Hi all, I’m back with an update on how I’m getting on in the world of Pioneer. There were no changes as a result of the February B&R announcement, although several people were assuming that something from the Dimir Inverter deck would get the axe following the deck’s recent successes. While it might continue to be a popular choice, I have instead been captivated by the slightly newer hotness that is Mono-White Devotion. In this article, I’m going to discuss the deck and its cards. This is more of an introduction to the deck, rather than a comprehensive ‘bible’, but I’ll be following this installment up with a sideboarding and match-up guide as I pick up more experience with it.
This deck is a midrange deck with a combo. Our overall strategy when piloting the deck varies from game to game, and the deck can play aggressive, defensive, combo-oriented game plans fiarly competently. For reference, here is a sample decklist – it’s the first list that I tried out and provides a good starting point if you’re considering playing the deck.
The combo in brief
For the uninitiated, a Walking Ballista two or more counters plus a Heliod, Sun Crowned activation is essentially ‘infinite damage’, with the Ballista recieving a counter each time it deals damage and its activation costing the removal of a counter. The reason we need two counters on the Ballista is because we need it to still be around when it deals damage so it can receive a replacement counter from the Heliod trigger.
Playing the deck
In my opinion the combo element of the deck can be played in multiple ways:
- Turn four combo plan: This is where our opening hand is blessed with both combo pieces and an enabler to help us combo efficiently, either Anafenza, Kin-Tree Spirit, Daxos, Blessed by the Sun, or possibly Idylic Grove. Going two-drop into Heliod and then a Walking Ballista where X is one on turn four will allow us to use the left-over two mana to give it lifelink and start firing! In the case of Idylic Grove, we need to already have three Plains on the battlefield so that we can use it to both put a counter on the 1/1 Ballista and provide the fourth mana source. I personally think that, when we get an opener like this, we should err on the side of ‘going for it’ and force the opponent to interact over being conservative.
- ‘Vicegrip’ combo plan: This is where a lot of interactive games might lead, particularly against control, midrange, or in postboard games where our opponents will often be a bit more capable of interacting with the combo. The plan typically involves forcing our opponents to tap out or use their resources on other threats so that we can safely combo – often later than turn four. This often means not playing out Ballista into open mana if possible (unless we draw multiples). Commonly Gideon of the Trials, Gideon, Ally of Zendikar, and Heliod are very good at pressuring an opponent and routinely demand answers. In games where we are behind, sometimes the only way to win is to persuade the opponent to use their resources to overcome our battlefield and hope to topdeck the missing combo piece. Such a line is always worth playing if the game is going shakily.
Otherwise, the deck plays as a defensive or offensive creature-based deck. Sometimes, we’ll need to put up a wall of blockers and use lifegain to stabilise – in other games we might need to apply pressure as quickly as possible with creature combat. The deck is capable of using both of these plans in addition to the combo, but it is neither a fast aggro deck nor is it a resilient control deck. It instead embraces the strength of being a midrange deck by impersonating the role of either of the aforementioned archetypes based on whether it needs to be the aggressor or not. This will typically vary from matchup to matchup and the sideboard is usually built to help with this.
Sequencing is typically very important for any of the three strategies. If we control Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx, our sequencing can determine how much we mana we can generate each turn. Cards that require only white mana symbols to cast will give us the mana back that turn via Nykthos, so it’s generally a good idea to play them before activating Nykthos if we can still use the legendary land later in the turn.
For example, imagine we control the following permanents:
Our devotion is currently at four. Now imagine this is our hand:
- If we play Anafenza before we use Nykthos, we get to add six mana to our mana pool and can play both Arcanist’s Owl and Baffling End in the same turn (we got to use eight mana this turn).
- If we activate Nykthos first, we only get four mana, so we could only play two of our three spells.
One of the more important, but probably overlooked, elements of playing this deck is to hit land drops for at minimum the first four or five turns! Greedy keeps will only work out when luck is on our side. In the dark, it’s generally better to have at least three lands in our opening hand, especially when on the play or in the absence of Knight of the White Orchid. The deck is very mana hungry!
These cards feature in most lists and I’ll try and share some applications I think are important when playing them in this deck in favour of just describing their basic functionality. Some are more obvious than others.
While it’s good to win by the combo, don’t forget that Walking Ballista is still an insanely strong Magic card under regular circumstances. With Nykthos, it’s possible to play these ahead of curve and decimate or dominate a board, which can sometimes be enough to win.
Thraben Inspector provides an early blocker against aggressive decks and a free point of devotion. When our opponent is on the play, we can play Inspector on turn one and use the clue it generated on turn two if we don’t have another two drop ahead of our Knight of the White Orchid on turn three. In the early turns, we only really want to crack the clue in favour of playing a permanent if we really need to hit our next land drop or something about our opponent’s board or known cards in hand makes it pointless to do anything else. Deploying permanents keeps up devotion, while clues can be cracked with spare mana or when we have no play to make.
