Pioneer Summer: Lessons Learned in RCQ Testing

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Testing is necessary for success in competitive Magic. It is also very hard and frequently boring. As a result, most players go to events underprepared. This has definitely been the case for me attending Pioneer RCQ's this past year. I don't like Pioneer to begin with, so testing has felt like a chore. The Magic Online All-Access pass a few weeks ago gave me the opportunity to do a lot of testing relatively quickly and painlessly, so I took advantage. Here's what I learned.

Rakdos Rocks By Default

Remember about a month ago, where I claimed that Rakdos Rock was the top deck in Pioneer thanks to being the least bad deck? I played it myself and against it frequently over the All-Access event and had everything I said about that deck reinforced. The deck is so... aggressively medium in a field of feast or famine decks that it works. I still wouldn't call it good, but at least it doesn't have as many feels-bad moments as other decks.

Rakdos never felt completely overmatched against any deck, even when very behind or badly positioned. Thoughtseize answers everything after all, so there was always the chance to steal games by destroying opponent's hand. Fable of the Mirror-Breaker //Reflection of Kiki-Jiki is a very strong way to come from behind. Sheoldred the Apocalypse is often backbreaking.

The flip side to that is that Rakdos also never got me any free wins. With a lot of decks I played, there were matchups that felt unlosable (assuming your deck didn't crap itself) to compensate for near-unwinnable bad matchups. Rakdos had to work for every win, and I'd guess my opponents did too. It was possible to snowball games, but I had to carefully set up to make it happen.

Midrange Alternatives

While my serious testing was focused on two decks, I tried out a vast swath of decks. Part of that was simple curiosity, maybe a deck outside my usual preference would interest me. A lot of it was to better understand how the metagame works and how to fight against it. It's also good to try alternatives to established doctrine.

Annoyingly, there doesn't seem to be a viable alternative midrange deck to Rakdos. Every other deck I tried just felt anemic or inconsistent compared to BR. Trying to go a different direction but maintain the pace of midrange only led to more frustration and a lingering question of why I was bothering to even try. This was especially true of Abzan Greasefang, but I'll discuss that deck separately.

All the best midrange answers and threats are black or red. Trying to move away from either of those colors means involving worse midrange cards. This in turn translates to approaching either control or aggro. The deck stops being particularly midrange-y and instead becomes a bad control deck or bad aggro deck. I know that accusation gets thrown at midrange a lot, but it's true. Pioneer's midrange deck is Rakdos. End of story.

Annoying Abzan

I have open contempt for Abzan Greasefang. I've been open about this since I started writing about Pioneer. I understand the appeal it used to have, but the deck doesn't even try for that anymore. The ideal plan used to be cast Stitcher's Supplier turn 1, flip Greasefang, Okiba Boss and Parhelion II, and then cast Can't Stay Away on Greasefang to reanimate Parhelion and functionally end the game turn 2. However, Greasefang has cut Supplier to go more midrange.

Greasefang players have cut the Suppliers and some other milling creatures for Vessel of Nascency and interaction. The plan has morphed from turbo-ing Parhelion to casting Esika's Chariot. They've made this change because Abzan decks of old would durdle around milling themselves without actually finding the combo. Now the milling is more for value.

The Problem

This isn't a bad plan. Chariot is a rather absurd card and is the tentpole card of Gruul Vehicles. The issue is that Greasefang has been and still is a very inconsistent deck. Even with the move towards midrange, it's still filled with air, because it hasn't given up entirely on early Greasefang and Parhelion. Since I first encountered it, I found the deck infuriating for its inconsistency, and nothing has been done to fix that flaw.

As things stand, Greasefang is a deck of compromises. When things go its way it appears very strong. All the discard it plays does wonders for opening the way for vehicle attacks. However, if it stumbles, it still just durdles around and dies. Gruul Vehicles is a worse deck by the numbers, but at least it always does something. Abzan needs to fix its identity crisis. I never won playing the deck and never lost to it during testing.

Missing Devotion

On that note, I didn't encounter Green Devotion at all during the two weeks of All-Access. Given the stats from MTGGoldfish, it should have been relatively common. I was a little disappointed as I was playing decks with allegedly good Devotion matchups primarily, but it is a little perplexing. Were it not for the stats, I'd assume online players abandoned the deck.

It wouldn't have surprised me if players had abandoned Devotion online. After all the hype last year, it never had a very disappointing season. It's also a very complex deck to combo with online thanks to all the clicking, and decks like that tend to be unpopular in that setting. The fact that the deck can just play the beatdown game gave it legs, but that usually isn't enough. I'm genuinely curious about what's up with the deck.

