I’ve been an advocate for Mox Amber for years now, knowing that, eventually, we’d hit a critical mass of cheap Legendary Creatures to make it more of a Mox Opal than a Mox Tantalite. I wasn’t sure what a Mox Amber deck would look like—whether it would be a Death & Taxes build that used aggressive creatures like Isamaru, Hound of Konda and Thalia, Guardian of Thraben to outpace our opponent, or whether it would be a more midrange deck based on some of Pioneer’s powerful Legendary Creatures like Gix, Yawgmoth Praetor. Either way, though, I assumed it would be aggressive–I thought that, with the 2020 banning of Kethis, the Hidden Hand, we couldn’t expect to have a Mox Amber combo deck in Pioneer—and yet, with the printing of March of the Machine, we have exactly that once again.

Rona, Herald of the Invasion, our third iteration of the Gixian wannabe, isn’t terribly scary in a vacuum. A Horned Turtle/Merfolk Looter hybrid with the promise of drawing multiple cards per turn, Rona is initially pretty unassuming; most of the excitement has been about her back half, which lets you Withering Wisps your way to an Emrakul or Worst Fears in Commander. But no Magic card exists in a vacuum, and those of us who tried to make Archivist plus Mind Over Matter back in the original Tolarian days might recognize the potential power in Rona’s ability.

Here’s the line of play: untap with Rona in play, cast Retraction Helix (or Banishing Knack in non-Pioneer formats). Play Mox Amber, tap it for Blue, then bounce the Mox back to your hand with Rona. Replay the Mox, untapping Rona, and repeat the cycle until you have a million mana and a million Storm count.

So what do you do with infinite mana in Pioneer? There’s Torment of Hailfire and Ribbons to burn an opponent out. We’ve lost eternal closer Walking Ballista to the same ban as Kethis, but we do have alternate big-mana artifacts, from Hangarback Walker to Stonecoil Serpent, both of which will require another turn before they can attack. Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger is also a reasonable threat to cast for ten mana, but again, requires another turn or two to actually win the game. Emrakul, the Promised End and Cityscape Leveler are always ready to be tapped in, and The Brothers’ War brought us a host of other colorless beaters. But we’re not looking to almost end the game: we’re looking to combo out.

We could run the old standard of Thassa’s Oracle, using our cache of 300,000 blue mana and employing Gadwick the Wizened to draw ourselves to an empty library first, but the most elegant solution is actually the cheapest. The infinite mana aspect of the combo turns out to be a red herring, because we actually want to exploit the infinite bounce and replay loop of Mox Amber to trigger Altar of the Brood to mill our opponent out. Failing that, Underhanded Designs lets each Mox Amber cast drain for one—simply tap the Mox to pay the (1) each time.

Here’s my initial decklist:

Creatures (17)
Gilded Goose
Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy
Ledger Shredder
Rona, Herald of Invasion
Emry, Lurker of the Loch

Planeswalkers (4)
Tyvar, Jubilant Brawler

Instants (4)
Retraction Helix

Sorceries (2)
Grim Tutor

Artifacts (8)
Mox Amber
Altar of the Brood

Enchantments (2)
Underhanded Designs
Lands (23)
Darkslick Shores
Blooming Marsh
Overgrown Tomb
Breeding Pool
Watery Grave
Zagoth Triome

Tyvar, Jubilant Brawler lets us activate Rona, Jace, Emry, and Goose immediately, as well as find buy back any Ronas or other two drops that have hit the graveyard, like Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy or Ledger Shredder. Gilded Goose is simply not exciting, but until we have Birds of Paradise available in the format (Caverns of Ixalan?), it’s our best one-drop mana accelerant. Emry lets us recast the artifact combo pieces if they find their way into the graveyard, and Grim Tutor lets us find them in the first place–generally, I’m not a huge fan of tutors when we could be milling instead, but Grim Tutor is cheap enough that we can find and cast the portion of our combo that we’re missing in the same turn.

My current sideboard includes the usual Thoughtseize and counter suite to protect our combo from our opponent’s machinations, but the combo is proving to be surprisingly resilient. Tyvar and Jace help us churn through our deck to find Rona and flashback Retraction Helix or Grim Tutor, while Ledger Shredder can help us find our combo pieces or play a more traditional aggressive game–or, ideally, can bait an opponent’s Fatal Push before they realize our actual strategy. I tested Lazav, the Multifarious for combo redundancy in the mold of the old Kethis combo and to serve as another target for Tyvar, but, while fine, the deck didn’t need the minimal assistance he offered. Same with an earlier draft that ran Shigeki, Jukai Visionary and Zimone and Dina—eventually, you’re just doing cute things of dubious utility.

That’s the question, as it is for any nascent combo deck in Pioneer: is this good, or is this cute? That is to say, how reliable and dependable is this combo? Pioneer’s past combo decks have included Inverter of Truth plus Thassa’s Oracle, which was a two-card combo that could easily be found and fueled by Dig Through Time, and Greasefang plus Parhelion, which was a two-card almost-combo (the interaction should essentially end the game, even if it doesn’t officially smack for twenty) that requires a bit of setup. This Rona/Mox Amber combo is a three-card combo—Rona, Mox Amber, and Retraction Helix—and requires another piece to actually end the game. So for right now, I’m stashing it in the backup deckbox; I’ve been very impressed by its performance so far in my more casual gauntlet, but I wouldn’t take it to a tournament just yet. The interactions are all solid, but this is not a combo whose individual components match up well to the metagame.

In Modern, we theoretically have even better reliability, including a backup Retraction Helix in Banishing Knack and Urza’s Saga to find both Mox Amber and Altar of the Brood. Unfortunately, our opponent has Elementals and free interaction to run against us, from Fury to Force of Negation. While we may find our combo more easily, it’s also profoundly soft to disruption. This isn’t exactly Splinter Twin, which was notorious not just for being a combo deck, but for being positioned to run the interaction that cut apart other decks. We are in Sultai colors, however, which sets us up to run our own disruption, and there may be a version of this that shaves the combo to its minimal form and backs it up with a stack of interaction. I’m still experimenting with that.

Inverter Combo made me fall in love with Pioneer; it felt like the first time I played against Trix as a kid and realized the way I had been playing the game was only a fraction of its possibilities. Since its banning back in 2020, I’ve been trying to find the sort of grindy, flexible combo that I love in other formats–Golgari Yawgmoth in Modern, Zombies and Goblin Bombardment in Legacy, anything with Phyrexian Altar in Commander. I played Mardu Greasefang for a few months, but it felt like a protracted game of rock-paper-scissors instead of a well-oiled machine. Rona’s all about oil, though, and the core loop of bouncing and recasting a Mox feels as “broken Magic” as Pioneer can possibly get. Perhaps this will end up being a futile experiment, broken down to its component parts which get incorporated into other decks after it fails to take the format by storm, but what could be more post-March of the Machine Phyrexian than that?

Rob Bockman (he/him) is a native of South Carolina who has been playing Magic: the Gathering since Tempest block. A writer of fiction and stage plays, he loves the emergent comedy of Magic and the drama of high-level play. He’s been a Golgari player since before that had a name and is never happier than when he’s able to say “Overgrown Tomb into Thoughtseize,” no matter the format.

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