These two have roles in improving the efficiency of the combo. With Anafenza, Kin-Tree Spirit, we can always get a 2/2 Ballista for 2 mana if we wish. Daxos, Blessed by the Sun will always give us the option to grow our Ballista by one if we control Heliod. Both have the ability to make creatures bigger when Ballista is not around (but Daxos needs Heliod to be around for this). In non-combo situations, Anafenza is a bit more aggressive because it can get going a bit quicker. Daxos is a bit slower and gains life, making naturally more defensive, but given enough time can also aid in forming an army with great offensive capability. We might want to consider this when deciding which to cut if trimming on these during sideboarding.
Playing catch-up when on the draw, or if we miss land drops, is very valuable. A 2/2 with First Strike is no joke against aggressive decks and it’ll often bite a removal spell from an opponent looking to get through for damage. Knight of the White Orchid can even search for Idylic Grove. Purposefully missing a land drop on the current turn to play this the next turn can sometimes be the right thing to do if it means breaking through in future combats or assembling the combo. When we’re going to be on the play, it somewhat makes sense to trim or cut these during sideboarding as they’re going to be much harder to use for full value.
As well as the combo with walking Ballista, Heliod, Sun Crowned is a very versatile aggressive threat. When adopting the aggressive plan, we often want to deploy Heliod before the permenants that would enable it to become a creature. This way it can attack earlier. On the flipside, the opponent can prevent Heliod staying a creature by removing our permenants, so we might need to play around this by being extra devoted if it’s particularly important to be able to attack or block with him. Giving lifelink to Knight of the White Orchid will allow us to add a counter to another creature (without first strike) before regular combat damage is dealt. This will give us +1 combat damage for the turn!
Arcanist’s Owl is very powerful with Nykthos and Heliod mainly due to its mana cost. However, it’s quite a slow card, particularly if we end up deploying Nykthos before turn five to hit land drops (and don’t have tons of devotion). It also has a much bigger failure rate than cards like Collected Company, so there is a variance element to it, but we do get a 3/3 flyer at a minimum. We often sideboard this out when we need to be more responsive to early threats or in matchups where either card advantage is less important or using the combo is less likely to succeed (or both).
Before the Dimir Inverter decks started playing Hero’s Downfall in the maindeck they were a bit cold to Gideon of the Trials, but now its harder to get a ‘free win’ this way. Gideon has clear offensive and defensive capabilities, so it should be fairly intuitive which ability is best to be used each turn. There’s no benefit to multiple emblems, so even if the other abilities aren’t relevant, using the +1 on an opponent’s land will still at least increase loyalty.
One trick we can play with this instant-speed removal spell is to have it contribute the last two points of devotion to ‘animate’ Heliod mid-combat and have our opponent’s attack potentially backfire. Just be mindful that the opponent can free their creature from Stasis Snare by destroying it.
Unlike in past Standard, Gideon, Ally of Zendikar is not quite the same ‘unbeatable threat’ in Pioneer, but it play aggressive, defensive, and facilitative roles in the deck very well. Concerning the latter, the ‘anthem’ emblem generated by Gideon’s -4 ability can act as an Anafenza, Daxos, or Idylic Grove to allow us to combo off. With an emblem, a Ballista cast for two mana is now enough to combo as it will survive to receive a new counter when it deals damage, as its base stats will be 1/1 not 0/0!
These cards often make up the last few slots in the deck but typically vary more than the other cards in the list because they are often responses to metagame trends. Usually it’s a matter of how we want the deck to lean. Do we want to be slightly more prepared for the early game or the late game, against creatures or against combo? Let’s examine the ones from the list I posted above, as well as some other ones I’ve picked from similar lists. Sometimes these cards also feature in sideboards, so consider them options that could also be listed in the next section.
If we’re expecting a lot of matchups with early creatures, then Baffling End makes a lot of sense. Currently Mono-Red, Mono-Black, Mono-Green, and Spirits are all prevalent in the metagame. the card is also useful in the mirror and can snag a two-drop combo assister such as Anafenza, Daxos, or even Heliod if he is animated. We play this card over Seal Away because it gives us much more flexibility in terms of our own sequences for the purposes of devotion. Having to wait for our opponent’s creatures to tap – or worse, them playing around Seal Away – could mess things up for us.
If we want to be more aggressive, then why not add more Gideon? Gideon Blackblade helps us pressure our opponent’s health total and his +1 can also assist with the combo tby providing lifelink at a cheaper rate than Heliod’s activated ability. It’s not really a defensive card, though, so it’s one to consider more if we’re expecting to play against combo or control.
This card feels like a bit of a meme, but shutting down decks that have a key card such as Inverter of the Truth or Underworld Breach can be big game! We can also use Gideon’s Intervention against cards we know, or think are in our opponent’s hand. Similarly, if we’re a bit late and a threat is already in play (and/or in multiples), this card can be backbreaking for the opponent. It might seem appealing against aggressive decks, but bear in mind that most of them go quite wide often earlier than turn four.
