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Last updated on January 10, 2022

Vizier of Tumbling Sands, Spell Queller, Soul-Scar Mage, & Sram, Senior Edificer | Illustration by Josu Hernaiz, Adam Paquette, Steve Argyle, & Chris Rahn

Greetings wizards, witches, and warlocks! On today’s magical venture I’ll be examining four different pre-built decks that WotC intends to serve as an easy lead into the Pioneer format. Releasing on October 15, 2021, each of these Pioneer Challenger decks is ready to play right out of the box. Each precon is based on an archetype that has had at least temporary success in tournament-level Pioneer play.

But are these decks worth your money? Should you just skip them directly and go straight to buying singles? And how is Pioneer itself doing these days anyways? All of these questions and more will be answered here, so read on!

Magic: The Gathering Pioneer Challenger Decks 2021 Bundle | All 4 Decks | Azorius Spirits + Orzhov Auras + Mono Red Burn + Lotus Field Combo
  • Bundle of 4 Decks – Azorius Spirits (White-Blue), Orzhov Auras (White-Black), Mono Red Burn (Red), Lotus Field Combo (Black-Green-Blue)
  • Azorius Spirits—Summon spirits and a flock of fliers to bring your opponent down.
  • Orzhov Auras— Grow and protect your creatures, then raise them from the grave.
  • Mono Red Burn—Assemble an army and scorch your opponent directly.
  • Lotus Field Combo—Build up your resources, then win the game in a single turn.

What are Challenger Decks?

Lotus Field - Illustration by John Avon

Lotus Field | Illustration by John Avon

Challenger decks are a product line of pre-built Constructed decks that debuted in March 2018. They were mostly aimed at intermediate players looking to get their feet wet at FNM events. They’re intended to be used right out of the packaging with some room for upgrading and fine tuning to be slightly more in line with tournament archetypes.

There have been four sets of Challenger decks released and one duo released exclusively in Japan, each of which was designed for Standard play. These are the first decks aimed at Pioneer!

The Most Competitive
The Most Fun
Magic: The Gathering Pioneer Challenger Deck 2021 – Mono Red Burn (Red)
Magic: The Gathering Pioneer Challenger Decks 2021 – Orzhov Auras (White-Black)
Magic: The Gathering Pioneer Challenger Deck 2021 – Azorius Spirits (White-Blue)
Magic: The Gathering Pioneer Challenger Deck 2021 – Lotus Field Combo (Black-Green-Blue)
Magic: The Gathering Pioneer Challenger Deck 2021 – Mono Red Burn (Red)
Magic: The Gathering Pioneer Challenger Decks 2021 – Orzhov Auras (White-Black)
Magic: The Gathering Pioneer Challenger Deck 2021 – Azorius Spirits (White-Blue)
Magic: The Gathering Pioneer Challenger Deck 2021 – Lotus Field Combo (Black-Green-Blue)
$34.60
$29.98
$38.34
$47.27
Magic: The Gathering Pioneer Challenger Deck 2021 – Mono Red Burn (Red)
Magic: The Gathering Pioneer Challenger Deck 2021 – Mono Red Burn (Red)
$34.60
The Most Competitive
Magic: The Gathering Pioneer Challenger Decks 2021 – Orzhov Auras (White-Black)
Magic: The Gathering Pioneer Challenger Decks 2021 – Orzhov Auras (White-Black)
$29.98
Magic: The Gathering Pioneer Challenger Deck 2021 – Azorius Spirits (White-Blue)
Magic: The Gathering Pioneer Challenger Deck 2021 – Azorius Spirits (White-Blue)
$38.34
The Most Fun
Magic: The Gathering Pioneer Challenger Deck 2021 – Lotus Field Combo (Black-Green-Blue)
Magic: The Gathering Pioneer Challenger Deck 2021 – Lotus Field Combo (Black-Green-Blue)
$47.27

Were There Previous Products Like This?

Although they weren’t called  “Challenger decks” in the past, there have been many takes on precons over the last 20+ years of Magic history. Some examples are:

  • Beginner products like “Intro Decks” and later “Planeswalker Decks” which have recently been replaced with new Commander decks with each set.
  • Oddities like “Duel Decks” and “Archenemy” which aren’t for beginners but are instead aimed at kitchen table play rather than competitive play.
  • Theme decks which were built to showcase effective strategies from new sets and provide players with a solid base to improve.
  • Event decks which were discontinued in 2015 but most closely resembled current Challenger decks. But they were definitely weaker.
  • Exact copies of tournament winning 75s sold with the name of the player who played them on the box.

