Framing the Pioneer Metagame

From his more recent article, “(Pioneer) Esper Hero: The One Who Need, but Don’t Deserve”, Oren Lagziel mentioned one key point that comes with brewing a deck in Pioneer, “When brewing in a format with such a wide card pool, I like to focus on cards that have proven themselves in Standard or non-rotating formats”.

I would argue that there is no proper method or reason to brew a from-the-ground-up archetype in an already established metagame. Pioneer is, at this point, well established (Izzet Ensoul and Mono-Black Aggro are powerful Aggro archetypes; Niv to Light and UW Control play heavily in the Control space of the metagame; Dimir Inverter and Lotus Breach are powerful Combo decks). Though, even if there is no proper method that is apparent, there are still certain styles and strategies of decks that have been left unexplored in the format. Finding the right style or strategy could possibly even break the format; or at least create a new contender in the format that reaches the same level of performance that established archetypes have reached. Lagziel has already accomplished such a feat in his Esper Hero brew which consistently proves itself in the hands of a capable pilot. If you are interested in staying updated with the deck, check out his Twitter. Besides Esper Hero, there are other archetypes from previous Standard environments that have not yet seen play in Pioneer that could potentially find a foothold in the format. Such decks take on many forms, from Jeskai Black to Bant Company to Jeskai Ascendancy. Each of these decks, from Lagziel’s previously mentioned advice could find a foothold in the format, but that comes from how to configure them and prepare for the format. This is where framing the format comes into play, as it acts an approach to brewing the format in way that helps to construct deck, and as Gavin Verhey stated, “a metagame boils down to three primary decks”.

In this article, I will layout the make-up of the Pioneer meta game to determine an approach to brewing within it.  I’ll follow this up with another article in which we’ll look into Pioneer decks based on former Standard archetypes, as a starting place for a new build in eternal environment with a metagame make-up that I’ll define today.

The Pioneer Metagame

As I had previously mentioned, the Pioneer metagame is established — Aggro, Control, and Combo. These three distinct approaches parallel the way that past metagames have been compared to a game of “Rock Paper Scissors”. Gavin Verhey explains this similarity; “[A] metagame boils down to three primary decks. Each deck strong in its own right, they tend to line up in a very similar pattern. One deck will, most of the time, beat another”. Comparably, it is the same with “Rock Paper Scissors”. Each option beats another option. This also applies to the three basic types of strategies — Aggro, Control, and Combo. Aggro is supposed to beat Control, Control is supposed to beat Combo, and Combo is supposed to beat Aggro. I say “supposed” because certain Combo decks can beat Control decks and Control decks are capable of defeating Aggro decks. In Legacy, EPIC Storm is an example of a Combo deck that is capable of beating Control archetypes (and consistently does) such as 4C Snow Control. Cyrus Corman-Gill, who won Grand Prix Atlanta with Legacy Storm, mentions that “[4C Snow Control] is a strong match-up if you are patient and position yourself in a place where you can win through multiple pieces of disruption”. Even if the state of a metagame is never a pure game of “Rock Paper Scissors”, there is still some truth to the thought that certain strategic approaches have stronger match-ups against other strategic approaches and have weaker match-ups against some others. The ability to win the game depends on the game plan more than it does the strategic approach, even if these two ideas are not mutually exclusive. Aggro decks come out of the woodwork to apply pressure, Control relies on interaction and time to win the game, and Combo can win out of nowhere.

Archetypes

Lotus Breach and Dimir Inverter are not fully defined by the Combo strategic approach. Dimir Inverter resembles Combo-Control decks that utilize a control-oriented approach of keeping the game in check while setting up to assemble a game-winning combination (in this case two cards). This has similarity to UR Twin from older Modern environments, using cards like Remand and Lightning Bolt to maintain the game-state for the combination of Pestermite and Splinter Twin to close things out. This deck uses Inverter of Truth and Thassa’s Oracle, instead, to close out the game when the opportunity presents itself. In order to create that opportunity, much like how Twin uses Remand and Lightning Bolt, Dimir Inverter uses Fatal Push and Thoughtseize to keep the game-state in check. On the other side of the Combo spectrum, there is Lotus Breach. Lotus Breach is another deck that is not fully defined as a Combo deck, more akin to a Big Mana deck that uses cards to obtain a mana advantage and then use that mana advantage to close out the game. Lotus Breach is like Tron in the sense that it also features a Big Mana aspect in the first part of the game, then seeks to take advantage of that mana advantage. 

