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Early Pioneer Days


The last few days, I've been focusing on two things: preparations for hosting a three day streaming event at CommandFest Chicago (which will be happening the next few days, November 1 to 3) and my first forays into Pioneer.

Both of these things are incredibly exciting for me. In the first case, I'll be getting back "in the booth", talking Magic for all of you Commander-lovers out there. It will be a table for four instead of a booth, but you get the idea. In the second case, I'm getting to explore this new format in earnest, which is always an exciting proposition.

Man, Pioneer is wild.

There are so many ways you can die in Pioneer. Measles, snakebite, drowning, fever, broken leg, dysentery... well, those are ways to die in Oregon Trail, but the ways seem as varied in Pioneer.

Even though it has a smaller card pool than Modern, it somehow feels more open in options. This isn't too wickedly surprising; you can see in many formats that the existence of certain cards absolutely push out many others, like an animal dominating an ecosystem. At one extreme, for example, when you have Black Lotus in the mix, it can be hard to justify playing Rakdos Signet.

Ultimately, we'll see how this format shakes out, and it could well be that soon enough the predators of the format will cull the metagame down a great deal, but until then, Pioneer feels much like its namesake: an exciting unknown with so much to discover.

Here are a few of my initial explorations of the format.

Spirit George

I can't help it. I love Curious Obsession and Curiosity. One of the first things I did was check to see if Invisible Stalker is legal in Pioneer, because it is one of the most incredible Curiosity targets. It isn't (it's in Innistrad).

Of course, there are a great many other excellent targets for a Curious Obsession. Finishing the game quickly is one potential game plan, and burying the opponent in cards is another, with both actually being very reasonable outcomes for the deck.

Here is my preliminary build:

This deck will probably look quite familiar to you if you've seen Modern Spirits and the Curious Obsession decks from recent Standard's past. Two colors necessitates a lot more mana, and I'm nearly maximizing the color on this, with a full twelve "Pioneer duals" plus a 'thirteenth' in Irrigated Farmland to boot. While there are plenty of colorless mana pips in this deck for Mutavault to feed into, I'm still trying to be a bit cautious; it could be that the deck is capable of supporting even as much as three Mutavault, but for now, I'm hedging my bets.

At first glance, Dive Down and Spell Pierce are all we have protecting us from evil spells from the opponent, but Spell Queller is a great counterspell, Mausoleum Wanderer can often act as one, and Rattlechains is an excellent Dive Down on a stick. Adding cruelty to the equation is Teferi, Time Raveler, which can give the opponent a sickening feeling to their stomach when you bounce your own Spell Queller.

As far as preliminary sideboards go, this is basically a bunch of hate spells. Even Selfless Spirit is a sort of hate spell against some of these controlling decks that seem to be making the rounds, and it is a good foil to Supreme Verdict. Smuggler's Copter is a sneaky secret hate card for both controlling decks and combo decks, helping to get you to more disruption as well as being resilient against resistance. Bident of Thassa does much the same work, and is only there as a one-of because of the diminishing returns as a legend.

If you like a good aggro-control deck, this one's for you!

Nicol Control

I've basically been in love with Nicol Bolas, Dragon-God since I first activated it. The card very excellent, and it just feels so demoralizing to play against. That very trait is one of my favorite aspects in a Magic card!

So, of course I put together some initial takes on Nicol Control. Of them, this one feels the most exciting.

In some ways, this might just be called a Narset, Parter of Veils deck rather than a Nicol deck. With Thoughtseize and Thought Erasure, plus a fair amount of cheap removal spells, it can be fairly easy to keep the way clear for Narset to be able to maximize its damage. This is brought to a culmination in the potential for Memory (of Commit // Memory) to completely nuke the opponent, which makes them easy pickings for Nicol Bolas, Dragon-God.

I really want to add a Geier Reach Sanitarium to this deck to matchup with the Narset, Parter of Veils, but I just can't bring myself to doing it for fear of ever getting in the way of Nicol Bolas, Dragon-God being cast. This is even including my Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth. If you're feeling more bold than I am, you might consider fitting it in some way.

Yahenni's Expertise is a card I'm currently experimenting with over other sweep options in part because of the massive payoff in the free spell it provides. While Yahenni's Expertise into Narset is of course excellent, it is also great to follow up with any number of other cards that move the game state forward. So far, the creature counts don't look like they are very high on cheap, high toughness creatures, but if that changes, I may replace Yahenni's Expertise in the future.

Having enough answers to Planeswalkers seems critical in Pioneer. Oko, Thief of Crowns is so loco people are playing four of him in many lists. While I feel fine playing Hero's Downfall and Commit to take care of these cards, the fact is, there simply aren't enough answers cheap enough without dipping into Dreadbore, a card that I mostly dislike. In the sideboard, though, those The Elderspell are going to be killer.

One thing I really like about the deck is a recursive grind element that the deck has with Nicol Bolas, the Ravager, Torrential Gearhulk, and Kolaghan's Command, all of which help make the late game feel really powerful, in an active way where Nicol Bolas, Dragon-God feels powerful in a relentless way. The deck even manages to be a largely tap-out control deck with the inclusion of a few counterspells thanks to Drown in the Loch!

I'm really excited to work on this one moving forward!

Burn, Baby, Burn

Of course, I also have to delve into one of my favorite kinds of archetypes, aggressive Red!

Perhaps it was because I'm still smarting from Martin Dang defeating me a few years back, but I thought about the list he played, and it inspired me to rebuild it, with a few cool tricks.

Despite how hard this deck can hit, I'm still worried about this deck in a world of Oko. That being said, the first part of that previous statement rings true: this deck hits hard. If you remember my match against Martin Dang in Belgium, you can probably see a lot of the elements of that deck here. Added in are some of my all-time favorite cards like Ghor-Clan Rampager and Bomat Courier, neither of which was available back when Dang made his deck.

Embercleave is a kind of new-fangled Ghor-Clan Rampager, but it also happens that those two cards play very well with each other. Between those cards and Atarka's Command, blocking can be a very dicey affair indeed!

Of all of the creatures in the deck, the one I'm least certain about is Foundry Street Denizen. I replaced Dang's Dragon Fodder with Earthshaker Khenra, which is certainly an upgrade, but it doesn't help out Foundry Street Denizen nearly as much. It is possible that it should just be replaced with Soul-Scar Mage.

Finally, there are a few cards that I'm not playing that feel like they might want to be in the deck. They include, most notably, Lightning Strike, Smuggler's Copter, and Light Up the Stage. If any Red aficionados are out there and you find a mix that includes these cards, let me know.

Well, there you have it! A small peak into the many decks I'm thinking about for Pioneer! I hope you enjoyed it!

Make sure to check out my channel this weekend, where I hope to be streaming from CommandFest in Chicago!

- Adrian Sullivan

Follow me on Twitter! @AdrianLSullivan

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