Pioneer is still in its infancy, and it will need to settle more before we can really crown the format's best deck. Additionally, Theros Beyond Death just came out and we don't entirely know how that will impact the format when all is said and done. Yet, despite those two things, events have shaped up such that two of the best current decks in Pioneer are both mono-color aggressively-slanted decks. Mono-Black Aggro and the horrendously named “Chonky Red” are both tier 1 strategies, and a big defining part of the format.
An aside: I despise the name Chonky Red with unbridled passion. I'm definitely a crotchety old man for saying this, but by far my least favorite cultural trend of the last decade is baby-talking. What I mean by baby-talking is the purposeful mispronunciation or dumbing down of language to make words sound the way a young child might speak them, e.g. saying chickie nuggies instead of chicken nuggets. Is there more to “chonky” then just mispronouncing chunky to refer to an animal in a cutesy way? I don't see the appeal.
Chonky is a huge miss for me as a term. However, in the interest of providing a viable alternative instead of just screaming into the void, I'd like to submit the all-time classic of “absolute unit.” That's right. Calling well-built, muscled, or just generally huge creatures absolute units was something I really enjoyed. Let 2020 be the year where we are out with senseless mispronunciations like “chonky” and in with fun descriptors like “absolute unit.” If you turn a corner and see the fattest cat you've ever seen in your entire life, would you rather someone say “look at how CHONKY it is” in a sing-songy voice or have someone say “Good lord, take a look at this absolute ****ing unit.” I know where I stand.
This may seem like a pointless and unnecessarily aggressive diatribe unrelated to the matter at hand, and I want to be abundantly clear that, yes, it absolutely is. This was pointless and unnecessary. It probably wasn't required for me to dedicate this much space to my hatred for that deck's name. But hell, it felt pretty good to get that off my chest. I'm happy moving forward to refer to the deck as Red Midrange or Big Red, and unless directed otherwise, I'm going to go with Big Red. I will boycott the deck's current and inexcusably bad name of “Chonky Red” until the end of my days, even if I do so in solitude while hated by all humanity for it.
Both of these decks follow the same general game plan for success. Play solid (absolute unit?) creatures up the curve, back it up with solid interaction, and utilize the natural card advantage inherent in the mono-color manabase as well as the two-for-one nature of many of these heavy-hitting threats to keep pounding pressure home until the opponent is dead.
These decks aren't identical though, by any stretch. Mono-Black Aggro is a true aggressive strategy that's defined by recursive threats, reach in the form of Mutavault and flying creatures, and card advantage from Castle Locthwain to pull ahead in games that drag on long. The deck can play a fairly reasonable aggro game, but really shines in its ability to grind deep into a game when the aggro plan doesn't just knock out the opponent. There are so many creatures that return from the graveyard, and one third of the manabase has some built-in form of card advantage. It isn't easy to run Mono-Black out of gas.
The Big Red deck plays a much more midrange game. It's content to interact with creatures through red damage spells leading up to big threats like Chandra, Torch of Defiance and Glorybringer that also interact with creatures while also serving as threats on their own right. This deck doesn't have the recursive grinding power of Mono-Black, but each individual threat is significantly more impactful in this strategy. Any that go unchecked are capable of winning the game by themselves, which isn't really true of the black deck's recursive 2/1's and 3/2's, which rely more on a critical mass.
Unlike the black deck's ability to win a long game by drawing cards with Castle Locthwain or just eventually grinding through the opponent with Scrapheap Scrounger, Bloodsoaked Champion and Dread Wanderer, the red deck finishes the game with genuine reach. And not the keyword reach, either. This isn't some weird lead in to talking about Ishkanah, Grafwidow, the reach creature with reach. I mean reach in the classical MTG use of the term, meaning finishing your opponent off with direct damage to their face.
Big Red has a surprising amount of damage that can go upstairs, thanks to the once-banned-in-Standard Ramunap Ruins along with Torbran, Thane of Red Fell plus burn spells. Factoring in the kind of damage that Goblin Chainwhirler, Chandra, Torch of Defiance, Glorybringer and Goblin Rabblemaster can provide via normal gameplay, it often doesn't take much.
So why are these two decks doing so well when normally these kinds of strategies are fairly ineffective and underpowered in formats stronger than Standard? I think there are two main reasons why.
One of the most underrated clues to predicting what decks are going to be good in a format is determining what decks that format's mana can support. When Pioneer started with fetch lands banned, it was easy to get trapped in the narrative about how that impacted cards like Treasure Cruise, Dig Through Time and Deathrite Shaman, which are heavily reliant on fetch lands to function optimally. In that hullabaloo, it's easy to overlook how banning fetch lands might impact the big picture of the format, beyond simply neutering the power level on some individual powerhouse cards from Magic's past.
