Checking on Pioneer: Post-One Changes

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Pioneer is going to be the competitive format for the immediate future. Which, to be fair, is what I believe Wizards intended back in 2019, but never had the opportunity to follow through with. With the threat subsiding and competitive play getting more support in 2023, Pioneer is regaining the attention it was denied. Which means I have to figure out whether I like it or not.

Recent Shifts

In the time I haven't covered Pioneer, not much has changed. Mono-Green Devotion is still the boogeyman, though its specific combos have changed slightly. Rakdos Rock is still probably the best overall deck, and there is a plethora of beatdown decks making up the lower tiers. Players continue to play Abzan Greasefang despite itself, cementing Pioneer as a format of pet decks.

The biggest shift (as far as I can tell) is that GW Angels has gone from a fringe deck to an actual part of the metagame. Which was really bad news for me. If Mono-Blue Spirits struggles against Humans it's hopeless against Angels. I was already thinking I had to give up due to all the Humans, and Angels suddenly becoming a tier deck was the nail in the coffin.

I was surprised by this development initially, but it makes sense. If Devotion is rock, then fast aggro is paper. Devotion is overwhelming in the mid- to late-game, but can be overrun early. Angels is scissors: fast aggro cannot keep up with high-toughness threats that grow, fly, and gain big chunks of life. I was dreading the implications of this prior to Phyrexia: All Will Be One. The release has muddied the waters a lot.

Brewers' Lag

The impact of any set after release day is inconsistent. Players are incredibly excited to play with The Hot New Things but don't actually know how they're supposed to be playing them. Thus, I always see a flurry of activity during the first week after release as everyone tries to figure out what's good. After a lot of early builds fail, that effort goes more underground, as the streamers move on and the actual dedicated brewers move into the hard work. It will be another week or two before the actually refined lists emerge, assuming they actually exist.

I'm bringing this up to soften the blow I'm going to deal to the decks I'm discussing today. I know they're new and haven't quite finished baking. However, there's an ongoing RCQ season featuring Pioneer, and the next season is just Pioneer and Limited. I've been doing a lot of preparation for RCQs in the next few weeks and so are many players, so we need to see the decks as they already exist. There may be more potential down the line, but at the moment, this is what I've seen and what to expect.

The MTGO Effect

Of course, a lot of this is also a function of the Magic Online (MTGO) ecosystem. Streamers bring a lot of players to the platform and to decks, and when they switch off, many players follow. Similarly, players can easily switch and so aren't as focused perfecting one deck as having many interesting ones to play. I bring this up because almost all the Pioneer I've played recently has been online, so that's where my opinions are being formed. It may be very different in paper, I don't know.

Also, because I have nowhere else to complain, the Pioneer queues on MTGO are weirdly long. Modern always has the shortest waits and Standard's are basically nonexistent, but I never know what to expect with Pioneer. Sometimes it's constantly churning, sometimes it's a 20-minute wait between matches. I don't get it and consequently find it frustrating.

Pioneer Elves

No matter the format, players are always trying to make Elves work. I understand; I'm a Modern Merfolk player. However, outside of Legacy it's just never worked out. There are plenty of reasons/excuses for this across formats, but the bottom line is that Elves makes lots of mana and doesn't have much to do with it when it can't easily tutor for Craterhoof Behemoth or combo off some other way. Which makes it really confusing that I've seen more Pioneer Elves decks in the past week than in the past three years.

Seriously, since last Thursday I've played against GB Elves at least six times after having not seen the deck or anything similar at all since 2020, which was in paper. I never even saw it online. To see any deck suddenly spring to life is weird, especially for the (apparent) reason that it's happening now.

Tyvar in Charge

Tyvar, Jubilant Brawler has a lot of potential in many different decks. Elves players have apparently adopted him (primarily) to accelerate their mana engine. Which is a strong move in theory. Reality seems to disagree, as I've not lost a match to Elves so far despite Tyvar making them more broken. The fact that I'm playing Mono-White Humans and winning with Brave the Elements is certainly a factor, but I'm not sure what Tyvar does that Elves couldn't already do.

Tyvar allows Elves to make absurd amounts of mana with the untap ability, but Elves could already do that various ways. The second ability isn't terrible in attrition matches but that's what all the token makers and Collected Company already do. A deck that makes more mana than it can use doesn't need to make more mana; it needs payoffs.

Theoretically, Leaf-Crowned Visionary fixes the problem, enabling Elves to dig through the deck and build an enormous board. However, unless the deck hits a lethal Shaman of the Pack, the opponent will have a turn to answer the big turn. If Craterhoof was legal, that'd be a different story, but as-is, Tyvar isn't fixing the fundamental problem with Elves so I can't imagine the deck working out. Tyvar should probably be rehomed.

