The Pioneer's dilemma and how  to fix it

Magic: the Gathering

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The Pioneer's dilemma and how to fix it

"Pioneer is dead" is something we often read on social media on the last few weeks. In today's article, I theorize what's wrong with Pioneer and what can be done to fix it.

By Romeu, 06/25/21, translated by Romeu, with help from our readers

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Let's start this article understanding the story so far. On October 21, 2019, the entire Magic community was surprised by the sudden announcement of a new eternal format:

Pioneer

, a format that would cover all sets from Return to Ravnica onwards, where fetch lands were banned for facilitating too much the creation of multicolored goodstuff decks and where the banlist would be gradually created with weekly updates. The format was intended to give the Standard player a place to use their cards after they rotate out. After all, Modern had been around for more than eight years and the price tag of many cards in the format was increasing significantly, making the entry barrier for players much higher, since the investment in cards would be much more significant and possibly with the value equivalent to building 4 or more Standard decks.

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It was no longer possible, as originally planned for the format, to make the Standard player simply switch to Modern. There was already a significant distance between sets, the rotating cards were no longer as impactful for eternal formats, and soon it became necessary to create a new format to validate these cards, to make room for Standard players not to feel they're just burning their money by investing in the format. The community got into the format like crazy, cards like Jace, Vryn's Prodigy, Aetherworks Marvel, Torrential Gearhulk, Emrakul, the Promised End, among others started to have a significant spike on their price, content creators started exploring the format from day 0, with every kind of combination possible, and it didn't take long for Pioneer to become a promising format for players, event organizers and Wizards itself, who had promised GPs, and other big events with Pioneer as the main format from 2020 onwards. Even big event organizers like StarCityGames saw great potential in the format, to the point of replacing its Legacy circuit, which was becoming increasingly inaccessible to most players due to constant spikes in the Reserved List cards. What Wizards, the players and absolutely no one in the world expected was that the year 2020 would bring with it the worst pandemic in a hundred years, which would completely preclude the possibility of any major event happening and transferring all competitions to digital platforms like Magic Arena. The irony is that even before we were hit by the pandemic, Pioneer was already in a complicated state when its first GPs took place, where Dimir Inverter was already the predominant main deck of the format, while Lotus Breach and Heliod Combo soon followed back. This era became known as the combo triad era, and it took Wizards a few months to make a direct decision about the format. In this period, Pioneer seemed to slowly decay with a polarized Metagame, where basically the best decks of the format were all Combo decks and where the Challenges started to repeatedly not have enough quorum to fill the minimum number of players. It wasn't until August 3, 2020 that Wizards opted to ban essentially all combo decks that made good results in the format, and Pioneer could finally rise from the ashes and start a new cycle in its Metagame. Nine months later, and Pioneer... Well, Pioneer is again having trouble filling a quorum and basically hardly anyone is talking about it. But what's going on? Did a new, broken deck come up that is pushing people away? Is the Metagame polarized? Are oppressive decks at the top? None of that. Nothing is happening on Pioneer. And in my particular view, the problem is just this: nothing is happening in Pioneer, and that sameness seems to be a part of what is sinking the format. So let's elaborate a little on something the community has been wondering about in the last weeks:

What's wrong with Pioneer?

There are some ways to consider how to answer this question, but I believe we can say that nothing is specifically wrong with Pioneer, while we can say that there are many things wrong with the format. When we talk about Metagame, Pioneer has been in a pretty healthy state for a long time: The most played deck of the last three months, Niv-to-Light, makes up only 9% of the Metagame, while the second most played deck, Dimir Control, makes up 8 .3%, followed by Izzet Phoenix with 7.5% and Boros Burn with 6.3%. There is no discrepancy in Pioneer's Metagame, there is no "best deck". Niv-to-Light itself hasn't been so hot in recent weeks, and you have a good range of different and diverse decks you can use:

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If you want to play Midrange, you have Niv-to-Light, Rakdos Pyromancer and Jund Food.
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If you want to play Aggro, you have Boros Burn, Auras, Selesnya Company and Mono-Black Aggro.
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If you want to play Control, you have Dimir Control, Azorius Control and the recent Jeskai Creativity.
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If you want to play Tempo, you have Izzet Phoenix and Spirits.
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And if you want to play Combo, you have the Lotus Combo which includes some variants.
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So, when it comes to the format's health, Pioneer is in a good place and with good decks, with viable options for every player. So, the Pioneer's problem is not specifically found in Metagame, but possibly in the boredom. What I mean is, essentially, Pioneer has been pretty much the same format since they banned the combo decks. Nothing very impactful appeared, nothing new appeared, no deck that we didn't already know in the format exploded. The new sets didn't bring enough cards to impact Pioneer, nor did they bring new high-impact archetypes. Of course, we had good new additions like Faceless Haven for Mono-Black, Elite Spellbinder for Selesnya Company and even some interesting archetypes like Sultai Valki, variants of Lotus Field using Emergent Ultimatum and Alrund's Epiphany, and we've recently seen new variants of red decks like the Izzet Prowess. But in general, Pioneer has been essentially the same format all this time. In a normal world, this wouldn't be a bad trait because it creates financial stability for the format. You don't have to rush to buy that staple or see your deck get totally voided because an absolutely better deck has emerged. This creates longevity to the format, makes the players engaged in it and the events more exciting to play because there isn't an absolute best deck. But that point only applies largely positively when we're talking about paper Magic games. When we refer to Online games, this dynamic changes due to loan programs and even more when you have other formats changing over and over in recent months with products aimed at eternal formats. Recently, we had the release of Modern Horizons II impacting