With those examples in mind, think of Challenger decks as more competitive “Event decks,” though not quite as competitive as an exact copy of a World’s winning decklist. They’re certainly more lean and mean than past precons. Mana in particular was often subpar and there were too few playsets. But they often still have slight budget concessions that can be improved on with some extra spending.

Are They Good Value?

Mastermind's Acquisition - Illustration by Svetlin Velinov

Mastermind’s Acquisition | Illustration by Svetlin Velinov

Each Pioneer Challenger deck is currently preordering for a bit above $40. Finding out if they are good value or a rip off is as simple as comparing this price with how much it would take to buy their 75 cards individually. With that in mind, here are their approximate, one point in time, current $ values from MTGgoldfish:

  • Mono Red Burn: $71.65
  • Orzhov Auras: $83.73
  • Azorius Spirits: $87.31
  • Lotus Field Combo: $88.24

So yes, they are good value! Picking the decks up is a sound investment if you’re interested in most or all of the cards in them. Be on the lookout for a slight drop in certain card prices from these decks later, though. I’m not a finance guru, but this tends to happen when a new product releases and is opened by the thousands or more.

Are They Competitive?

I’ll go into this in greater detail for each deck in a bit but my answer is “yes,” at least for your average FNM. None of the decks are currently popular or tier 1 but each archetype has been at least tier 2 at one point. The actual decks themselves are also only slightly suboptimal with lots of playsets, solid mana curves, and decent (if budget-conscious) mana bases.

Mono Red Burn

The Main Strategy

Mono Red Burn

Mono Red Burn is modeled off a classic archetype (mono red aggro) that’s simple to pick up but difficult to master. This makes the deck a great choice for intermediate players as there’s lots of room to grow alongside their deck. Your goal when playing this precon is simple: get your opponent from 20 to 0 life. But getting there against a live opponent isn’t always easy!

The deck is a healthy mix of cheap, aggressive creatures and burn spells with four copies of Light Up the Stage being the only card in the deck that’s neither. A key decision point you’ll often run into is whether your burn spells (Wild Slash, Wizard’s Lightning, and Lightning Strike) should be aimed at your opponent’s creatures or directly at their face.

Mono Red Burn’s mana curve is rather low with 16(!) 1-drop creatures, no spells over 3-mana, and only 20 lands. It can operate on land-light draws thanks to its low mana curve and can lean on Ramunap Ruins to finish the job if you happen to draw a few too many lands. A solid opening hand has two or three lands, a couple of creatures, and a couple of burn spells.

Sideboard Strategy

Roiling Vortex is a nice hate card for opponents with strong life gain or lots of cards that require them to search their library. Goblin Chainwhirler excels against go-wide strategies that lean on lots of 1/1 token creatures. Searing Blood also punishes small creature decks well, though it would be an awkward main deck card as it’s nearly useless against combo and control decks.

Magma Spray is another card that helps against aggro decks. Lastly you have a miser’s copy of Chandra, Torch of Defiance to provide a hard-to-deal-with threat against slower decks.

Boarding as Mono Red is tricky and can be a bit unintuitive at first. A popular strategy with this archetype is to present an aggressive/generalist configuration game 1 and then transition into a more controlling build in game 2 against aggro decks. In this case that would mean cutting aggressive but low-impact cards like Ghitu Lavarunner and Viashino Pyromancer for more removal and higher end threats like Chandra and Chainwhirler.

Upgrading the Deck

If you’re going to stick to mono red and not add a second color, then Eidolon of the Great Revel should be your first purchase to replace Bomat Courier. A playset of Eidolons will set you back $42 so don’t feel like you have to do this if you don’t want to. The mana base is perfectly fine as is!

If you do want to add a second color then you’ll need playsets of Inspiring Vantage, Battlefield Forge, and possibly other lands to make sure you have untapped red and white mana. This isn’t the kind of deck that can afford to play tap lands even if you’re on a slight budget.

We’ve got a complete guide on Boros Burn here.

Metagame Placement

Mono Red Burn is currently a somewhat popular deck in Pioneer. It makes up roughly 4% of the metagame on Magic Online though the most popular versions splash white for Lurrus of the Dream-Den and Boros Charm.

This style of deck preys on clunkier decks with poor lifegain options which hardly describes top decks like Jund Food and Jeskai Ascendancy/Niv to Light thanks to Omnath, Locus of Creation. A metagame shift could mean good things for Burn and the fundamentals of this archetype will always be solid.

Sale
Magic: The Gathering Pioneer Challenger Deck 2021 – Mono Red Burn (Red)
  • 60-card Pioneer MTG Challenger deck (Red)
  • 15-card sideboard
  • 1 deck box (holds 75 sleeved Magic cards)
  • Battle-ready and powerful enough for competitive play
  • Mono Red Burn—Assemble an army and scorch your opponent directly

Orzhov Auras

The Main Strategy

Orzhov Auras

Orzhov Auras is another great choice for intermediate players. The initial gameplan is easy to grasp but there’s some room for optimization with good sequencing and mulligans. Auras may arguably be even more linear than Mono Red Burn since you almost always end up suiting up creatures with auras and then bashing your opponent with massive beaters.

You know how humans wear pants, right? Creatures can too, it turns out, and they can be highly stylish and effective in quickly killing your opponent. Ethereal Armor and All That Glitters are the highlights of the deck, making for frighteningly large creatures in conjunction with their auras/enchantments. Selfless Savior, Alseid of Life’s Bounty, and Karametra’s Blessing help protect your investment while Hateful Eidolon and Sram, Senior Edificer can provide enough resources to continuously suit up your creatures!

Orzhov Auras has a very low mana curve with only 19 lands and no spells costing above two mana. Basic sequencing with this deck is to deploy some creatures that reward you for playing auras and then suit them up as you find openings to do so. A solid keep will feature a couple of creatures, some pants, and two or three lands.

Sideboard Strategy

Apostle of Purifying Light is a nice hate card against black decks since it’s nearly unkillable by black removal and hates on graveyard reliant cards like Kroxa, Titan of Death’s Hunger. Hushbringer wears pants well thanks to flying and lifelink and also functions as a good hate card for Omnath, Locus of Creation and other strong creatures with ETB effects. Dead Weight and Duress hate on aggro and control decks respectively with Dead Weight plus Hateful Eidolon being a nice bonus when it comes up.

Boarding with this deck is relatively simple: put your good cards in and take out Selfless Savior and Karametra’s Blessing against opponents that are light on interaction. If your opponent plays quite a bit of removal then trim Cartouche of Solidarity for Duress. Expect to never board out Sram or your best auras.

Upgrading the Deck

The mana base here isn’t bad but it could be improved a bit. Four of another dual land like Brightclimb Pathway should be an immediate purchase. If you’re not budget conscious, upgrading Duress into Thoughtseize is a nice idea. But this deck is otherwise almost identical to successful lists on Magic Online!

Metagame Placement

Orzhov Auras currently occupies 1.2% of the metagame on Magic Online. Its clock is fast in a vacuum but slows down a bit against interaction since you often need to hold one or two mana for Blessing/Eidolon activations. The deck’s simplicity also works against it, leading to poor matchups against combo strategies where you’re leaning on just a couple copies of Duress and Thoughtseize to save you.

Magic: The Gathering Pioneer Challenger Decks 2021 – Orzhov Auras (White-Black)
  • 60-card Pioneer MTG Challenger deck (White-Black)
  • 15-card sideboard
  • 1 deck box (holds 75 sleeved Magic cards)
  • Battle-ready and powerful enough for competitive play
  • Orzhov Auras— Grow and protect your creatures, then raise them from the grave

Azorius Spirits

The Main Strategy

Azorius Spirits

Azorius Spirits is a spooky tribal deck that falls somewhere between tempo and aggro. Your goal when playing this precon is to incrementally set up an overwhelming board state while leaving up key disruptive spells like Rattlechains, Lofty Denial, and Spell Pierce for your opponent’s best plays. The basics of the deck aren’t too daunting but developing good game sense is a must for success since tapping out at the wrong time can be deadly.

Every single creature in this deck flies and many of them function as “lords” as well, pumping each of your other creatures. This means that opponents without removal or reach/flying blockers may quickly find themselves overwhelmed. The only noncreature spells in the deck are six counterspells which play well with many of your other cards having flash.

Spirits is hardly a true control deck but can play that role in certain matchups thanks to its cascading advantages from lords and mana sinks like Spectral Sailor. Knowing when to block and attack and when to hold up mana is important!

This deck’s mana curve is the highest of the decks we’ve examined so far with 23 lands and less 1-drops. A solid keep for Spirits features two to four lands, several creatures, and maybe a disruptive spell or two. Hands with too few lands, too many lands, or no creatures should be mulligan-ed as you see fit.

