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Metagame Mentor: Pioneer Evolution from the First November 2023 RCs

November 09, 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. This past weekend, hundreds of competitors entered the Regional Championships in São Paulo, Mexico City, Taipei City, and Singapore. The weekend was full of high-level gameplay, so let's take a closer look at the Pioneer metagame and the hottest decks from these events.

Congratulations to the Regional Champions!

William Araujo, who went undefeated over 11 rounds of competition, won the City Class Games Showdown (i.e., the Regional Championship for Brazil) with Boros Convoke, earning an invitation to World Championship XXX in 2024. In addition, the top 4 players earned an invite to Pro Tour Murders at Karlov Manor, which features the Pioneer format and will be held at MagicCon: Chicago on February 23–25, 2024.

Peng Zer Shiuan, who went undefeated over 11 rounds of competition, won the South East Asia Championship (i.e., the Regional Championship for Southeast Asia) with Abzan Greasefang, earning an invitation to World Championship XXX in 2024. In addition, the top 4 players earned an invite to Pro Tour Murders at Karlov Manor.

Edgar Rangel, who went undefeated over 11 rounds of competition, won The Gathering Final Showdown (i.e., the Regional Championship for Mexico, Central America, and Caribbean) with Rakdos Midrange, earning an invitation to World Championship XXX in 2024. In addition, he and his opponent in the finals, Alejandro Pereira, earned an invite to Pro Tour Murders at Karlov Manor.

Bor Hong Chen, who went undefeated over 10 rounds of competition, won the MIT Championship (i.e., the Regional Championship for Chinese Taipei) with Rakdos Midrange, earning an invitation to World Championship XXX in 2024. In addition, he and his opponent in the finals, Ho Zhi Mao, earned an invite to Pro Tour Murders at Karlov Manor.

The Metagame and Win Rates

In total, 626 Pioneer decklists were submitted across the four Regional Championships. After fixing mislabeled archetypes, I determined the combined metagame share and the match win rates (non-mirror, non-bye, non-draw) of every archetype this past weekend. In the following table, each archetype name hyperlinks to a well-performing decklist close to the aggregate of that archetype.

Archetype Percentage of Field Match Win Rate
1. Rakdos Midrange 11.7% 47.9%
2. Mono-Green Devotion 8.0% 55.8%
3. Izzet Phoenix 7.3% 47.8%
4. Boros Convoke 7.2% ↑↑ 52.3%
5. Rakdos Sacrifice 6.4% 52.2%
6. Mono-White Humans 6.2% 47.3%
7. Azorius Control 6.1% 49.7%
8. Lotus Field Combo 5.3% 53.3%
9. Gruul Vehicles 5.3% ↑↑ 50.3%
10. Abzan Greasefang 5.3% 50.2%
11. Enigmatic Fires 5.1% ↑↑ 49.7%
12. Izzet Creativity 2.6% 43.5%
13. Azorius Lotus Field 2.4% 55.2%
14. Azorius Spirits 2.4% ↓↓ 49.5%
15. Rona to Light 2.2% ↑↑ 55.9%
16. Waste Not 1.9% 40.7%
17. Omnath to Light 1.6% 43.9%
18. Boros Heroic 1.3% ↓↓ 48.8%
19. Dimir Rogues 1.3% 33.3%
20. Other 10.5% 49.2%

The "Other" category included such deck archetypes as Esper Control, Mono-Red Aggro, Selesnya Angels, Bant Spirits, Orzhov Humans, Izzet Transmogrify, Five-Color Humans, Jeskai Ascendancy, Boros Pia, Orzhov Midrange, Dimir Control, Niv to Light, Rakdos Transmogrify, Selesnya Auras, Temur Phoenix, Bard Class, Sultai Soulflayer, Rona Lukka Combo, Atarka Red, Grixis Midrange, Izzet Drakes, Mono-White Angels, Azorius Soldiers, Five-Color Elementals, and more.

The overall distribution of decks was fairly similar to the metagame from a month ago, when the Regional Championship cycle kicked off with events in Europe and Canada. However, as indicated by the arrows in the table, several changes stood out. Some can be attributed to regional differences; for example, Gruul Vehicles was the most-played archetype in Taipei City, and Enigmatic Fires was highly popular in Mexico City. Other upticks and downticks can be ascribed to the ripple effects from the first RCs in Europe and Canada; for example, Azorius Spirits struggled as Izzet Phoenix rose from the ashes, and Rona to Light was unveiled at the European Championship, where Samuele Estratti dominated the Swiss rounds with his 80-card triple-combo brew. Magic is a global game, and the results from one region's championship directly influence the next championship on the other side of the world.

Although the win rates are provided in the table for completeness, there was no archetype that performed significantly better or worse than 50% against the field. I made the same observation after last week's RCs in China and Australia, and it still holds even with the much larger sample size over four RCs this week. No strong conclusions can be drawn, but the Pioneer metagame appears well-balanced at the moment, with every deck standing a good chance. There are no decks that are far more well-positioned than others in the current metagame.

