As the dust has settled on Pioneer’s first few months, it’s become a format I’m playing with increasing frequency. The weekly bans have injected some turbulence into the format over the last few months, especially for those wishing to ‘play the best deck’ to competitive success. However, the weekly bans are slowing. Just before the time of writing, Wizards announced that future adjustments to Pioneer will now be included in the (less frequent) general banned and restricted announcements. This provides a more stable footing for my thoughts and experience with the format. In this article, I’m going to catch you up with my Pioneer journey and discuss the deck I’m currently playing.
One way to tackle the format is to look back on previous Standard formats and upgrade some of the known archetypes with the larger available card pool. This is certainly where I started, and I decided to begin by playing Azorius Flash at a few events. It’s one of my favourite decks from past standard environments and I simply wanted to give it a whirl. Below is the version I tried out.
I certainly had fun crewing some Smuggler’s Copters and flashing in Archangel Avacyn in my opponent’s combat phase. In spite of this, I still found that the deck was a bit stretched in the format. Its maindeck setup couldn’t apply pressure particularly quickly, and when the opponent was ‘the beatdown’ it wasn’t really set up to take complete control of a game. I found myself having to win a lot of sideboarded games by transforming into a deck that improves its ability to do whichever one of those two is more relevant. It was quite good against non-interactive combo decks and classic ‘Draw-Go’ control decks, but these decks didn’t seem overly prevalent in the meta. Then Copter got banned and I decided that the deck might just be too weak without it (which is what happened when it was in Standard a few years ago).
From here I moved onto something much more aggressive by upgrading a deck I’d been playing in Standard just under a year ago – White Weenie!
With about twenty one-drops, I was confident that this deck could shoot for that turn four kill using the tried-and-tested strategy it had been implemented in Standard last year. Turn three Venerated Loxodon is still hard for most opponents to come back from and Brave the Elements allows our army of Weenies to overcome blockades of larger creatures for lethal and can provide insurance against damage-based and/or targeted removal. However the sideboarding options weren’t very diverse and because Pioneer is such a diverse format, I’d frequently come across matchups that I couldn’t really sideboard for very effectively. In addition, a high percentage of games just felt uninteractive. Either the opponent was run over, or my creatures never stood a chance in the face of a pile of removal.
My next step was to take an intermediate approach and try out an Azorius Spirits deck. I started with the following decklist played by Ryan Kitchen. He used it to win a PTQ at Magic Fest Portland recently.
This deck might not beat down quite as quickly as White Weenie, but it certainly makes up for it with a much larger suite of interaction. So far, I’ve really enjoyed playing the deck, and will likely spend the near future tweaking some of the card choices and sideboard options as the format takes shape.
At the heart of things, Spirits is a disruptive tribal deck with evasion. It uses some very familiar tribal synergies in the form of Supreme Phantom and Empyrean Eagle to improve its ability to beat down on the opponent. It is also capable of playing the game at instant speed thanks to the numerous cards with Flash, allowing it to spring tricks on the opponent or otherwise interact optimally.
One of the features I also like about the spirits deck is that, in games that will likely be determined by a creature-combat race, we get more of a say in how the race plays out than our opponent. This is because almost all our creatures have flying, while our opponent’s creatures will typically be less evasive. We can choose to stay home to block or send our creatures into the red zone and attack – a choice our opponent may not have.
In this section, I’m going to look at some of the more interesting cards from the list I played as well as some additional sideboard options.
This isn’t a card I’ve seen in every build but it is another one drop for Curious Obsession, which we’ll get to later, and also provides us with a mana sink for the late game. Our deck plays an instant speed game, but whenever we have four mana and our opponent doesn’t play into our Spell Queller or other tricks, we can use the mana to draw a card. It’s also a surprise attacker/blocker in more niche scenarios which can trigger Mausoleum Wanderer and Nebelgast Herald.
This has seen some play in previous iterations of Spirits in either Standard or Modern. While it didn’t particularly shine in those decks, I think it’s really good in this version of the deck – at least, this is my experience so far. It plays very well with Nebelgast Herald but also allows you to play even more tricks on the opponent such as flashing in a Selfless Spirit in the face of Supreme Verdict or a lord effect to swing combat maths in your favour. In addition, it can protect other spirits with its enters the battlefield trigger.
