The Secret Identity of Pioneer: Pro Tour Weekend Lessons

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I've never been a huge fan of Pioneer. I don't know if that's been entirely clear in the past, but I dislike the format. I'm not sure why, but I do. It's not even that I dislike the gameplay. Pioneer just... feels wrong somehow, like there's something missing or that I don't get, and it's keeping me from having fun.

I've explored my hang-ups before and failed to find a clean answer, but recent events have left me even more puzzled than before. My personal experience at a Pioneer RCQ coupled with Pro Tour Phyrexia have left me wondering if anyone knows how Pioneer is supposed to work.

What Is Pioneer's Format Identity?

Standard? A showcase for the most recent expansions. Modern? A turn-four, non-rotating format with no reserved list. Historic? The powered-down Arena version, featuring re-imagined cards. Legacy? A combo and tempo haven for the most enfranchised players. Vintage? A place where anything goes. But Pioneer...?

I do not have, nor have I ever received, a satisfactory answer to this central question. The closest anyone's ever come is that Pioneer is cheaper Modern, but that's not really an identity per se. That's also not something that will last forever, especially if Wizards' pushing Pioneer makes it more popular. Looking at what sees play is the best I can do, but that says more about the metagame than format identity.

At time of writing, the Top 8 deck of Pioneer (according to MTGGoldfish, anyway) are, in order: Rakdos Rock, Mono-Green Devotion, UW Control, Lotus Field Combo, Gruul Vehicles, Mono-White Humans, Izzet Phoenix, and GW Angels. By my count, there are two beatdown decks with ramp elements (Angels, Vehicles); one true combo deck (Lotus); a ramp/combo deck (Devotion); a beatdown combo deck (Phoenix); an aggro deck (Humans); a midrange beatdown deck (Rakdos); and UW Control. Seven proactive decks, one true answer deck: at the very least, Pioneer is about threats.

Survey Says...

Anyone who takes a Google through Magic discourse will quickly find that most players agree with that assessment. Going back to 2019, every Pioneer metagame has been defined by powerful aggro or combo decks. Control in various configurations has always been present, but it's never been on top, and even the midrange decks tend toward the proactive side (at least in the maindeck).

The belief was that the threats of Pioneer were so much stronger than the answers that to play reactively was to play from behind, and eventually fall. This proved especially apparent at the start of Pioneer, when UW Control had to make do with just Azorius Charm for targeted, instant-speed removal. Fatal Push was also quite weak, thanks to the fetchlands being banned. Thus, players prioritized threats, and while Pioneer was never quite a two-ships-passing fest, it wasn't a very interactive format either.

I also know that may players say that Pioneer is more play/draw dependent than other formats. I don't know if that's actually true, but it does show how players believe that falling behind in any way is fatal in Pioneer, reinforcing the proactivity bias.

My RCQ Experience

I was operating under this assumption as I prepared for the Pioneer RCQ I played in last Saturday. My previous experience at Pioneer RCQs had certainly reinforced that whoever fell behind in a match would likely lose.

My preferred deck, Mono-Blue Spirits, exemplified this problem. Slapping a Curious Obsession on a flying one-drop is backbreaking against decks that aren't doing anything on turns 1-2, but pales in comparison to what actual creature decks can do. Knowing that Humans was becoming a larger part of the meta made me shy away, and Angels gaining metagame share queued a full retreat.

Thus, I shifted focus to Humans as well. I have a long history with Humans and already owned most of the cards, so it was an easy switch. I spent that past month playing and testing extensively on Magic Online, and felt that my handle on what to expect and how to play against it was solid. Most of the decks I saw both in the Tournament Practice room and in Leagues were known, proactive decks. I adjusted my play and sideboarding plan accordingly.

While I had less opportunities to play Pioneer in paper, when I did, the field and my results were in line with what I saw online. All this to say that going into the RCQ, I was quite pleased with my preparation and expected good results.

The Twist

Instead, I went 1-3 drop, with my only win coming because my opponent didn't show up. It was a bad start to the day when scouting showed that the room was about 50% Blackcleave Cliffs. Neither of my decks has a good matchup against Rakdos, but Humans is slightly better than Spirits, so I stuck to my choice. I then proceeded to hit terrible matchups and got crushed.

Being on the draw all three matches and playing poorly against RW Heroic didn't help, but the pairings god was definitely against me. The irony is that Spirits has a much better matchup against the decks I actually faced, even if it was a worse deck in the field of Rakdos.

This gave me ample time to see what actually was winning, and it was strange. While there was a lot of Rakdos decks there, the flavors at the top tables were all Sacrifice decks rather than midrange. They were also joined by Enigmatic Incarnation, a deck I thought dead locally after multiple terrible showings at other RCQs. There was also some strange A-Acererak the Archlich combo and UW Spirits. Only one player had Devotion, and all the UW Control players were at the middle tables.

Rakdos Sacrifice would ultimately win that RCQ. It was joined by another Sac deck, two Rakdos midrange decks, Humans, Lotus Field, and two Incarnation decks. The sort of field that all my preparation and experience said shouldn't happen, but did.