This means that the biggest driver for success is mastery of your preferred deck. This was a common theme when last weekend's champions explained why they chose their deck this past weekend. "I'm very familiar with [Rakdos Midrange]," Chen Bor Hong said after taking the trophy in Taipei City. Peng Zer Shiuan, who took the Regional Champion title in Singapore, echoed this sentiment, saying "I played [Abzan Greasefang] for a long time and like the deck too."

Various other players who earned a Pro Tour invite this past weekend gave similar answers. "[Mono-Green Devotion] is the deck that I am most familiar with," Loh Mun Kit said, for example. And as Douglas Rosa explained: "I play Spirits for about seven years now... I went with a deck that I'm used to play." In Pioneer, in-depth knowledge of your deck's interactions and matchup strategies is more important than finding a deck that is best-positioned for the expected metagame. An experienced pilot can win with anything.

Nevertheless, it can be important to follow and predict metagame trends, as this allows you to tweak your card choices and sideboard strategies accordingly. Moreover, for players who are new to Pioneer or who have mastered multiple decks, there is still the question of what to play. To that end, let's take a step back and focus on the impact of Wilds of Eldraine, how players are adapting, and on the most impressive spice to come out of last weekend's Regional Championship.

Wilds of Eldraine Boosted Phoenix and Convoke

Let's suppose that you last played Pioneer during the June-July 2023 cycle of Regional Championships and are now looking to get back into the format, perhaps to compete in one of the Regional Championships for East Canada, South America, Japan and South Korea, or U.S.A. later this year. Then the biggest metagame shake-ups to be aware of are the fall of Izzet Creativity and the rise of Izzet Phoenix and Boros Convoke. These two decks were the biggest gainers from Wilds of Eldraine, as the new set provided them with new cards to bolster their strategies.

Izzet Phoenix aims to put Arclight Phoenix into the graveyard, ideally multiples, and then recur them by chaining together three cheap spells in a single turn. From Wilds of Eldraine, the deck gained Sleight of Hand and Picklock Prankster, which have replaced Temporal Trespass, Galvanic Iteration, and Pieces of the Puzzle in most successful lists. There's also a trend to include Otherworldly Gaze to fill up your graveyard even more quickly.

For example, Romeo Aaron Cameras Lievano made Top 8 at the Regional Championship in Mexico City with the list shown above, and it's a good example of how a typical Izzet Phoenix deck looks nowadays. Ever since the release of Wilds of Eldraine, Izzet Phoenix has become a big part of Pioneer, and its removal suite with Fiery Impulse has made life difficult for Azorius Spirits and other decks that rely on 3-toughness creatures. However, as I'll show in a later section, the metagame is adapting.

The other deck that has risen quickly since the release of Wilds of Eldraine is Boros Convoke. It was 3.8% of the metagame in the first Regional Championship weekend of the cycle, rose to 5.9% in the second, and surged to 7.2% over the past weekend. Imodane's Recruiter is like a Reckless Bushwhacker that does not need to be surged, and the extra point of toughness and adventure mode provide further staying power as well. The deck keeps putting up good results, and it won the trophy last weekend in Brazil.

William Araujo's main deck features four copies of Regal Bunnicorn, and he praised the two-drop from Wilds of Eldraine as his best card of the weekend. Last week, in covering the Regional Championships in China and Australia, I highlighted how the top Boros Convoke decks used Thalia, Guardian of Thraben instead. While Thalia is well-positioned against spell-heavy decks like Izzet Phoenix and was the two-drop of choice for most Boros Convoke players this past weekend, an enormous Rabbit Unicorn is far better in the mirror match. It's a metagame call, but if Boros Convoke keeps climbing the ranks, then Regal Bunnicorn may too strong to pass up as a main deck option. In any case, Boros Convoke keeps ticking up in terms of both popularity and performance.

A Metagame Adapting

While Izzet Phoenix and Boros Convoke have been on the rise, the rest of the metagame hasn't stood still. When I compared the list of most-played cards from the first weekend in this Regional Championship cycle to the list of most-played cards from last weekend, I noticed two trends. First, anti-graveyard cards like Leyline of the Void have gotten more popular (from the 100th-most-played card to the 52nd-most-played card). Second, anti-token cards like Temporary Lockdown are seeing more play, even in main decks (from the 41st-most-played card to the 21st-most-played card). These shifts suggest that Pioneer players are adapting their decks to account for the rise of Izzet Phoenix and Boros Convoke.

Gabriel Fehr finished third at the Regional Championship in Brazil with Enigmatic Fires. While Yorion, Sky Nomad builds were more prominent at the past few Regional Championships, he brought back Keruga, the Macrosage as the companion and found success. He chose the deck because he felt it had a strong matchup against Rakdos Midrange, Rakdos Sacrifice, and Mono-Green Devotion. His best card was Leyline Binding: "Strong interaction that ends the game with Enigmatic Incarnation".

