Pioneer's Metagame: The Most Played Decks

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Pioneer's Metagame: The Most Played Decks

In today's article, I look at Pioneer's current Metagame, explaining how the format's top decks work, and what other lists you can find when playing an online or in-person event!

By Romeu, 10/21/21, translated by Romeu, with help from our readers

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Last week, I made an article where I analyzed the quality and playability of the Pioneer Challenger Decks, explaining its highs and lows, strengths and weaknesses, and how to gradually upgrade them into their most competitive versions. However, to play Pioneer, it is also necessary to understand the format itself, its main strategies, how they work and what decks are likely to be faced today. Therefore, in today's article, I intend to present the main archetypes of what makes up Pioneer's Metagame, and try to explain how its strategies work and what its main cards are, and what to expect from them.

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I emphasize that the format's Metagame is quite diverse, and many unexpected strategies can emerge, and the powerful additions in each new release have somehow impacted many decks, causing some archetypes to rise and become popular while others fall, and others remain at the top. I also emphasize the importance of remembering that, in the case of local stores and events, the Metagame can be very different from what I'm presenting, as a local community can use a larger amount of less standardized lists, and it won't be uncommon to see players betting on unusual decks at your store or community event. That said, these are Pioneer's top decks for October 2021, in an analysis that considers the most used playlists in the last 30 days, a date that coincides with the release of

Innistrad: Midnight Hunt

.

Izzet Phoenix

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The best deck of the format currently is

Izzet Phoenix

, making up about 16% of the Metagame. It's hard to include Izzet Phoenix in a single category, but it works like a Tempo deck, with some “combo” elements because of Arclight Phoenix's interaction with its spells, which creates recurring threats. Actually, I like to name Izzet Phoenix a

Turbo Xerox

deck, given that it's pretty much a cantrip tribal as most lists use around 19 to 22 card-drawing spells, far more than the usual 12~16 of most other archetypes in this category. And it makes a lot of sense that the deck needs this amount of cantrips, as its game plan involves two distinct strategies that work very well together: The first strategy involves playing a high number of Arclight Phoenix to the graveyard with cards like Chart a Course and Lightning Axe and then use a streak of three spells to bring them back from the graveyard attacking, creating an agile, resilient threat that conventional removals can't permanently handle. The second strategy involves casting Thing in the Ice, performing a streak of four spells to transform it, returning all other creatures to their owner's hands and clearing the board for a 7/8 creature and, preferably, some Arclight Phoenix returning from the graveyard, to attack. And it is with these two different game plans, but that usually work together, that Izzet Phoenix becomes the best deck in the format today, as it has a number of advantages in the composition of its lists, especially its Card Advantage, engine which interact very well with its plethora of cantrips. Treasure Cruise is a card banned from essentially all eternal formats, after all, for a very low cost in game investment, you have an Ancestral Recall that will generally make the deck continue its spell streaks and/or finding more threats. The other card that stands out is Expressive Iteration, one of the most powerful spells released in a Standard set lately, and which often guarantees your land drop and one card in your hand in early-game, while granting two spells to reanimate your Arclight Phoenix in the late-game. The other advantage Izzet Phoenix has is that its threats often need distinct answers: Fatal Push is great against Thing in the Ice, but terrible against Arclight Phoenix. Likewise, Magma Spray is great for dealing with Arclight Phoenix, but it does absolutely nothing against Thing in the Ice and if you add that to the many other threats the lists can play, like Brazen Borrower, Crackling Drake or even Planeswalkers like Chandra, Torch of Defiance, makes it very difficult for a significant number of archetypes to respond to all threats.

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Because of this, the best strategies for dealing with Izzet Phoenix usually involve establishing pressure early, as Boros Burn does, or having good universal answers, as is the case with Azorius or Dimir Control. That said, Izzet Phoenix is ​​extremely adaptable to Metagame, which is precisely why it is currently at the top of the format.

Boros Burn

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One of the decks that you can start building from Challenger Decks and finds itself in a good position in Pioneer these days is Boros Burn. Essentially, Boros Burn is Pioneer's “fun police” because it sets the format clock, and if you don't interact with that clock, or if your setup involves more turns than Burn allows you to have, you'll likely lose the game. Its strategy is pretty straightforward: cast your low-cost threats on early game like Soul-Scar Mage and Monastery Swiftspear, use your damage spells to clear the board of other aggressive decks while your creatures grow, or to increase the pressure on the opponent and win the game before they can recover. What sets Boros Burn apart from other Aggro decks, however, is that it is very consistent, as almost all of its cards do essentially the same thing, and it also has a high level of resilience and reach with cards like Light up the Stage and Lurrus of the Dream-Den. In January, I made a deck guide for Boros Burn, where I explain the choice of each card and why you want to play with this archetype.

