Whats in Pioneer? Evaluating the Best Tools for Competitive Play (Pt. 1)

Though I had other plans for my Monday, WoTC decided that 100% of my attention should be devoted to something else…

As much as I love Modern, a fresh start on a non-rotating MTG format seems due.

Initially, I read this as a WoTC takeover of the now-defunct Frontier format but after digging in, I realized its something very different.  Besides reaching deeper into the history of Magic, there is one very significant difference that will make this environment like something we’ve never seen before…

Because the fetch lands are not inherently “unfair”, “oppressive”, or “broken”, adding them to a banned list at any other point would seem very unjustified.  Barring these fetches from the format before a game has ever been played establishes a different environment from eternal counterparts without requiring the meta-game to reach problematic scenarios to act.


We have never had to evaluate cards for an eternal format without the consideration of fetch lands to fix mana and loading up your graveyard for Delve mechanics or similar.

Consider the three cards that are banned in Modern but will be legal at the onset of Pioneer:

All three are, no doubt, incredibly powerful cards.  Each one requires materials in the graveyard to perform at their best.  While cast spells and destroyed permanents will eventually fill the yard, the natural ability to do so very quickly with fetch land activations in Modern and Legacy will be missed in Pioneer.  Fabled Passage may be the best alternative at this point but doesn’t allow for a turn one Deathrite Shaman to lead to a three-mana play on the second turn.  Beyond that, having a mere four copies of such a resource (unless you’re a madman and decide that running Evolving Wilds is where its at), likely will not provide enough gas to allow for Deathrite Shaman to be used as a mana dork.

Don’t get me wrong, Deathrite is a hell of a card.  Its incredible utility at the cost of just one mana is likely enough for it to see plenty of play in this format but the inability to really use its mana production mode means that it might be able to exist here.

I’ve got a bit more concern for the other two.  In both cases, playing these spells a few turns later seems worth tolerating based on the value they provide.  What needs to be considered is what other types of tools exist in the format to keep you alive into the late game when chaining Dig Through Time into Dig Through Time can shut things down.

What I’m finding is that Modern (format) conveniences…pun intended…like quality removal spells in white or two-mana counterspells, for example, may not be available for Pioneer.  In fact, there are a lot of technologies from the Modern format that fall just outside of Pioneer’s scope.


Without them, we have a VERY different format.  Though we can make Pioneer versions of effective Modern decks, results will vary based on the make up of the rest of the meta.

The Tools in Pioneer

In order to consider what is available to brew with in Pioneer, we have to take into account the deficits of the format.  Here are the most significant differences I’ve observed between Pioneer and Modern that must be considered as well as a short list of what I expect to be the most effective tools within the format:

1. One Mana Spells

A majority of the cards included in the graphic above cost one or zero mana.  Modern happens to be a format where one-mana spells are incredibly important to keep up with the likes of blistering aggro decks and fast combos.  With fewer cards in the scope of this format, there are far fewer impactful turn one plays or one-mana interactions.  I can think of a few very powerful options that DO exist in Pioneer:

Of course, there are plenty of other impactful one-drops in the format (cards like Hardened Scales, Deathrite Shaman, Traverse the Ulvenwald come to mind), but when it comes to the most important one-drops in the format, I think that these cards provide four vital functions for what I predict the format to include.

The inclusion of Llanowar Elves on the list may seem a little strange but, without access to Birds of Paradise and Noble Hierarch, we’ll need something to enable early three-drops to get ahead of our opponent.  Since this format is poised to be quite a bit slower than Modern, casting a Tireless Tracker, Reflector Mage, Teferi, Time Raveller, or Oko, Thief of Crowns on turn two seems like it will be a powerful line.

There will always be a red deck.  And if there’s one thing we’ve learned about red decks, its that they like to go fast.  Though Modern all-star Goblin Guide is just too old for Pioneer, there are tons of Modern power-level burn spells that ARE available to us in Boros Charm, Skullcrack, Skewer the Critics, Searing BloodEidolon of the Great Revel, and Deflecting Palm.  Furthermore, a majority of the pieces to Modern Mono Red Prowess are Pioneer-legal including Monastery Swiftspear, Soul-Scar Mage, Bedlam Reveler, Light up the Stage, Crash Through, Warlord’s Fury, and Skewer the Critics.  Though I don’t expect Modern decks to be good in Pioneer just because they are effective in Modern, I think that good old fashioned red aggro strategies seem pretty universal.  I wouldn’t be surprised to see these two one-drop creatures at the helm of those.

I mentioned Traverse the Ulvenwald on our last podcast.  I still feel like this can be a big player in Pioneer as an important mana fixing engine and Stirrings-like selection tool.  At this point, I’m trying to wrap my head around the best ways to accomplish Delirium without fetch lands.  Once Upon a Time may be a good candidate for a similar role player.

