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Metagame Mentor: 10 Surprising Pioneer Decks That Can Win Pro Tour Phyrexia

February 02, 2023
Frank Karsten

Hello and welcome back to Metagame Mentor, your weekly guide to the top decks and latest Constructed developments on the path to the Pro Tour. As we count down the days until MagicCon: Philadelphia and the first tabletop Pro Tour in years, today's article takes a closer look at the Pioneer format that is featured in the event.

As the first cycle of Regional Championships saw the awarding of most of the Pro Tour invitations, the decks that found success last November and December provide a good indication of what to expect at Pro Tour Phyrexia. In the first week of January, I already broke down the Top 15 Pioneer deck archetypes from the Regional Championships and provided an in-depth analysis of their game plans, matchups, and more.

Today, after an update on January's metagame developments, I'm taking a further look at the ten spiciest Pioneer decks that also qualified for the Pro Tour. I wouldn't be surprised to see several archetype experts using their proficiency with their qualifying deck to crush the Pro Tour with an off-meta brew. Along the way, I'll also be highlighting key additions that Phyrexia: All Will Be One may bring to the format.

The Pioneer Metagame in January 2023

Pioneer is a non-rotating format based on expansion sets and core sets from Return to Ravnica onward, with the most notable cards on the ban list being the fetch lands. With nearly 10,000 legal cards, Pioneer enables a variety of powerful strategies. If you'd like a deeper introduction to the format, I again recommend my primer on the top fifteen archetypes from Regional Championships.

However, the metagame is ever evolving. To keep up with the latest Pioneer developments, I analyzed 572 decklists from competitive events held in January. This included all available Magic Online decklists from scheduled Pioneer events that month, as well as the Top 8 decklists from the Champions Cup Store Qualifiers in Kichijoji, Tokyo, and Yokohama, the Store Qualifier at MTG Oasis Chile, and the RCQ at Gamers Paradise.

To provide a metagame snapshot that combines popularity and performance, I assigned an archetype label to each deck and awarded points equal to the deck's net wins—that, its number of match wins minus losses.

For example, a deck that went 5–1 in the Swiss followed by a loss in the quarterfinals was assigned three points. When the points for each archetype are added up, they yield the record-weighted metagame share, which represents the archetype's share of total net wins. This can be thought of as the "winner's metagame," as it reflects what you're likely to encounter at the top tables.

Archetype Record-Weighted Metagame Share
1. Mono-Green Devotion 12.3% ↓↓
2. Lotus Field combo 11.6% ↑↑
3. Rakdos Midrange 10.8% ↓↓
4. Azorius Control 9.2%
5. Selesnya Angels 9.2% ↑↑
6. Gruul Vehicles 7.0%
7. Mono-White Humans 5.8%
8. Rakdos Sacrifice 5.0% ↑↑
9. Izzet Phoenix 3.9% ↓↓
10. Abzan Greasefang 3.5%
11. Enigmatic Fires 2.6%
12. Dimir Control 2.3%
13. Azorius Spirits 2.1%
14. Mono-Black Midrange 1.9%
15. Izzet Creativity 1.9%
16. Mono-Red Aggro 1.5%
17. Keruga Fires 1.2%
18. Boros Heroic 0.9%
19. Mono-Blue Spirits 0.9%
20. Bant Spirits 0.7%
21. Niv to Light 0.5%
22. Golgari Vehicles 0.5%
23. Jund Citadel 0.5%
24. Izzet Prowess 0.4%
25. Other 3.9%

In this table, each archetype name hyperlinks to a well-performing, representative decklist, and the arrows represent the biggest changes compared to my early-January primer based on the Regional Championships. The "Other" category, continuing the descending order, includes Dimir Oracle, Jund Sacrifice, Grinning Ignus combo, Selesnya Auras, Boros Aggro, Four-Color Humans, Mono-Black Aggro, Goblins, Atarka Red, Elves, Esper Greasefang, Zombies, Selesnya Company, and more. The number of competitive Pioneer decks remains enormous, and with a diverse set of aggro, midrange, control, ramp, and combo decks all being viable, the Pioneer format offers a wide range of options to suit any type of playstyle.