Rakdos Pyromancer

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The format's current best Midrange, and best Thoughtseize deck is Rakdos Pyromancer, which seeks to abuse cards in its graveyard to perform explosive plays with Dreadhorde Arcanist and Kroxa, Titan of Death's Hunger, while using low-cost interactions to disrupt the opponent's game plan or respond to their threats. Its goal is to try to significantly reduce your opponent's resources using your own, commonly taking both players to the topdeck, where Kroxa, Titan of Death's Hunger and/or Lurrus of the Dream-Den will establish the advantage for you. In other words, Rakdos Pyromancer is basically the format's "Jund", and the advantage that the archetype has over other Pioneer Midrange decks is that its cards are very synergistic with each other and have a low mana curve. For example, Stitcher's Supplier helps speed up Kroxa, Titan of Death's Hunger or have more spells to cast with Dreadhorde Arcanist in early turns, and is the perfect target for spells like Village Rites, which also work great with a hand-cast Kroxa, as you can respond to its trigger by sacrificing it to draw two cards, or also with Young Pyromancer tokens, which essentially “voids” its additional cost. Add to the sum the ability to replay cards like Dreadhorde Arcanist with Claim // Fame and attack in the same turn to cast another spell, or even give Haste to Kroxa and attack with an 8/6 the turn you play it for the Escape cost. And to increase synergies, the deck also features Lurrus of the Dream-Den to add even more value and recursion to creatures, something that can also be done with the multi-format staple, Kolaghan's Command.

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So if you're one of those players who love to play “Jund” in competitive formats and have an affection for the archetype since its glorious days in Modern, Rakdos Pyromancer is your best choice in Pioneer!

Naya Winota

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Winota, Joiner of Forces is the type of card that is always on the verge of being good or absolutely broken, so much so that it is banned in Historic. On Pioneer, Winota used to pair with Angrath's Marauders to create various combo-kill styles by doubling or even tripling the damage your permanents deals, but recent sets and, in particular,

Innistrad: Midnight Hunt

, brought powerful updates to the archetype. Kaldheim brought in Jaspera Sentinel as yet another mana dork that can speed up a Winota in turn 3, while increasing the number of creatures that trigger the card, and also brought in the Standard's current staple, Esika's Chariot, which creates two tokens that triggers Winota while also working to accumulate value over the course of the game. Adventures in the Forgotten Realms brought Prosperous Innkeeper as yet another mana dork that triggers Winota's ability while also consistently accelerating the number of times you can cast the deck's main engine on turn 3. And finally, Innistrad: Midnight Hunt brought a mighty package of cards to the archetype in the form of Werewolves, Human-type creatures on the front side that lose this creature type when they transform and since they have an immediate impact on the board, they are great to play with Winota. Brutal Cathar exiles a potential opponent's blocker and provides a good body, while Tovolar's Huntmaster essentially functions as a transformed green Grave Titan, while stacking even more triggers for Winota with the tokens that it generates. This mix of mana dorks + Humans with immediate impact + Esika's Chariot has made Winota's decks much stronger and more resilient than it ever was, giving it an even greater chance of creating powerful snowball effects against the opponent, if not answered immediately.

Azorius Control

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The first of the current Control decks, Azorius Control, works like a classic list of the archetype, using low-cost cantrips, efficient counterspells like Dovin's Veto and Absorb, good removals in the form of Fateful Absence (one of the best cards to deal with Arclight Phoenix and Thing in the Ice) and bombs that dominate the game on their own, like Teferi, Hero of Dominaria and Shark Typhoon. The archetype also features some powerful Card Advantage effects, such as Dig Through Time, Narset, Parter of Veils, and Memory Deluge, which allow you to look at many top cards and choose from the best among them, significantly feeding the consistency of the list. In addition, Azorius Control has an interesting advantage over other archetypes of the format: it is another deck that has different angles of attack, which significantly hinders the ways in which the opponent must interact. Teferi, Hero of Dominaria can lock the game if he stays on the board for too long, and although he doesn't win the game on his own, he helps the archetype find other ways to win the game. For example, Shark Typhoon, when cast, will often win the game on its own, but it's not uncommon for the card to be recycled in Late-Game to create a large token, such as a 7/7, that will be protected with Counterspells and Removals.

