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On Discovering the True Character of Red Decks for Pioneer


When I think of Pioneer; or at least Red Decks in Pioneer, I imagine a format that exists somewhere between Modern and Standard. Despite some dodgy origins flirting with Wild Nacatls and even the late Atarka's Command, the Modern Red Deck has gelled around a specific character.

Lightning Bolt
Lava Spike
Rift Bolt

Modern Red is the deck of uber redundancy... All one-mana spells that deal three damage. It has lately wrapped its arms - and plastic sleeves - around Skewer the Critics, and has gone maniac, at times, enough to embrace a Shard Volley. I mean ew.

But Pioneer has no Lightning Bolt!

Many mages have kind of slotted Wild Slash in its place, but this is not settled entirely.

What I am more interested in is how the Pioneer Red Deck will be informed from the other side... The Standard side, rather than Modern. Since the time of Return to Ravnica - Pioneer's debut set - there have been more performing Red Decks than almost any other kind of archetype at the top tables of the Pro Tour.


Matt Sperling's Finalist deck from Pro Tour Magic 2015 is actually where I thought Pioneer decks might start. It doesn't have Lightning Bolt, but it does have a structural center a la the Modern build.

Boros Charm
Stoke the Flames
Warleader's Helix

See the theme?

Matt's deck was filled with burn cards that did four. Four damage, not only three!

A huge concentration of cards that deal so much damage, combined with some improved creatures from more sets, might make such a "deal four" burn strategy attractive in Pioneer. Matt didn't even have the benefit of Monastery Swiftspear (probably the most underrated creature in the history of tournament Magic: The Gathering). Stoke the Flames is my favorite. Almost anything makes the card cheap to play, and a deck that otherwise tries to go wide can fire off multiple must-counters in a single turn cycle.

Speaking of going wide...

This style of deck alleges to have only fifteen creatures, but its eight Dragon Fodders and in particular Hordeling Outbursts do a great job enabling Stoke the Flames. Unlike most of the other Red Decks - Standard and Modern both, and I suppose Pioneer so far - this deck can go wide enough to make Atarka's Command a viable pump spell rather than just a burn spell or life gain spoiler.

By the very next Pro Tour, a Standard Red Deck won again! And that is despite looking once again quite different from Dang's deck.

One of the things that I think is worth noting at this point is that Sperling's deck was rw, Dang's rg, and Larsson's, maybe the most conventionally recognizable Red Deck, was Mono-Red.

This deck played Stoke the Flames but didn't go particularly wide. It had fast 1-drops like Zurgo Bellstriker. Add that one to the forgotten Staples to try, along with Satyr Firedancer. Larsson's deck supplemented its beatdown with utility like Abbot of Keral Keep (which nevertheless still has Prowess), and not only burn spells but Planeswalkers and flexible removal.

One thing that strikes me is that all these magicians had access to Eidolon of the Great Revel - a creature I've called the best card in Modern - and only Sperling played all of one copy in his main deck.

Goblin Chainwhirler and his gang are probably a bit fresher in most readers' minds. The more recent Red Decks are of yet more unique characters. Might Dragons be fast enough? There are all kinds of Dragons decks in Modern! How about Goblin Chainwhirler itself? Too slow for a main deck spell? I think maybe. (But man does it mow down Llanowar Elves.)

The Pioneer Red Deck hasn't yet latched onto a particular character, but I do think it's been the greatest beneficiary to the new banned and restricted format announcements.

Oath of Nissa

Disempowering the opposition is always great in the abstract, but Oath of Nissa's recent ban gives the Red Deck something that Leyline of Abundance's doesn't. Oath of Nissa 1) ensures action, and 2) makes decks more consistent. Red's greatest strength is that it is often the most consistent option, even when it is a little less powerful. At the end of the day, the Red Deck's cards tend to only come in maybe two baskets, one of which is good at killing lots of Elves.

Felidar Guardian

Obviously for clannish reasons, I love the banning of Felidar Guardian. First of all, the 4 toughness was a problem. It is difficult to pull off any kind of timing heroism when half the opposing combo has 4 toughness and you're coming to the fight with Wild Slash. But there is a subtle secondary benefit...

Authority of the Consuls

This card was a medium-level sideboard spoiler in the not-yet-mature Pioneer. Making the opposing force come into play tapped means that temporary creatures from the Felidar Guardian combo can't all come across and kill you right now this turn. The life gain is double cute. Gonna kill me for a million, huh? How about instead I GAIN a million and you don't kill me for any? How about that? Pretty good spoiler if you can get it under a Cat Combo's turn three.

