Pioneer Frontrunners

Lee Shi Tian

Lee Shi Tian

(Editor’s Note: this article was written before the Pioneer Banned Announcement and 《Felidar Guardian》, 《Oath of Nissa》, and 《Leyline of Abundance》 were banned.)


Hello everyone,

I just made top 8 in Mythic Championship V with Mono-Red Aggro. However, 《Field of the Dead》 was banned the very next day, the main reason to play the deck was gone, and so I think it would be nonsense to write about it.

I also planned to write about the Modern-playable cards in Throne of Eldraine but Wizards of the Coast has also announced a new format, Pioneer. I believe it is just not the right time to write about Modern. So I decided to wait for the Pioneer Challenge and start studying the format.


Image Copyright: Wizards of the Coast

If you want to see what you can actually do in Pioneer, here is the Magical Christmas Land for you. 137 decks made 5-0 in Pioneer leagues just a couple of days after the format went up on MTGO. However, if you worry about information overload or investing into non-tier decks, I have good news for you. From the result of the first Pioneer Challenge , there are actually some frontrunners in the format.

Here are the top 16 archetypes:

Result Deck
1st Sultai Midrange
2nd Izzet Phoenix
3rd Sultai Midrange
4th Blue Devotion
5th 4C Cat
6th 4C Cat
7th Izzet Phoenix
8th Izzet Phoenix
9th Sultai Midrange
10th Black Devotion
11th Jeskai Cat
12th Green Devotion
13th Jeskai Cat
14th Green Devotion
15th 4C Cat
16th Green Devotion

Surprise, surprise!

There are only 4 main archetypes in the top 16 in the very first Pioneer Challenge! They are Sultai Midrange, Izzet Phoenix, Cat and Devotion.

Let’s go through them one by one and learn about the power of each deck type.

Sultai Midrange

This is a very classic “The Rock” style deck. The deck building philosophy of a good midrange decks: Cheap interaction, quality creatures, and planeswalkers.

ThoughtseizeFatal PushAbrupt Decay

《Thoughtseize》 and 《Fatal Push》 are still here as determining factors in any non-rotating format. 《Abrupt Decay》 simply answers any problematic permanents.

Gilded GooseJace, Vryn's ProdigyCourser of KruphixTireless Tracker

For creatures, we have 《Gilded Goose》 and 《Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy》 as four-ofs. Each of them generates advantage each turn as long as they stay in play. 《Courser of Kruphix》 and 《Tireless Tracker》 are both format-defining card advantage engines of their times.

Oko, Thief of CrownsLiliana, the Last HopeVraska, Golgari Queen

Speaking of card advantage, planeswalkers are a natural source of card advantage. Our new friend 《Oko, Thief of Crowns》 is here to make sure we know he is overpowered in all formats. 《Liliana, the Last Hope》 recurring quality threats or threatening game winning ultimate is just great.

Nothing fancy, just good. If you like playing midrange, this is the deck for you.

Izzet Phoenix

OptChart a CourseIzzet Charm

Another familiar suspect, Izzet Phoenix. The deck building philosophy here is based on the consistency from huge amount of card selection cantrips, always getting the best spell at different situations.

Arclight PhoenixThing in the Ice

The fact that 《Arclight Phoenix》 and 《Thing in the Ice》 are naturally good with cantrips just provided a good core of the deck. We might not have the broken draws with 《Manamorphose》, but the format is also slower in Pioneer. There are still lots of good cantrips and discard outlets for us, and most importantly 《Treasure Cruise》 is not banned!!

Treasure Cruise

Although we do not have lots of one-mana cantrips, two-mana cantrips actually contribute 2-3 cards towards the graveyard per spell. We can easily cast 《Treasure Cruise》 by turn 3 and generate some real card advantages.

No 《Faithless Looting》? No problem.


The combo deck of the format. The philosophy is to assemble a two-card combo while surviving with the other 52 cards in the deck.

Teferi, Time RavelerSupreme VerdictDetention Sphere

There are two types of Cat Combo at the moment. One is straight Jeskai where we try to survive with removals and efficient cantrips. 《Teferi, Time Raveler》 is just a natural fit to the deck in terms of color, combo protection, and a good match with the blink effect of 《Felidar Guardian》.

Llanowar ElvesRogue RefinerOko, Thief of Crowns

The other one is Four-Color Cat Combo which is similar to what we used to have in the old Standard format, playing lots of value creatures to make use of the copying ability of 《Saheeli Rai》 and blink effect of 《Felidar Guardian》. Adding green also let us play 《Oko, Thief of Crowns》.

If you are a Twin player at heart, Cat Combo is the go-to deck for you.


The aggro role of the format belongs to the Devotion mechanic. Apparently casting creatures honestly is just not the way to go aggro in Pioneer. We have Green, Blue, and Black Devotion in the top 16 of the Challenge with each of them are trying to abuse the Devotion mechanic.

Mono Blue Devotion

Thassa, God of the SeaMaster of Waves

For Blue Devotion, we have 《Thassa, God of the Sea》 and 《Master of Waves》. Thassa is such a resilient threat and 《Master of Waves》 just easily takes over if there is no interaction the turn after it hit play. Other cards are just good evasive creatures to get the job done.

Mono Black Devotion

Gray Merchant of AsphodelGifted AetherbornDrana, Liberator of MalakirChampion of Dusk

For Black Devotion, 《Gray Merchant of Asphodel》 just drains a ton of life to race your opponent well. I am kind of disappointed we did not see the good old 《Thoughtseize》 into 《Pack Rat》 in the deck, but getting one Rat per turn may simply not be powerful enough in the format. The Vampire package seems brilliant in terms of generating card advantage and putting lots of colored mana symbols into play.

Mono Green Devotion

Llanowar ElvesBurning-Tree EmissaryBurning-Tree Emissary
Nykthos, Shrine to NyxNissa, Who Shakes the WorldUlamog, the Ceaseless Hunger

Last but certainly not least, the deck I liked the most so far: Green Devotion. 《Leyline of Abundance》 is a free way to add two to your Green Devotion by turn one. With 《Oath of Nissa》 and 《Once Upon a Time》, the deck is consistently able to find 《Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx》. We also have eight mana elves and 《Burning-Tree Emissary》 to make turn 3 (or even turn 2!) 《Nissa, Who Shakes the World》 possible. Imagine a turn 2 Nissa into a turn 3 《Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger》! Sometimes the Devotion strategy is just unstoppable.


So here are the four early frontrunners of Pioneer. They represent midrange, cantrips, combo and aggro. I am not sure if anything is going to get banned, but I think the format is way healthier than other constructed format right now. Maybe there are multiple decks playing 《Thoughtseize》 and 《Fatal Push》, some decks will just jam Oko no matter what, but at least we have way more choices when it comes to winning conditions.

Have fun breaking Pioneer!

Lee Shi Tian (Twitter / Twitch)

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Lee Shi Tian

Lee Shi Tian Lee Shi Tian is a super star from Hong Kong. He has 5 PT top 8s and 10 GP top 8s with 1 trophy and is well known as a Modern specialist. He is an outstanding player but also well known as a great community leader for Asia. Lee and his squad "Team Mint Card" made a lot of excellent results one after another at pro scene. His impressive results and contributions were rewarded and he was elected Magic Pro Tour Hall of Fame 2018. Read more articles by Lee Shi Tian

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