Last updated on April 16, 2021

Jegantha, the Wellspring - Illustration by Chris Rahn

Jegantha, the Wellspring | Illustration by Chris Rahn

Hello again wizards of the world! Looking for new ways to play constructed Magic outside Standard or Historic? Well, look no further.

Today we’ll cover Pioneer, one of the many ways that WotC offers players to engage in the competitive environment. And I’m not alone this time, as we have a very special guest today to help us on unravel the secrets of this exciting format: the Brazilian pro player and MTG grinder, Hamuda! I’ll be leaning a lot on his expertise to give you a good overview of the format.

All About the Pioneer Format

In talking with Hamuda, he characterized Pioneer as “a format filled with nostalgia from getting to play recent previous Standard sets that rotated.”

And by that definition, this is a non-rotating format that encourages players to remember how Standard was a couple of sets earlier to revive those feelings and strategies that they use to be familiar with. And possibly to reuse some card that would otherwise be worthless. It’s also great for players that are relatively new as it allows them to get good, competitive decks without having to spend too much.

Pioneer is a rather slow format compared to the other non-rotating ones. The big difference being that there are no fetch lands, and this is huge. Strategies take more turns to set their mana properly and there aren’t too many aggressive builds that can take advantage of good removal spells like Fatal Push, Dreadbore, and Abrupt Decay to deal with early threats.

Tibalt, Cosmic Imposter - Illustration by Grzegorz Rutkowski

Tibalt, Cosmic Imposter | Illustration by Grzegorz Rutkowski

The Legal Sets

We can contrast Pioneer to Modern in the sense that the oldest set is the Eighth Edition from July 2003, roughly 18 years ago. That’s a huge card pool that not all players have access to, however, Pioneer’s oldest set was Return from Ravnica, which was released in October 2012.

Does this mean that in five more years we could get a new format from more recent sets? Only time will tell. But, for now, here’s the list of the legal sets for Pioneer:

  • Strixhaven: School of Mages
  • Kaldheim
  • Zendikar Rising
  • Core 2021
  • Ikoria: Lair of Behemoths
  • Theros Beyond Death
  • Throne of Eldraine
  • Core Set 2020
  • War of the Spark
  • Ravnica Allegiance
  • Guilds of Ravnica
  • Core Set 2019
  • Dominaria
  • Rivals of Ixalan
  • Ixalan
  • Hour of Devastation
  • Amonkhet
  • Aether Revolt
  • Kaladesh
  • Eldritch Moon
  • Shadows over Innistrad
  • Oath of the Gatewatch
  • Battle for Zendikar
  • Magic Origins
  • Dragons of Tarkir
  • Fate Reforged
  • Khans of Tarkir
  • Magic 2015
  • Journey into Nyx
  • Born of the Gods
  • Theros
  • Magic 2014
  • Dragon’s Maze
  • Gatecrash
  • Return to Ravnica
Abrupt Decay - Illustration by Svetlin Velinov

Abrupt Decay | Illustration by Svetlin Velinov

The Rules

The following rules apply for this constructed format:

  • Minimum of sixty cards
  • No maximum deck size, as long as you can shuffle your deck unassisted.
  • Up to fifteen cards in your sideboard, if used
  • Your combined deck and sideboard can’t contain more than four of any individual card other than basic lands, based on the English card title

The Ban List

The latest bans for this format were on February 15, 2021 and aimed to encourage diversity, fun, and a fair game. Here’s the full list of banned cards in Pioneer:

Let’s talk a little about what these bans mean for the format in Hamuda’s opinion. First of all, I wanna mention again that there are no fetch lands in Pioneer. Powerful spells are great, but only if you can cast them. That’s why mana bases are so important. The reason all fetch lands were banned was to ensure that they weren’t paired with shocklands as they are in Modern. It gives the format more of a unique identity.

This leads to a slower format where midrange archetypes are more abundant but, more importantly, other bans help serve as a breath of fresh air for deck builders. You can experiment with a lot of things since the format isn’t dominant or polarized by oppressive builds, so you have a chance to build more decks and have fun.

As an example, let’s look at Hamuda’s most recent performance on a challenge.