Sideboard Strategy

Every single card in Azorius Spirits’ sideboard is a piece of interaction of some form. Aether Gust, Seal Away, Isolate, and Devout Decree provide extra removal as needed. Light of Hope blows up enchantments and even gains life against burn in a pinch while Spell Pierce is excellent against most control and combo decks.

Look to cut counterspells for removal against fast aggro decks and trim your weakest creatures (usually Remorseful Cleric) if you don’t want to board out any counters.

Upgrading the Deck

Azorius Spirits is definitely the Challenger deck with the most room for improvement. The mana base could use several more dual lands as is, four Spell Quellers is a no brainer, and not playing Collected Company only makes sense as a budget decision.

Collected Company obviously requires green mana though which will drive the price of the deck up quite a bit thanks to dual lands plus the Companies costing you over $100. If you want to stick to Azorius then improving the mana base (two more Glacial Fortress) should be your first step.

Metagame Placement

Spirits is a decently popular deck at the moment and occupies roughly 5.1% of the metagame. The deck has an excellent matchup against clunky combo decks but can struggle with decks that play more to the board since it won’t win races and has little removal in game 1. It has the highest metagame share of any Challenger deck archetypes but all of the successful Spirits decks feature four Collected Companys.

For what it’s worth, this is also a deck in Historic.

Magic: The Gathering Pioneer Challenger Deck 2021 – Azorius Spirits (White-Blue)
  • 60-card Pioneer MTG Challenger deck (White-Blue)
  • 15-card sideboard
  • 1 deck box (holds 75 sleeved Magic cards)
  • Battle-ready and powerful enough for competitive play
  • Azorius Spirits—Summon spirits and a flock of fliers to bring your opponent down

Lotus Field Combo

The Main Strategy

Lotus Field Combo

Of all four decks, Lotus Field Combo is definitely the worst for new players. Not only is it a challenging deck to master but it’s also a challenging one to even pick up. Much of its gameplay revolves around specific synergies and a very mana-intensive deterministic kill that takes a lot of effort to set up. The good news is that it’s fun to play and rewarding to master since the skills you learn playing this precon can be applied to all sorts of different formats and decks!

This deck’s core strategy is to get a Lotus Field or two into play and then untap them with cards like Hidden Strings, Vizier of Tumbling Sands, or Pore Over the Pages to make a ton of mana. Once you have enough mana you can use Fae of Wishes or Mastermind’s Acquisition to grab Omniscience from your sideboard, play it, and then win the game with more Wishes for cards like Approach of the Second Sun. Thanks to Peer into the Abyss you can basically draw your entire deck at your convenience once you have enough mana.

Opt, Strategic Planning, Dig Through Time, and Sylvan Scrying provide consistency in finding all the pieces you need while Lotus Field, Thespian’s Stage, and the various untap effects make up your core mana engine. You’ll win the game with Fae of Wishes and Mastermind’s Acquisition or you won’t win at all. There’s basically no chance you’ll ever get there with combat damage from your terrible creatures.

Sideboard Strategy

You won’t be sideboarding much with this deck. Shifting Ceratops and Thought Distortion (always leave at least one in the board) can replace duds like Arboreal Grazer in matchups where blocking matters less. Generally speaking, though, this deck has a “Wish board” and leaves cards in its sideboard so that it can access them with Fae of Wishes and Mastermind’s Acquisition as needed.

Upgrading the Deck

Approach of the Second Sun should probably just be Jace, Wielder of Mysteries which is more expensive but not terribly so ($6). The mana base could use four Botanical Sanctums for sure. But this deck is already surprisingly optimal other than that!

Metagame Placement

Lotus Field Combo isn’t an exceptionally popular archetype, sitting at just 1.9% of the current Pioneer metagame. This is likely because the deck is both difficult and unintuitive to play and it has a bit of a “glass jaw” against aggro creature decks. It needs so many different things for its various synergies that there’s very little room for direct defense and Arboreal Grazer can’t protect you forever.

We have a complete deck guide for the “real” version of this deck here.

