Last updated on January 11, 2023
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
Tibalt, Cosmic Imposter | Illustration by Grzegorz Rutkowski
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.
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 to 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:
- The Brothers’ War
- Dominaria United
- Streets of New Capenna
- Kamigawa: Neon Dynasty
- Innistrad: Crimson Vow
- Innistrad: Midnight Hunt
- D&D: Adventures in the Forgotten Realms
- Strixhaven: School of Mages
- 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
- Rivals of Ixalan
- Hour of Devastation
- Aether Revolt
- 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
- Magic 2014
- Dragon’s Maze
- Return to Ravnica
Abrupt Decay | Illustration by Svetlin Velinov
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 March 7, 2022 and aimed to encourage diversity, fun, and a fair game. Here’s the full list of banned cards in Pioneer:
- Balustrade Spy
- Bloodstained Mire
- Expressive Iteration
- Felidar Guardian
- Field of the Dead
- Flooded Strand
- Inverter of Truth
- Kethis, the Hidden Hand
- Leyline of Abundance
- Lurrus of the Dream-Den
- Nexus of Fate
- Oko, Thief of Crowns
- Once Upon a Time
- Polluted Delta
- Smuggler’s Copter
- Teferi, Time Raveler
- Undercity Informer
- Underworld Breach
- Uro, Titan of Nature’s Wrath
- Veil of Summer
- Walking Ballista
- Wilderness Reclamation
- Windswept Heath
- Winota, Joiner of Forces
- Wooded Foothill
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 shock lands as they are in Modern. It gives the format more of a unique identity.
If you want to learn the fundamentals of Modern’s identity, I recommend checking out Reid Duke’s course here.
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.
Where to Play Pioneer
Stitcher’s Supplier | Illustration by Chris Seaman
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Since their introduction, companions have been a staple in every Magic format and Pioneer is no exception. The most popular among them are Jegantha the Wellspring and 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 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.
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.
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.
Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx
Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx is a card that made a deck somewhat polarizing in the current meta. The plan is to put it into play, ideally with a Cavalier of Thorns as early as turn 3, and chain spells to fill the board with more treats than your opponent can handle.
While this card can fit into other mono-colored decks, green is the one that uses it better. But make no mistake; decks like Selesnya () angels are starting to use it to help cast cards like Kayla’s Reconstruction and put multiple creatures into play.
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.
The cool part about Arclight Phoenix is that it can fit into multiple versions of the same deck, Izzet spells. It doesn’t matter if it’s built more like a control version with Thing in the Ice, or an aggro one Sprite Dragon, the Phoenix always comes back from the graveyard if you manage to chain cheap spells together.
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.
Sheoldred, the Apocalypse | Illustration by Chris Rahn
Misery’s Shadow x2
Bloodtithe Harvester x4
Kroxa, Titan of Death’s Hunger x2
Graveyard Trespasser x3
Bonecrusher Giant x4
Sheoldred, the Apocalypse x3
Fable of the Mirror-Breaker x4
Blightstep Pathway x4
Blood Crypt x4
Castle Locthwain x2
Den of the Bugbear x2
Haunted Ridge x4
Hive of the Eye Tyrant x2
Sokenzan, Crucible of Defiance
Takenuma, Abandoned Mire
Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth
Sorin the Mirthless
Go Blank x2
Extinction Event x2
Pithing Needle x2
Rakdos () was positioned as the deck that could beat the best before Winota’s ban in the format. With it gone and some powerful additions like Misery’s Shadow and Sheoldred, the Apocalypse, Rakdos has become the deck to beat thanks to its combination of solid and efficient spot removal with hand disruption and powerful creatures that can pressure your opponents and put them into a clock very quickly.
Mono Green Devotion
The Chain Veil | Illustration Volkan Baga
Kiora, Behemoth Beckoner x4
Karn, the Great Creator x4
Teferi, Who Slows the Sunset x2
Elvish Mystic x4
Llanowar Elves x4
Old-Growth Troll x4
Cavalier of Thorns x4
Oath of Nissa x4
Wolfwillow Haven x4
Boseiju, Who Endures x2
Lair of the Hydra x2
Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx x4
Heart of Kiran
The Stone Brain
The Chain Veil
Skysovereign, Consul Flagship
Fighting for the title of the best deck of the format, mono green aims to ramp into multiple threats in a single turn and chain spells together to perform a seemingly infinite turn of spells thanks to Karn, the Great Creator, Kiora, Behemoth Beckoner, and The Chain Veil. What’s weird about it is that this deck rarely wins by attacking while running big creatures thanks to its combo potential.
