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Metagame Mentor: Pioneer with March of the Machine

May 18, 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. While the best players in the world were focused on Pro Tour March of the Machine earlier this month, the current cycle of Regional Championship Qualifiers (RCQs) kept going. So today, I will provide a Pioneer metagame snapshot, and I will take a look at the biggest Pioneer innovations since the release of March of the Machine.

The main innovations that I will highlight are Polukranos Reborn in Mono-Green Devotion, Faerie Mastermind in Dimir Rogues, the emergence of new Indomitable Creativity and Transmogrify decks, a novel combo deck with Rona, Herald of Invasion, Saiba Cryptomancer in Bant Auras, and the first impact of March of the Machine: The Aftermath. Pioneer has not been static, so there's plenty to cover!

The Pioneer Metagame

Pioneer is a nonrotating format based on expansion sets and core sets from Return to Ravnica forward, with the most notable cards on the ban list being the fetch lands. Through August 20, due to the new format matching policy, in-store RCQs are required to be either Pioneer or Limited, and they will qualify for a Pioneer Regional Championship later in the year. If you aspire to make it to the Pro Tour, then now is the perfect time to dive into the format.

To grasp the latest Pioneer developments, I analyzed over 750 successful decklists from competitive events over the past month. Specifically, I used all published Magic Online decklists from scheduled Pioneer events held from April 19 through May 16, as well as Top 8 decklists from the RCQ at The Rogue Games, RCQ at Gamers Paradise, RCQ at Lvl 1 Gaming, RCQ at Chuck's Field of Dreams, Super Pioneer event at Arcanis Infinity, RCQ at Tabletop Gaming Center, RCQ at MeH Games, RCQ at Il Labirintho, RCQ at Dungeons & Javas, RCQ at Playtime Merate, RCQ at 95 Game Center, RCQ at El Nucli, RCQ at Nerdz Cards, RCQ at Three for One, RCQ at Level Up Games, F2F Tour Halifax, F2F Tour Montreal, RCQ at Hareruya Hiroshima, RCQ at Hareruya Tokyo, RCQ at Hareruya Osaka, RCQ at Card Box Seimado Yako, RCQ at Batloco Takadanobaba, RCQ at TCG Shop 193 Osu, RCQ at Yellowsubmarine Hyperarena, and Pioneer event at the Dutch Open Series. This is only a selection of all RCQs whose decklists were published or linked by their organizers on their website or social media pages. Yet many Regional Championship invites were awarded at these tournaments, and they provide a good barometer for the Pioneer metagame.

In addition to in-store RCQs, it's always great to see the start of new tournament series with end-of-year championships. Such larger destination events, which enable a thriving competitive scene, may provide Regional Championship slots as part of their tournament offerings in different Constructed formats. In the U.S., a well-known example is the NRG Series. In the Netherlands, we recently saw the revival of the Dutch Open Series.

But which Pioneer decks came out on top? To provide a metagame snapshot that combines popularity and performance, I assigned an archetype label to each deck and awarded a number of points equal to the deck's net wins, i.e., 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. The sum of these numbers for every archetype yields its record-weighted metagame share, which represents its share of total net wins. It may be interpreted as a winner's metagame that you can expect to see at the top tables.

Archetype Record-Weighted Metagame Share
1. Rakdos Midrange 22.4% ↑↑
2. Mono-Green Devotion 14.0% ↑↑
3. Izzet Creativity 7.7%
4. Azorius Control 7.1% ↓↓
5. Abzan Greasefang 5.1% ↓↓
6. Mono-White Humans 3.9%
7. Dimir Rogues 3.6% ↑↑
8. Lotus Field Combo 3.1%
9. Gruul Vehicles 2.8%
10. Rakdos Sacrifice 2.4%
11. Azorius Spirits 2.4%
12. Mono-Red Aggro 2.3%
13. Neoform Atraxa 1.8%
14. Omnath to Light 1.8%
15. Grixis Transmogrify 1.5%
16. Atarka Red 1.5%
17. Selesnya Angels 1.4%
18. Selesnya Company 1.4%
19. Dimir Control 1.0%
20. Orzhov Humans 0.9%
21. Rona Combo 0.9%
22. Enigmatic Fires 0.9% ↓↓
23. Mono-Black Midrange 0.9%
24. Bant Auras 0.9%
25. Mono-Blue Spirits 0.5% ↓↓
26. Izzet Phoenix 0.4% ↓↓
27. Other 7.4%

In this table, each archetype name hyperlinks to a well-performing decklist close to the aggregate of that archetype, and the arrows represent the biggest changes compared to my Pioneer metagame snapshot from early April. That article provides a more in-depth introduction to all of the top archetypes and their game plans, and I recommend reading it first if you're new to the Pioneer format.