The most-played nonland cards across all main decks and sideboards were Fable of the Mirror-Breaker, Thoughtseize, Fatal Push, Llanowar Elves, Elvish Mystic, and Bonecrusher Giant. These staples remain the pillars of the format, and they can be found in a variety of decks.

Compared to the Regional Championships from November and December, the biggest metagame developments are:

  • An uptick of Selesnya Angels. Selesnya Angels has been on the rise ever since The Brothers’ War added Kayla's Reconstruction, with lists becoming increasingly refined and the most successful versions cutting main deck Portable Hole in favor of additional copies of Inspiring Overseer.
  • An uptick of Rakdos Sacrifice. Rakdos Sacrifice, which posted excellent match win rates throughout the Regional Championships, has also seen an increase in play due to its favorable matchups against Rakdos Midrange, Mono-White Humans, and Gruul Vehicles. Many of the top Rakdos Sacrifice decks have been adopting Eaten Alive instead of Village Rites in their main decks.
  • An uptick of Lotus Field combo. Lotus Field combo preys on the rise of Selesnya Angels and Rakdos Sacrifice, two decks that are relatively slow and lack interaction against the combo.

To speed up the deck, many Lotus Field players have been incorporating Hope Tender, which can untap Lotus Field for a mana boost. Although Hope Tender is weak against creature removal, it gives a significant edge in the mirror match and puts opponents in a difficult position during sideboarding. As a result of the rise in Lotus Field combo, sideboard cards like Damping Sphere have become more prevalent.

  • A downtick of Izzet Phoenix. With bad matchups against Lotus Field combo and Selesnya Angels, Izzet Phoenix is on the decline in the present metagame. However, the power of Treasure Cruise and Arclight Phoenix cannot be denied; if Pioneer players start to skimp on graveyard hate or if the metagame changes, then Izzet Phoenix could be poised for a comeback.
  • A downtick of Rakdos Midrange. After its dominance at the Regional Championships, Rakdos Midrange has seen a downturn in popularity as bad matchups such as Gruul Vehicles, Rakdos Sacrifice, and Enigmatic Fires are on the rise. Examining successful Rakdos Sacrifice decklists, we can see that Unlicensed Hearse is being swapped out for Pithing Needle in the sideboard, likely in response to the decreased prevalence of Arclight Phoenix and the increased prevalence of Thespian's Stage.
  • The emergence of Azorius Spirits. Unlike Bant Spirits and Mono-Blue Spirits, Azorius Spirits does not have access to Collected Company or Ascendant Spirit. However, it combines the best of both worlds, having access to both Spell Queller and Curious Obsession. As players are having newfound success with this build, and Seachrome Coast will soon be added to Pioneer, Azorius has become the most popular Spirits color combination over the past month.

Although Mono-Green Devotion, Lotus Field combo, Rakdos Midrange, Azorius Control, and Selesnya Angels are likely to be popular choices at Pro Tour Phyrexia, they also have a target on their heads. Indeed, this January 2023 metagame is not a Nash equilibrium. If this were the starting metagame at the Pro Tour, then simulations of the tournament based on the matchup matrix from the Regional Championships suggest that the top tables may be dominated by increased numbers of Rakdos Sacrifice and Mono-White Humans, while Selesnya Angels and Rakdos Midrange would falter.

Furthermore, the new cards from Phyrexia: All Will Be One could drastically alter the format, and the Regional Championships have already shown that a few under-the-radar decks have the potential to succeed as well. It will be interesting to see how the Pro Tour plays out and which strategies will come out on top.

The Ten Spiciest Pioneer Decks That Qualified for the Pro Tour

The top tables of the Regional Championships featured several largely unexpected decks. It's always exciting to witness brewers doing well with their own creations, and if they bring the same decks or new brews to the Pro Tour, they'll be ones to watch. To recognize the innovativeness of these players, let's check out the ten most unique decks that have earned a Pro Tour invite!

To be included in my selection, a deck archetype needed to fall outside the top fifteen most popular ones from the Regional Championships, as these were already discussed in my aforementioned earlier article. Of the remaining off-meta deck archetypes, including those that snuck into the top fifteen in the January 2023 metagame, I chose those based on their spiciness, their performance in tournaments last month, and their potential gains from Phyrexia: All Will Be One.