Mono White Humans
Hopeful Initiate | Illustration by Dan Scott
Dauntless Bodyguard x4
Hopeful Initiate x4
Recruitment Officer x4
Luminarch Aspirant x4
Thalia’s Lieutenant x4
Thalia, Guardian of Thraben x4
Brutal Cathar x4
Adeline, Resplendent Cathar x4
Skyclave Apparition x2
Castle Ardenvale x2
Eiganjo, Seat of the Empire x2
Shefet Dunes x2
Reidane, God of the Worthy
Skyclave Apparition x2
Destroy Evil x2
Rest in Peace x2
Wedding Announcement x4
Portable Hole x4
Mono white is known as the fun police of the format. Its plan is simple: tax your opponents and play cheap creatures that hit hard and can put you on a clock while combined.
Teferi, Hero of Dominaria | Illustration by Chris Rallis
The Wandering Emperor x3
Teferi, Hero of Dominaria x3
March of Otherworldly Light x2
Dovin’s Veto x2
Make Disappear x2
Behold the Multiverse
Memory Deluge x2
Supreme Verdict x2
Temporary Lockdown x2
Shark Typhoon x3
Deserted Beach x4
Eiganjo, Seat of the Empire
Field of Ruin x2
Glacial Fortress x2
Hall of Storm Giants x2
Hallowed Fountain x4
Irrigated Farmland x4
Otawara, Soaring City
Dovin’s Veto x2
Aether Gust x2
Mystical Dispute x2
Settle the Wreckage
Rest in Peace x2
Azorius () control has been rising in popularity over the past few months. Neon Dynasty provided powerful tools to push this archetype to one of the top contenders of the format since The Wandering Emperor and March of Otherworldly Light are game changers.
The plan here is to survive the initial onslaught of aggro decks, control the midgame, and win the game 10 turns later mostly thanks to Teferi, Hero of Dominaria. It’s not the most enjoyable deck to play, but this is undoubtedly the most potent control archetype.
Treasure Cruise | Illustration by Cynthia Sheppard
Ledger Shredder x4
Thing in the Ice
Arclight Phoenix x4
Spell Pierce x2
Fiery Impulse x4
Lightning Axe x3
Spikefield Hazard x3
Galvanic Iteration x2
Chart a Course x2
Pieces of the Puzzle x4
Treasure Cruise x3
Temporal Trespass x2
Hall of Storm Giants x2
Otawara, Soaring City
Riverglide Pathway x4
Spirebluff Canal x4
Steam Vents x4
Thing in the Ice
Third Path Iconoclast
Crackling Drake x3
Brotherhood’s End x3
Aether Gust x2
Disdainful Stroke x2
Mystical Dispute x2
Izzet Phoenix is the other top dog in the metagame. It’s similar to its Historic counterpart with one significant upgrade: it has access to Treasure Cruise and Temporal Trespass. And although it misses Dragon’s Rage Channeler, this deck still has access to other powerful creatures like Thing in the Ice.
The Return of The Pro Tour
The Pro Tour is back! With an announcement in early 2022 Wizards brought the tournament and competitive scene to a new level. Part of that comes with regional championships, store championships, and the Pro Tour. While the championships can be a variety of formats, the first announced Pro Tour will be officially Pioneer and Limited.
Most of the RCQ from the season were Pioneer, and this made cards go up in price for both paper and online. Despite this players enjoyed playing it since it’s considered one of the best Constructed formats at the moment.
Pioneer vs. Historic and Explorer
Pioneer is very similar to Historic and Explorer 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 the Explorer format, which is essentially the skeleton of Pioneer that will one day encompass “all the Pioneer cards that matter.”
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.
Pioneer on MTG Arena
Kroxa, Titan of Death’s Hunger | Illustration by Vincent Proce
WotC has recently taken up the daunting task of portering Pioneer over to MTGA. They’re doing this through the new “Explorer” format, which seeks to have all the cards on MTGA in addition to all relevant cards from Pioneer eventually included.
The format was release alongside Streets of New Capenna. So far we’ve had two bundles that introduced supplemental cards for the set and it’s now almost identical to Pioneer. Some key cards are still missing, like Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth and Bring to Light.
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. Later this year, we can expect to get new Explorer packs, which will include the most relevant cards in the Pioneer format
In paper, we recently had the release of the Pioneer 2021 Challenger Decks. This is a great sign for the format, so be sure to check out our review article.
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.
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 want 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!Follow Draftsim for awesome articles and set updates: