This has been a dramatic year for Modern. And yet, the biggest plot twist in 2019 was the introduction of Pioneer. Like Modern, Pioneer is a non-rotating format that encompasses all sets released after a given point—Eighth Edition for Modern, Return to Ravnica for Pioneer—but I don’t view Pioneer as simply the sequel to Modern.

The most striking difference between Modern and Pioneer is the gameplay. Pioneer lacks some of the most efficient removal in Modern—Path to Exile and Lightning Bolt. As a result, aggressive and efficient creatures have ruled the streets of Pioneer, at least so far.

Pioneer is missing a few elements that make Modern what it is. Path and Bolt are just the beginning. Let’s look at some of the major ways that Pioneer diverges from Modern.

Spinning Wheels

Pioneer lacks good blue cantrips. There are always spell-focused decks in Modern that lean on one-mana hand sculptors like Serum Visions. If you go back to the beginning of Modern, Preordain and Ponder were among the first cards to be banned, as they enabled far too much consistency in any deck with access to blue.

We don’t get anything close to that power level in Pioneer. With only Opt available for one mana, spell-based decks are slower in Pioneer. Linear combo decks have to look past blue and past the hand entirely to piece their engines together.

Kethis Combo by ArbitraryArmor 5-0 11/21/19

Creatures (23)
Diligent Excavator
Emry, Lurker of the Loch
Fblthp, the Lost
Hope of Ghirapur
Kethis, the Hidden Hand
Lazav, the Multifarious

Planeswalker (8)
Jace, Wielder of Mysteries
Oko, Thief of Crowns
Teferi, Time Raveler

Spells (9)
Once Upon a Time
Mox Amber
Urza’s Ruinous Blast
Lands (20)
Blooming Marsh
Botanical Sanctum
Godless Shrine
Hallowed Fountain
Mana Confluence
Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth

Sideboard (15)
Oko, Thief of Crowns
Urza’s Ruinous Blast
Ashiok, Dream Render
Assassin’s Trophy
Fatal Push

Kethis is the most promising Pioneer combo deck so far. It uses the graveyard to find what it needs, eschewing blue card draw completely. Access to Once Upon a Time doesn’t leave it hurting for cantrip quality, but the majority of its digging is self-mill, not hand sculpting. That leaves more information public and makes the combo more vulnerable to opposing counter-measures, compared to combo decks that play directly from the hand.


Pioneer doesn’t have the efficient, broad counter-magic of Modern. No Cryptic Command, no Mana Leak, no Veil of Summer. Pioneer’s blue permission is significantly more difficult to build with. Below three mana, you have to tailor your choices with extreme care. The wrong balance of slow, narrow, and soft counters can destroy a control deck. While this may be a fun challenge once Pioneer becomes more predictable, it’s very difficult now. Azorius Control builds have, likely for this reason, been light on counterspells.

Azorius Control by Yutya 5-0 11/21/19

Creatures (1)
Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy

Planeswalkers (9)
Elspeth, Sun’s Champion
Gideon, Ally of Zendikar
Jace, Architect of Thought
Narset, Parter of Veils
Teferi, Hero of Dominaria
Teferi, Time Raveler

Spells (25)
Supreme Verdict
Azorius Charm
Blessed Alliance
Dig Through Time
Dovin’s Veto
Hieroglyphic Illumination
Settle the Wreckage
Sphinx’s Revelation
Cast Out
Detention Sphere
Seal Away
Search for Azcanta
Lands (25)
Blast Zone
Castle Ardenvale
Castle Vantress
Field of Ruin
Geier Reach Sanitarium
Glacial Fortress
Hallowed Fountain

Sideboard (15)
Dovin’s Veto
Aether Gust
Ashiok, Dream Render
Authority of the Consuls
Devout Decree
Lyra Dawnbringer
Mystical Dispute
Rest in Peace
Sorcerous Spyglass

The best Pioneer counterspells are the build-arounds. Stubborn Denial and Metallic Rebuke are both quite good, but they function best as disruptive pieces of a proactive deck. They’re not blue control cards.


Pioneer’s cheap artifacts are bad. No Mox Opal, no Mishra’s Bauble, no Arcum’s Astrolabe. The free ones are nearly all blank, and you can’t cantrip for anything that costs less than two. Artifact combo players are not likely to fit well into Pioneer.

Neither are fans of prison strategies. No Ensnaring Bridge, no Chalice of the Void, no Mycosynth Lattice. There simply aren’t tools available to lock your opponent out of the game in those ways.