This deck takes all the principles I’ve already mentioned into account, and Hamuda likes to exploit the slowness of the format with an aggro deck. With the addition of Faceless Haven, you go up to seven lands than can make use of your extra mana to deal the finishing blows to your opponent’s face.

Stitcher's Supplier - Illustration by Chris Seaman

Stitcher’s Supplier | Illustration by Chris Seaman

Where to Play Pioneer

Pioneer is a format that you can play mostly on MTG Online thanks to the pandemic, but it’s also a format you can play in paper at your local store or at sanctioned tournaments near you. For paper Magic players, you can schedule regular Pioneer tournaments across the world using a webcam setup.

There are multiple options, particularly if you’re open to playing online, but let’s cover some basics first.

There are two different economy pieces when it comes to MTG Online: play points and tickets. You can earn play points as rewards from events, and they’re used as entry options to events as well. Tickets have a similar role in events but aren’t directly given to you as prizes. Instead, you earn treasure chests that you can sell to bots for tickets. You can also get your hands on new cards and products using tickets.

There is a third way to enter some special events if you have a high win rate and earn a profit from events: qualifier points. Qualifier points give you access to exclusive events and a chance to qualify for the Magic Online Championship Series.

With all that out of the way, let’s cover each event on MTG Online!

Pioneer Challenge

Entry cost: 30 tickets or 300 play points

These events happen during the weekend over Saturday and Sunday. It’s the most competitive scenario you can get, with queues can going as high as 300 players. These are scheduled matches, meaning that you’ll need to get paired for the next round after a match is finished. Rewards start at 64th place and you earn a profit from 16th place forward.

There are two variants of the event: a 64-player minimum and a 32-player minimum.

64-Player Event

32-Player Event

Pioneer Preliminary

Entry cost: 30 tickets or 300 play points

The schedule for these events are based on WotC’s calendar. They happen two to three times a month, and the goal is to earn qualifier points for other events that get you access to the MOCS event. These are four rounds during which you’ll earn rewards at two wins and get a profit once you hit three wins.

Pioneer League

Entry cost: 10 tickets or 100 play points

Bring your Pioneer deck and play five matches on your schedule. You get prizes above two wins and profit above three.

Pioneer 2-Player Queue

Entry cost: 2 tickets or 20 play points

These events are single matches won by the first player to reach two game wins in the allotted time. If you win the match you earn a profit, but you also get some of your entry fee back if you lose.

Super Qualifiers

Entry cost: 40 tickets or 400 play points or 40 qualifier points

Similar to the Preliminaries, these events happen a couple of times a season for the format and based on demand, between 129 to 672 players. Prizes start at 128th place and you start to earn a profit once you hit 32nd place.

Pioneer Showcase

Entry cost: 40 qualifier points

You can only access these events by accumulating profit from either Leagues or Preliminary events. These are exclusive events that follow a particular schedule, and you start earning profit once you get to 64th place.

Showcase Last Chance Events

Entry cost: 40 qualifier points and 30 tickets or 40 qualifier points and 300 play points

These events are for players who were unable to earn an entry into the Showcase Qualifiers but still have at least 40 qualifier points in their accounts.

Showcase Qualifiers

Entry cost: Pioneer format token

Players who earn an entry into the Showcase Qualifier will be squaring off for an invitation to the Champions Showcase. These are spread over the first few weeks of the following season.

Each Showcase Qualifier is a scheduled Swiss-style event with a top 8 playoff. The winner of each event earns a spot in the final Showcase and a chance to earn their share of $70,000 and a Split Championship invitation.

Other Options

You can use a third-party program to start and schedule your very own events. You get to decide there if it’s by webcam or using MTG Online, which is currently the only digital way to play Pioneer, and you also get full control over rounds and pairings.

Notable Cards and Interactions in Pioneer

As Hamuda described, there are a lot of decks currently in Pioneer and a lot of room for brewing thanks to recent bans. There are some cards that are well-established in the format, though, so let’s take a look at them.

Companions

Since their introduction, companions have been a staple in every Magic format and Pioneer is no exception. The most popular among them are Lurrus of the Dream-Den, Jegantha the Wellspring, and Yorion, Sky Nomad.