2. Removal Quality

The removal spells in this format are much slower than in Modern.  One mana removal options are basically limited to Fatal Push which will most often be able to target only a 2cmc creature as triggering revolt will be much more difficult without fetches.

In Modern, interactive decks can lean heavily on Path to Exile and Lightning Bolt as an effective and efficient removal option.  In Pioneer, your choices are much more limited, especially if you don’t have access to black.  I’d consider the best options for creature removal to be the following:

As you can see, your options are rather limited for decks like UWx Control. Both Blessed Alliance and Declaration in Stone are either situational or slow for two-mana but might just be the best we’ve got.

In fact, a number of these ‘premier’ removal spells cost black mana.  I’d expect a lot of UB-based Control builds.  Also, these options plus the availability of Thoughtseize seem to put GB midrange decks in a good position.

Drown in the Loch is intriguing to me as it can seemingly “do it all” but without cards like Thought Scour and fetch lands in the format, I wonder if it won’t be limited similar to the that Fatal Push will be.  Thoughtseize on turn one may be enough to get things started for Drown to go after one-mana creatures and spells in the early game with more upside later on.  It’s entirely possible that this spell just falls too far behind the curve to use in the way control players want.

If you’d like your removal spell to provide a bit more versatility, there are a few very appealing options in the following:

Again, there’s quite a bit of representation for black cards on this list.  Including black in an interactive deck might just be something you see a lot of Pioneer builds looking to do.

As far as mass removal goes, some of the best choices in the Modern environment ARE available in Pioneer.  I’d consider our best options for this category to be:

3. Manabase

Perhaps the most significant difference is the manabase.  Since I spoke quite a bit about the impact of banning fetch lands from this format already, I won’t rehash that conversation.  What’s left are a few cycles of dual lands that each have unique drawbacks:

While all of these have potential to find some home in Pioneer, I wouldn’t be surprised if shock lands, fast lands, and check lands make up a majority of our manabases.

Keep an eye on pain lands, however, as a majority of the most powerful eldrazi spells are legal in this format, and having access to colorless mana AND color-fixing will be very important.

There are also a few lands that provide access to any color of mana (in some way).  I’d consider the most playable options to be:

Fabled Passage is likely to become a staple of this format’s manabases.  I can see plenty of advantages to play it that offset the drawback of having a land entered tapped on turns 1-3.  Those include enabling Delirium, providing Delve fodder, and smoothing out 3-5 color manabases.

Lastly, there are a few utility lands to consider.  I’d expect the following to be big players:

I would expect Shrine to become this format’s Sol land of choice for big mana strategies (that will likely involve Eldrazi).

Pioneer may just be the right home for Field of the Dead.  Here, it can be reunited with its old friend Scapeshift in an environment controlled by quite a bit more answers to such a problem than the standard format it took over.  I, for one, will be happy to pack Field of Ruin to keep it in check.

Urborg is an example of a card that was difficult to include in fetch land manabases because it was not fetchable and took up a slot that may have been needed for a shock land or basic.  There will be more breathing room in Pioneer manabases and there will be little drawback to including such a land as a one-of.

4. Counter Magic

There is a significant lack of hard counters in Pioneer at two mana or less.  Though we have quite a few creatures on a Modern power level, it doesn’t seem that the counter magic is strong enough to keep up.  I feel that this is the same with the removal spells to a certain extent.  Unlike Modern, where powerful creatures are met almost immediately with permission spells and removals, I’d expect Pioneer creatures to stick around a little while longer.  This should put a bigger emphasis on creature combat and creature quality/value is likely to be more of a feature of this format.

Most notably, Cryptic Command, Mana Leak, Logic Knot, Spell Snare, and Force of Negation are not available to us.  Here is what I consider to be the best of what’s left:

Of all of those options, Disallow seems to be the most versatile three-mana option, and I would think that this will see the most play.  Dovin’s Veto and Negate are clean answers to Planeswalkers or non-creature combo pieces; both of which I expect to be important functions.

Censor might just be good enough in Pioneer.  It’s one of the only options we have for “counter target spell” at just two mana.  Though it allows your opponent to pay the toll and move on with their plans, the fact that it can cycle may help to keep it relevant in the mid-to-late game.  Syncopate functions similarly at two mana and can scale up in the later game.  Without knowing the meta, its hard to say whether or not the exile could be relevant but I certainly expect that there is something out there that cares about the graveyard.  I’m already seeing Prized Amalgam decks.

Until Next Time…

We’ll stop here for now but, trust me, I can AND WILL keep going.  We haven’t even gotten to the fun part yet.

In the second installment, I’ll dig into the creature and planeswalker options that Pioneer packs.  There are tons of exciting options here that I’m looking forward to covering.  Stay tuned.

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