If we’re expecting ‘grindy’ games where value and versatility are relevant, we definitely want Elspeth Conquers Death – the card is incredibly strong against other midrange decks, including the mirror match. Chapter one exiles any planeswalker and most troublesome permanents, including enemy Heliods, and is probably the most important part of the card. Chapter two is a bit of a freebie that might have an effect on how our opponent plans their next turn, while chapter three is additional recursive value that can be extremely relevant in grindy games. Keep in mind that we can reanimate Ballistas with the third chapter as the creature enters with a +1/+1 counter!
Damping Sphere is mainly for the Underworld Breach deck as it hamstrings both Lotus Field and hinders the playing of multiple spells in the same turn. The deck is very powerful against us, so sometimes we want extra cards for it. Don’t forget that Nkythos, Shrine to Nyx won’t work when we control this card.
Not quite at Bitterblossom level, but Dawn of Hope provides a route to additional threats and card advantage which will shine most against a deck that plays draw-go quite a bit of the time, like Azorius Control. It could also be decent in the mirror match, improving our card advantage, life gain, and battlefield presence, although only if we have enough cards to sideboard out (possibly when we remove Knight of the White Orchid on the play).
Deicide is mainly for Heliod, but it can hit any other enchantment, notably Daxos and other enchantment-based removal spells in the mirror match. There aren’t many other enchantments that feature in other matchups, other than maybe Fires of Invention or the Orzhov ‘Bogles’ deck that uses Sram, Senior Edificer, but the card serves its purpose well.
Obviously Glare of Heresy is excellent in the mirror. It has applications in other matchups as it can hit key cards like Spell Queller, Empyrian Eagle, Deputy of Detention, Teferi, Time Raveler, Teferi, Hero of Dominaria, and Elspeth, Sun’s Champion.
Graveyard hate has its uses, particularly against Delerium and Lotus Breach. Rest in Peace doesn’t make those decks completely fold to us, but it’s a spanner in the works for them.
We typically make use of Sorcerous Spyglass to handle planeswalker-heavy decks running cards such as Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy, Jace, Telepath Unbound, Jace, Wielder of Mysteries, Teferi, Time Raveler, Teferi, Hero of Dominaria, Vivien, Arkbow Ranger and, while it doesn’t completely shut it down, Nissa, Who Shakes the World. Stopping the latter from animating lands can be super important as Nissa can sometimes land on turn three!
This is an innovation I am currently trying and liking so far. Shatter the Sky is mainly an ‘anti-aggro’ card and is particularly handy against the Mono-Green deck. That deck in particular is very good at overwhelming us in the first four turns with multiple creatures that also provide mana or devotion support, but might find it hard to come back from us animating a Gideon, destroying all creatures, drawing a card, and attacking their planeswalker!
There are more outliers that people are trying in the form of white spells and artifacts, but these are the ones I’ve seen most commonly used.
I’ve personally found the deck very fun to play and quite effective against a mix of the more commonly played competitive Pioneer decks, particularly Dimir Inverter, Bant Spirits, and the aggressive decks. I’ve also played a lot of mirror matches because it’s a popular choice at the moment! This deck does have its ‘bad matchups’, and unfortunately there are a couple of decks against which this deck really struggles. From my experience, these are Azorius Control and Lotus Breach, but I will discuss the specifics of the different matchups in another article in the near future. Here is the list I am currently playing.
While I’m still learning some of the ropes with this deck, I’d recommend it for a tournament if you are confident playing it. Personally, I would still play Bant Spirits in a competitive event because I’m more confident with that deck, but this could change soon as I continue to stay devoted to Heliod!
I’ll be writing a bit of a match-up and sideboard guide as a follow-up to this article as I did previously with Spirits. I’m really enjoying Pioneer as a format, and with less opportunity to meet up with my friends to have some casual games of Commander, it’s definitely my go-to option for Magic at the moment in isolation (when not distracted by the Vintage Cube currently on MTGO).
I’d like to give a particular mention to Dr Jack Patten, host and producer of Standard Intelligence (SI), a UK-based Magic podcast. Usually SI provides the lowdown on UK Magic events and includes in-depth analysis of the Top 8 decklists and metagame trends. COVID-19 may have put a stop to live events, but it hasn’t stopped Jack from continuing to provide content through SI. He has recently been interviewing UK players to talk about the formats they love and was gracious enough to invite me on very recently (recorded just before the time of writing this article) to chat Pioneer and answer some of his budding questions about the format. Click here to listen to Standard Intelligence Episode 121 – Pioner (Re)Primer
You can find me on Facebook and Twitter @Chris54154.
Best wishes to everyone for staying safe and well during the COVID-19 pandemic.