Oh, the Humanity

I went into this testing session thinking that I'd be perfecting my Mono-White Humans list. At most of the RCQs I've been to it's felt like the best performing aggro deck, and again that's backed up by the overall stats. I was committed to the deck, only to have it completely fall apart on me during testing. Some of that was purely thanks to good old Matchup Roulette, but there were problems with the list I was using.

Ongoing Development

I don't keep close tabs on deck development for Pioneer. I don't play Pioneer that often (see my earlier frustration) and even when I do, it's not against the top tier decks. Most of the Pioneer players in my area have pet decks and don't change often. So, I don't need to innovate my decks and fall behind the curve. When All-Access came about and I decided to extensively test Humans, I just netdecked.

As I suspected they would, Humans had dropped Brave the Elements for Colossification. Coppercoat Vanguard was immediately and fully adopted, pushing out Luminarch Aspirant. I was also pleased to see Shefet Dunes leave. That card never did what I wanted it to do. I spent about a week on this deck before giving up.

I would advise against running Invasion of Gobakhan in Humans. As a go-wide aggro deck, it's not advantageous to take a turn off of damage to flip the battle. The information gained is of limited value most of the time. This is a deck for putting one's head down and just going for it. Invasion is also awkward with Thalia, Guardian of Thraben.

Test and Evaluate

It wasn't that I wasn't winning enough, it's that the wins all felt really close, while my losses were blowouts. I consistently felt like I was taking advantage of my opponents' stumbles, but they were winning on their decks' merits. That seemed like too poor of a place to be so I moved on.

The problem wasn't the deck's construction. There were times I wanted Brave, but those were balanced by times Ossification was the only way to win. One card wasn't better than the other in the matchups I faced, it was just a metagame call trade-off. Vanguard isn't a better card than Aspirant as it isn't a threat on its own, but it is more aggressive, which plays better in the deck. The deck felt fine and no change to the sideboard or maindeck made any difference.

The deck seems to be in a transition period. Since All-Access ended, I've seen a lot of decks running both Brave and Ossification, while some have dropped them entirely for grindy creatures. There's been some shifting in the maindeck removal packages of many decks, and Humans is trying to adapt. The evidence suggests that it hasn't been optimized yet.

The Spirits of Pioneer

This led me back to my old standby, Spirits. I'd given up on Mono-Blue Spirits for Humans after Angels started dominating the skies. Though Angels has fallen off, what with removal changes rendering Ascendant Spirit a liability and the UW Control match remained pretty poor in general. Switching back to UW Spirits was the answer.

This is the deck I was playing when All-Access came to an end. It performed a lot better for me overall than Humans, though the matchups are much more extreme. Spirits still has a poor matchup against other creature decks, which is why the sideboard is full of removal.

Deck Repositioning

At its most basic, all that's changed is replacing Ascendant Spirit with Spell Queller and altering the manabase. However, that has drastically changed how the deck plays. Spirit pushed the deck towards aggressive tempo while Queller moves towards reactive tempo. UW Spirits plays more at instant speed than mono-blue, and as a result is harder to play, but also harder to play against.

Invasion of Gobakhan is a big part of that, and really shines in Spirits. Unlike Humans, Spirits can use the information gained to play around opponent's hands, and it fits into the disruption package seamlessly. Spirits isn't a go-wide deck, so taking a turn to flip the battle is feasible and worthwhile.

This also means that the deck's matchups have changed a lot. UW Control is a much easier matchup for UW than mono-blue, and the creature matchups are slightly easier, though still unfavorable. Midrange is a wash, as mono-blue got to steal wins getting under it while UW wins by answering their threats and answers. Overall, an improvement, though not a complete blowout.

Unusual Choices

I'm playing a number of unusual cards in my deck. Field of Ruin, Rest in Peace, and Damping Sphere aren't commonly played in Spirits. I found them very important in the Lotus Field matchup, but they have considerable utility elsewhere. The usual disruption plans weren't quite good enough anymore, but these really worked for me.

Field's primary role is killing Thespian's Stage. In other matchups, it's great for killing creature-lands, but there are also decks that don't play any basics and losing a land drop is crushing. Sphere is the best anti-Lotus card around and also hurts Devotion more than they'd like to admit. Rest shuts off Lotus's easy win, and is also great against Greasefang and graveyard decks generally.

I was playing Lofty Denial, but it's far from required. Other Spirits decks are running a mix of Denial, Spell Pierce, Slip Out the Back, and even more creatures. I haven't found it to make much difference which utility spell is run in this slot. Each has enough pros and cons in each common matchup that I'm convinced it's a matter of preference.

Season Rolls On

The Pioneer RCQ season will continue into August, but I don't expect any real shakeup outside of bannings on August 7th. As such, this is the time to lock in decks and really get the nose to the grindstone to have a chance of winning. Just make sure to make appropriate devotion to the Matchup Roulette Wheel, lest it render all preparations moot.

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