Magic: The Gathering Pioneer Challenger Deck 2021 – Lotus Field Combo (Black-Green-Blue)
  • 60-card Pioneer MTG Challenger deck (Black-Green-Blue)
  • 15-card sideboard
  • 1 deck box (holds 75 sleeved Magic cards)
  • Battle-ready and powerful enough for competitive play
  • Lotus Field Combo—Build up your resources, then win the game in a single turn

Best of the Best

The Most Competitive
The Most Fun
Magic: The Gathering Pioneer Challenger Deck 2021 – Mono Red Burn (Red)
Magic: The Gathering Pioneer Challenger Decks 2021 – Orzhov Auras (White-Black)
Magic: The Gathering Pioneer Challenger Deck 2021 – Azorius Spirits (White-Blue)
Magic: The Gathering Pioneer Challenger Deck 2021 – Lotus Field Combo (Black-Green-Blue)
Magic: The Gathering Pioneer Challenger Deck 2021 – Mono Red Burn (Red)
Magic: The Gathering Pioneer Challenger Decks 2021 – Orzhov Auras (White-Black)
Magic: The Gathering Pioneer Challenger Deck 2021 – Azorius Spirits (White-Blue)
Magic: The Gathering Pioneer Challenger Deck 2021 – Lotus Field Combo (Black-Green-Blue)
$34.60
$29.98
$38.34
$47.27
Magic: The Gathering Pioneer Challenger Deck 2021 – Mono Red Burn (Red)
Magic: The Gathering Pioneer Challenger Deck 2021 – Mono Red Burn (Red)
$34.60
The Most Competitive
Magic: The Gathering Pioneer Challenger Decks 2021 – Orzhov Auras (White-Black)
Magic: The Gathering Pioneer Challenger Decks 2021 – Orzhov Auras (White-Black)
$29.98
Magic: The Gathering Pioneer Challenger Deck 2021 – Azorius Spirits (White-Blue)
Magic: The Gathering Pioneer Challenger Deck 2021 – Azorius Spirits (White-Blue)
$38.34
The Most Fun
Magic: The Gathering Pioneer Challenger Deck 2021 – Lotus Field Combo (Black-Green-Blue)
Magic: The Gathering Pioneer Challenger Deck 2021 – Lotus Field Combo (Black-Green-Blue)
$47.27

The Most Competitive

Orzhov Auras

The best option for out-of-the-box competition is Orzhov Auras. I love how little you have to upgrade this deck; add four Brightclimb Pathways and your precon looks almost identical to 5-0 lists from Magic Online. Spirits would be the deck I’d recommend the least for winning games out of the box.

The Most Fun

Lotus Field Combo

Your mileage may vary here if you don’t enjoy this kind of playstyle, but Lotus Field Combo can be very satisfying to play on occasion, particularly if you mostly play Standard and Limited like I do. Running this out of the box at FNM sounds like a great time!

The Best Value

Current prices place Lotus Field Combo at $86.52, Azorius Spirits at $85.00, Orzhov Auras at $83.83, and Mono Red Burn in last place at $69.63. You should buy any precon besides Mono Red Burn if you want value since it’s clearly the worst on that front. The others are all within a few dollars of each other.

How is Pioneer Anyways?

Pioneer is still a decently popular format in Magic Online, though the delay of Pioneer Masters was definitely a bummer for fans of the format. Paper play of Pioneer (really, paper play in general) is spotty thanks to COVID so hopefully that doesn’t last forever.

Your best bet to engage in satisfying Pioneer events is Magic Online since there are various challenges you can play in with strong payouts. You won’t be buying any Challenger decks there, though; bots will be happy to sell you the singles you need to make the 5-0 decklists you can copy online.

Wrap Up

Fae of Wishes - Illustration by Magali Villeneuve

Fae of Wishes | Illustration by Magali Villeneuve

I’ve just covered four solid precons that you can take to your next FNM this October. Your mileage here may vary a bit since some players have vibrant LGS’ near them while others don’t. This is a sad fact but at least we have Magic Online and Arena to enjoy for now. I’d still recommend the Pioneer Challenger to anyone who wants these cards since they’re currently priced very well for the average player.

Magic: The Gathering Pioneer Challenger Decks 2021 Bundle | All 4 Decks | Azorius Spirits + Orzhov Auras + Mono Red Burn + Lotus Field Combo
  • Bundle of 4 Decks – Azorius Spirits (White-Blue), Orzhov Auras (White-Black), Mono Red Burn (Red), Lotus Field Combo (Black-Green-Blue)
  • Azorius Spirits—Summon spirits and a flock of fliers to bring your opponent down.
  • Orzhov Auras— Grow and protect your creatures, then raise them from the grave.
  • Mono Red Burn—Assemble an army and scorch your opponent directly.
  • Lotus Field Combo—Build up your resources, then win the game in a single turn.

Until next time, may your new formats always flourish and not get sidetracked by global pandemics!

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