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A strategic look at Pioneer: How does it differ from Modern?

WotC recently announced a new format, Pioneer. Pioneer includes all cards from Return to Ravnica onwards, with only the Khans of Tarkir fetchlands banned (at the time of writing!). In this article Ceri Taylor, from Team LilianaMarket, takes a comprehensive look at how important 8th Edition to Core 2013 is to modern, and by implication, how Pioneer will be distinct.

Introduction – Pioneer Excitement and Horror!

It’s clear that WotC are positioning Pioneer as a serious competitive endeavour, as they’ve already announced that it will be the format for four of the grand prix in the first quarter of 2020, including Brussels for us Europeans.

Judging by what I’ve seen on social media, most are pretty excited about Pioneer.  I’ve seen a range of reactions, from the nostalgic (“looking forward to playing my favourite standard deck again”) to the potentially over-excited (“gonna play Emrakul, Saheeli Cat Combo, Deathrite Shaman and Dig Through Time all in the same deck!”). Ok, I’m exaggerating a bit there… but you get the idea!  

Certain cards are already spiking in response. According to MtGStocks.com, the top-5 spiked cards on the day of the announcement were, Aetherworks Marvel, Dig Through Time, Deathrite Shaman, Torrential Gearhulk and Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy.  Our sponsors LilianaMarket have also seen a sharp increase in sales this week.  

Personally, I feel a mixture of excitement at trying a new format, and horror at some of the degenerate cards and combos we’ve already been discussing as a team. I think Sam Black summed it up well:

“If you don’t think something in your Pioneer deck needs to be banned, then you’re not trying hard enough. The victory condition at this point is getting a card banned. If you don’t think your deck will do that build a new deck”.  

Sam Black, Twitter

The likelihood of forthcoming bans is reinforced by a tweet from Aaron Forsythe shortly after the announcement of the format. Because of this, I’m a bit reluctant to invest too heavily (emotionally or financially!) in any one deck until the format settles out a bit.

Aaron Forsythe tweet

Aim of this article*

Partly because of the likelihood of forthcoming bans, and partly because there are already other sources (check out PioneerDLs on Twitter), I’m not going to be proposing specific decklists in this article.  Instead, I’m going to take a comprehensive look at what isn’t included in Pioneer as a way to think strategically about how Pioneer will differ from Modern in the longer term.

Context: What does 8th Edition –> M13 bring to modern?

My first step was to go to my favourite search tool Scryfall.com, and put the following into the advanced search: legal in modern, 8th addition to M13. To narrow down the results I filtered to show only cards greater than or equal to $2. I then went through and noted all the cards that I’d either played or played against in modern in the last couple of years and added the Khans fetchlands to create the list below. It’s not entirely fool-proof, as a few cards key Modern cards (e.g. Ancient Stirrings, Devoted Druid, Sakura Tribe-Elder, Thought Scour, Slippery Bogle and the infect cards), slip through below $2, but it does give a good indication. I followed up by looking at the Frank Karsten’s number-crunching article about Mythic Championship II (the last Modern Mythic Championship before Modern Horizons was released) to see which cards were most played there, in case I were missing anything key; doing that reminded me that ‘infect’, ‘dredge’ and phyrexian mana are all things we won’t see in Pioneer.  Incidentally, according to that data from MCII, 55% of the top-100 mainboard cards will not be legal in Pioneer.

list of modern cards not in Pioneer

Here’s a link to the list in Google Docs, for those without a magnifying glass!

Of course, in addition to this list, we need to consider the Modern Horizons cards that have changed up Modern so much recently, such as Urza, Lord High Artificer, Wrenn and Six, Force of Negation, Plague Engineer, Arcum’s Astrolabe, Giver of Runes, Collector Ouphe, Ice-Fang Coatl, and the ‘horizon lands’.

How will Modern and Pioneer Differ?

My next step was to look at the current modern meta. According to MtGGoldfish.com, at the time of writing the top 12 decks were as follows: Amulet Titan; Burn; Eldrazi Tron; Tron; Jund; Azorius Control; Dredge; Urza Ascendency; Grixis Death’s Shadow; Humans; Scapeshift; and, Urza Outcome. The lack of fetchlands obviously results in a significant manabase difference between Modern and Pioneer, but what other differences will we see?

In addition to this look at the current top of the Modern meta, there are some other much-loved/hated ‘classic’ Modern decks that are just not possible in pioneer, such as:

  • Infect
  • Gifts Storm 
  • Stoneblade decks 
  • Devoted Druid combo
  • Neobrand
  • Grishoalbrand
  • Living End
  • Ad Nauseam
  • Eldrazi and taxes
  • Kiki-Jiki

And, some decks that if played in Pioneer would be virtually unrecognisable in relation to their Modern form, such as Merfolk and Bogles.    

