(Pioneer) Esper Hero: The One We Need, but Don’t Deserve

Pioneer is a great format that has all the benefits of Standard without the mistakes of Modern, likely because its been handled more progressively than Modern. The aggressive bans cleared the metagame of problematic cards that make games generally unfun (yes, I’m looking at you, Oko, Thief of Crowns and Nexus of Fate). This leaves us with a massive card pool to brew with and no clear best deck in sight.

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. If a card has dominated a metagame in any format, it’s likely strong enough to see play in Pioneer. With this criteria in mind, my attention immediately darted to cards like Teferi, Time Raveler and Dig Through Time. Teferi, Time Raveler has been criticized for its power level in the context of both Modern and Standard. It felt right to start there. Similarly, Dig Through Time has seen the same criticisms and was banned relatively quickly in both Modern and Legacy.

The simple approach to dominating Pioneer would be jamming these cards into UW Control, a deck that has been doing fairly well and recently top 16’d the Pioneer Challenge.


UW Control [Dazai 1/2020]

Planeswalkers (6)
Teferi, Hero of Dominaria
Teferi, Time Raveler

Creatures (1)
Torrential Gearhulk

Spells (23)
Supreme Verdict
Absorb
Dig Through Time
Dovin’s Veto
Opt
Syncopate
Thirst for Meaning

Enchantment (6)
Detention Sphere
Seal Away
Lands (24)
Castle Ardenvale
Fabled Passage
Field of Ruin
Glacial Fortress
Hallowed Fountain
Irrigated Farmland
Island
Plains

Sideboard (15)
Dovin’s Veto
Aether Gust
Apostle of Purifying Light
Blessed Alliance
Damping Sphere
Gideon, Ally of Zendikar
Grafdigger’s Cage
Mystical Dispute
Narset, Parter of Veils


But UW Control is not the only deck looking to take advantage of these powerful cards. Another premiere deck utilizing Teferi, Time Raveler is Five-Color Niv-Mizzet Reborn, which got 3rd in the most recent Pioneer Challenge.


5C Niv to Light [Ulrich00 1/2020]

Planeswalkers (4)
Teferi, Time Raveler

Creatures (16)
Niv-Mizzet Reborn
Paradise Druid
Siege Rhino
Sylvan Caryatid
Tolsimir, Friend to Wolves
Uro, Titan of Nature’s Wrath

Spells (13)
Bring to Light
Cut // Ribbons
Discovery // Dispersal
Dreadbore
Supreme Verdict
Unmoored Ego
Abrupt Decay
Kolaghan’s Command
Utter End

Enchantments (1)
Oath of Kaya
Lands (26)
Blood Crypt
Botanical Sanctum
Breeding Pool
Fabled Passage
Forest
Frontier Bivouac
Godless Shrine
Island
Mountain
Nomad Outpost
Overgrown Tomb
Plains
Sandsteppe Citadel
Stomping Ground
Swamp
Temple Garden
Temple of Deceit
Temple of Plenty
Watery Grave

Sideboard (15)
Blood Baron of Vizkopa
Infernal Reckoning
Mystical Dispute
Questing Beast
Rakdos’s Return
Rest in Peace
Slaughter Games
Solar Blaze
Surrak Dragonclaw
Thought Distortion
Thought Erasure


These decks are quite powerful and are arguably the two best interactive decks in the format. If your goal is to build an interactive deck, it better be doing something substantially different (or better) than these decks. Otherwise, it’s just suboptimal.

Our Hero Enters

The deck I’m bringing to you today revolves around a card you have likely heard of before as it was, and still is, a dominant card in Standard. That card is Hero of Precinct One.

The reason to play a card like Hero of Precinct One is because it provides both a proactive and defensive game plan, depending on the match-up or your role in any given board state. For example, if you’re up against an aggressive deck, you can use the tokens it produces to block and buy yourself a lot of time. On the other hand, once you’ve stabilized the board, you can turn the corner quite easily.

Since Hero of Precinct One is a mono-white card that necessitates a multicolored deck, we must carefully consider our options for additional colors. As I previously mentioned, it’s always wise to play the most powerful (or arguably broken) cards. This leads us directly back to Teferi, Time Raveler: a multicolor card that fits perfectly with Hero of Precinct One for a variety of reasons.

Curving Hero of Precinct One into Teferi, Time Raveler creates a snowball effect where you develop your board while setting your opponent’s board back. Teferi, Time Raveler has also proven to be incredibly strong alongside Oath of Kaya in Standard as it also progresses your board state while slowing down your opponent when paired with Hero of Precinct One which is the exact type of strategy we’re looking to capitalize on. These interactions are likely strong enough to push the deck into black. In black, we also get access to Thoughtseize, which helps clear the way to curve into Hero of Precinct One without trouble.