Fetch lands plus either dual lands or shock lands to search up is a cheat code for having near-perfect mana for any three or even four-color deck. Without that in the format, decks have to make concessions on their manabase, and while that may seem like a minor sacrifice, over the course of lots and lots of games of Magic, it adds up.
Decks make concessions in many ways. Shock land and check land manabases run the risk of your check lands coming into play tapped too often when you draw too many of them, and they don't play well with other non-basic lands like the enemy-colored creature lands or the Kaladesh enemy-colored fast lands. The creature lands are glacially slow by virtue of always entering tapped, and the fast lands come with the drawback of sometimes putting you off curve when you hit your land drops past turn three.
Even Fabled Passage, a genuinely great faux-fetch land, comes with the reverse drawback of the fastlands in that it's going to throw you off your curve in the early turns if you need to use it to make an early land drop.
These manabases are also just less consistent overall. Fetch lands represented three or even four colors of mana each. To make up for that absence, decks have to play heavier counts of dual lands, or even tri-lands to get the same counts for each color of mana. That means more lands are entering the battlefield tapped or that there is less room for utility lands, which takes away from the power level of those decks. It also represents more games where a player will find themselves perhaps not mana screwed entirely, but still struggling to sequence their spells perfectly due to the constraints of their manabase.
A great example of this phenomenon is best-of-one on Magic Arena. Mono-Color aggressive decks have historically dominated best-of-one gameplay, even if they were underpowered in best-of-three and not even part of the metagame there. One of the major factors in best-of-one gameplay is that the hand-selection algorithm—which generates multiple opening hands and picks the “best” one to give you—favors mono-color manabases inherently. That simple, small, shifting of the dials toward mono-color manabases being better than multi-color manabases had a non-trivial effect on which decks ended up performing best.
Another reason why mono-color decks are so good in Pioneer is that single-color utility lands are incredible in this format.
It's hard to overstate the power level of Mutavault. On base level, it is a land drop that then also produces a card's worth of value, similar to Horizon Canopy, which has been a huge player in Modern for years now. However, I think that's only scratching the surface of what makes Mutavault good, because it also represents an aggressive creature that didn't require a mana investment to get into play. While it does take a mana to activate Mutavault and attack with it, the important thing is that you can simply drop it onto the battlefield during any early turn and only invest the mana later into it when you have that mana to spare. If you had to invest mana into it before you eventually got to attack with it, then you'd have to sacrifice playing something else in early turns to cast it instead, which is a real tension point for real creatures with real mana costs.
Nothing about Mutavault is realistic, though.
That distinction may seem small, but it matters a lot. It's similar to how haste creatures function, and haste is one of the most powerful combat mechanics in the game. The difference between taking a turn off to cast a creature versus simply getting a creature into play without having to take a turn off to get it there is enormous. It's telling, in hindsight, that the last time mono-color decks dominated a Standard format was during the last Theros set, which conveniently was a Standard format where Mutavault was legal.
While you can play Mutavault in multicolor decks, it's much harder to make that work with the mana, and so the card tends to slot naturally into single-color decks more easily.
The other utility lands available to single-color decks are also pretty incredible in Pioneer. The Castles from Throne of Eldraine are some of the most powerful lands they've printed in a long time. Castle Locthwain and Castle Garenbrig in particular offer way more value than a land that produces colored mana and comes into play untapped has offered historically.
Speaking of powerful lands that enter the battlefield untapped and produce a color of mana, the desert cycle from Amonkhet is also pretty great. Ramunap Ruins was banned in Standard for providing lots of reach with no deck building cost, and it gets to provide that same role again in Pioneer.
It's an incredible advantage to have eight lands in your deck that produce mana and also provide powerful utility when other decks have to use those land slots just to make sure they get the right colors of mana. Contrast that with Legacy, where three-color decks with 19 total lands are still playing four Wasteland because the fetch-dual manabases are so powerful that they can get away with it.
Simply stated, the threats in Pioneer outclass the answers by a pretty significant amount. The best red removal spell is Shock. Technically, people are playing Wild Slash, not Shock, but 99% of the time it's functionally identical to Shock. Shock is not a particularly powerful card. Fatal Push is pretty powerful, but it has a lot of drawbacks, and those drawbacks get exploited in Pioneer. All-purpose answers like Abrupt Decay and Assassin's Trophy are good, but they likewise come with their share of situational drawbacks.
When we get around to white removal spells, we have things like Declaration in Stone or Seal Away or Azorius Charm, and those are just not exciting cards to cast in higher power formats. I'd much rather be on the threat end of the spectrum if that's the kind of response my opponent can muster up.
The last seven years of set design have prominently featured threats being superior to answers, with massive power creep in design of creatures and planeswalkers that can effectively win games all by themselves. Contrast that with removal spells and countermagic, which have either retained their same general power level or even regressed some over that same time period.
