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Pioneer, I need to level with you. While I have never actually understood what you're supposed to be, I thought I had a handle on what you actually were. The metagame data seemed to back up my assessment. However, as another Pioneer RCQ season kicks off and I'm watching other players preparing for the Dallas RC, I'm getting increasingly frustrated by all the curveballs being thrown to me. Pioneer, you have an identity problem, and one deck is a huge beneficiary of that fact.
Look, I've tried to be on Pioneer's side, but it's getting harder and harder the more I play the format. I know that it isn't Modern and accept that it isn't even Modern-lite. Pioneer is closer to Standard-plus, which isn't a pro for me as I don't like Standard. However, understanding that made me more tolerant of what Pioneer has to offer. However, as testing progresses, the experience is increasingly just this Tweet:
The search for any human being who likes any single Pioneer deck continues. Will they ever be found?
— Andrew Elenbogen (@Ajelenbogen) May 18, 2023
Other than the odd player playing some off-meta jank, nobody I talk to ever gives a full-throated defense of their deck or Pioneer, never mind an exaltation. I've repeatedly asked players why they play Pioneer, but it's always 1) It's cheaper than Modern or 2) Because that's what the RCQ season is. I never get anyone saying they actually like Pioneer for its own sake anymore.
There used to be some at my LGS, but they've stopped showing up to weekly Pioneer events. I don't know why, but this does seem to be a trend:
Do players not like pioneer? NRG had 20 less players for Saturday's 10k vs Sunday's 5k. Maybe players really love modern? Just find itvreally interesting.
— Eric Hawkins (@conanhawk) May 22, 2023
I know there are many confounding variables surrounding tournament attendance, but I do consistently hear the same thing. Given a choice between Pioneer and anything else, most players pick anything else. Which further contributes to Pioneer's stagnation from lack of new ideas and brews.
To make things worse, I don't see anyone winning in paper with the supposed "good decks" of Pioneer. I realize that this is selection bias, but I've never been to a Pioneer RCQ in the past year where an ostensible "best deck" won. It's either been off-meta decks like Enigmatic Incarnation or on-meta but supposedly ill-positioned deck like UW Control and at my most recent RCQ, Humans.
While this can happen in any format and for any event, it happens regularly enough in my Pioneer experience that it's starting to feel more like a feature than a bug. I vividly remember one player who entered a Pioneer RCQ I atteneded with Izzet Phoenix, confidently stating that his deck was favored against the expected meta. He proceeded to hit nothing but, and I quote "terrible off-metagame jank" (meaning decks he wasn't expecting) and dropped at 1-3.
I've had similar experiences of entering a room full of control, combo, and midrange and hitting nothing but aggro decks. That's just the Pairings God hating you. However, again, there does appear to be a theme of local RCQs having an expressed metagame, and then an actual one made of unexpected decks.
The Coin-Flip Problem
The really big frustration has been playing on the draw. It is well established that being on the play is better than the draw 99% of the time because tempo advantage is better than card advantage. However, I constantly hear that the disparity is worse in Pioneer than other formats. I constantly hear complaints from players testing for Dallas is that their deck is phenomenal on the play and worthless on the draw.
I don't know if the claim is true, or even provable. I do know that the removal available to Pioneer is worse than other non-rotating formats. This coupled with mana being relatively worse means that stumbles are punished more severely. Pioneer is also a format where threats are generally more powerful than spells. Thus, it makes sense that the active players have a large advantage, and that's frustrating.
The Consistency Problem
On the note of mana being worse, decks are a lot more inconsistent in Pioneer than elsewhere. No format can match Legacy's deck smoothing, but Wizards has been freer with cantrips than they used to be. Look at Modern today versus five years ago. That said, I've heard from actual Standard players that they think Pioneer is less consistent than Standard, which makes everything feel worse.
I can't really explain why this is the case. However, I have seen it in action. The Izzet Phoenix player I mentioned a few paragraphs ago had claimed that much of his deck's power came from it being more consistent than other decks thanks to all the cantrips he played. The problem was that while the deck did filter through itself well, the initial starts were always slow, and he couldn't catch up after falling behind.
There seems to be something in how Pioneer decks are built compared to Standard or Modern where the delta between their best games, average games, and their worst. I definitely feel the difference between Pioneer and Modern, but I just have to take Standard's word on the subject. Given that it seems widespread (or at least is about complained to me universally), this seems to be a feature of Pioneer.
The Matchup Spread
The final, nearly universal complaint I've heard and felt in testing Pioneer is matchups are extremely polarized. Decks don't appear to have a normal matchup spread. Instead, they seem to wax from very good to very bad. For example, I haven't lost to UW Control playing UW Spirits since adopting [card]Invasion of Gobakhan // Lightshield Array/card]. However, I'm a complete dog to any aggro deck.