This is what you can do in Pioneer with cheap artifacts:

Izzet Ensoul by Cielu9 5-0 11/21/19

Creatures (20)
Bomat Courier
Hope of Ghirapur
Skilled Animator
Stonecoil Serpent

Spells (19)
Metallic Rebuke
Shrapnel Blast
Ghostfire Blade
Smuggler’s Copter
Ensoul Artifact
Lands (21)
Darksteel Citadel
Shivan Reef
Spire of Industry
Spirebluff Canal
Steam Vents

Sideboard (15)
Aether Gust
Flame Sweep
Redcap Melee
Rending Volley
Scrabbling Claws
Smash to Smithereens
Stubborn Denial
The Antiquities War
Wild Slash

Successful artifact decks in Pioneer so far have been aggressive. Given the card pool, it would be unsurprising for that to remain true. I’ve talked to players who’ve been working with Paradoxical Outcome, and I’ve spent a bit of time getting cute with Paradox Engine; but the tools are very limited and nothing in this realm has swept a Magic Online league yet.

Angles & Interaction

There’s a consistent theme here: Pioneer does not offer the non-interactive strategies that Modern does. I’d bet this is entirely intentional on the part of those who chose Return to Ravnica as its start point. One perennial complaint about Modern is that it’s not interactive enough. Pioneer provides a drastic remedy.

And yet, not all Magic players want to interact. Modern offers many more ways to play Magic. From the spin of Storm’s wheels to Shadow’s dances with death, the strategic diversity is incredible. Some of it is hard to stop, and it’s completely reasonable to dislike that; some of us, however, revel in our degeneracy.

Modern’s deeper card pool enables all its angles. More specifically, Modern contains more cross-Standard synergies than Pioneer. Powerful interactions between cards that never saw play in the same Standard format likely went untested by R&D. They can get pretty strange. Think Amulet of Vigor plus Simic Growth Chamber; Lantern of Insight and Codex Shredder; Ad Nauseam with Angel’s Grace. These are the peanut butter and bacon sandwiches of Modern—which is to say, the most attractive aspect of the format to me.

Cross-Standard synergies can also enable the degeneracy that puts a bitter taste in many players’ mouths. Krark-Clan Ironworks and Scrap Trawler; Splinter Twin and Pestermite; Faithless Looting and half of the format. The worst offenders get the guillotine to break up oppressive decks; but less interactive strategies will always be a part of Modern, and they should be.

We saw Pioneer’s first significant cross-Standard synergy emerge at the SCG Invitational, and it’s persisted into the most recent MTGO league. Hour of Promise and Field of the Dead are a potent engine. Efficient, persistent zombie production allows midrange decks to catch up with and overwhelm their aggressive adversaries. It’s also kind of fun. In a format of ramp and curving out creatures, turning a corner from reactive play into the erupting undead is sweet!

Golgari Field by Rprozanski 5-0 11/21/19

Creatures (14)
Elvish Rejuvenator
Gilded Goose
Tireless Tracker
Courser of Kruphix
Murderous Rider

Spells (21)
Once Upon a Time
Hour of Promise
Legion’s End
Abrupt Decay
Fatal Push
Vraska’s Contempt
Lands (25)
Field of the Dead
Overgrown Tomb
Fabled Passage
Blooming Marsh
Castle Garenbrig
Castle Locthwain
Desert of the Indomitable
Hashep Oasis
Hissing Quagmire
Ifnir Deadlands
Llanowar Wastes
Temple of Malady
Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth
Westvale Abbey
Woodland Cemetery

Sideboard (15)
Fatal Push
Legion’s End
Ashiok, Dream Render
Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet
Liliana, the Last Hope
Lost Legacy
Noxious Grasp
Pulse of Murasa
Unravel the Aether

This strategy is still interactive. The zombies have to shamble through for the kill. It’s hard to stop, but hopefully it doesn’t become dominant enough to catch a ban. Hour and Field add richness to the gameplay available in Pioneer, which is otherwise more limited than in Modern.

So which format appeals more to you? That’s a question of personal taste. Is your favorite Modern deck a spell-based combo deck like Ad Nauseam or Scapeshift? Do you like artifacts outside of the combat phase? You may find Pioneer unsatisfying.

Are you a Jund player? Are you into Aether Vial? Pioneer may have a lot of appeal for you. Overall, Pioneer is the place to be if you like trading blows with your opponent, while Modern is still home for those of us who like to get weird with our Magic cards.

This article was edited on 11/27 to add previously omitted deck credits.

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