It's just so hard to make it in Magic these days with a reactive strategy. The game is not designed to be played that way anymore, and Pioneer is a perfect example of a format where you're fighting a massively uphill battle trying to make it work. I played nothing but Esper Control and Abzan Midrange for a few weeks in Pioneer trying to make those decks work, and while I wasn't really getting smashed, I definitely wasn't winning enough to think that I had something great. Whenever I got paired against a tier 1 deck, I felt that my cards were getting outclassed by my opponent's cards, and that isn't a good feeling.
Midrange and control decks are both predicated on the idea that you can win a game by playing reactively. I'm not convinced that is a viable strategy in Pioneer. Not only do midrange and control decks have to battle mediocre two and three-color manabases, they also have to battle the fact that their reactive cards are worse than the threats their opponents are playing and things have to usually line up pretty well for that to end in your favor.
Admittedly, Azorius Control is actually a popular and relatively well-performing deck in Pioneer currently, but I want to point out that this is not a new trend. There is a huge, dedicated section of the player base that loves decks like Azorius Control and will play those decks religiously, so when I see that Azorius Control is putting up a lot of 5-0s on Magic Online I question if that means that the deck is genuinely good or if it just means that there are a lot of people trying to make it work and it's gaining 5-0s from sheer strength of numbers.
When I say this is not a new trend, I'm referring to the history of Azorius Control in Modern. The deck has been theoretically well positioned many times over the course of the history of Modern, and it has roped in many high-level professionals to play the deck in high-profile events, like Pro Tours. People love that deck, and they look for excuses to play it whenever they can. It also preys on bad decks and inexperienced players, and thus is naturally going to have inflated results on testing grounds like Magic Online, where lots of people are just having fun playing wonky brews and other people are trying out decks they are inexperienced with.
However, when you look at the numbers, Azorius Control almost always underperforms in big events and puts up sub-50% win rates. It's happened time and time again in Modern, and I'll need some convincing to believe that isn't going to be the case in Pioneer as well. Modern is known and criticized for promoting linear threat-dominated gameplay, and I think Pioneer is somewhat similar, in that threats are also the dominant currency. Pioneer isn't as linear or combo-dominated, but it's still the kind of proactive format where I'd be surprised if Azorius Control remains one of the best decks.
In a format where midrange and control decks aren't super viable, it's not surprising to see decks like Mono-Black Aggro and Big Red take up the mantle. Mono-Black Aggro is proactive and has disruption to interact with non-interactive decks. Big Red is proactive and has interaction to interact with other aggressive decks. Importantly, both of these decks have a lot of inherent card advantage built in to their cards and that allows them to out-grind and outmuscle other decks trying to exist in the same spaces. Traditional midrange decks would eat these decks alive, but those decks don't really have the tools to thrive in Pioneer.
I'm not surprised at all that the Pioneer metagame looks the way that it does. In a format where threats greatly outshine answers and where manabases are pretty bad, seeing a few grindy, aggressive mono-color decks thrive alongside a handful of combo-lite decks that go over the top of these decks makes a lot of sense. The tools don't really exist to power through Mono-Black Aggro or Big Red by just trying to grind them out, so you have to beat them by ignoring them or going way over the top of them with things like Soulflayer or Niv-Mizzet Reborn.
So then, what are the best ways to combat a format like this? Where are the best places to look to come up with ways to exploit this format? I definitely don't have all the answers, but I'm most interested in exploring other combo-oriented game plans. Formats like this tend to be vulnerable to unexpected combo decks until people adapt to them. In particular, I'm surprised that Kethis Combo hasn't done more in Pioneer. I'm also too stubborn to give up on control decks or midrange decks, but I haven't been successful approaching those decks in the normal, straightforward, traditional ways they tend to be built.
I think to win with these kinds of decks, you need to either go way over the top of these other decks, or you need to sidestep them completely. So if I am building a midrange deck, I want some sort of over-the-top finisher or some sort of combo finish. A great example of this kind of deck is actually the five-color Niv-Mizzet Reborn deck. It's basically a midrange deck that goes way over the top of other decks. For a control deck, I'd like to try exploring a more prison-oriented game plan. I don't know if the cards exist to make that work, but rather than trying to power right through my opponent's plan and come out on top, I'd prefer to find a way to sidestep it completely.
For what it's worth, I think both Mono-Black Aggro and Big Red are great decks to headline a format. I'd much rather have a grindy aggro or aggro-midrange deck be powerful than suffer through another degenerate strategy dominating a format. I also think having things like Soulflayer and Niv-Mizzet Reborn being top-tier decks is awesome. Having wacky decks actually be great is pretty sweet, all things told. I dream of the day midrange is good again, but in the meantime, things aren't so bad.
Brian Braun-Duin is a professional Magic player, member of the 2020 Magic Pro League and recurring special guest on the Bash Bros Podcast.