Big Mana is not a strategic approach but more of an aspect of the deck that sets up for how the archetype is going to close out a game. Tron, in Modern, is a deck that has been regarded as a Combo or Control deck since its first step to winning the game is assembling a combination of Urza’s Tower, Urza’s Power Plant, and Urza’s Mine. It wins the game by assembling these three to produce the mana to cast cards like Karn Liberated or other higher cost cards to lock the opponent out of the game. Because of such cards, Tron is also regarded as a Control deck, “It obviously ramps, and what it does with all that mana is play a classic Control game”. Big Mana, in this case, is a set-up strategy that is played alongside the strategic approach. Even then, the distinction between Control and Big Mana is that a Big Mana deck “spends a couple of turns ramping, then controls the board with wrath effects and removal until it drops a finisher”. Lotus Breach follows this structure, using cards like Arboreal Grazer and Sylvan Scrying to maintain a resource advantage, and other cards like Vizier of Tumbling Sands and Hidden Strings to gain a virtual mana advantage by using their ability to untap Lotus Field. The mana advantage is then used to close out the game with Expansion//Explosion, acting as the finisher of the deck. 

Before continuing, I must acknowledge the different tiers in strategic approaches: Combo, Control, and Aggro. The idea of a strategic approach is much more than the categories that archetypes and decks are placed under. Strategic approaches, at their core, boil down the different archetypes into approaches for winning the game, as “a deck’s chosen [strategic] approach [is what] motivates its design”. The three basic types are the most consistently used and distinctly different strategic approaches that decks are categorized under. Jeff Cunning takes note of this, 

“These are the basic deck types: Aggro is a strategy that aims to win by producing maximum damage output in the shortest number of turns; Control is a strategy that attempts to interfere with, prevent, deny, or otherwise cancel the opponent’s actions; Combo is a strategy that utilizes the interaction of two or more cards (a “combination”) at the same time or in sequence, resulting in a powerful effect.”

Other strategic approaches exist in competitive metagames. They exist as subtypes, or a combination of the basic type of strategic approaches. Cunningham brings attention to this, terming them: “Aggro-Control”; “Aggro-Combo”; “Control-Combo”; and “Aggro-Combo-Control”. These subtypes have taken on other names since their creation, such as Tempo, Midrange, Big Mana, Grow. Much discussion around the categorization of archetypes is centered around the strategic approaches to decks and how individual archetypes fall under such categories. For further discussion on Archetype Categorization, read Jordan Boisvert’s two-part series, “Pigeonholing Prevails: Modern Archetypes” and “Hypnotic Spectrum: Modern Archetypes, Part 2”

As I have mentioned previously in this article, certain decks have become accomplished within the format among the decks that already define the top performing strategic approaches. Lagziel’s Esper Hero is closer to a deck that I would take on, but I have not found success with it. I am probably not as skilled a pilot as he is with the archetype, though, there are other options available, many of which have not made their way into the format yet.

So, again, I take Lagziel’s advice: “focus on cards that have proven themselves in Standard or non-rotating formats”. Among the different decks that have performed across Standard, there is one that I feel holds more potential than other archetypes that I have attempted. Such an archetype takes from a combination of powerful colors and engines to formulate its gameplan.  Some examples of this, besides Esper Hero, comes in the form of Sultai Delirium, taking advantage of Traverse the Ulvenwald to form an assortment of creatures that help to maneuver through difficult situations. Another such example is Mono-Blue Devotion, from the original Theros Standard environment, making use of the bigger card pool in Pioneer to both interact with the game and close it out in a more consistent manner.

All of these archetypes fall under the strategic approach of Midrange, however. That is only one metric of brewing in the format, as a point of reference for how to begin constructing a deck. There are others that have been previously mentioned, such as Jeskai Ascendancy. The problem with decks such as those are that Pioneer is a format based on interaction through creatures, as it is through creatures that decks are able to win. UW Control and Lotus Breach are the exception to this rule because they operate on a different (and powerful) axis outside of the normalized structure of the format. Jeskai Ascendancy, as the example, does not do anything powerful enough to break from the rule presented, even if it is able to win games out of nowhere. Though, such decks can still be configured to the best of their ability. And such ideas have been attempted in Pioneer.

Conclusion

Once I started writing this article, I wanted to focus on how I built Abzan Megamorph. That is an idea of mine that I have been finding success with. Though, it wouldn’t be much to talk about ouside of a normal Deck Primer article. I wanted to present an article that was not only useful to the average player, but one that broke from the normal state of content being presented amongst the MtG community. That is why I wanted to focus on framing the format as it helps to not only figure the format out and simplify it to a degree, it is also a utilized approach to how to operate within the format. It just does not receive much attention. Strategic approaches are always supplemented to how decks operate, even used to compare decks to each other.

By categorizing decks under their strategic approaches, it frames the format in a way that helps to understand the format and see what type of strategies are missing or what might be useful to attempt to the solve the format. By doing this, it is a first step to understanding what decks are performing consistently, why they are performing, and how the top decks are able to contend against each other. Then, by realizing that, it can help form a gameplan to attacking the format from outside the metagame and push the format forward with a different deck. This is not a complete solution to deck building or metagaming, nor is it meant to be. It is only another tool that exists, that has not been given the depth analysis it deserves, to go forward to building a deck or metagaming a format.

In the next part of this article, I want to discuss how specific brews take utilize the idea of “framing the format” and take from Lagziel’s advice of “focusing on cards that have proven themselves in Standard or non-rotating formats”.

Thank you for reading, 

Gregg Ong

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