Fehr's list uses four copies of Temporary Lockdown in the main deck along with four copies of Leyline of the Void in the sideboard, exemplifying the overall trends I identified. Although his deck is not base black, he can cast Leyline of the Void if he draws it via tri-lands or Fires of Invention, and he can sacrifice excess copies of Enigmatic Incarnation for value. As a result, his list is one of the best homes for the Leyline of the Void.

Other players made small tweaks to their lists to account for the evolving metagame. For example, Rick Hup Beng Lee made Top 8 at the South East Asia Championship with a Mono-Green Devotion deck featuring two copies of Armored Scrapgorger.

The mana creature fulfills a similar role as Wolfwillow Haven but provides additional counterplay to graveyard strategies, potentially exiling Arclight Phoenix from the graveyard. Moreover, it can help to block early attackers from Boros Convoke. Even though Rick Hup Beng Lee fell in the quarterfinals, his list provides another example of how Pioneer players are adapting to the evolving metagame.

Bor Hong Chen won the MIT Championship with a mostly stock Rakdos Midrange deck, but several card choices stand out. For example, moving Go Blank to the main deck is a wise call if you expect to face a lot of Izzet Phoenix. You have to respect Izzet Phoenix, and this is one way to do it.

Likewise, Archfiend of the Dross is a powerful threat that wins damage races against fliers and that shrugs off Lightning Axe. Its triggered ability also comes in handy when you sweep the board against Boros Convoke after sideboard, say via Hidetsugu Consumes All or Path of Peril—another addition that helps against the convoke strategy. These are all little tweaks, but they support my thesis that the most successful players have been adapting to the rise of Izzet Phoenix and Boros Convoke.

One word of caution, though: Don't overdo it, and don't forget to respect other top-tier Pioneer decks, such as Mono-Green Devotion. Last weekend, many Rakdos Midrange players had cut Misery's Shadow, which traditionally helped to exile Old-Growth Troll and Cavalier of Thorns. In no small part due to these tweaks, Mono-Green Devotion absolutely crushed Rakdos Midrange this past weekend. In the end, it's all about balance.

Spice Corner

Several players put up solid results at last weekend's Regional Championships with sweet off-meta decks, showcasing the diversity of Pioneer. Let's take a closer look at two of spiciest ones.

Jose Quesada finished 22nd in Mexico City with a 6-2 record, one win short of advancing to the Top 8. Quesada upgraded his Selesnya Auras deck with Toadstool Admirer from Wilds of Eldraine, which does a solid Gladecover Scout impression. Although ward is slightly worse than hexproof, doubling the number of difficult-to-remove one-drops provides a big boost in consistency.

By the time your opponent may be able to pay Toadstool Admirer's ward tax, a bunch of Auras may have already boosted it out of Fiery Impulse range. Selesnya Auras did very well at Pro Tour Phyrexia earlier this year, where Benton Madsen took it to a second-place finish, and with this new addition, it shouldn't be underestimated.

Cheng-Hsun Lin made Top 8 at the MIT Championship with Five-Color Humans. Although the deck can't really use Mutavault, Brave the Elements, Ossification, or Castle Ardenvale, having access to the best Humans from all five colors is an appealing proposition. The curve of Experiment One into Werewolf Pack Leader and Mantis Rider packs a definite punch. Moreover, the deck stands to gain a lot in a few weeks.

The Lost Caverns of Ixalan will soon enter the format, and the new set offers a major upgrade for Five-Color Humans: Cavern of Souls. Making the mana base more consistent and less painful can make a big difference. Twelve rainbow lands to consistently cast your creatures, plus at least ten green sources for Collected Company would be perfect. The uncounterability provided by Cavern of Souls is a fringe benefit that could matter in a few matchups, but it's largely insignificant in the current Pioneer metagame. The superior mana base, however, could prove to matter a lot.

Looking Ahead

While Pioneer is adapting to the rise of Izzet Phoenix and Boros Convoke, the format is home to a large diversity of competitively viable archetypes. With the right in-game decisions, anyone can qualify and make their way.

The schedule for the remaining Regional Championships in this first cycle of the 2023–24 season is as follows:

At all of these remaining Regional Championships, The Lost Caverns of Ixalan will be legal. I already mentioned the addition of Cavern of Souls, but the new set will introduce plenty of sweet new cards for a large variety of different archetypes as well. For example, Molten Collapse for Rakdos Midrange, Bitter Triumph for Abzan Greasefang, and other hidden gems that are waiting to be discovered. Wilds of Eldraine led to a substantial metagame shift in Pioneer, and I wouldn't be surprised if The Lost Caverns of Ixalan will shake things up once more.

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