Feature Article from Seth Manfield

The Decks of Pioneer, Ranked

Seth Manfield

2/6/2020 11:00:00 AM

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This past weekend we had a number of major Pioneer tournaments, which means a number of results to sift through. So to make sense of it all, I'm going to try to rank what I believe to be the Top 10 decks in the format.

Usual disclaimer: Opinions on the rankings are going to vary from player to player, and there will be playable decks that don't make this list at all, because there are so many different viable strategies in Pioneer right now.

#10: Heliod Combo

There are a few different ways you can build around the combo of Walking Ballista and Heliod, Sun-Crowned. The first step is choosing what colors you are playing. While mono-white is the more prevalent choice, there are also some white-green Collected Company builds that have been successful as well. Once choosing to be mono-white, figuring out how many life gain effects you want, and which ones are the best is important. As far as lists are concerned, this one is pretty solid, having gone 7-3 at PT Brussels.

The sideboard numbers were constructed by me, as the quantities of the cards are effectively still unknown. However, I believe the best sideboard card the deck has available to it is Gideon of the Trials, due to how effective it is against the Dimir Inverter deck. The reason this deck isn't higher on the list is it's too inconsistent, and the combo itself is both hard to find and easy to break up. Having played the deck in a couple leagues on MTGO, I have failed to reach a win rate that I'm happy with.

#9: Azorius Control

Azorius Control remains the top pure control deck in the format. However, it didn't do very well this past weekend, which affects its rank. It is still very much a contender, and it may be that the players who enjoy it the most were busy trying out the Dimir Inverter deck.

Supreme Verdict is the best sweeper Pioneer has to offer, and Thassa's Intervention is a nice new tool that can be both draw cards and counter spells, two things this deck very much wants to do. Dream Trawler is another win condition you can turn to after sideboard.

#8: Lotus Breach

The Lotus Field deck has been one of the top options as far as Pioneer combo decks for a little while now. However, the addition of Underworld Breach takes it up a notch in power level, while also relying more heavily on filling up the graveyard. Underworld Breach an incredibly powerful card in the deck, and will very often let you win the game the turn you cast it. On the flipside, the deck becomes weaker against graveyard hate.

Brent Vos made Top 4 of PT Brussels with the deck, and some of his testing partners also did well with the strategy. This deck should see a bit of an uptick in popularity, though it is possible to hate out. Cards like Eidolon of the Great Revel, Slaughter Games-style effects, and Damping Sphere are incredibly strong against this deck. If you want to beat it, adding more hate cards to your sideboard is probably going to get the job done.

#7: Sultai Delirium

Unlike many of the other decks on this list, Sultai Delirium was not a popular choice going into this weekend, but it did win the largest event of the weekend in Brussels, in the hands of Joel Larsson. This deck is a great foil to aggressive decks, and probably the best home for Uro, Titan of Nature's Wrath in the format. There are plenty of ways to fill up the graveyard in order to turn on delirium, and of course one of the most enjoyable ways to close out a game in Pioneer is with Emrakul, the Promised End.

This deck is not in its final form, which means that it may very well be improved on. If you are a fan of toolbox decks that want to play a grind-you-out midrange style, this is definitely the deck to play. Note that even in a deck like this, you still want the playset of Thoughtseize and Fatal Push, as they're the best black disruptive spells in the format.

#6: Mono-Red Aggro

Mono-Red has been putting up good win percentages, but seemingly has been having trouble breaking into Top 8s. This version is a bit different than some other variants, as it has access to Abbot of Keral Keep as an additional prowess creature, while electing not to include Goblin Rabblemaster.

I played a version very similar to this in Richmond this past weekend, and thought the deck was just okay, which is part of the reason it isn't higher on the list. For a while the bigger red decks seemed to be doing well, but the versions that have a lower curve like this one are the way to go in my opinion.

#5: Niv to Light

Niv to Light as a whole has struggled a bit to put up good win percentages, but I believe the version that Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa took to the Top 4 of PT Brussels is a better version than previous variants. The addition of Gilded Goose over Paradise Druid is smart and innovative. Also, having access to maindeck Slaughter Games is the right call now, as that effect can be absolutely devastating for some decks.

When Niv to Light wins, it often wins big by crushing the opponent completely. Uro, Titan of Nature's Wrath replaces Siege Rhino as a life gain effect from your creature. The deck is completely built around the Niv-Mizzet Reborn triggers, which makes it a blast to play.

#4: Izzet Ensoul

Izzet Ensoul is unique in terms of what it's trying to do. Making your artifacts into large creatures is really sweet though, and we saw a version of this deck back when it was legal in Standard. The deck is aggressive, and includes a burn plan with Shrapnel Blast. One of the major upsides to playing this deck is you also can play countermagic while attacking, which is a major benefit for playing blue. Stubborn Denial is mostly a superior Negate as a protection spell here.

The deck can also play late games with Emry, Lurker of the Loch, The Royal Scions and Bomat Courier activations to refill your hand. This deck may be a bit higher on the list than recent results indicate, but it has done well at the Grand Prix level.

#3: Bant Spirits

Both straight Azorius Spirits and the Bant version are quite popular. I personally prefer the version that has Collected Company in it for that extra power level boost.

This deck has a lot going for it as it can race with quite a fast clock, while also being very annoying to play against. Cards like Spell Queller, Rattlechains, Selfless Spirit and Mausoleum Wanderer all happen to work extremely well together. Empyrean Eagle and Supreme Phantom really allow you to shorten the clock. By playing mostly on the opponent's turn, it also makes it very difficult to predict what the Spirits deck will do. This is a tier 1 deck.

#2: Mono-Black Aggro

Mono-Black Aggro is, in my opinion, the top aggro deck in the format right now. Having access to so many efficient one-mana cards is a huge luxury here. There are no matchups that are terrible for Mono-Black Aggro, as you can use your discard and removal to trade resources with the opponent, and Castle Locthwain is a perfect source of built-in card advantage.

This version is usually going to establish a very quick clock, as it aims to maximize on as many one-mana threats as possible. Also, the deck gets to play four copies of Mutavault, another important resource to have access to.

#1: Dimir Inverter of Truth

We have finally reached the real boogeyman of the format: Dimir Inverter. This deck basically didn't exist a couple weeks ago, but a few players including Kanister helped establish and popularize the archetype. It really is a great deck, with access to a Splinter Twin-like win condition in Inverter of Truth plus Thassa's Oracle. Dig Through Time also fits beautifully in the deck as a way to have just the cards you want to have in the graveyard, thanks to delve. The deck has been doing well, and while I don't think it is unbeatable, it is unquestionably the deck to beat right now. Expect to see milling become a focus of the format moving forward.

That is my current breakdown of the format heading into the Players Tour in Phoenix, where I will also be competing. There were a number of decks that didn't make it, but I'm sure the list will continue to fluctuate as the format shifts (and potentially more bannings take place).


Seth Manfield

Seth Manfield is a professional Magic player and member of both the Magic Hall of Fame and the 2020 Magic Pro League.

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