While not multicolored, Dig Through Time and Thoughtseize are some of the most powerful cards available in Pioneer and should likely be included. While not synergistic with Hero of Precinct One, they are still powerful tools that benefit the type of strategy we’re going for.

From this point on, we can copy a lot of what worked in Standard for our Pioneer build. This includes Thought Erasure, Tyrant’s Scorn, and Teferi, Hero of Dominaria. These are some of the best multicolored cards available in Esper colors, even in Pioneer’s wide card pool.

The deck is still missing a few pieces. My first inclination was to focus on how powerful of a card Teferi, Time Raveler is and pair it with Spell Queller, another multicolored card that can disrupt. If Teferi, Time Raveler is on the board and Spell Queller leaves the battlefield while a spell is exiled under it, the spell will remain in exile forever because Teferi does not allow an opponent to cast a spell unless the stack is empty (i.e. sorcery speed). Spell Queller’s own trigger means the stack is not empty and therefore, the opponent can never get their spell back. This is a synergy that has proven itself in Modern, so I thought this was the direction to take the deck.

I built the deck and ran it through a few leagues and finished with an 11-4 record in Magic Online Pioneer Leagues.


Lagzilla’s Esper Hero V1 [1/2020]

Creatures (10)
Hero of Precinct One
Murderous Rider
Spell Queller
The Scarab God

Spells (15)
Thoughtseize
Thought Erasure
Tyrant’s Scorn
Discovery // Dispersal
Dig Through Time

Planeswalkers (4)
Teferi, Time Raveler

Enchantments (6)
Oath of Kaya
Disinformation Campaign
Teferi, Hero of Dominaria
Lands (25)
Drowned Catacomb
Glacial Fortress
Godless Shrine
Hallowed Fountain
Island
Isolated Chapel
Shambling Vent
Swamp
Watery Grave

Sideboard (15)
Rest in Peace
Mystical Dispute
Narset, Parter of Veils
Fatal Push
Noxious Grasp
Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet
Dovin’s Veto
Supreme Verdict
Anguished Unmaking
Ashiok, Dream Render


While the record is certainly not bad, it’s important to think beyond record and focus on how the deck actually played. What I found, over and over, was that Spell Queller was the worst card in my deck. The deck taps out very often but Queller encourages you to keep your mana open. It was also very easy to get blown out by a removal spell if you didn’t have Teferi, Time Raveler in play. This doesn’t bode well for a format with removal as abundant as it is in Pioneer. On it’s own, Spell Queller was just not powerful enough. The only match-up I really enjoyed it in was UW Control, where it can dodge Dovin’s Veto. Even then, it wasn’t powerful enough to continue playing.

Another issue I ran into was Stonecoil Serpent out of the Izzet Artifacts deck where nearly all of my removal couldn’t target it. A similar meta consideration was graveyard decks such as Soulflayer or Sultai “Dredge”, where Disinformation Campaign is uncastable due to fear of fueling their graveyard.

I also learned that The Scarab God was a powerful card, but it doesn’t shine in every match-up. It was great against certain creature or graveyard decks, but wasn’t very good against a fast, aggressive deck where even an expensive five-drop like Teferi, Hero of Dominaria can at least answer a permanent.

Another issue was the pure inefficiency of a card like Discovery // Dispersal. It costs two mana, digs towards relevant cards, and fuels the graveyard for Dig Through Time. Unfortunatley, paying two mana and leaving the board in the same state after its resolution (with the exception of Hero of Precinct One triggers) is a bad rate at that cost.

Tuning Mistakes

I knew that I needed to replace the three-drop slot, but I had no idea where to begin. Then I remembered my number one rule: play proven powerful cards. Reflector Mage is a three-drop multicolored card that was banned in Standard. On the surface, it plays similarly to Teferi, Time Raveler in that it builds your board state while setting back your opponent’s (all while triggering Hero of Precinct One).

Unlike Spell Queller, Reflector Mage does not need any other card to be good. Even if it eats a removal spell, it will send its target back to hand instead of back to the stack. There is also no tension between holding up mana or tapping out, which supports the tap-out style of this deck.

Fatal Push is a removal spell that may not trigger Hero of Precinct One but deals with a lot of creatures in Pioneer at a cheap cost (such as Stonecoil Serpent). Sometimes efficiency and power are more important than synergy, such as in the case of Thoughtseize and Dig Through Time.

Tomebound Lich is a card that immediately impacts the board and helps filter through the deck similar to Discovery // Dispersal. It gains life, trades with bigger creatures than itself, and fuels Dig Through Time, all while curving off of Hero of Precinct One. On paper, this card seems underpowered, but in practice, it fills a much needed role in the mid- and late-game.

A final piece of the puzzle to pull it all together was taking a note out of Standard’s playbook: Sorin, Vengeful Bloodlord. Sorin allows the deck to rebuy all of its value creatures while being able to race against opposing aggressive decks.

