For years, players have clamored for a true-to-paper, non-rotating constructed experience available on Arena. Logically, it seems as though Pioneer would be the perfect fit. The card pool is far less extensive than Modern or Legacy, but it'll still take some work for Wizards to add the missing five years worth of sets legal in Pioneer that are unavailable on the Arena client.
While Wizards has indicated an interest in supporting Pioneer on Arena, their plans to make the format available have been postponed over and over. Notably, Pioneer Masters was a project set for release in late 2020 meant to add highly-played Pioneer cards to the client. The set was never released and shelved indefinitely as of July 2021.
Demand for Pioneer only increased after Arena introduced dozens of powerful, digital-only cards for Alchemy, which also impacted Historic, the client's only non-rotating constructed format. Thankfully, Wizards listened to their player base and last week announced Explorer, an ostensibly new, non-rotating Pioneer-lite format. Explorer will act as a stand-in for Pioneer while Wizards continues to backfill the most played Pioneer cards to Arena. Their eventual goal will be to sunset Explorer once it can truly be called Pioneer, but in the meantime, we get to explore the Explorer format!
But What Should I Play?
(Un)fortunately, thanks to the F.I.R.E. design philosophy that began in 2019, many of the strongest cards in Magic were printed in recent years and after Arena was already fully operational. Some of the top decks in Pioneer have all or nearly all of their cards fully ready to play in Explorer. These should be your first considerations when choosing what to play as well as what you should expect to play against.
As a note, I will not be including sideboards as they will need to be tailored to the actual metagame. Some of the top decks in Pioneer are lacking essential pieces (such as MonoG Devotion missing Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx) and are subsequently unlikely players in Explorer. Copying sideboard slots designed to beat decks that aren't present is a recipe for failure, and I'm not looking to catch the blame!
Winota, Joiner of Forces Midrange is currently the top deck in Pioneer and holds roughly a 12.6% metagame share. Winota decks are no stranger to Arena, having already eaten a ban in Historic with much of the same deck construction. You play mana dorks like Llanowar Elves to accelerate out your Winota, then attack with the dorks to cheat in some massive threat with Human in its type line like Tovolar's Huntmaster // Tovolar's Packleader. If your opponent has a way to answer Winota, you can still just cast your big bomb creatures which go taller and wider than most decks can reasonably deal with.
Winota doesn't lose much in the conversion from Pioneer to Explorer. Typically, the Pioneer builds feature four copies of Elvish Mystic and Voice of Resurgence. I've chosen to replace them with Gilded Goose and Ranger Class respectively. While these replacements are slight downgrades, the delta between the Pioneer build and the Explorer build is minimal.
Greasefang, Okiba Boss is a recent addition to the Pioneer and Historic metagames from Kamigawa: Neon Dynasty that quickly made a name for itself thanks to its combo with Parhelion II. Greasefang returns a Parhellion from your graveyard and crews it, allowing you to attack for 13 damage, leaving behind two 4/4 angels for your trouble. Any game that doesn't end from the initial hit almost assuredly ends with the follow-up.
Surprisingly, the entirety of the shell is fully available in Explorer. The only slight change is Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth, a one-of land in the deck, not available on Arena. Swap it for a basic Swamp to dodge Boseiju, Who Endures and Field of Ruin blowouts and call it a day.
Another deck losing nothing in the conversion from Pioneer to Explorer is Jund Sacrifice. Not only has this shell been a proven mainstay for the past several years in Pioneer and Historic, but it also received a handful of new support options from the upcoming Streets of New Capenna set. Cards like Ob Nixilis, the Adversary and Riveteers Charm may prove to be powerful new additions to the archetype.
In a game designed around using mana as its primary resource, having the opportunity to circumvent mana costs for your spells is wildly powerful. Fires of Invention is a mini-Omniscience effect that was ultimately banned in both Standard and Historic. It still sees a fair bit of play in Pioneer. The build below uses instants, sorceries, and planeswalkers to control the board, then create creature tokens for Transmogrify to turn into Agent of Treachery.
The initial build had four copies of Chained to the Rocks as a cheap removal spell. Unfortunately, that card is not available on Arena, but Touch the Spirit Realm acts as a very interesting alternative. Touch can flicker your Agents to steal additional cards from your opponent, or reset your Esika's Chariot for additional tokens. Additionally, Touch's channel ability can take advantage of your unused mana without taking up one of your two spells per turn from Fires. It also allows for you to interact on your opponent's turn, which Fires typically prevents.
While this version is more focused on the Transmogrify combo, there are likely alternate Fires builds that utilize Omnath, Locus of Creation whose color-intensive mana cost is simplified under Fires. You could also build around Colossal Skyturtle and Mirrorshell Crab as forms of Fires-friendly interaction that double as hard-to-answer win conditions. Another option may be Idyllic Tutor to find your Fires, Skyturtle, or even another threat like Shark Typhoon. This archetype is highly flexible and you can throw just about anything under the hood and still have it run smoothly.
Time to Explore
And that's a wrap! I can't wait to test out these decks when Explorer goes live later this week. I'm expecting to see quite a bit of other players trying out Winota, but the de facto best builds and archetypes are likely yet to be seen. I'll be streaming and documenting my first forays into the format on Twitch and on Twitter. Be sure to check it out and feel free to reach out with any thoughts, questions, or spicy builds. See you next week!