An Introduction to Pioneer: Magic’s Newest Format

As of this writing, it’s been exactly three weeks since Wizards of the Coast announced a brand new format named “Pioneer.” The announcement laid out the card pool - all Standard sets released from Return to Ravnica (Oct. 5, 2012) and forward, including all future Standard sets as they become available - and made it clear that this will be a non-rotating format, so cards will not leave the format unless they are banned. Speaking of, it also included an initial ban list of five cards - the five ally-colored “fetchlands” from Khans of Tarkir, meaning Polluted Delta, Windswept Heath, Wooded Foothills, Bloodstained Mire and Flooded Strand.


Just from a deckbuilding and gameplay perspective, this immediately caught the community’s attention, as such a “blank slate” of format is begging to have ideas for powerful combos, synergistic engines and spicy brews of all kinds scribbled on it. But critically, the announcement also included details about how WotC plans to support the format with high-level tournaments and prize support. Several Pioneer Grand Prixs in the first quarter of 2020 alone means the company is willing to invest in this newest brainchild, and at the end of the day, that is the single most important ingredient when it comes to inspiring players, content creators and game stores to pay attention.


But what does Pioneer mean for you? That, of course, will depend on where you are in your journey with Magic, and I’ll be covering the format from a variety of perspectives here to help you get the perspective you need. First, however, it’s worth going over a few things that Pioneer is not.


Pioneer is not the death of Modern. That format, which has been around since 2011 and uses cards from 2003 forward, is much beloved by players and will continue to see tournament and prize support from Wizards. Some people may have less time and attention for Modern if they choose to get into Pioneer, but I feel confident in saying that both formats can coexist side-by-side.


For one, Modern is known for very robust decks that can typically win the game in four or fewer turns when not facing interaction from the opponent: Tron, built around the three Urza lands (Urza’s Tower, Urza’s Power Plant and Urza’s Mine) that power out high-costed bombs; Jund, utilizing disruption, removal, efficient creatures and Liliana of the Veil and Wrenn and Six to stop the opponent’s gameplan while advancing their own; and a number of artifact decks centered on Urza, Lord High Artificer that assemble an infinite combo. It happens that none of the cards I just mentioned are legal in Pioneer, and the preemptive banning of the fetchlands means far less optimized mana, so decks running four-plus colors of mana will be less viable, and games will develop at a slower pace. 


And beyond that, Modern decks being upwards of $700 to construct means that players have worked for their cards and are serious about the format, and the thought of any significant portion of them giving that up - or not demanding proper support of the format going forward - is pretty far-fetched. Heck, I don’t even play Modern actively, but I am no more inclined to give up the few expensive Modern cards I do have now that I know Pioneer is a thing.


Also, Pioneer is not yet another thing new players have to learn, or another deck to buy. They can do that if and when they’re ready. And anyway, the metagame will be wild and unsettled for several months as the ban list is updated and tournaments are held, so now might not be a good time for most players to get into the thick of the format. The dedicated and incentivized players will always be turning the gears of the “machine” that determines the competitive environment, and the merely curious will try out decks as the opportunity arises. But this is not a deep end that you must jump in if you feel more comfortable playing in other ways.


And finally, Pioneer is unfortunately not something with relevance to Magic Arena - yet. If you’ve been learning and loving the game via this newest online client, you won’t see the option to build Pioneer decks or play Pioneer matches next time you log in. Wizards has thankfully said that support for the format, including the several thousand additional cards and millions of unique interactions, is in the works. It’s definitely a long-term project, though, so Magic Online (MTGO) is your only option for digital Pioneer for now.


Pioneer for Established Players


In my opinion, Pioneer is a great development for those of us who have been around the game a long time and play regularly. I’d wager that, at a very fundamental level, the addition of more ways to play and enjoy Magic is always good for us, whether we’re personally interested in a particular format or not - even if a certain card pool or rules set isn’t your cup of tea, it likely is someone else’s, and that means more players, a healthy and diverse community and a bright future for the game.