The "Other" category in the table includes Jeskai Creativity, Niv to Light, Keruga Fires, Goblins, Transmogrify Fires, Izzet Lutri, Jeskai Transmogrify, Five-Color Transmogrify, Esper Control, Bant Spirits, Boros Heroic, Elves, Grixis Midrange, Orzhov Blink, Azorius Blink, Esper Legends, and more. With over 10,000 cards to choose from, Pioneer features a variety of powerful strategies.

As this metagame breakdown reveals, Rakdos Midrange and Mono-Green Devotion are two top-tier "Decks To Beat" right now. There hasn't been much innovation in Rakdos Midrange since the introduction of March of the Machine, but it remains dominant. Fortunately, Pioneer offers the tools to counter any strategy. Based on last year's Regional Championships and Pro Tour Phyrexia, there are several archetypes that had a good matchup against Rakdos Midrange, including Gruul Vehicles, Rakdos Sacrifice, and Enigmatic Fires. If I would be trying to beat Rakdos Midrange, then I would start by looking at these decks, as they could be well-positioned in the present metagame.

Next, let's take a closer look at March of the Machine and how Pioneer has evolved over the past month.

Polukranos Reborn Bolstered Mono-Green Devotion

In my data set of over 750 successful Pioneer decks over the past month, Polukranos Reborn is the most-played new card from March of the Machine. It has proven to be an excellent addition to Mono-Green Devotion, where the triple-green mana cost adds three devotion for Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx and the large body repels aggro decks. Polukranos Reborn even blocks fliers, potentially buying an extra turn against Parhelion II. As a rules-related note: even though back faces of double-faced cards have the mana value of their front faces, they don't actually have a mana cost, so if you transform Polukranos Reborn, it won't provide devotion anymore.

Many Mono-Green Devotion decks have also adopted Invasion of Ixalan, often instead of the fourth Oath of Nissa. Whereas Oath of Nissa is more efficient as a one-mana spell, it's a legendary permanent, so excess copies can't add to devotion. To mitigate this downside while retaining the same utility, a 3-1 split makes sense. All in all, March of the Machine has bolstered Mono-Green Devotion, propelling it back as a top-tier archetype in Pioneer.

Faerie Mastermind Revived Dimir Rogues

For years, Dimir Rogues has been a fringe deck in Pioneer, occasionally posting a decent result but never being a big part of the metagame. March of the Machine changed that: the introduction of Faerie Mastermind, which bears the likeness of Yuta Takahashi, gave the archetype a substantial boost. It surged to 3.6% of the winner's metagame, and even though Rakdos Midrange can be a challenge, Soaring Thought-Thief is back in business.

Faerie Mastermind not only has the right creature type to trigger Thieves' Guild Enforcer or Soaring Thought-Thief but also has flash, which fits with the deck's desire to play at instant speed. Previously, Pioneer players had to resort to Rogues like Zulaport Duelist or Faerie Vandal if they wanted a cheap flashy Rogue, but these cards were underpowered. Faerie Mastermind is a big upgrade. When playing against Dimir Rogues, think twice before triggering Kiora, Behemoth Beckoner or activating Blood tokens on your turn, as your opponent might flash in Faerie Mastermind and draw a free card!

New Builds for Indomitable Creativity and Transmogrify

Following Reid Duke's victory at Pro Tour Phyrexia, Indomitable Creativity decks have become a mainstay in Pioneer. While the core interactive cards have basically stayed the same—March of the Machine upgraded Fire Prophecy into Volcanic Spite, but the ability to target planeswalkers rarely matters—the win condition has diverged over time. In February, Duke aimed to cast Indomitable Creativity for X=2, putting Worldspine Wurm and Xenagos, God of Revels onto the battlefield. In early April, the most prominent build planned to cast Indomitable Creativity for X=1 into Atraxa, Grand Unifier. And over the past month, we've seen the rise of builds with Torrential Gearhulk and Magma Opus. Although I don't see a convincing reason to recede from the original two-card combo chosen by Reid Duke's team, it's important to be aware of all the different approaches.

While some Izzet Creativity players adopted Torrential Gearhulk, others branched out to alternative approaches. For example, the emergence of Grixis Transmogrify can be seen as an evolution of Izzet Creativity with Atraxa. When Atraxa is the payoff, Indomitable Creativity for larger values of X is not as appealing, and Transmogrify is easier on the mana base. With the less strained mana base enabled by Transmogrify, it became possible to splash black for a turn-one Thoughtseize or Fatal Push, which led to Grixis Transmogrify. Another evolution of Izzet Creativity is Jeskai Creativity, which splashes for Chained to the Rocks and Nahiri, the Harbinger while retaining the capability to turn Treasure tokens into Atraxa. In short, Pioneer offers many ways for base blue-red decks to win the game, and you have to be ready for all kinds of variations.

An even spicier option is to abandon Indomitable Creativity or Transmogrify altogether and to adopt Chandra, Hope's Beacon and Alrund's Epiphany as the win condition instead. It's slower, but it's more resilient to creature removal spells, and it's well capable of winning competitive events. In fact, last weekend at an RCQ in Spain, Carlos Merino took it down with Chandra Turns!

Rona Unlocked a New Infinite Combo

Rona, Herald of Invasion enables an infinite-mana combo with Retraction Helix and Mox Amber. In short, Retraction Helix gives Rona the ability to tap to return Mox Amber to your hand. Then you recast Mox Amber, untap Rona, tap for a blue mana (or another color if you control a planeswalker), and repeat. With infinite mana, you could bounce and activate Tyvar, Jubilant Brawler or Wrenn and Realmbreaker arbitrarily often, find Karn, the Great Creator, and eventually win the game by wishing for Aetherflux Reservoir. Although the deck has only claimed 0.9% of the winner's metagame, its ability to generate infinite mana by turn three is promising.

There are various ways to build around Rona. The most common one, as shown above, uses planeswalkers to find combo pieces more consistently. But there are other approaches as well. For example, a version using Emry, Lurker of the Loch and Jeskai Ascendancy was piloted to an RCQ Top 8 by combo specialist Matt Nass, well-known for breaking Krark-Clan Ironworks in Modern. Although he temporarily abandoned the deck to qualify with Mono-Green Devotion, he hasn't given up on Rona—it will just take time to find the perfect build.

Saiba Cryptomancer Enabled Bant Auras

Saiba Cryptomancer may have looked like an inconspicuous card, but the March of the Machine common is only the fourth unconditional hexproof creature in Pioneer that costs two mana or less. Gladecover Scout has always been a powerful option for Auras decks, but Bassara Tower Archer is tough on the mana, and Sylvan Caryatid cannot attack. Saiba Cryptomancer, even as a 1/2 hexproof for two mana, is superior to the existing two-drops. In addition, its flexibility to act as a protection spell for Light-Paws, Emperor's Voice opens up new avenues for Auras decks—a blue splash seems well worth it now.

At Pro Tour Phyrexia, Auras decks had an excellent performance, headlined by Benton Madsen's second-place finish. Nevertheless, the archetype never really caught on, and Bant Auras currently sits at merely 0.9% of the winner's metagame. I hope that Saiba Cryptomancer can revitalize the archetype in the coming weeks, as a loading up a hexproof threat with enchantments is a good strategy for defeating removal-laden decks.

Aftermath Introduces Coppercoat Vanguard and More

March of the Machine: The Aftermath (a non-draftable micro-set that is legal in all formats) released last week, and it contains several cards that can make an impact on Pioneer. As I considered decklists from April 19 through May 16 for this article, only a fraction of my data set involves tournaments with March of the Machine: The Aftermath cards, but I can provide early indications. For context, here are all new-to-Pioneer cards from March of the Machine or Aftermath with at least 22 total copies across my data set.