I've experienced this with other decks, and had many others complained about to me. Sideboard cards are generally weaker in Pioneer than Modern or Legacy because Wizards consciously powered down hate cards over the past five years. Thus, there are few silver bullets that can turn a matchup around by themselves, meaning that the matchup doesn't change as much between games 1 and 2.
Along with weaker hate cards comes better answers to the hate that exists. Theoretically, Archon of Emeria and Deafening Silence kill Lotus Field combo. However, Otawara, Soaring City is maindeckable and dodges both cards restrictions while answering them. It being harder to hate decks out means that bad matchups stay bad which makes pairings more deterministic of outcome.
For all those reasons, I and a lot of players I know are getting really frustrated with Pioneer. It feels like everything is bad and there's no way to fix things if the pairings are against you. However, there is an exception. I've never heard anyone say that Rakdos Rock is a bad deck. Plenty have said it's a mediocre deck in a field of bad decks, but never that it's bad itself. Which probably explains why it's top deck in the metagame.
It's strange to consider, but Rock has just been sitting on top of Pioneer's metagame since last summer. I remember everyone freaking out about Mono-Green Devotion, but the bottom line is that every site's stats have Rakdos on top by a wide margin. I finally put it together after seeing a Discord post saying, "Pioneer wants me to play Rakdos, so fine, so I'll just play Rakdos!"
It feels obvious, and I even mentioned this in another article, but Rakdos just seems to be exempt from the usual complaints about Pioneer decks. Blood tokens and Fable of the Mirror-Breaker // Reflection of Kiki-Jiki smooth out draws better than other decks, the matchup delta seems lower, and it has game against everything. When everything's bad, the least bad is by default good.
Beating the System
The biggest key to this status is that Rakdos doesn't have any deck that it's truly bad against. Thoughtseize is live in any matchup, after all. It's been said repeatedly that it's a 50% against everything deck and I've no evidence to contradict the claim. In a format where decks are mostly 80/20 in one matchup and 20/80 in another, 50/50 means that every matchup is actually winnable.
This solves not only the matchup spread problem but the off-meta problem. It doesn't matter what deck it hits, Rakdos will always be in the game. Its cards aren't especially specialized or context specific, they're just the best available cards at their mana points. The only times that Rakdos will have dead cards are late-game discard or removal against Lotus Field. Again, that's better than most decks can say.
That isn't to say that Rakdos is perfectly 50/50 against everything. I'm told that Enigmatic Incarnation and Gruul Vehicles are very bad matchups. Thing is, neither deck are big players in the metagame. Meanwhile, Rakdos has even to good matchups against the more popular decks, which is all that's really needed.
In my experience, Rakdos is also the deck least affected by the play/draw disparity in Pioneer. Obviously, it still wants to play first, but it does play better from behind than most other Pioneer decks. On the play it wants to curve Thoughtseize into Bloodtithe Harvester and Fable. On the draw, that is still a solid curve against control or combo. If instead it's against aggro, Rakdos can happily play Fatal Push, Stomp, and Kolaghan's Command.
I don't know of another deck as comfortable on the draw as Rakdos. Every other deck really feels the missing tempo, but Rakdos can tweak its role better than any other deck. Consequently, it has no issue starting out behind. It will just play out removal and eventually its card quality and card advantage will pull it through. In a format that many claim is coin-flip dependent, Rakdos' defiance is a huge advantage.
All of this sounds really familiar. It's almost exactly what players used to say about Modern Jund. From when Modern was new up until Death's Shadow became a thing, Jund was a fixture of Modern, and it played the same way as Pioneer Rakdos now does. Jund never did the most powerful thing in Modern. It just did something decent every game and could play against anything.
Jund's entire gameplan was to overpower its opponents by simply being more efficient. Its card quality was slightly better than every other deck, so it just traded up until the opponent couldn't anymore and then won. That is essentially all that Rakdos is doing now. The format composition was also similar in that the power was fairly low across the board and so individual cardpower was critical.
So, if pre-2017 Jund and current Pioneer Rakdos are similar, what does that say about their respective formats? The implication here is that this style of deck thrives in an environment where it's just slightly better than everything else rather than being good itself. Looking at how Modern's powerlevel started to spread out and get more good cards after 2017 where Jund declined certainly lends credence.
Pioneer is still in its relative infancy, so it makes sense that card power is all over the place. It also makes sense that playing the deck where card power is concentrated would be a strong strategy. However, I'm now having to deal with the implication that Modern was kinda bad for a long time and that freaks me out.
Pushing on Ahead
What that means for my RCQ testing and others RC testing is that it's time to adjust expectations. I used to deal with the Jund-defined Modern by going off-metagame and wonky, so maybe it's time to do that again. Certainly, I'll be applying lessons from old Modern to Pioneer testing to test out my theory. If it works, then I'll finally be satisfied that I understand Pioneer. Otherwise, back to the drawing board.