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Magic Online's other eternal formats, and it's obvious that this drove Pioneer players away from the format when they wanted to try out the new features of Modern, Legacy and Pauper. There is still no broad commitment to the format. There is no such player base fully dedicated to Pioneer. You can see this even from the lack of content regarding the format in articles and content from major Magic websites. And this is because Pioneer, unlike other formats, is very young and failed to create engagement due to the suspension of in-store games and the unbalance of the format that lasted seven months that hindered much of the interest that the players could have in the format. Unlike Modern, Pioneer did not cover an already existing player base. No one expected it, and I honestly suppose no one really thought about wanting it until it came to exist. I say this because a story that few remembers is that the creation of Modern was not a sudden act, there was significant planning in it: Extended, which was in a relatively negative state due to the rise of decks like Hexmage Depths and Thopter Sword, had just become a format that now encompassed far fewer sets, basically starting from Lorwyn and going all the way to Scars of Mirrodin, a decision that was extremely sudden and unwelcome by the community, essentially killing the format.

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This created a significant portion of players who were orphaned from a format where they could use their Shocklands, Dark Confidant, and other cards, and gradually rumors arose that a format that would cover everything that came out of Eighth Edition onwards would be released. Some time later, to the general happiness of the community, Modern was announced as, guess what, a cheap alternative to the Legacy that was increasingly moving away from an eternal format accessible to players who lost their cards in Standard and would serve as a โ€œbridgeโ€ between formats. Players could invest in Modern with their rotated cards and, if they wanted, from there invest in Legacy. In fact, I speculate that this was the motivation that led the allied-colors Fetch lands to be reprinted in Khans of Tarkir, besides, of course, serving to cheapen the Modern manabase, which was getting more and more expensive with the price of the enemy fetches. What I mean by telling this story is that Pioneer didn't have that terrain. The format was manufactured, there wasn't necessarily a community that was already engaging this idea (okay, you can even mention Frontier, but Frontier was never a format that the community was really dedicated and never popularized), so there was no one really dedicated to it, and they just threw the format out to the public and even let the players determine with their games what was banned or not, which was one of the most exciting factors it used to have. With the format stabilized, the planning for Pioneer included popularizing it among players with sanctioned events, which would strengthen the community and create a base of loyal players who would specialize in the format. And many players have invested their time and money in Pioneer, betting on its growth over the years. However, without these events, Pioneer ended up being played on Magic Online, vying for space with much more consolidated formats there and left in a miserable and polarized state for a long time, which led players to lose interest. And when that problem was solved, people got interested in the format again, but the other formats started to seem more interesting when there are new sets that impact them the most or when they release products specifically dedicated to this format. Another relevant point where Pioneer seems to be behind had been the differential factor. There's something missing that makes Pioneer a format that excites people and that make people play it, not just for monetary constraints. Today, except for a few decks, Pioneer feels like a jumble of stronger versions of Standard decks, with adapted versions of Historic decks and less explosive versions of Modern decks. In short, Pioneer mixes stronger versions of Standard decks with weaker versions of Historic (which now has a higher power level due to Mystical Archives) and Modern decks. There is no originality, there is nothing that belongs to the format, there is no excitement in its Metagame that I can have

only

in Pioneer. It basically looks like a weaker version of other formats. It may even be the format's identity and Wizards' goal that Pioneer basically becomes a space for players to adapt their decks of other formats, but that also makes the format seem like it doesn't have a difference, something that really motivate gamers to opt for Pioneer over other formats. All of this together makes Pioneer a format too uninteresting for content creators and unexciting for players that are not dedicated to the format. Pioneer lacks a differentiator, something that attracts players to play the format.

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In short, Pioneer's problems are:

1 โ€“ The format was made for tabletop, and the pandemic disrupted all planning Wizards could have for Pioneer.

2 โ€“ Without a consolidated player base and with seven months of a polarized Metagame, the format has lost popularity.

3 โ€“ Its Metagame has been stagnant in the same decks since August of last year. Which would be nice if the format were played in store games, but makes it less exciting than other formats on digital platforms.

4 โ€“ Pioneer significantly lacks a nature of its own and something that defines it as a unique format. It looks like a jumble of nerfed decks of other formats together in one place.

What can be done to fix Pioneer?