Pioneer Hammer Time

The big winner from One was Pioneer Hammer Time. While it had the core interaction of Sigarda's Aid and Colossus Hammer, there wasn't much else to recommend the deck. Open the Armory isn't Stoneforge Mystic and Resolute Strike isn't Puresteel Paladin. Prior to One, I hadn't seen the deck in paper or online in at least a year.

That is no longer the case and, for the moment anyway, there's a decent chance of running into a Hammer Time player online. The key pickup across versions is Kemba, Kha Enduring. The second clause is mostly irrelevant, but the first is making the deck plausible. It's the best way to scoop up loose Hammers and can even immediately attack with a Rabbit Battery. One Fatal Push can't completely derail the attack.

Similarly, Cacophony Scamp has given the deck a way to steal wins. Turn one Scamp, turn two Aid and Hammer is 20 damage. Older versions didn't have a turn-two kill since Springleaf Drum and Ornithopter saw no play. Not many decks have one-mana removal, so this combo should improve the win rate.

A Catch

You know the meme about having something at home? Pioneer Hammer is Modern Hammer at home. Admittedly, previously it was far worse, and improvement is improvement, but this deck is a pale shadow of its Modern cousin. One might say that about Pioneer in general, but even accounting for the lower power level, Hammer Time isn't likely to make a dent in Pioneer.

The problem isn't that Pioneer lacks Modern's cardpool. Missing Stoneforge is a big deal, but Open is acceptable in Pioneer's context. Missing Saga is also a huge hit, but again that's made up for by the overall power level of the format being low enough that it isn't necessary. No, the problem is that there's no Puresteel Paladin analogue. All the ways to actually equip Hammer are one-shot effects, making removal fairly devastating. Fighter Class helps, but it's not enough.

So far, I've never lost a match to Hammer Time, be it mono-white or Boros. All of said matches were won 2-1, so there's definitely potential for the deck. With the right addition it might be a huge threat. However, the deck just lacks a decent fallback for removal in response to equipping creatures. Some have tried out Skrelv, Defector Mite, but the fact that no recent list is playing him says he doesn't work.

The Artifacts Deck

The last new deck I've seen is harder to discuss, but it's also the only one I've been impressed by. The difficulty is that I don't have a list to link to. Nobody seems to be talking, posting about, or streaming this deck, but I've lost to it both times I've played it, and the games weren't close. The best way I can describe it is the Pioneer port of Modern Urza. It's the same premise and many of the cards are the same, but instead of Urza, Lord High Artificer as the payoff, it's using Malcator, Purity Overseer.

The premise appears to be the same as the Modern deck, with lots of cheap artifacts powering various effects including Emry, Lurker of the Loch to dig for Malcator and protect it with Metallic Rebuke. The key is keeping back enough cheap artifacts to trigger Malcator twice the turn he comes in and then each turn thereafter. Against me, that happened, and I was buried by golems.

That's not much of a plus, I'll admit, but it is worth remembering that most of the enabling artifacts of Modern Urza decks are also Pioneer-legal. Not many decks are truly prepared for dedicated artifact decks in Pioneer, so this deck could easily be real.

Is Pioneer Shifting?

This begs the question of where Pioneer is headed. Based on what I've seen online, I'd say that for the immediate future, Pioneer will continue on its previous course.

While I have played a number of decks with One cards, most decks have been pre-One stock, and mostly the usual suspects. It might be that card availability is an issue or that the previously mentioned difficulty refining decks is at play. It could also simply be that there isn't enough reason for players to dramatically change their decks yet, so they're simply keeping on keeping on. I certainly haven't seen anything that makes me think I need to dramatically alter my sideboard or maindeck. Pioneer appears extremely stable.

Therefore, my advice ahead of the weekend RCQs is to not panic. No lurking monster has emerged from One, and that's not likely to change in the next three days. Someone might have unusual tech at your RCQ, but it can be dealt with via ordinary means. There's definitely the chance that one of the new decks (most likely Hammer Time) will just get you. That doesn't mean anything; take it on the chin and get ready to win the sideboard games.

Slow Ride

I know that Modern has a reputation for moving slowly, but Pioneer seems to move even slower. The metagame has been overall quite stable and the format pillars are mostly unchanged since last season. There are new decks in the works but as of writing, they've not had enough time in the oven to truly compete. Don't dismiss the new decks, but don't panic over them either. Just execute the gameplan and win. Good luck to all RCQ players this weekend!

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