Dimitar Erinin proved the strength of Grinning Ignus combo by chaining his Last Chance Qualifier victory into a 17th-place finish at the European Championship. This deck's game plan is to use Grinning Ignus to generate an endless loop of enters-the-battlefield triggers. To continually cast Grinning Ignus in a mana-neutral way, the deck uses Birgi, God of Storytelling, Hazoret's Monument, or Runaway Steam-Kin. This results in an endless loop of enters-the-battlefield triggers, which can be exploited to draw cards with Risen Reef, gain life with Prosperous Innkeeper, or deal damage with Defiler of Instinct.

Evaluating Phyrexia: All Will Be One, I expect that the allied fast lands will make the largest impact to the format in general, and Copperline Gorge could bolster the mana base of Grinning Ignus combo in particular. Green Sun's Twilight, despite its lower potency, could also be an appealing option for a deck filled with mana creatures.

Scott Polsky, who recently earned a Pro Tour invite thanks to his beloved Elves archetype, has been playing it in every format from Pauper to Pioneer and Modern. Elves can quickly ramp ahead with Elvish Mystic and Llanowar Elves in the early game, boost their forces with Elvish Clancaller and Leaf-Crowned Visionary in the mid-game, and secure victory by casting Chord of Calling for Shaman of the Pack in the late game.

Phyrexia: All Will Be One introduces Tyvar, Jubilant Brawler, an interesting new option for this strategy. By untapping mana Elves and granting them haste, Tyvar can produce a quick mana boost, while his -2 ability often returns an Elf lord.

Selesnya Auras, which exploits Light-Paws, Emperor's Voice and Sram, Senior Edificer, qualified three players for the Pro Tour. Besides Michael Letsch, who finished in the Top 4 of the U.S. Regional Championship, Victor Kurz and Justin Chin also made it. Despite its impressive performance, the deck has yet to become a Pioneer mainstay.

But this could all change with the introduction of Phyrexia: All Will Be One. Razorverge Thicket is a massive boost for the deck's mana base, and Skrelv, Defector Mite could be a great addition too. Reminiscent of Giver of Runes, Skrelv can be used to protect Light-Paws or Sram from removal, and it can push an enormous creature past blockers. Additionally, Skrelv counts as an artifact for All That Glitters and might even unlock Mox Amber for the deck. All in all, Skrelv looks to be one of the most impactful cards from the new set.

While traditional builds of Dimir Control have also found success, such as the one used by Álvaro Almeida, I'm more intrigued by versions that incorporate Day's Undoing. Julian Prado earned a Pro Tour invite through exploiting the combo potential of Narset, Parter of Veils or Notion Thief with Day's Undoing. When either of these permanents are on the battlefield, Day's Undoing allows the Dimir Control player to draw seven new cards while their opponent draws either none or one.

If this deck shows up at the Pro Tour, then we may get to witness a feature match of epic proportions. The Dimir Control player could bounce their opponent's creature with Rona's Vortex, make them draw a card with Baleful Mastery, and then cast Day's Undoing, leaving the opponent with nothing. Then, immediately after the opponent draws a card in their draw step, the Dimir Control player could activate Geier Reach Sanitarium, effectively locking the opponent out of the game and sending Twitch chat into a frenzy.

Mono-Black Midrange is similar to Rakdos Midrange, yet featuring Gifted Aetherborn and Invoke Despair instead of Bloodtithe Harvester and Fable of the Mirror-Breaker. The deck clinched a Pro Tour invite for Michael Siembor, and it has since seen multiple decent tournament finishes, including a Top 8 in a Magic Online Challenge.

From Phyrexia: All Will Be One, Phyrexian Obliterator and/or Phyrexian Arena could offer a potential new direction for the Mono-Black Midrange. If the deck were to shift its focus to devotion, these cards could be the perfect way to supercharge Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx.

Izzet Creativity has been performing well lately, and it has two distinct versions. The most prominent one, which Alessandro Parisi took to a 13th-place finish at the European Championship, is built around casting Indomitable Creativity for X=2 and putting Worldspine Wurm and Xenagos, God of Revels onto the battlefield. This combo then creates a 30/30 creature with trample and haste, allowing for a swift victory. The other option, which won Lukasz Siwarski a Pro Tour invite, uses Torrential Gearhulk alongside Magma Opus as the win condition.