In more practical terms, Pioneer represents a new eternal (non-rotating) option, creating more options for folks who don’t like the constantly changing state of Standard and/or can’t afford Modern and Legacy deck prices. The past five years have seen a massive influx of new and returning players - among whom I happen to be one - and for those of us who missed the release of many of Modern’s out-of-print sets, we now have a veritable deckbuilding paradise featuring the cards from the past several Standard formats, of which we have easy access.


While I haven’t personally heard it, I could imagine some fans complaining that the introduction of yet another competitive format creates pressure on players to invest even more of their hard-earned cash into the game, or that it distracts from other formats and leaves a shallower pool of players in those environments. But again, no one I follow or have spoken with has expressed that sentiment, so if the biggest “strike” against Pioneer is sheerly a hypothetical, Devil’s-advocate argument, I think we’re on good ground.


Pioneer for Casual/Lapsed Players


For those who come and go with the game or have taken long breaks in their Magic activity, Pioneer might just be the perfect competitive constructed option. For one, it’s eternal, so decks built and cards acquired during periods of frequent play will remain viable even when coming back to the game from a hiatus. For another, it lets those players utilize cards picked up in their spurts of involvement over the past seven or so years, breathing new life into staples from past formats that might not have had a home otherwise.


That being said, Pioneer will not be the cheapest eternal format around - Pauper, where only cards printed at common, would remain the best option for a player that is “casual” in the sense that they don’t want to spend much money on the game. The prices for decks and individual cards already gaining traction in the format are not that high, though, and the tried-and-true method of building a cheaper version of a deck and incrementally upgrading is of course a great option here.


Pioneer for New Players


While the sheer size of the card pool and the number of out-of-print sets involved in Pioneer does not make it the best for a brand-new player, it is still likely the first eternal format to start once a firm grasp of the rules has been established and Standard and Limited have been explained. It would give a newbie something to build towards, and understanding the more complex interactions that result from a larger number of mechanics at play can act as footholds as they climb the mountain that is understanding the game at the highest levels.

Another plus is that any new player can have the assurance that all cards they acquire from here on out will remain viable for this format, so they can purchase with confidence  - at least, as much confidence as one can have buying game pieces that carry secondary market value. Any favorites or pet decks that they come across can be used in Pioneer decks they want to build, and even if they aren’t top tier, they’ll have no “expiration date.” Take that shell, iterate upon it, and as you get more serious and experienced, you’ll start to understand the metagame and competitive scene more and more.


Blazing the Trail


I mentioned before that Pioneer is already available on Magic Online, and that means that early metagame breakdowns and decklists are just a few clicks away. The hivemind of the player base is hard at work on the endless task of absorbing the data, innovating, grinding and synthesizing a perspective on the format.


What’s more, WotC has already made strides in stewardship of the format, making two ban announcements (nixing a total of four cards) and promising weekly updates based on the results of MTGO matches. While this does mean one deck (the infinite combo engine Saheeli Copycat) and three parts of a powerful Green Devotion shell are gone, it means that Wizards does really want this format to be healthy and evolving - and heck, it’s only four cards. That leaves a lot that’s still fair game.



There’s also already coverage and content galore for those interested in learning how things are shaking out in this new territory. Podcasts, articles, gameplay videos...you name it, you’ll find search results out the wazoo. My favorite Magic streamer and YouTuber, Gaby Spartz, already has several deck guides up on her channel, and the MTGGoldfish metagame breakdown is ripe for researching. Also check out Pleasant Kenobi’s Pioneer MTGO testing - he’s been grinding the format a ton and really leading the way in terms of creators I follow.

Again, all good things in my mind. Many folks use the term “Magical Christmasland” when it comes to describing ideal scenarios in an individual game, and what we’ve got here is that on a format-wide scale: the Pioneer world is our oyster.


So go out there and get it!


Written by John McCurdy

Troika Online Media
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