The first thing that can be done is already happening in the United States and will soon take place in Europe and part of Asia: The return of in-store games. Pioneer was intended as a format for paper Magic games, and the stability factor is much more relevant when you are investing real money in real cards to play at real tables. But there is a big challenge in this regard: getting players excited to play Pioneer again after a year and a half without direct contact with the format through games in stores and events. It's not like Wizards has invested in keeping the format interesting in this period. In this regard, the investment factor must be considered as Pioneer is Magic's second cheapest ever sanctioned format, second only to Pauper (which today is not in its healthiest state, but will not stay that way forever). The average price of a Pioneer Tier 1 deck, except for Goodstuff decks with Niv-to-Light, is around $50 to $100 more than the average for a Standard Tier 1 deck, and this can be a good reason to convince a player to enter the format. However, this investment for most players will only pay off when the big paper Magic circuits return, like the SCG Open or the MagicFests. Otherwise, most players will feel like they're just playing a sub-format, while other eternal formats are getting a lot more attention from the community and a lot more product investment from Wizards. And in this regard, there is another efficient way to motivate players to play a format and even make it more accessible: new products. Do you remember the

Pioneer Masters

? It would be a set to be released at Magic Arena in late 2020 and would basically introduce Pioneer to the digital platform. In September, it was announced that the set was postponed to 2021 and since then, we haven't heard anything about it. I'd love to say that bringing Pioneer to the Magic Arena would be a viable solution, but the platform has been so disheartening to play and its economy is so absurdly predatory that I don't particularly see players on the platform choosing not to play their favorite formats to play Pioneer and I don't believe most Pioneer players are dedicated to spending the money necessary to have a viable pool on Magic Arena. But what if we brought Pioneer Masters into paper Magic? Of course there are no $150 cards in the format as was the case with Tarmogoyf when, in simpler times, the first Modern Masters was announced. But the set came out two years after Modern's sanctioning and collaborated a lot, with significant reprints of large format Staples such as the aforementioned Goyf, Dark Confidant and the then-still staple Vendilion Clique, helping to not just make the format more accessible but also spread it to new players and popularize it in stores that didn't host Modern events before.

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Pioneer already has some cards that could be reprinted to increase availability, plus the need to popularize the format and convince players that the format is accessible and fun to play is a good mix for creating this product. It would even be possible to add some cards that are not in the format to make them legal in Pioneer, as was done with Modern Horizons. Adding these cards would even work another chronic problem that the format has lately: The lack of an identity of its own. Personally, I believe the idea could be applied well, but given the disastrous history with sets like the Mystical Archives in Historic, I have a big fear that it wouldn't be possible to carefully dose how each card might impact the format. I know, it's very risky trying to change the format structure by adding new cards. We see what happens in many formats when something doesn't go as planned or isn't extensively tested and that could create a polarized metagame or a predominant deck, but at the same time, it would be a risk that, I believe, is fair to take if that could give the format some things that make it unique, that make Pioneer have its nature as a format and its identity. It's a better option than letting the format wither. Especially as it enters the third point of what can be done to save Pioneer: Unify the community and spread the format to other players It's much easier to convince your friends to play a format when it has its unique traits. Pauper players know this all too well, how many times while the format were not widely known on paper Magic did we have to gather in small groups in stores and play the format between rounds of another tournament, or before a tournament started to show other players that Pauper was a fun format? However, Pauper had and still has a differential. Many of the cards that see play in the format and many of its interactions are things we don't see in any other format. The nature of Pauper is unique and that, together with the budget factor, makes it exciting. However, this is much more challenging to be done when the format in question does not have a unique nature and an exclusive attraction to it, as is the case with Pioneer. Formats grow and decline. It's normal. The popularity of formats rises and falls as the events they appear and when they appear. According to the loyalty of the community and according to how each region and store chooses to approach the format and how often. If players from every local community get together to play and look to introduce more people to the format by lending them decks to try out the format and building a solid foundation for hosting events in their region, Pioneer can surely return to being a popular format, and get back the attention of big event organizers and Wizards. So, in summary, I believe that to save Pioneer it is necessary:

1 โ€“ The return of sanctioned in-store games, including large circuits where the format is present, and this solution will probably only be widely applied in 2022.

2 โ€“ The creation of products aimed at the format, to promote it to a higher number of players who are currently not interested in or even unaware of Pioneer.

3 โ€“ The proposal to create a Pioneer's own nature or characteristic so that it becomes something more than just a bunch of decks of other formats in weaker versions.

4 โ€“ The work by the Pioneer community to promote the format in their stores and local communities, creating a friendly environment and playing games that demonstrate that the format can indeed be interesting.

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Conclusion

This was my analysis of the current state of Pioneer and what can be done about the format to improve its player base and popularity. Unlike what many players say, I don't believe Pioneer is necessarily dead, but it does go through a serious identity and planning problem after what happened with the plans for it and what happened with basically all of our plans for 2020: they were frustrated and went wrong. With the return of in-store games in the United States, Europe and most of Asia, I believe the format will have the chance to shine again if the community is interested in playing the format and Wizards is interested in promoting it in their next large events that will probably only occur in 2022. 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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