This brings us to my latest list, which I was able to 5-0 and 4-1 a Pioneer League with on Magic Online.


Lagzilla’s Esper Hero V2 [1/2020]

Creatures (10)
Hero of Precinct One
Reflector Mage
Tomebound Lich

Spells (14)
Fatal Push
Thoughtseize
Thought Erasure
Tyrant’s Scorn
Dig Through Time

Planeswalkers (9)
Teferi, Time Raveler
Sorin, Vengeful Bloodlord
Teferi, Hero of Dominaria

Enchantments (2)
Oath of Kaya
Lands (25)
Drowned Catacomb
Glacial Fortress
Godless Shrine
Hallowed Fountain
Island
Isolated Chapel
Shambling Vent
Swamp
Watery Grave

Sideboard (15)
Rest in Peace
Mystical Dispute
Narset, Parter of Veils
Noxious Grasp
Murderous Rider
Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet
Thought Distortion
Dovin’s Veto
Supreme Verdict
Kaya, Orzhov Usurper
Ashiok, Dream Render
The Scarab God


Better than UW or 5c Niv?

It’s hard to conclude whether a deck is better or worse than another as they all have their strengths and shortcomings. Something noteworthy is that this deck has a good matchup against UW and 5c Niv. The combination of discard and planeswalkers is tough for them to beat, especially pre-board when they have inefficient removal. Though the sample size is small, I haven’t dropped a match against these decks and have felt heavily favored.

This deck also lines up against creature decks just as well, though the lack of a mainboard sweeper can sometimes get you (especially against UW Spirits, where your ground blockers can’t protect you). However, the interaction between Teferi, Time Raveler and Oath of Kaya is absolutely backbreaking against any decks dependent on getting you to zero life via combat.

Combo decks, such as Lotus Field, have a tough time beating discard into pressure. The plethora of discard is something UW and 5c Niv lack, allowing you to strip apart decks that rely on synergy or combos to get going.

Sometimes discard effects have reduced impact in the very late game. The upside of this deck is that its discard is almost always live, even in the late game. Teferi, Time Raveler can +1, allowing you to cast discard in your opponent’s draw step. Reflector Mage can also bounce any problematic creature and then Thoughtseize or Thought Erasure can remove it permanently.

What we have here is a midrange deck that can go toe-to-toe with other slow decks while holding its own against the many other archetypes in the format. If 5c Niv and UW Control continue to rise in the meta, then Esper Hero is here to stay.

Theros Beyond Death

Theros Beyond Death brings with it a whole bunch of new multicolored cards that we get to explore. I’m most interested in testing Atris, Oracle of Half-Truths, Ashiok, Nightmare Muse, and Dream Trawler.

Ashiok, Nightmare Muse competes with Teferi, Hero of Dominaria at the five-mana slot. My gut instincts tell me Teferi will be more relevant on more board states than Ashiok, but it may be worth testing the first Ashiok over the third Teferi, just to diversify threats and allow you to play two five-mana planeswalkers on the same board. Overall, drawing a card feels much more relevant to me than creating a 2/3 creature.

Some UW Control lists have incorporated a few copies of Dream Trawler in their sideboard. I think Dream Trawler could be a very serviceable sideboard card in a metagame where you want a Baneslayer Angel-type effect, but six mana is a little too high to put in the maindeck, especially considering the fact that Pioneer is full of aggressive decks that punish you for taking a single turn off.

Atris, Oracle of Half-Truths could be a hidden gem. It is card advantage on an evasive body which can be recurred with Sorin, Vengeful Bloodlord. It competes with a four-drop like Hostage Taker which will ultimately be better against creature decks. However, Atris is a much better value play if you expect fewer creature decks to show up for a given tournament.

Come to think of it, Hostage Taker is also a very reasonable card to play in the 75 of Esper Hero, possibly over the third Thoughtseize, fourth Reflector Mage, or second Sorin, Vengeful Bloodlord. Unfortunately, Hostage Taker has been bugged on Magic Online since the recent update and I haven’t been able to test it as much as I’d like.

Every new set brings with it new multicolored cards to expand this deck’s potential. Although Teferi, Time Raveler and Dig Through Time may have a target on their back as we approach future banlist announcements, they are here to stay for the time being and it would be wise to play them while you can.

Wrap-Up

At the end of the day, Esper Hero is a midrange deck designed to beat the popular control decks in the meta (5c Niv, UW Control) as well as the assortment of creature strategies (Mono-Green Aggro, Mono-Black Aggro, and Big Red). Metas inevitably change, but the wide card pool that Esper provides means that this strategy is adaptable to any given meta.

I tend to share a lot of my deck updates and deckbuilding processes on Twitter (@OrenLagzielMTG), so make sure to follow if that interests you, especially if you want to see where Esper Hero goes from here as the metagame changes.

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