The worst way to teach is to just lecture. Throw the information out there, but don't explain, demonstrate, or allow questions. The teacher might as well just have everyone read the textbook alone and save the hassle of coming to class. This is only slightly worse than reading the PowerPoint verbatim. I have spent my academic career endeavoring to avoid these pitfalls and continue that in my gaming writing. With that in mind, today I'm going to show how I applied the lessons I discussed on Tuesday to the Pioneer Regional Championship Qualifier (RCQ) I attended last Saturday.
When Wizards announced that the Pro Tour was coming back, I was overjoyed. When I subsequently read that the Regional Championship would be Pioneer, I was less joyful. I hadn't played Pioneer in almost exactly two years and one month at that point, hadn't cared enough to see where the metagame moved in that time, and consequently had no idea what was good in the format. That meant a lot of catching up was in order. Fortunately, there was plenty of time.
The only place to start was where I'd left off, which was with UW Spirits. I quickly learned that it was heavily out of date. Not only was it much worse without Teferi, Time Raveler but the metagame had sped up and UW was too slow. Fortunately, at about that time I learned that there was an alternative and Mono-Blue Spirits quickly became my deck. After landing on a deck choice, I then tested extensively, covering my basic level of preparation for the RCQ.
This brings me to the night before the RCQ. While at FNM I made sure to ask as many serious players as I could which RCQ they were attending. There was a Modern one in northern Denver and the Pioneer one in central Denver. I'd committed to the Pioneer one because it's closer and a less irritating drive. I followed up by asking if the information I had for the event was accurate. It wouldn't be the first time that the wrong start time was posted on the store's website.
Most were in the same boat I was, but the last one I asked had better information. Specifically, he was on a Discord channel with one of the employees and asked him. He confirmed that the RCQ would start at the stated time. I made sure to check traffic before heading out and arrived in plenty of time to do everything I needed while ensuring that I wouldn't be first there.
I didn't need to verify the store's reputation. I've played there a few times and while the location isn't great there's nothing to complain about the store itself. As long as the air conditioning was working. It was a scorcher last Saturday.
In the course of my conversations, I also found out that two UW Control players, a Mono-Red player, a Heroic player, and an Esper Greasefang, Okiba Boss player would be attending the Pioneer RCQ from my LGS. This wasn't great news for me. Control is a tricky matchup and Mono-Red is quite bad. I've never played against Heroic but Greasefang is a very good matchup. It mostly durdles and the big payoff is easily contained with Shacklegeist. I don't really need graveyard hate. This information let me know the swath of cards to pack for my sideboard.
As I said on Tuesday, I already play faster than most. I'm also playing an aggressive deck. There will be no drawing in my games unless my opponent is seriously slow-playing.
As intended, I arrive about 15 minutes into registration with no issues. After getting signed up, I got started on the most important part:
Scouting the Field
Being fairly early, I had the opportunity to observe most of the players as they finalized and registered their decks. While I couldn't see every deck, I saw enough to have a good idea of the field. There were many decks I couldn't identify, but they had blue and green cards. Mono-Green Devotion and Control looked like the most popular decks, followed by Spirits. A relatively favorable field. It didn't look like there were many Mono-Red players, but I did see plenty of red and black cards hanging around. With that in mind, I registered the following 75:
Lofty Denial often gets left in the sideboard these days in favor of Slip Out the Back, but in a field with lots of green decks, I want more maindeck counters. If there are going to be lots of red creatures and Shark Typhoon, I need the maindeck Brazen Borrowers. I'm not running Otawara, Soaring City after repeated flood-outs during testing.
The sideboard Damping Sphere's are purely for Lotus Field. I didn't specifically see it during scouting, but there were a number of decks that could have been field. I'm not playing Aether Gust because the only card that I'd want to Gust rather than counter is Skylasher and I've never had that card turn around the Mono-Green matchup enough to worry about. The Disdainful Stroke would generally be better anyway.
I learned there would be a lunch round and coming alone covered my logistical concerns. In terms of destressing after rounds, I make a point of walking out of the venue after rounds to trick my mind into letting things go. Physically leaving the space seems to do wonders for me, stress-wise. The biggest one that helped was writing down my notes from the match for this article. There's something really cathartic about putting word to touchscreen for me.
As I mentioned, I already play faster than most and disguise my sideboarding. To the point that it's a reflex at this point. So how did it go? That's a weird question to ask, I said I came in 10th back at the decklist. The RCQ had 53 players, and here's what happened:
Round 1: Mono-Green
Round one starts auspiciously as I'm on the draw and have to mulligan. However, I'm against Mono-Green which makes up for a lot. I get in five damage with an Obsessed Supreme Phantom while my opponent dumps onto the board. I flash in threats on the end-step, Shacklegeist the Cavalier of Thorns, and swing for 15. Easy game. In game two my opponent gets an early Karn, the Great Creator for Heart of Kiran but again I have Shacklegeist. From there, my opponent has nothing and I get to counter two Storm the Festivals with unbuffed Wanderers.
