As you are reading this, one of the most exciting Magic tournaments of the last decade is happening in Roanoke, VA. The SCG Tour Invitationals are always some of the best events of the year, but this time we've got something we almost never see: the first pages of a brand new format.
When StarCityGames announced that they would be making the last minute switch from the typical invitational formats of Standard/Modern to Pioneer/Modern, the Invitational went from one of the best events of the year to must see TV. I can't recall a time I was more excited for an event; we've seen glimpses of the format on Magic Online but it has never been played on a big stage for cash and glory before.
This never happens. In this age of information, formats are often "solved" quickly, and everyone knows everything about every deck out there. And whatever you don't know is probably a quick google search away from a dozen articles about the deck that interests you. There's very little of that yet for Pioneer, meaning we have all new things to learn. Exploring a new format is Magic at its finest.
But enough hype, let's get to talking about the format. I have played almost nothing but Pioneer for the last few weeks, and I'll be laying out everything I know about the format by looking at the top five most important cards in the format and how they shape the format as a whole. But first...
Honorable Mention: Once Upon A Time
Before we start the actual list, a quick word about Once Upon a Time. I would not be surprised if Once Upon a Time isn't legal this time next year. For decks looking for a specific 1-drop or land, Once Upon a Time is likely too powerful for what it does. Furthermore, between it and the London Mulligan it's not hard to do roughly the same thing every game which homogenizes gameplay. Once Upon a Time may find a lot of cards on this list, but it's not directly a pillar of the format so I'm keeping it here off the list.
With that out of the way, let's begin.
The Five Most Important Cards In Pioneer
There's no better place to start than the card that should probably just be banned but they keep banning random other Green cards instead. Nyxthos, Shrine to Nyx is the extremely powerful mana engine of the first "best deck" in Pioneer. Before Leyline of Abundance and Oath of Nissa were banned, Mono-Green Devotion was absolutely crushing Magic Online to the tune of a 60% win rate, but even without the absurd starts that Leyline provided the deck is still remarkably consistent and powerful.
Llanowar Elves and Burning-Tree Emissary combine with Nyxthos to make turn two Nissa, Who Shakes the World possible, though turn three is far more common. And with Walking Ballista and Voracious Hydra giving the deck ample mana sinks that are fine in the early game and multiple planeswalkers to overcome removal, Mono-Green Devotion has to be considered the de facto "best deck" going into the Invitational. It's fast, it's consistent, and it's efficient, which is an awesome place to be week one.
However, Mono-Green Devotion would be nothing without our next card.
Hey Jim that's two cards... no fair!
Deal with it.
We all know how good 1-drop mana creatures are. Noble Hierarch helps define Modern; Gilded Goose defines Standard; Deathrite Shaman used to define Legacy; but in Pioneer it's all about the original gangster: Llanowar Elves (and copies 5-8 in Elvish Mystic). With the new world order pushing the power level of creatures, planeswalkers, and threats in general so hard in the last five years, getting ahead on mana and on the board is critically important, and not much does that better than a turn one mana creature.
While Mono-Green Devotion is very good, it is only a small part of Llanowar Elves' repertoire. Turn one Llanowar Elves has been by far the most common opening I've played against in my first few weeks playing Pioneer and it's not hard to see why. Maybe it's turn two Goblin Rabblemaster? Or turn Two Steel Leaf Champion? Perhaps turn two Oko, Thief of Crowns? Or turn three Collected Company or Gideon, Ally of Zendikar? The possibilities really are endless, as Pioneer is a format that is jam packed full of great threats that are event greater when they come down a turn early.
You must have a plan for Llanowar Elves decks. Whether it's early removal, mass removal, or something more spicy like Goblin Chainwhirler, it's a must. If you're not ready to deal you will fall behind and you will not catch back up.
If Llanowar Elves is level zero of the format, then Supreme Verdict is level one. Wrath of God has been Llanowar Elves' mortal enemy since Alpha, and with just cause. If your opponent wants to curve Llanowar Elves into a thick creature threat on turn two, there's a lot to be said for sending them back to the Stone Age with a well timed Supreme Verdict. It sounds basic, as "if they're playing a lot of creatures then play Wrath of God!" isn't exactly ground breaking advice, but in a brand new format where the ground rules are currently being written being basic isn't bad.
Another important factor about Supreme Verdict as opposed to classic Wrath of God variants is the "can't be countered" clause. Stubborn Denial has been a popular card out of the Steel Leaf Stompy deck as well as Izzet Ensoul Artifact decks as a way to defend against interactive decks, and it feels really good to see the sad look on your opponent's eyes as they helplessly bin their creatures while staring at the Stubborn Denial in their hand.
Whether you're playing it in Control, Bant Field of the Dead, Esper Planeswalkers, or whatever other deck you're running, or your building your deck against it, be ready for Supreme Verdict with other countermeasures like Selfless Spirit or be ready to build a threat base that mixes in other threats like planeswalkers or vehicles to help insulate yourself.
Speaking of vehicles, listen closely...
Smuggler's Copter is the best card in Pioneer.
End of story.
Heart of Kiran joins Smuggler's Copter as one of the premier threats in the format, but there's a damn clear reason why Smuggler's Copter was banned in Standard: it basically does everything at very little cost. Flood insurance, velocity, aggression, evasion, graveyard synergies, playing around mass and sorcery speed removal... it just never ends. Oh yeah, nice Wild Slash.
The even better news about Smuggler's Copter is that it plays great against Supreme Verdict and friends, while flying over the top of the hordes of random creatures that are everywhere. It's easy to forget how utterly dominating Smuggler's Copter was in Standard because it's not broken in the same way Aetherworks Marvel or Felidar Guardian are broken, but if you have forgotten you're about to get a serious history lesson.
Interacting is a little tough in Pioneer. The threats are amazing and we just don't have the tools we have in Modern. There's no Lightning Bolt, no Path to Exile, and the best early counterspell is probably the lowly Syncopate. The last real bastion of quality interaction we have is a great one, in the classic Thoughtseize.
My initial estimation of Thoughtseize was that it was the most important card in the format, but we're not quite there yet. We're still in the earlier stages of the format where aggression is king, and most aggressive decks have a lot of redundant parts and aren't that sad to see you trade a card for a mana and two life. But as the format starts to coalesce more and decks become more purposeful, Thoughtseize's stock only stands to rise.
And make no mistake, Thoughtseize is already great. The Mono-Black Aggro deck is basically just four Thoughtseize, four Smuggler's Copter, and four Fatal Push held together with duct tape and bubble gum, but those cards are all good enough to see the job done. Thoughtseize is also great against Mono-Green Devotion if you can take their big payoff before they can cast it.
Laying The Ground Rules
Those are rules, now go forth and Pioneer.
Make sure you have a plan for various Llanowar Elves decks, especially Mono-Green Devotion. Don't fold to a turn four Supreme Verdict. Make sure you are ready to handle a Smuggler's Copter. And don't let your entire strategy fall apart if your opponent casts a Thoughtseize.
If you can accomplish all of these things, you stand do to well here in the early days of Pioneer.