I haven’t seen this in every list, but I think it’s a sweet inclusion! This card allows us to interact while adding to the board, taking the pressure off having to run extra interactive spells to ensure our opponent’s creatures don’t get the better of us in combat. This card really makes me wish Moorland Haunt was in the format! The creature size rate isn’t great so I do sideboard some out when I don’t feel the need for a boost in creature combat (or a card like Lyra Dawnbringer).
It’s true that this isn’t a spirit, but it does a good impression of one. A 3/1 flash flyer is a good fit for the deck. Petty Theft is very flexible and provides versatile interaction. I sometimes see it as a maindeck Disenchant. Empyrean Eagle still powers it up, but Supreme Phantom doesn’t.
After piling our deck with 36 creatures we come to our flex slots. I was a little skeptical of this one at first, but having played it a bit, I now see the sense behind it. It’s a good way to propel the gameplan of an aggressive yet disruptive deck, which we saw last year in Standard via the Mono-Blue Tempo deck. It’s not wholly integral to the deck’s gameplan and is what I consider an ‘easy board out’ against decks that will be playing a lot of spot removal in games two and three, I try not to put this card on something like Selfless Spirit or a Lord, as we’re less incentivised to risk these spirits in combat or sacrifice them.
Disenchant has improved flexibility in the sense that it can destroy a wider range of things, but I think Fragmentize ends up being the more flexible card because is much easier to accommodate in a disruptive curve. For example, it can be played on turn one to answer Hardened Scales, or alongside a one drop on turn two, a two-drop on turn three and so on. Disenchant will probably require us to take turn two or turn three ‘off’ curving out.
In my opinion, Mystical Dispute is pretty important because it allows us to answer an early Teferi, Time Raveler very easily. It’s a very annoying card for us, aside from situations where it can just be killed in combat (when the opponent is much less likely to play it). If we are on the draw, don’t have a one-drop, and they bounce our two-drop, it’s a disaster we likely just have to play into. Disdainful Stroke stops most things trying to go over the top of us and Dovin’s Veto offers us extra insurance against control or combo.
Supreme Verdict in a deck that plays 36 creatures does look odd, but the reality is that other decks are capable of going wider and faster with their creatures, so this is a bit of a hedge for when things take a turn for the worst. Settle the Wreckage is a slightly better card for creating a more favourable board state, but we aren’t a powerful late-game deck so the lands that our opponent finds could really punish us later on.
The last few sideboard slots are for hating on synergies or combos. I don’t think there’s a particular problem with graveyard decks, but at the moment I think Rest in Peace is the best way to stop decks that leverage Arclight Phoenix and Treasure Cruise very effectively. The alternative is to use these sideboard slots to hate on spell-based combo decks with a card like Deafening Silence or decks that use counters with Solemnity.
I like the deck enough to at least stick with it for a little while. It’s perhaps what I wanted my original choice of Azorius Flash to be – more focused and aggressive. There are builds that go a little bigger than the version I played with a higher land count and cards like Bygone Bishop, Teferi, Time Raveler, Declaration in Stone, and even Archangel Avacyn in the maindeck. I will probably try out this version in the near future, but I quite like the deck being aggressively slanted with Spectral Sailor and Curious Obsession. There’s also a Bant version playing Collected Company and the mana to support it to also try out.
At the time of writing, I believe the top competitive decks in Pioneer to be Mono-red (aggro/midrange), Mono-black (aggro), Mono-green (ramp) and Azorius control. I would nevertheless recommend the Spirits deck to any Pioneer enthusiast. My current tip for playing the deck is to remember to be aggressive, so make sure your hand contains a one-drop or two-drop! The deck is an evasive beatdown deck that can interact rather than an interactive deck that happens to have a creature-based beatdown. Aggressive lines of play frequently outweigh conservative ones, so avoid eternally holding up Spell Queller for ‘the right moment’. Often times the extra attacker is the better line.
As I continue to gain experience with the deck, I’ll likely be in a position to write a more strategic piece on the deck, including match-ups and sideboarding. I’m also keen to try out the Mono-red deck. I’ve played against it a few times and it’s impressed me, so perhaps it can be my next Pioneer pet project. Theros Beyond Death is also coming out in a few weeks and I’ll be sure to share some thoughts on this new addition to Magic.
You can find me on Facebook or Twitter @Chris54154 – feel free to hit me up with your thoughts online or if you see me at an event. I regularly attend competitive tournaments in the UK including Magic Fests and events pave a pathway to the Player’s Tour. I also have a love of casual play including Commander and Cube.