Lurrus of the Dream-Den

Lurrus enables aggro players to go wide if needed, but its versatility in allowing you to cast cheap cards from your graveyard is incredibly useful. It also enables sideboard cards like Soul-Guide Lantern to act as both card advantage and recursive engines, not to mention the fact that it shuts down graveyard decks.

Yorion, Sky Nomad

Yorion and its love for blinking enchantments and ETB effects is well know by now, but Pioneer in particular has access to some pretty cool combos with planeswalkers like Narset, Parter of Veils or Nahiri, the Harbinger.

Jegantha, the Wellspring

Jegantha on its own isn’t as powerful as the other companions I’ve covered, but it’s a 5/5 body that’s always there to help when you need it. Decks that can afford to pay the toll really appreciate this the extra card.

Some Cool Interactions

Some other strategies that Hamuda pointed out rely on non-companion cards that are very powerful on their own.

Dreadhorde Arcanist

Dreadhorde Arcanist

This card can outvalue your opponent in very nasty ways. A turn 1 Thoughtseize, turn 2 Arcanist, and then turn 3 Thoughtseize is a very tough spot to be in. You can even afford to Thoughtseize twice on the same turn. You could also abuse powerful removal spells like Fatal Push or Reckless Rage.

Soul-Scar Mage

Soul-Scar Mage

This card is a threatening one, as it can shrink big creatures down with removal and grow itself in combat, while also pairing very well with cards like Wizard’s Lightning and pretty much any other spell. It’s a card that you can build whole decks around. And not necessarily just burn decks, but also tempo decks like Izzet or cheap decks with lots of cantrips like Crash Through.

Winota, Joiner of Forces

Winota, Joiner of Forces

Like Soul-Scar Mage, this is a card to build around. And surprisingly (or not), this card isn’t banned in Pioneer. It enables powerful interactions with cards like Thopter Engineer or Angrath’s Marauders.

Niv-Mizzet Reborn

Niv-Mizzet Reborn

Weirdly enough, 5-color mana bases are a thing in Pioneer, and since it’s slow you can rely on cards like Sylvan Caryatid to enable a pretty cool combo with Bring to Light and Niv-Mizzet Reborn. Depending on how you play these two cards, you can either search Niv-Mizzet with Bring to Light[ or put Bring to Light into your hand with Niv-Mizzet.

Pioneer Metagame and Decks

The Pioneer meta has a lot of room for brewing, but there are some decks and strategies that never change. It’s time to go over some decks that are Hamuda’s picks for the strongest in the current meta, as well as his personal favorites.

Niv to Light

This is probably the most powerful deck right now, and it doesn’t just rely on the synergy between Niv-Mizzet Reborn and Bring to Light. It can also cheat Tibalt, Cosmic Impostor into play or The Prismatic Bridge to start bringing creatures into play for free.

The deck also runs some hate cards like Yasharn, Implacable Earth and Klothys, God of Destiny, which can be tutored against the right decks to shut them down.

This deck’s only weakness is making sure all its mana is available and surviving the early turns, but this is mostly covered with powerful removal spells like Abrupt Decay or Dreadbore.

Yasharn, Implacable Earth - Illustration by G-host Lee

Yasharn, Implacable Earth | Illustration by G-host Lee

Rakdos Pyromancer

This is almost the same deck as Rakdos Arcanist in Historic, but it runs a better mana base with access to Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth and more powerful removal and tricks with Dreadbore and Kolaghan’s Command.

This deck can attack in many different ways. You can outvalue your opponent with cheap spells and Dreadhorde Arcanist. You can use Stitcher’s Supplier to enable Kroxa, Titan of Death’s Hunger from the graveyard along with bringing back creatures with Claim // Fame and creating a small army with Young Pyromancer while dealing with your opponent’s cards using the other cheap cards on your deck.

This is by far the most fun deck and my own personal preference, but let’s look at Hamuda’s favorites.

Kolaghan's Command - Illustration by Daarken

Kolaghan’s Command | Illustration by Daarken

Mono-Black Aggro

Hamuda recently made it to the top 8 in a Pioneer Challenge with this deck, and it’s a very straightforward strategy: kill them before they know what hit them and disrupt if needed.

