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Mana Defines Formats: Pioneer’s Identity Problem

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As the year draws to a close, Magic tends to take a breather, recalibrate, and look ahead to the coming year. The past few years have been anything but typical, but 2022 seems to be especially scandal-prone. The latest Hasbro drama is roiling up the community alongside, but there's been rules drama as well over the weekend. Meanwhile, there is turmoil in Legacy. Turmoil that has brought some clarity to a problem I've wrestled with this entire year.

Step Up, Legacy

For the (presumptive) majority of players unconnected to the Legacy scene, there's been a bit of a flap over new cards in the format. This has been going on for a while, to be frank, but the latest bit of angst is over the initiative mechanic that debuted in... in... (discreetly opens Scryfall...) Commander Legends: Battle for Baldur's Gate (Impossible to keep track of these things anymore). The problem seems to be that the mechanic provides too much value too quickly and is ruining the format.


I'm not sure the former is actually true in a format where Uro, Titan of Nature's Wrath is still legal, but the latter just makes me laugh. Too fast in Legacy? The format of fast mana? The only reason there aren't more turn one kills is social convention and fear of Force of Will. All the rituals are legal, and all but the most broken artifact mana as well. More fast mana can be played in a Legacy deck than even Vintage. Saying something is too fast in such a format is the height of irony.

History Lesson

Stompy decks have been a staple of Legacy decks since the format's inception. This permanent-based midrange archetype is defined by using fast mana and Sol lands (Ancient Tomb and City of Traitors) to power out lock pieces and/or huge threats on turns 1-2 and ride them to victory. For a lot of recent Legacy, Stompy has been limited to Red Stompy, which is fringe at best. The initiative decks are white, and seeing far more play and success than the red decks ever did. This is upsetting players.


The funny part is that this isn't really new, and in fact signals a return to Legacy's roots. I started playing competitive Magic when Legacy was still called Type 1.5, and was terrible. The only difference between Type 1.5 and Type 1 (now called Vintage) was that if it was restricted in Type 1, it was banned in 1.5. There were only three decks at the (very limited) Type 1.5 events: the fair blue deck (called Fish, but not Merfolk), the unfair blue deck (High Tide), and Stax (artifact prison named for Smokestack). Even after Wizards changed the names and provided more separation, this division persisted for years, though the nature changed.

The Turning Point

I vividly remember the transition from old to new. In 2002, Onslaught introduced the fetchlands, heralding the fetch-centric manabases that remain a gold standard. However, it was not an instantaneous transition. The store I learned to play in was packed with players from the early days, and many were adamant that these new fetchlands changed nothing about their beloved Type 1. They were having a tournament a few weekends after release, and the owner made a bet that any random kid with a Brainstorm deck with fetchlands could win the tournament.


Guess who the random kid he selected was? For the only time in my life, I played unproxied paper Vintage with the full Power 9. In normal sleeves, shuffling like the barely-teen I was. Someone else handed a fully Powered UR Fish deck to child me and even covered my entry fee, just to prove a point. I reduced the current market value of someone else's most expensive cards in Magic on purpose. What have you ever done? It was his spare fully Powered deck too (what a time to be alive). I didn't outright win said tournament, but I did Top 8, so the store owner won his bet.

Consequences

While both Standard and Extended had fetchlands for a time, Legacy was their forever home. In Vintage, you either played basic Island or Mishra's Workshop, and those were the formats. Even in Legacy, players were far more cautious about their manabases than today. It wasn't until Delver of Secrets was printed in 2011 that the kind of Legacy manabase most think of today was born, and even that didn't become commonplace until about 2014.


It took time for Legacy players to explore the limits of what they could do. Even Modern in the early days was very conservative mana-wise. Three-color decks posed huge risks in Standard, so everyone had color discipline ingrained into their souls. Just how much fetching for dual lands reduced that risk wasn't fully understood.


Plus, in Legacy, there was the fear of Stax. The threat wasn't really tangible, but there was always the fear that a prison deck would completely shut down whatever you were trying to do with Blood Moon, Chalice of the Void, and/or Trinisphere. It took years for the fear to subside, but not the threat. Prison, be it pure Stax or red-based, was always viable. It was just as powerful as the format-defining Delver decks, but not as consistent in the mid-game. The tradeoff was early game acceleration leading to insurmountable advantages. Instead, it felt more like players had signed onto a social contract to just play Brainstorm decks rather than Sol land decks.

Full Circle

In other words, the new Legacy defined by White Stompy is really just a return to form. A lot of the complaints about this deck being unwelcome in Legacy stem from the belief that such gameplay doesn't belong in Legacy. That sort of blowback is to be expected when an unwritten social contract is broken, but the simple truth is that this gameplay has always been in Legacy, and it used to form an integral piece. It just hasn't been popular for a while.

The Lesson

The above points came from an argument I had with a self-described Legacy master over the weekend. He hates the new white stompy decks because his 4-Color Pile can't compete with initiative's value. He had to concede my point and ultimately admitted that it was salt more than anything driving his feelings, but it all got me thinking.


Every format is defined not just by what players actually want to do, but what they can do. Not what metagame says they should do, but what they're allowed to do in terms of the legal cards and the limitations of their mana. This has led me to finally have an answer for what Pioneer is, after a year of trying to define it.

Limited Possiblities

Pioneer is the fetchless format. Wizards decreed it thus when they banned the allied fetchlands. Yes, Fabled Passage exists, but it's nowhere near the other fetchlands in power and utility. They likely looked at the 4-5 color mess that Frontier and Khans-Block Standard became and learned their lesson. For a lower-power format to work, the mana couldn't be too good. However, this has had the side effect of severely limiting what is possible for players to do in Pioneer.


As of writing, of the 15 decks on MTGGoldfish's Pioneer page, there are four decks that are actually three colors. Lotus Field combo doesn't count; it's a blue-green deck with some black cards for the combo. The splashes in Green Devotion don't count either. I wouldn't count the split in Fires of Invention decks between decks with Yorion, Sky Nomad and not, but that's irrelevant. The first true tricolor deck on their list is Abzan Greasefang, and I'd say it's a Tier 2 deck.


The cost of playing three or more colors is inconsistent mana, at least in comparison to Legacy and Modern. In Modern, two fetchlands turn into a triome and shockland for all five colors. It's why seven decks on Modern's page are unequivocally three-plus color decks. In Pioneer, hitting all five colors turn 2 requires actually drawing the right triome and shockland, which cannot be guaranteed with the consistency of Modern.


This puts far more strain on manabases and consequently on deckbuilding. Fires is the only deck with four colors in Pioneer not because it's inherently the right way to build multicolor decks, but because Fires itself fixes the otherwise quite questionable manabase.

Bad and Slow

Moreover, the mana in Pioneer is not only bad, but it's slow. There is no fast mana, at least in the way it has been traditionally understood. No rituals. One land that produces more than one mana without conditions (Lotus Field), and only Mox Amber for artifact acceleration. Every other mana source needs to be paid for at a rate equivalent to the source's mana cost. It's all investment mana.

Modern has seen most of its fast mana banned away over the years, leaving the bounce lands, two rituals, Gemstone Cavern, and Chancellor of the Tangle as fast-ish mana above Pioneer's level. Legacy is, as mentioned, the true fast mana format. Consequently, Pioneer and Modern are considerably slower than Legacy.


Fast mana is in many ways the defining line between Modern and Legacy, more even than Reserved List cards or Brainstorm. Legacy's mana allows for far more turn 1 wins than actually happen. In Modern, the only possible turn 1 win is with Neoform, which is so unlikely it's an irrelevant consideration.

Formats as Defined by Mana

With all this in mind, I think I can finally and definitively place each format as a function of what is possible. Regardless of the spells available in each format, it is the mana available that actually determines the gameplay possible, and therefore the format's identity. Through this lens, we can define the major constructed formats as such:

  • Standard: The rotating format. Is whatever Wizards wants/allows it to be.
  • Pioneer: No non-basic fetchlands, negligible fast mana. Faster decks with two or less colors rewarded, while many-color decks struggle. Games play out relatively fast. Turn one wins impossible.
  • Modern: Fetchlands legal, most fast mana banned. Many-color decks easy, few-color decks less powerful. Games tend to be relatively fast. Turn one wins possible but quite rare.
  • Legacy: Fetchlands legal, most fast mana legal. Many-color decks very easy, fast mana also easy. Games tend to be medium-speed, but turn one wins very possible.
  • Vintage: Fetchlands legal, all fast mana legal, although the artifacts are restricted. Many-color decks very easy, fast mana omnipresent. Fair decks tend towards medium-speed, combo decks aim for turn-one wins.

The takeaway: regardless of what cards Wizards ends up printing, Pioneer will always be limited by its lack of fetchlands compared to other non-rotating formats. In Modern, much more is possible because the manabase allows for more decks with loose color discipline. That will never be true for Pioneer unless Wizards changes its mind over fetchlands.

Adjust Expectations

So long as the manabase status quo remains, regardless of the dual lands printed, Pioneer will favor one- or two-color decks over all others. Remember, Pioneer has most of the same dual lands as Modern as-is, so more won't change the situation. Multicolor decks in non-rotating formats need fetchlands to keep pace and consistency with few-color decks, and nothing else printed thus far will do.


Meanwhile, Legacy players should just get used to Stompy decks. Even if something is done about initiative, the genie is out of the bottle. Players didn't play Sol land decks before because players didn't like Red Prison. Now that initiative has shown that straight prison is possible with and can benefit from the Sol lands, I'd be shocked if more decks don't come out of the woodwork. The mana has always allowed it, but a good payoff has finally arrived.

Working Within Restrictions

When thinking about formats, there will always be the tension between what is possible and what players actually do. Modern's card base is vast, and there are many more obscure decks that could see play struggle to find traction. This is true of all non-rotating formats. Sometimes the decks aren't up to snuff but often it's just easier to play along with the mainstream. This does mean when something comes along to upset the status quo, it will feel far more jarring and unexpected.

3 thoughts on “Mana Defines Formats: Pioneer’s Identity Problem

  1. It’s interesting that with the recent overflow of Magic merchandise bringing back the Extended format would be perfect for the game. The main reason Extended was eliminated was to keep Modern playable while Legacy was the top format in the game. Obviously things have changed a lot since then and having Extended once more would keep relevant all the product that keeps being released at such a fast pace.

    1. The problem Extended always had was the weird rotation schedule. It worked fine the first few times but then the wheels just came off. Wizards tried to salvage the situation by turning it into Super Standard, but that was right after the whole CawBlade debacle and nobody wanted to have more of that. Besides, what everyone wanted was Legacy and Modern anyway, so rather than fix the problem Wizards gave up.

      That said, I do agree that a fixed Extended would provide value in this current era. However, you have to use a rotation schedule that makes sense without infringing on Pioneer’s territory. That’s a really delicate balance. If Wizards really wanted to, I think the problem’s solvable but when are they going to find the time to figure it all out? Especially with the release schedule continuing to ramp up? And if not Wizards, who in the community is willing to put in the effort?

      1. That’s true, although my main concern is the Standard format. Between Covid and the rise of Magic Arena it looks like local stores are about to stop doing Stardard tournaments altogether. Too many different formats have made Stardard too expensive. Why pay for cards that’ll rotate after 15 months when they can build Pioneer and Modern decks for less? It seems like the game has become too big for Standard. Keeping sets like Ikoria and Throne of Eldraine relevant today creates more incentive to buy the new sets and stay with the format.

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