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It's spoiler season again, and as I look around the web, there's speculation running rampant. Nobody knows how cards fit in, whether they're home runs or the pits. We don't even have the full spoiler yet. It's tempting to jump into theorycrafting with unproven, untested cards, but I'm going to refrain. I'll stick to reprints this week.
For those unaware, Dominaria United (DMU) spoiler season is less than a week old. However, about half of the set has been spoiled. This was not intentional, someone at Wizards accidentally posted the entire Dominaria United Release Notes document on the official site last Friday. They took it down quickly, but the internet never forgets. The set looks quite interesting overall. However, six intentionally spoiled cards currently overshadow everything else in terms of format impact. Today, I'll focus on those reprints and what they mean for Pioneer.
Bringing Back the Pain...lands
Confession: I said six cards, but that's only technically correct. See, five of the cards are from a cycle of ten that haven't been in Standard since 2009. This makes me feel very old, as I remember when these were the absolute pinnacle of mana fixing available. The allied pain lands are being reprinted and will therefore be Pioneer playable for the first time.
...though not all of them right away. Wizards is printing six pain lands now, and the rest are coming in The Brother's War in a couple of months. Which is a really weird division. Printing either the five allied and then five enemy-colored lands, or vice versa, makes a lot more sense—but apparently, the needs of Creative outweigh the need for logic.
This might explain why the reprints in DMU seem arbitrary. We're getting Adarkar Wastes, Caves of Koilos, Yavimaya Coast, Karplusan Forest, Shivan Reef, and Sulfurous Springs. I guess they're important to the story, but I don't follow the story anymore. I'm tired of setting everything on fire being Wizards' only storytelling strategy. Regardless, three allied pain lands are making it into Pioneer now, and the others will join in a few months.
A Needed Addition
I'm looking forward to having the allied pain lands back. The selfish reason is that I acquired multiple playsets of each back in the day, and I can finally unload them. I haven't found anyone who's wanted them since the shock lands were printed. Even the Ice Age versions. The design change towards always having mana fixing for all colors made them somewhat obsolete. The eternal formats have fetch lands and duals, and Standard is, well, Standard.
However, now pain lands will be in Pioneer forever, and I strongly suspect they'll be in high demand. Mana Confluence has been seeing a lot of play precisely because the allied pain lands aren't available. Paradoxically, the mana fixing for enemy colors was a lot better than allied since the enemy pain lands were already available via Magic Origins. Confluence will almost certainly be immediately replaced, which will also make some mana bases less painful on average. The pain lands can be used for colorless mana, after all.
Beyond that, it's not clear how the new pain lands will fit into Pioneer mana bases. The enemy pain lands aren't always included in enemy-colored decks, even faster ones. Replacing the Pathways is the logical starting point, but I don't know if that's ultimately correct. I am certain that there will be a lot of tinkering in the next few months.
The Queen Returns
Of course, all that pales in comparison to the news that Liliana of the Veil is being reprinted. Yes, I did bury the lede. It's a legitimate journalistic stratagem. Unlike with the allied pain lands, Modern (and maybe Legacy) is interested in this reprint.
Liliana's (arguably) most powerful incarnation is fairly expensive and has been so for quite a while, despite a few printings in Masters sets. A new printing in a Standard-legal set (with a Standard sized print run) represents a large increase in supply. This should put downward pressure on the overall price, with the new printing having the most pressure due to older versions having extra collector value. Of course, the new printing will also stimulate demand as players want to play a full set. Whether this will yield a net increase or decrease in price won't be known for some time.
She Finds a New Realm...
Of course, the biggest impact will be on the format that Liliana's never been in, Pioneer. Or maybe we should all just agree to call it Veil.format for the next few months. I'm not even making a joke. I fully expect everyone and their hamster to be running Liliana of the Veil in every deck possible for the next few months. Whether that will still be true in 2023 is another matter entirely.
Liliana of the Veil was a staple of Modern for many years. She's still a very potent card and sees considerable play, however, it's definitely not as much as pre-Modern Horizons. Liliana also sees play in Legacy, though it's neither widespread nor consistent. There's no reason to think that Pioneer would be an exception.
The real question is what role Liliana will play in Pioneer. Liliana is a resource denial planeswalker. The symmetrical discard is used to pressure the opponent into taking action while (in Modern and Legacy) powering up Tarmogoyf. The latter isn't possible in Pioneer, but the former will likely have a large impact on UW Control matchups.
...With a Ready Palace
That being said, I don't think that is currently the utility on most players' minds. I'm going to make a bold prediction right now: Liliana's printing will primarily benefit Greasefang, Okiba Boss decks in the immediate future. Whether it's the Abzan Greasefang deck or other variants is irrelevant. Greasefang is the archetype that will most fully adopt Liliana.