There are also a number of key modern sideboard cards that aren’t legal in Pioneer, such as Stony Silence, Blood Moon, Timely Reinforcements, Auriok Champion, Kitchen Finks, Gaddock Teeg, Hurkyl’s Recall, Grim Lavamancer and Spellskite.

All in all, we can see that Pioneer will be distinct from Modern. By looking at a few different types of decks we can start to consider how different it might be…  

Artifact decks: The lack of Mox Opal, Bauble, Urza, Astrolabe and Ancient Stirrings will completely change the character of artifact decks. On the other hand, the lack of stony silence will make the artifact fans happy!  If Saheeli cat combo is a major part of Pioneer then Walking Ballista will be a key part of battling that. Vehicles may see more play than they do in modern? Hardened Scales is in Pioneer too, so that style of artifact deck may be the way to go?

Graveyard decks: Whilst Dredge is out, and the lack of fetchlands and Thought Scour make ‘delve’ harder to achieve, the pull of Treasure Cruise and Dig Through Time is real, and Arclight Phoenix is still a powerful Magic card. Unfortunately for Graveyard fans, Rest in Peace and Scavenging Ooze are in Pioneer. Nevertheless, that hasn’t stopped the Rally the Ancestors advocates looking at whether they can make that deck work in Pioneer!

Control decks: Control decks are always tricky at the start of a format, and most of the classic Modern UW control cards are not legal in Pioneer. However, we still have Teferi, Narset and Supreme Verdict and a lot of UW players have a soft-spot for Sphinx’s Revelation! It might be that we see a more control-midrange style of UW deck with Spell Queller?

Tribal decks: Although the bogey-man for tribal fans – Plague Engineer – is out, we also lose cards that are often key to tribal strategies such as Aether Vial, Cavern of Souls and Phantasmal Image. Elves, Spirits and Merfolk will feel the loss of Elvish Archdruid, Geist of St Traft, and Lord of Atlantis and Master of the Pearl Trident. But that won’t stop us… tribal fans are loyal! Humans will likely continue to be played (Thalia’s Lieutenant, Reflector Mage and Mantis Rider are all legal) but will change in character through losing Meddling Mage, and Thraben Inspector will presumably take Champion of the Parish’s slot? Personally, I’m holding out hope for a zombies deck! 

GBx decks: GBx midrange is always going to be popular, but GBx loses a lot of cards that are key to the modern deck, so Pioneer GBx will be very different. Deathrite Shaman has clearly spiked, despite the lack of fetchlands, and that and Emrakul the Promised End might encourage delirium strategies, so we may see more Grim Flayer and Traverse the Ulvenwald. Siege Rhino might well mean that the ‘x’ is white, but Oko could encourage Sultai.

Combo decks: The obvious ones are Saheeli Cat Combo and Aetherworks Marvel energy decks. When they were in play in standard we didn’t have the static ability on little-Teferi available either… I’ve also seen Kethis combo suggested as a ‘deck to beat’ in Pioneer. Creature-based combo decks can make use of Chord of Calling as well. I think combo decks will be popular, and it scares me (especially as until the format settles it’ll be hard to know how to counter them).

Aggro decks: I imagine aggro decks will be popular, as they always are at the start of new formats. Although most of the key cards from Modern burn are out, there are still not-quite-as-streamlined burn decks that can be made, and Mono-red prowess is one of the closest to an established Modern deck that can exist in Pioneer. A variation of Hardened Scales also looks good (perhaps splashing black for Winding Constrictor?). I’m interested in trying an aggro-tempo UW list with spell queller.

Decks that care about lands: Apart from the lack of fetchlands, there are some other lands to think about… whilst the Primeval Titan land-orientated decks and Tron aren’t in Pioneer, the lack of Ghost Quarter and Blood Moon might still mean decks that care about lands could be powerful. Could Mutavault, Maze’s End, Nykthos and even that scourge of standard, Field of the Dead, be an issue for Pioneer? Field of Ruin is in the format, but is that enough?

Conclusion

Approaching Pioneer, the temptation could be to look at existing formats to see what to play; to look at Modern decks and see if versions can be recreated in Pioneer, or to look at existing and prior Standard decks and see what we can add… What we could call a ‘Modern-minus’ or a ‘Standard-plus’ approach.

By taking an in-depth look at 8th Edition to M13, I’ve shown that so many cards that are essential to top tier Modern are missing from Pioneer, that porting Modern decks into Pioneer does not look viable in most cases; although keep an eye on versions of burn, hardened scales, spirits, and possibly humans.

Taking old or current Standard decks and adding to them (especially old standard decks that led to things being banned!) seems like a more promising approach, but I’m hoping that Pioneer will inspire some totally new decks too!

To hear more about Ceri and the rest of the team’s adventures, follow @TeamLiliMarket

*I got teased for trying to write this like an academic article… so I decided to just lean in to that idea 😉

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