The PT Experience

Meanwhile, on the professional stage, something else unexpected went down. In a field that broadly conformed to the overall metagame, Reid Duke won his first ever Pro Tour, about the only accolade missing from his resume. Rather than play one of the metagame's top decks, Reid was playing Indomitable Creativity, as was a good chunk of his team. Gabriel Nassif was running the same deck and reunited with Reid in Top 8. They were joined by Humans, Auras, two Lotus Fields, Incarnation, and Rakdos Midrange.

While it's interesting that Incarnation made the PT Top 8 too, what is more interesting is how Reid played. I didn't watch every match that was streamed, but every time I saw Reid playing, he was being extremely deliberate... and defensive. Unlike how Creativity plays in Modern, Reid was treating the deck like a control deck with a combo finish. He only went for Creativity at the last possible second after ensuring that his opponent couldn't stop him from just winning. Nassif was doing the same thing, but I didn't see other Creativity players playing as cautiously as those two.

Defense Wins Championships

That was actually something of a theme of the Pro Tour. In contrast to expectations and how the format is believed to work, defense was favored over offense; the more defensive the deck, the better it did. This is exemplified by Takumi Matsuura's Humans deck. In a complete departure from norm, Takumi didn't run Brave the Elements. Instead, Colossification and Skrelv, Defector Mite made the main. This is far less aggressive and more defensive, indicating that Takumi was planning on playing more attrition games.

Th same could be seen in Benton Madsen's second-place Auras deck. Bogles has always been about rendering removal moot, but Pioneer doesn't have all the hexproof creatures Modern does. Therefore, Benton played many more auras that cantrip, expecting to have to win through grinding. He also had Skrelv maindeck and many sideboard cards for attrition matchups. It is clear that, unlike me, the best players were anticipating the format being about interaction rather than aggression.

What Does It Mean?

A lot of the discussion in the aftermath has been on Mono-Green Devotion's fall from dominance and/or the unexpected win rates various decks posted. Which is fair, but this is exactly what happened after the Regional Championships too. Mono-Green did quite bad there. Then it was like everyone forgot and it immediately went back to being treated as Pioneer's boogeyman. I'm as guilty as anyone of doing this, though I have the excuse that my focus is Modern.

Admittedly, there are always complications and qualifications for drawing conclusions from a single event. In this case it's that the Pro Tour has a draft component, and those drafts can repair a mediocre Constructed run or ruin a great one. I therefore can't say that the lesson from Philadelphia necessarily applies to Pioneer RCQs. However, there is a thread running through my experiences, the Regional results, and now the Pro Tour that suggests Pioneer isn't what I, or many Pioneer players, may think it is.

Maybe We're All Wrong

What if Pioneer isn't supposed to be an aggressive format? What if instead, the answers are stronger than the threats? What if the format is actually about defense and attrition? I've had this thought scratching at the back of my head since my first Pioneer RCQ last summer. UW Control was a breeze for Spirits back when Pioneer was new, but at that tournament, I felt like Spirits was massively out-gunned. The new white removal like Portable Hole was bad enough, but Shark Typhoon was just unfair.

This thread continued through later tournaments. Spirits was good against the slower decks, but it increasingly felt like that wasn't intrinsic to the matchup so much as it was them being unfocused and unoptimized. Where early on I mostly had to worry about sweepers, increasingly I had to fight through waves of spot removal. I was being ground under despite drawing well. The matchups were still winnable, but it was getting harder and harder.

Now we've come to the Pro Tour. What ultimately won the day was card advantage, defense, and above all else, patience. This is completely contradictory to what everyone has said about Pioneer for years, but it does gel with how I've seen matchups playing out. The free wins from players stumbling against aggressive opponents still happens, but they're getting rarer. Pioneer is changing under our noses.

Time to Reevaluate

I think it's past due for players to take a step back and reevaluate Pioneer. Last weekend was the first time that the big-name pros have dug into the format in years, and they came to very different conclusions about what is good in Pioneer. That should be a wake-up call for the rest of us that have been operating under the old assumptions.

I know it is for me. I, and I suspect most other players, didn't have much reason to pay attention to Pioneer 2020-2021. Certainly, the numbers on MTGO suggested as much. The format was left to the devices of true believers, and when we started coming back, we asked them what was good and ran with it. However, they were a fairly small group, and had been allowed to do as they pleased.

Consequently, Pioneer's metagame was a function of what they wanted to do, not what was possible. Now that more eyes are on Pioneer, it's becoming clearer that Pioneer has a lot more going on than anticipated, and the format doesn't work the way we were told.

I have a month before the next round of Pioneer RCQs start, so I'm going to really start digging into deckbuilding. There are concepts that I feel need to be explored, but conventional wisdom said would never work. If that wisdom is wrong, then I've been on the completely wrong track.

Shifting Down

The developments from the Pro Tour weekend strongly suggest to me that Pioneer is supposed to be much slower and attrition-based than I've previously given it credit. I intend to start investigating this because I'm tired of struggling at RCQs. I can't play a Modern one for the foreseeable future, so I'd better quickly get better at Pioneer or suffer through a very frustrating year! Readers: what is Pioneer to you? I'd love to get your take.

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