Authority of the Consuls had not yet reached maximum popularity, but it was present in basically every Pioneer top decks report. It was available to a variety of strategies... Like anyone who could make a w. Perhaps more importantly for the Red Deck... It was a hell of a sideboard card against Basic Mountain as well.

Authority of the Consuls could not straight up beat Monastery Swiftspear... But it took like half of what makes that card exciting away. You'd need at least two prowess triggers to get back to even, assuming you could attack the next turn. Turns off haste and chips away at the Philosophy of Fire-esque value of your hand at the same time. The banning of Felidar Guardian disincentivizes White mages to pack Authority of the Consuls, which is great for the Pioneer Red Deck.

So about that Pioneer Red Deck...

This is the highest finishing deck of the inaugural PTQ, just outside the Top 8 at 10th place:

I really like what suitedspades was doing here. This is an exceptionally lean deck, with almost everything coming in for one mana. As far as creatures go, only Eidolon of the Great Revel and one Ash Zealot (?) cost a second Red.

In particular, I love the inclusion of Bomat Courier, which pushes the one mana haste theme. Nothing in the spells costs more than two. In fact, suitedspades goes redundancy-nutso with four Shock and four Wild Slash! Like I said, I like all this, but at the same time it's hard to imagine being able to outflank a Felidar Guardian. Even one-for-one exchanges between Shock and Llanowar Elves are going to look unexciting if you can't close a ton on the damage front before the opponent starts landing Planeswalkers.

This deck is of a particular character. It's lean. It's got basically two pretty redundant lines of cards main deck. It's trying to get an advantage by cheating on lands (only 18). It is less liable to get flooded than most, but it's also got some draws it will never be able to get out of, and might have to keep solo Ramunap Ruins hands with dubious futures.

How about this one from after the PTQ?

If anything, I like this one even more! A ton of super high leverage 1-drops, tripling the incumbent amount of haste, is less of a different character and more of the Pioneer Red Deck puzzling into its own identity. I like the inclusion of Smuggler's Copter, which is something Patrick Chapin recently suggested to me for the color, and the format.

One thing that might become increasingly clear is how vulnerable all these decks are to Authority of the Consuls. While lean, the cards tend not to be individually powerful... At least not relative to dealing infinite damage on the third turn, or creating a 15/15 Walking Ballista or something. They perform due to predictable redundancy and cheating on lands. Disincentivizing Authority of the Consuls is helpful in that Bomat Courier never, ever, has more than 1 power. It already gave the first swing up by entering the battlefield, and loses much of the reason to play it by losing haste.

Oddly, the Pioneer Red Deck should thank the banning of the difficult-to-kill Felidar Guardian not just for greater metagame space, but for making the rest of the room less hostile in sideboarded games.

Here are two more decks, again of quite different character from one another:

This is the first deck we've seen venture into a second color. I doubt it will be the last. Boros Charm is of course Modern quality, and gets extra points if the format cares about creature sweeping. I've certainly saved my share of Eidolon of the Great Revels from Engineered Explosives over the years, and the banning of Felidar Guardian coupled with a high incentive to [a slower] Elves deck is going to inform the format to play slow but efficient sweepers at two and three mana. I think if the Red Deck is going to play 16+ beaters, the extra text on Boros Charm might be something it wants.

Moreover, adding beloved Chained to the Rocks to the sideboard gives it a way to fight, say, giant Hydras that wouldn't otherwise be available to the Red Deck. Stay tuned to this line.

Finally here is a bit of an older deck. Same pedigree as most of the others, but of a starkly opposite character:

None of the Red Decks is perfect.

The format hasn't given players the time and trials - and even stable Banned List - yet to find its true character. But this one pushes possibilities that I'm frankly pretty interested to follow. Unlike all the rest of the Pioneer Red Decks we've looked at in this article at least, RagingTiltMonster's doesn't even play Eidolon of the Great Revel main deck. This deck angles towards filling the graveyard for Bedlam Reveler instead. It's got more in the way of creature combat, and even though cards like Crash Through and Warlord's Fury technically suck... They kind of don't here; plus, they make hitting land drops more consistent.

Another style to watch.

Did I mention good riddance to Felidar Guardian?



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