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Speaking of creatures, the list also counts Kaheera, the Orphanguard as its Companion, as it matches Kaheera's restriction by simply not using creatures, and can wait as long as it takes to establish the game and then, cast a 3/2 creature, properly protected, to win the game. It also features Castle Ardenvale, which can simply populate the board with 1/1 tokens that will accumulate and clock the Late-Game. And this combination of efficient means of winning the match, good Card Advantage effects and great answers make Azorius Control an efficient option for Pioneer today.

Gruul Aggro

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Although Naya Winota is an explosive deck that manages to win matches through a snowball effect, it has some pretty nasty situations where its cards aren't good individually in the absence of Winota, Joiner of Forces and, if you want to avoid taking this risk and prefer a deck where all your plays are impactful, Gruul Aggro is one of the best choices. Like Naya Winota, Gruul Aggro also use its mana dorks in early game, but instead of trying to speed up a specific card in turn 3, it plays them to make a streak of high-impact creatures as early as turn 2, like Bonecrusher Giant, Gruul Spellbreaker or Lovestruck Beast and follow the sequence with Questing Beast and Glorybringer, until you reach a situation where the board state becomes so advantageous that victory is irreversible, and if this situation doesn't occur, the list always has one of the biggest “free-win” buttons released in Magic recently, Embercleave, which will usually ends the game if equipped on the right creature. The deck also features a nice interaction package that includes Mizzium Mortars, which resolves most creatures of the format in early game, while serving as a one-sided sweeper in late-game, commonly leaving the board clear for your creatures to attack, and it also has the versatility of Shatterskull Smashing, which serves both as a land drop when needed and to deal with different types of threats throughout the game. Its manabase has received good additions recently, with Lair of the Hydra functioning as an efficient manland, and Rockfell Vale improving the consistency of Gruul's manabase, which was not one of the best for aggressive decks in Pioneer.

Dimir Control

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The other great Control in the format is Dimir Control, being a much more responsive and draw-go-oriented version than Azorius. Players who lived through the terror of Dimir Inverter before its fateful banning remember all too well how great the Dimir base is at handling a match and winning when the opponent's resources are depleted, and though (un)fortunately we don't count anymore with the Inverter of Truth + Thassa's Oracle combo-kill, the entire base that controlled the match remained and gained new additions in 2020/2021. The archetype has a package of removals and counterspells much more diversified than the Azorius versions, in favor of a greater speed in dealing with threats played by opponents because they have a lower cost, and the absence of certain engines makes the archetype act entirely on the opponent's turn. In many ways, Dimir Control is a Dig Through Time deck, as it seeks to operate entirely at Instant-Speed ​​and expand its range of responses based on what is expected of it at that particular moment in the Metagame and, this way, a much more efficient use of one of the most powerful effects ever printed in Magic in the last decade.

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To finish the game, the list has few threats, commonly choosing Torrential Gearhulk for its ability to serve as a giant Snapcaster Mage that casts Dig Through Time from the graveyard for free, as well as Shark Typhoon, which can offer an army of tokens while the deck is all about doing what it does best: responding to your opponent's plays. However, other options also occasionally appear on lists, such as Lochmere Serpent or even Jace, Wielder of Mysteries.

Bant Spirits

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One more archetype that can be built from one of the Challenger Decks is Bant Spirits, a Tempo deck that plays evasive creatures that have a disruptive added value, such as Mausoleum Wanderer and Spell Queller, along with cards that benefit from tribal synergy on the list, such as Supreme Phantom and Empyreal Eagle to create a strategy that can establish strong pressure against the opponent while significantly delaying their plays. The mainstay of this version is Collected Company, which allows you to put two creatures from your deck into play at Instant-Speed, which commonly creates so many absurdly explosive situations where you win the game the next turn by bringing two lords and/or a lord and Shacklegeist to the board, as well as allowing the archetype to look for the required answer among the top six cards for each situation, either with a counterspell with Spell Queller and Mausoleum Wanderer, or with a removal with Skyclave Apparition. However, Bant Spirits doesn't set the fastest clock in the world, considering it's a creature-based deck, but its cards are individually good, and its game plan is very synergistic, with each card playing an important role in interacting with the opponent, while the non-interactive creatures have the sole and simple purpose of increasing the power of other creatures in play, which adds to the pressure each of them puts up and forces the opponent to respond appropriately, which proves to be a challenge when most of them can be cast at Instant-Speed, and when the vast majority of them have Flying, since many decks of the format don't usually deal well with evasive threats. Spirits also has other variants that do good results, such as the Azorius version, which abdicates Collected Company in favor of greater interaction, and the Mono Blue version, which takes advantage of a monocolored manabase to play “under” opponents in a way that Azorius and Bant versions couldn't because of mana requirements, essentially functioning as a more synergistic version of Mono Blue Tempo, famous Standard deck played by Autumn Burchett in the first Mythic Championship.

Niv-to-Light

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Another of the format's top Midranges and Pioneer's flagship “Goodstuff” deck is Niv-to-Light, which offers a powerful mix of versatility and high-impact sequenced plays that deliver an absurd amount of Card Advantage. Niv-to-Light's game plan involves playing with fair 1-for-1 trades while trying to speed up the use of bombs that will offer a high value when entering the battlefield, often burying the opponent with the amount of value exercised by Niv-Mizzet, Reborn, which, upon coming into play, will commonly draw four or more cards with its ability, as the archetype is designed to abuse Guild color combinations.

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The deck also has a strong toolbox element thanks to Bring to Light, thus being able to adapt the list as needed by the Metagame, including some important singletons that can be searched with the spell by paying the necessary colored mana cost to fetch the spell, and if you have nothing to fetch, the card serves as the 5-8 copies of Niv Mizzet. Speaking of Bring to Light, there is a philosophy that can be adopted as to what to choose when using it, presented by Dmytri Butakov in one of his articles for Haeruya, where you can separate what to look for into three categories : — Something to win the game after establishing an advantage, such as Tibalt, Cosmic Impostor; — Something to accumulate advantage or increase pressure in a nonestablished game, such as Niv Mizzet Reborn; — Something to recover when you're behind, like a sweeper or Tolsmir, Friend to Wolves. In addition to these, you can also always choose something that is useful to you for that specific game, or for a specific game stage: A Slaughter Games at the right timing can devastate the opponent, Yasharn, Implacable Earth against a Sacrifice deck can significantly delay the opponent's plan, and so on. The vulnerability of Niv-to-Light, however, is that it tries to do too much and can occasionally get caught up by faster decks or controlled by decks that play a better late game because its sequences can be delayed by the lack of the right colors at the right time, given that its manabase is diverse enough to cast all of its spells, but not always at the right time.

Azorius Ensoul

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Rounding out the top ten decks on Pioneer currently, we have Azorius Ensoul. Ensoul decks have been present on Pioneer since its inception, and commonly in the Izzet versions, where it features Bomat Courier and Shrapnel Blast. However, during 2020 and with the release of Lurrus of the Dream-Den in Ikoria, Ensoul decks were moving to the Azorius version at a time when the Companion rule still allowed you to play them directly from the Sideboard, making it one of the archetypes that made up the triad of Lurrus decks that dominated the format, alongside Boros Burn and Orzhov Auras. The Companions rule changed, and Azorius Ensoul ended up being forgotten in the format for some time, despite always doing occasional results with cards like Toolcraft Exemplar. It was with Adventures in the Forgotten Realms that the archetype received the boost it needed to be one of the top tiers: The Blackstaff of Waterdeep, gave it a greater consistency that it lacked, as the lists needed to choose between Skilled Animator or betting on Lurrus' recursion, but the card that really gave the archetype a huge boost was Ingenious Smith, as a powerful value engine that helps you find key pieces while interacting well with deck's strategy, growing significantly if staying in play for a long time. Last but not least, Portable Hole gave the archetype a much-needed white removal, significantly improving its interactions. Azorius Ensoul's game plan is essentially that of an Aggro deck, in a mix of go big, where it can use a card like Darksteel Citadel enchanted with an Ensoul Artifact or a huge Stonecoil Serpent enchanted with All That Glitters to win the match, or with a go wide strategy, where it plays multiple creatures to build pressure, and does both very efficiently and with strong resilience thanks the Lurrus of the Dream-Den and Ingenious Smith.

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The archetype also has good protection spells, such as Stubborn Denial, to deal with opponent's threats or protect your key cards during the game.