The reason is simple: Liliana makes Greasefang better. The card, I mean. The whole deck too, I suppose, but I'm specifically pointing to Liliana closing a big hole in the Greasefang plan. Specifically, Liliana makes it possible to discard Parhelion II reliably, repeatably, and consistently. Using Greasefang on Parhelion is the primary strategy for the deck, but also a sometimes-fatal flaw. The Abzan version in particular has many ways to get Parhelion into the graveyard from the library but few to discard it, meaning Liliana is closing a blindspot.
A blindspot that is relevant. There are plenty of ways for a Greasefang trigger to not result in an attack. My personal favorite is tapping Parhelion with Shacklegeist. Many lists now run Esika's Chariot to avoid this problem, but it's not as powerful as Parhelion. And now there's a way to reset while also disrupting the opponent. It's an exceptional deal.
Make Pioneer Make Sense
With all that said, I really hope that Liliana (and to a lesser extent the pain lands) will make Pioneer make more sense to me. It may just be me, but the Pioneer metagame doesn't make sense. There are some decks that make perfect sense as good decks. There are many others that seem like they shouldn't work and yet see a lot of play. More perplexingly, there are a number of decks that seem like they should be better or even exist but don't, one of which Liliana could revive.
Why Must This Be?
I realize that it sounds weird, but Pioneer's metagame feels very arbitrary. As if there's a gentleman's agreement being enforced that "This is how it is to be, don't ruin everything." However, there's no particular reason that The Things That Are Good have to be, nor is there a reason other things couldn't be too. And yet, things are as they are.
For comparison, Standard makes sense. It is the reflection of whatever Wizards decided would be good when the legal sets were designed. Whatever's good is whatever is able to be good. Modern makes sense (even if it is a bit wonky). Its metagame is a function of the best threats and answers available. Legacy makes sense. It's Brainstorm decks vs anti-Brainstorm decks, and the top deck is the most efficient Brainstorm deck. Are there holes and oddities in all of these? Absolutely, but the reasons the holes exist have explanations that fit their respective metagames.
To me, that isn't the case for Pioneer. It feels far more arbitrary. I don't have a specific reason why I feel this way. It's a general feeling, but I can point to the source of the feeling. Pioneer was brand new when the pandemic ended almost all paper Magic for a year and serious competitive play for two. The format was poised to be heavily pushed in competitive play to develop its player base, but that never happened. Instead, it was left to wallow and the only players that kept it going were the hard-core enthusiasts. Now that Pioneer is getting pushed again, it's like everyone else is stepping into the enthusiast's exclusive club and being told to conform, and we don't know better.
A Case in Point
The best encapsulation of my issue is that there is only one Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx deck, and that feels wrong. Nykthos is the most powerful mana engine in Pioneer (Lotus Field is a combo, not an engine) and yet it only sees play in one deck anymore. Devotion in general seems like it's being underplayed. I'm not saying that every color needs a devotion deck. Mono-Blue Devotion would be worse than Mono-Blue Spirits. Mono-White Devotion was a thing until Walking Ballista was banned. It isn't anymore because there's no good white mana-sink.
But why don't existing mono-red decks play Nykthos? They're well set up to do so now as they did before. Many play several varieties of Chandra, have many creatures and play red artifacts and enchantments. All of which provide red pips to power Nykthos. Red even has the perfect mana-sink/finisher in Banefire. However, I've never seen anyone try. I proxied up a few versions at the start of RCQ season and they performed about the same as the normal mono-red decks, yet, they see no play.
Similarly, mono-black decks have never played Nykthos despite being (arguably) the best Devotion deck in Ravnica-Theros Standard. I didn't get it then, and I don't get it now. It's especially egregious since Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth is legal and removes Nykthos' colorless mana drawback. It can't be that Pioneer is too fast. Rakdos Midrange and UW Control are two of the most successful decks. What's the problem?
Liliana As a Fix
This is where Liliana can help me. She's better in many roles than competing red planeswalkers, which will push them out. With a reduced need for red, there will be an incentive to go mono-black. The biggest losses are Bonecrusher Giant and Fable of the Mirror Breaker. However, there are other removal and card advantage options available. Thus, she might make the deck that I think should exist, actually exist.
Not that it's a certainty. My problem is my problem. It may be that I'm simply out of touch. However, as I noted earlier this year, it does feel like Pioneer is missing something. Other players I've discussed this with agree, but nobody knows what's wrong or what's missing. Just that the format feels somehow incomplete. Liliana and the pain lands will certainly lead to more exploration of Pioneer, so hopefully, that will fill in the missing decks.
More to Come
DMU isn't even out yet and it's already having a major impact on Pioneer. Hopefully, these reprints are the most impactful cards and everything else will be interesting build-arounds and role-players. Some pretty overpowered cards need printing to shake up any format as much as Liliana of the Veil and allied pain lands promise to. Which is a troubling thought.