You have access to strong 1-drops like Knight of the Ebon Legion and Bloodsoaked Champion to start the beatdown early. You can get rid of otherwise threatening cards with the help of Thoughtseize or Fatal Push.

What I like here is the mana base. Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth enables solid starts with the man-lands like Mutavault. This is a very solid deck and definitely one worth checking out.

Thoughtseize - Illustration by Aleksi Briclot

Thoughtseize | Illustration by Aleksi Briclot

Boros Heroic

Another of Hamuda’s favorite, this is a cheap deck that relies on very powerful interactions between small creatures like Favored Hoplite getting big fast with the help of cantrips like Defiant Strike. Previously mentioned cards like Soul-Scar Mage and Dreadhorde Arcanist shine here as they’re a perfect fit in a deck that runs so many cheap spells.

If you’re looking to have fun and play a competitive deck, this one is perfect for you!

Defiant Strike - Illustration by Anastasia Ovchinnikova

Defiant Strike | Illustration by Anastasia Ovchinnikova

Pioneer vs. Historic

Pioneer is very similar to Historic as both are based on the premise of non-rotating formats fed from Standard sets. The big difference is that Historic has a more narrow card pool since it’s exclusive to MTG Arena, which is missing a lot of sets that are available in Pioneer. WotC is trying to close this gap by introducing remastered and supplementary sets to the digital platform.

When it comes to deckbuilding, Historic’s smaller card pool leads to more straightforward strategies and less room to brew since as pretty much all the decks are well defined at this point. When it comes to Pioneer, there are decks that are fairly new to the metagame and there’s a lot of ways to go with it with a wider card pool. It can be a combo or an aggro deck depending on your taste.

If you’re looking to grind out games and spend your time rather than your money building your collection, you’d be better positioned on MTGA playing Historic. You might also be better off in Historic if you’re an excellent limited player as you probably have hundreds of wildcards that can be spent to craft powerful Historic decks.

If you’re a grinder like Hamuda, though, you can start with a cheap deck on MTG Online and grind your way to powerful cards for your Pioneer decks. If one strategy isn’t working for you, just sell your cards back to the bots and build a new deck. You could also subscribe to rental card programs if you’re committed to getting good results while investing little to no money.

I would say that Historic and Pioneer are totally different formats. Grinders that make a living out of game results prefer Pioneer since there are well-established events and they can jump into tournaments whenever they want. Historic, on the other hand is often a casual format, but Wizards has been trying to increase its stature by featuring it in its set championship events recently.

Kroxa, Titan of Death's Hunger MTG card art by Vincent Proce

Kroxa, Titan of Death’s Hunger | Illustration by Vincent Proce

Pioneer on MTG Arena

As I already mentioned, WotC’s goal is to have the same card pool for Historic as we currently have in Pioneer. They’ve been working on an expansion set called Pioneer Masters that will have most of the more powerful and format-defining cards that should be available in Arena sometime this year (hopefully?).

This was originally planned to be released in 2020 but Wizards decided to push it back to learn from the already released Amonkhet Remastered.

Pioneer Products

The only products even potentially for Pioneer on Arena are the recent remastered sets. We got a lot of cool cards to brew decks around and I’d say it was a total hit.

There’s not much outside of that, unfortunately. It’ll be good to get some actual paper reprints with the launch of Pioneer Masters, and looking at the recent success that Time Spiral Remastered had with the old frames, it would be a golden opportunity to launch some Pioneer product with old borders, don’t you think? This would give Pioneer players in both the paper and digital scene more reason to try the format if they see cards they like. Just a thought.

Community Resources

Soul-Scar Mage - Illustration by Steve Argyle

Soul-Scar Mage | Illustration by Steve Argyle

We’ve finally come to the end of this journey. I hope all of the info above has been of help to you. I want to take a minute to thank Hamuda who helped me get a better understanding of the format and its current state, and offered the point of view from a professional grinder. If you one to support him and look at his content, you can follow him on Twitter, Twitch, and even YouTube! Most of his content is in Portuguese, but if you’re looking for good gameplay (and music), you’ll definitely want to check him out.

Thank you for your time. Stay safe and healthy, and I’ll see you in the next one!

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