raveler—who counteracts Marvel all by himself—and the dearth of Energy producers persuaded me to move on. Planeswalkers as a whole look to be dominating the new format. The best answers are in Golgari colors: Abrupt Decay, Assassin’s Trophy, Hero’s Downfall, Murderous Rider, Vraska, Golgari Queen, etc. Decay takes out Teferi and Oko, and cleans up cheap permanents through countermagic; Vraska can potentially do it repeatedly.

Here’s my initial sketch for Pioneer, similar to Lavaridge’s recent list:

Golgari Delirium

Creatures (16)
Walking Ballista
Stonecoil Serpent
Brain Maggot
Grim Flayer
Emrakul, the Promised End

Spells (20)
Traverse the Ulvenwald
Smuggler's Copter
Abrupt Decay
Assassin's Trophy
Vraska, Golgari Queen
Lands (24)
Overgrown Tomb
Blooming Marsh
Woodland Cemetery
Hissing Quagmire
Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth

Exactly the type of deck I want to be playing: flexible answers, powerful proactive cards, and a completely ludicrous finisher in Emrakul.

Delirium is harder to achieve without Dredge or Mishra’s Bauble, but the payoff of Traversing for Emrakul is potent. An early Stonecoil Serpent or Walking Ballista turns on Smuggler’s Copter, and Grim Flayer acts like a Tarmogoyf in the deck.

Brain Maggot may be too cute—it’s nice to have a multi-type spell for Delirium, and it does crew the Copter; but it may need to be swapped out for Fatal Push.

One thing that’s clear about Pioneer is that there’s no Reanimator deck—Unburial Rites was the final nail in the coffin of Standard Reanimator decks, after which simple reanimation spells were inflated to five mana. We won’t have Goryo’s Vengeance or anything similar in Pioneer. Instead, aooaaooa’s Golgari Soulflayer list is the replacement, and it’s a thing of beauty—discarding and then delving Zetalpa, Questing Beast, and Murderous Rider to build your own Akroma on turn four is pretty relevant. Grisly Salvage is the real glue for such decks—it may be closer to Dig Through Time.

Post-Dredge is somehow a thing, with Satyr Wayfinder and Stitcher’s Supplier feeding the yard. Prized Amalgam, Narcomoeba, and Crippling Chill provide payoffs; but without Bloodghast, Gravecrawler, or Dredge cards, you’re slower and more prone to losing to Grafdigger’s Cage and Leyline of the Void.

Since 2012, Wizards has printed or reprinted some exceptional graveyard hate—and niche hate generally, much of it artifact-based. A Karn wishboard deck built around Karn, the Great Creator plus Damping Sphere, Grafdigger’s Cage, Sorcerous Spyglass, Orbs of Warding, etc. stands out as an option; but you run the risk of being more metagame dependent than a more straightforward aggressive or combo deck.

Although I’m excited for the format, I do have to point out one recent design trend that’s the most concerning aspect of Pioneer: Green’s selection tools. Between Oath of Nissa, Once Upon a Time, and Traverse the Ulvenwald, Green can scrounge up necessary lands in the early turns and tutor up powerful threats in the midgame with consistency, basically making Ancient Stirrings a thing of the past. And don’t forget Collected Company and Chord of Calling to find silver bullets. It’ll bear watching, but I think Once Upon a Time would be the card with the crosshairs on it.

I’ve also had to rethink the way I build manabases without the automatic four to eight fetches. Mana is less smooth than in Modern, but less vulnerable as well. No Ghost Quarter, Tectonic Edge, Blood Moon, or Wasteland, which is good—but the format does include Field of Ruin.

Pioneer brings with it some exceptionally powerful cards, some of which were even banned in their respective Standards. But it’s seamless and more welcoming than Modern. Ironically for something called “Pioneer,” it has a kind of exciting coziness to it—a getting-the-band-back-together vibe—rather than the exciting and often frustrating wide-openness of Modern. No doubt it will become mapped and charted in the near future—that’s what being a Pioneer is all about. Bbut for now, it’s enough to dream of being able to play Siege Rhino against Mono-Blue-splash-Teferi Devotion.

A lifelong resident of the Carolinas and a graduate of the University of North Carolina, Rob has played Magic since he picked a Darkling Stalker up off the soccer field at summer camp. He works for nonprofits as an educational strategies developer and, in his off-hours, enjoys writing fiction, playing games, and exploring new beers.

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