-3 Brazen Borrower -1 Geistlight Snare
+2 Witness Protection +2 Disdainful Stroke
Round 2: Niv to Light
In round two I'm again on the draw and again need to mulligan. I'm not sure what my opponent is playing until he plays Sylvan Caryatid into Kolaghan's Command. I've never tested against Pioneer Niv to Light. However, he never gets Supreme Verdict so I counter the sweeper he does have and then Niv-Mizzet Reborn. Game 2 is basically the same, just with Slip beating removal.
-3 Brazen Borrower -2 Shacklegeist
+3 Slip Out the Back +2 Disdainful Stroke
Round 3: UW Control
As has become familiar, I'm on the draw and a mulligan for round three. My UW opponent mulligans too, but he benefits more. All that needs to be said of game one is that my opponent played three Portable Holes in the first four turns, then Supreme Verdict, three March of Otherwordly Light, and two Absorb. I'm not sure I could beat that even with seven cards on the play. I did successfully answer Typhoon cycling with Borrower, so that's something. I mulligan again in game two, and this comes down to both of us with nothing in hand, I'm attacking with Haven, and he draws removal while I draw Islands. Whelp. Result: 2-1.
-4 Ascendant Spirit -4 Shacklegeist
+3 Slip Out the Back +3 Mystical Dispute +2 Disdainful Stroke
Round 4: Jund
I'm finally on the play but have to mulligan. Again. Variance is not on my side today. I keep Island, five one-drops, and never see another land despite four turns and seven draws thanks to Obsession. Game two starts well until I'm blown out by Hidetsugu Consumes All // Vessel of the All-Consuming. Couldn't play around it, but it still sucks. I managed to get my opponent down to one before Graveyard Trespasser // Graveyard Glutton put my opponent out of danger from my Wanderer, at that point my only flier. Any spirit or an Obsession wins the game but instead, I draw my seventh land and am dead to the swing back no matter how I block.
+2 Cerulean Drake
At this point I'm probably dead for Top 8. Probably isn't definitely though, so I'm staying in.
Round 5: Niv to Light
I'm on the play and for the first time, I don't have to mulligan! My opponent doesn't do much until I counter his Extinction Event. He gets Verdict a turn later, but I keep playing threats. I win when his Bring to Light gets Tolsimir, Friend to Wolves to gain life, and I Petty Theft Tolsimir before the wolf enters. In Game two my opponent again has Event and I again counter. That's the only thing he does. Post-game he reveals a hand of nothing but five-drops with only four lands.
-3 Brazen Borrower -2 Shacklegeist
+3 Slip Out the Back +2 Disdainful Stroke
Round 6: UW Spirits
Standings are posted and as anticipated, I'm not dead for Top 8 but it doesn't look good. There are 2 X-0s that will draw and 10 X-1s. If they all play, that's 6 slots taken. If two tables of X-1 ID, that's it, the Top 8 is a clean break. I have the best tiebreakers of the X-2s, so I have a chance.
On the play, I keep a hand of one-drops and two lands. I never see another land, but my opponent primarily draws counters so I just chip shoot him to victory. In game two I open Dispute, Shacklegeist, Wanderer, and four lands. I keep it because of the first two. I flood hard, but mitigate the damage with Geist and activating Havens for more tap fodder. Ultimately, I win with Haven damage having drawn just enough Spirits to live at one life. Result: 4-2.
-3 Lofty Denial -2 Curious Obsession
+3 Mystical Denial +2 Witness Protection
I found out after the match that two tables of X-1 did draw, so I'm done. The Top 8 consists of two UW Control, two Mono-Blue Spirits, Rakdos Sacrifice, Mono-Green Devotion, Jund, and Esper Control. Both players who beat me make it. The UW Control player I didn't play won.
After Action Report
My variance was not good at the RCQ. I had land trouble in many games and had to mulligan a lot. Another land wouldn't have helped round four game one and could have been a liability in round three and round six. That problem aside, I was quite happy with my maindeck. I never needed the Spheres, but it turned out that there was a lot of Cauldron Familiar at the event, making my lack of graveyard hate a risky call.
That said, my plan against UW Control didn't work and needs major rethinking. It was based on earlier versions of the deck that didn't run 4 Portable Holes. Now that they are, I need to completely rethink how I play the matchup and how I sideboard against it. The Mystical Disputes weren't good there. In fact, they're only really good in the mirror and sometimes against UR Phoenix.
As for Pioneer itself, I feel conflicted. Right now the format feels a lot like 2018 Modern. That's a good thing. However, I think that's a function of nobody understanding it rather than what the card pool actually allows. The only ones who kept up with Pioneer in 2020-2021 were the die-hards, and now the rest of us are mostly doing what the die-hards say is good—which I'm not sure is actually true. It just feels like there's a monster here waiting to be discovered.
I didn't make it on my first attempt, but there will be more. I'm playing a Modern RCQ this weekend, so look for that report next time.