An intriguing alternative from Phyrexia: All Will Be One is Atraxa, Grand Unifier. While she doesn't win the game immediately, she's able to outrace Parhelion II, dodge Power Word Kill, and stand tall against Skysovereign, Consul Flagship. Even if Atraxa is destroyed, her enters-the-battlefield ability could still bring a backup Indomitable Creativity from the top ten cards. All in all, Atraxa seems like a powerful addition to any deck that can cheat her out.

Pro Tour Amonkhet Top 8 competitor Marc Tobiasch, renowned for brewing the spiciest decks, shocked the competition by finishing 21st at the European Championship with a never-before-seen-deck. This deck's gameplan revolves around Colossification and Burning Anger, which are put into the graveyard and then returned to the battlefield with Storm Herald. This allows you to immediately ping your opponent for upwards of 20 damage. Since the enters-the-battlefield trigger of Storm Herald doesn't target, you may attach the Auras to any creature upon resolution, which helps dodge the opponent's spot removal spells.

From Phyrexia: All Will Be One, Nahiri, the Unforgiving is an interesting option. Although a different mana base and build would be required, Nahiri can discard an Aura if you drew it, or copy Storm Herald if you milled it. This combination of abilities could prove incredibly useful.

At the European Championship, Jund Citadel piloted by Samuel Eberhard finished a respectable 19th. With the help of Woe Strider to scry lands to the bottom of your library and Prosperous Innkeeper to bolster your life total, Bolas's Citadel allows you to cast a flurry of cards from the top of your library. Once you have assembled ten nonland permanents, including Mayhem Devil, an activation of Bolas's Citadel can deal lethal damage.

As I already mentioned, I expect that the allied fast lands will make a big impact on Pioneer. Although these lands are most beneficial to fast two-color decks, Jund Citadel could also benefit from the inclusion of several Blackcleave Cliffs to improve its mana base.

Raja Sulaiman earned his Pro Tour invitation with a unique Orzhov Midrange deck. The deck exploits Wasteland Strangler's ability to "process" cards exiled by Elite Spellbinder, Skyclave Apparition, or Vanishing Verse. This intricate decklist is a testament to Sulaiman's deck building prowess.

Sulaiman is making a name for himself; he won the 2022 NRG Series Championship last month and was subsequently interviewed by Corbin Hosler in The Week That Was. Although he switched to Rakdos Midrange for the Pioneer portion of that tournament, he crushed the Modern portion with a fascinating Bant Control brew. I'm eager to see what he'll bring to Pro Tour Phyrexia.

The goal of any Greasefang deck is to put Parhelion II into the graveyard on turn two, and to crew it with Greasefang, Okiba Boss on turn three. Abzan combo-midrange remains the most popular shell for this strategy, but Michael Knie proved that an Esper combo-control variant is also viable, as evidenced by his second-place finish at the Regional Championship in Calgary. Featuring Supreme Verdict and Dig Through Time, it plays out much differently than an Abzan deck with Raffine's Informant and Esika's Chariot.

For more aggressive versions of Esper Greasefang, Seachrome Coast and Darkslick Shores may earn a few slots after Phyrexia: All Will Be One becomes legal. For control builds like Knie's, Sheoldred's Edict could be an interesting new option, as it can answer creatures and planeswalkers at instant speed for only two mana.

Looking Ahead

Will these spicy archetypes or new cards from Phyrexia: All Will Be One be the key to victory at Pro Tour Phyrexia? Could even more innovative and daring brews take home the grand prize? Find out on February 17–19, when approximately 250 of the world's best will compete for $500,000 in prizes, several World Championship invites, and the prestigious first-place trophy. The formats are Phyrexia: All Will Be One Booster Draft in the morning of Friday and Saturday, followed by Pioneer for five rounds afterward each of those days. Pioneer is also the Top 8 format on Sunday.

For other competitive players looking for an opportunity to show their skills, MagicCon: Philadelphia will also feature two Pro Tour Qualifiers in the Phyrexia: All Will Be One Limited format, each of which qualify the four top finishers directly for the next Pro Tour, and four Secret Lair Showdowns in the Pioneer format, where players compete for coveted Secret Lair prizes. Grab your badge today and join the action!

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