Honorable Mentions

Despite having mentioned the top ten Pioneer decks in this article today, the format has several other viable and competitive strategies, and you will surely see players in leagues, events, or in your local store using some archetypes that were not mentioned above. Below, I'll briefly review other archetypes you can expect to encounter when playing Pioneer.
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Vampires is a Midrange deck, and its strategy involves escalating threats each turn, passing through Knight of the Ebon Legion, Gifted Aetherborn and Sorin, Imperious Bloodlord who preferably will “cheat” on the mana curve and play a Champion of Dusk to draw cards and keep the gas running. The list also has a powerful interaction package in the form of assorted removals and Thoughtseize, which make it a solid choice in the format, especially for those who like tribal decks. I made a Deck Tech of the archetype a few months ago, and you can check it out here.
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Jund Sacrifice, or Jund Citadel, or Jund Company, each person calls it differently, was ported from Standard and Historic straight to Pioneer, where it features the powerful interaction of Mayhem Devil with the Sacrifice effects enabled by Priest of the Forgotten Gods, Catacomb Sifter, and Woe Strider, all those cards can be found with Collected Company. The deck's objective, however, is not to sacrifice your creatures early-game to clear the opponent's board, but rather to try to generate as many permanents in play as possible and speed up mana to cast Bolas's Citadel and, from that point onwards, accumulate an irreversible amount of value that will usually end with activating the artifact's ability, dealing 10 damage to the opponent, and Mayhem Devil's trigger dealing the remaining 10 damage.
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Jeskai Ascendancy is currently Pioneer's best combo deck (although it's not the only one), and involves making a combination of Jeskai Ascendancy with Sylvan Awakening, which turns all your lands into creatures, then perform a streak of low-cost spells that will trigger Jeskai Ascendancy's ability, giving +1/+1 and untapping your creatures, thus forming a constant looping of mana and draw that usually, will end with your creatures/land dealing an arbitrary amount of damage Outside the combo, the list essentially works like an Omnath Ramp, using the Elemental to control the board and speed up mana, while searching for the combo pieces. The list may initially seem strange to those who are not used to it, but believe me, it is

very

consistent.
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Although they are absolutely different archetypes in strategy, I will be categorizing them as “Mono-Green Nykthos” in this article, as they both tries to abuse the land to generate an absurd amount of mana to cast their spells. Mono-Green Aggro is the more aggressive version, and plays low-cost, high-powered creatures like Werewolf Pack Leader and Old-Growth Troll to put pressure on the opponent while cards like Collected Company and Vivien, Arkbow Ranger establish the advantage in numbers and resources. Mono-Green Walkers is a Ramp that speeds up mana in the first few turns to cast Nissa, Who Shakes the World, which will often lead to explosive plays if left uncheck3e, such as Elder Gargaroth, Vorinclex, Voice of Hunger, or even an Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger coming from the Sideboard via Vivien, Arkbow Ranger's ability.

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Last, but not least, one deck that has gained the most attention lately is Zombies, thanks to the release of Champion of the Perished in Innistrad: Midnight Hunt. Zombies is an Aggro-Combo that works by sequencing its creatures over turns, but it also operates with a self-mill plan that, when used in conjunction with Rally the Ancestors, will commonly create an absurd board positions with plenty of triggers for Wayward Servant and Corpse Knight, plus triggers for Champion of the Perished and tapping your zombies with Cryptbreaker to draw cards before exiling them.

Conclusion

And this was my presentation of the current Pioneer Metagame, considering the most used decks since Innistrad: Midnight Hunt was released. Again, I emphasize that the general Metagame can be very different from a local Metagame, and the examples presented here may not always be decks present in your store or at your community events. Also, Pioneer is a format that has a high level of diversity, and there are many decks that I could mention that do occasional results, but I didn't, like Lotus Combo, Mono-Red Aggro, Mono-Black Aggro, Enigmatic Fires, Bant Company, among many others. So don't be afraid to take your list, whether it's one of the Challenger Decks or your own brew, to play Pioneer at your store, or at Magic Online events like Pioneer Royale, which takes place every Tuesday at Cards Realm because there's enough room in the Metagame to experiment with new ideas and play with archetypes that are off the radar. In the next article, I plan to bring you some budget lists that can be used in your local store or small events. Thanks for reading!
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Romeu

Writer and translator for Cards Realm. Plays virtually Magic: The Gathering competitive formats. Pauper Masters' Organizer.

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