Card Name Total Copies Main Deck Sideboard
Polukranos Reborn 286 286 0
Volcanic Spite 170 170 0
Faerie Mastermind 95 95 0
Invasion of Ixalan 63 63 0
Invasion of Gobakhan 62 45 17
Change the Equation 62 35 27
Knight-Errant of Eos 31 31 0
Rona, Herald of Invasion 30 30 0
Ancient Imperiosaur 28 28 0
Saiba Cryptomancer 28 28 0
Sheoldred 25 6 19
Coppercoat Vanguard 22 22 0

The first March of the Machine: The Aftermath card to show up (in low numbers because there's only one weekend of data) is Coppercoat Vanguard, so it's the early standout. Before showing its natural home, let me quickly highlight the most-played new March of the Machine cards that I haven't already covered in this article:

  • Invasion of Gobakhan has been adopted as an interactive spell in a few Mono-White Humans decks and in several Azorius Spirits decks. I particularly like it in Spirits, where the fliers can easily defeat the battle.
  • Change the Equation has been included in various blue decks, most notably in Azorius Control. Sure, it cannot counter popular cards like Sheoldred, the Apocalypse; Skysovereign, Consul Flagship; or Karn, the Great Creator. Nevertheless, it is an efficient answer to staples like Fable of the Mirror-Breaker or Cavalier of Thorns. Given the current metagame, Change the Equation is viable both as a main deck card and as a sideboard card.
  • Knight-Errant of Eos has found a home in various Mono-White Humans decks to provide a steady flow of creatures in the mid-game, which helps grind against Rakdos Midrange. This looks like a strong addition when Rakdos Midrange is dominant.
  • Ancient Imperiosaur has found a home in various builds of Gruul Vehicles, where Reckless Stormseeker allows it to attack for enormous amounts of damage right away. Although it's nice to have this new option, it's worth noting that the most successful Gruul Vehicles decks relied on Werewolf Pack Leader and Embercleave instead, and I personally believe in the 'Cleave.
  • Sheoldred is regularly seen as in the sideboard of Dimir Rogues, where it is easy to transform after various Rogues have milled the opponent.

Alright, let's return to Aftermath and Coppercoat Vanguard.

Coppercoat Vanguard is a natural fit for Mono-White Humans, where it boosts the power of all creatures on its side of the battlefield. But Coppercoat Vanguard may be even better in Orzhov Humans, where it grants ward to protect General Kudro of Drannith. The black splash also unlocks Jirina, Dauntless General—another new Aftermath addition.

This list shown above cut Luminarch Aspirant to fit in the new two-drops. Although it makes sense to limit the number of two-mana cards for mana curve reasons, it's not clear if Coppercoat Vanguard is better than Luminarch Aspirant in combat-heavy matchups, so we'll have to see which two-drops are the best. In any case, it's great to get new options.

Besides Coppercoat Vanguard and Jirina, Dauntless General, Aftermath provides many other promising cards, some of which have already appeared in last weekend's decklists. For example, Ob Nixilis, Captive Kingpin in Rakdos Sacrifice and Sigarda, Font of Blessings in Selesnya Angels. In the coming weeks, I'm looking forward to seeing more innovations.

Looking Ahead

March of the Machine has brought new tools for Pioneer archetypes both old and new, and Aftermath may do the same. The current RCQ cycle qualifies for a Pioneer Regional Championship later in the fall, but before that we have another cycle of Pioneer Regional Championships that starts in two weeks. This cycle kicks off on June 3-4 with Regional Championships in the U.S., South East Asia, Mexico, China, and East Canada. The results from these tournaments will surely shake up the format, so June will be an exciting month for Pioneer players.

Before that, however, there are two big events with live coverage this Saturday and the following:

  • Pioneer: The $10K Showdown at the NRG Series Trial Weekend in Minneapolis might unveil the full power of the various Aftermath cards in Pioneer. Coverage of this event will be broadcast on Twitch.
  • Modern: The first Magic Online Champions Showcase of the 2023 season features eight skilled players battling for their share of $70,000 in cash prizes and two Magic World Championship invitations. It will be streamed live May 20 beginning at 10 a.m. PT, and Nathan Steuer, the reigning World Champion and Pro Tour Champion, is one of the casters. For more information, see the Viewer's Guide.
  • Standard: Standard returns with Arena Championship 3, filled with many of Magic's top competitors (including Nathan Steuer who can go four-for-four on premier event Top 8s) battling for $200,000 in prizes and Magic World Championship XXIX invitations. Live coverage begins at 9 a.m. PT, May 27 and 28—check out the Viewers Guide for more details.

I'm looking forward to an awesome day of Magic this Saturday, competing in the Arena Open and watching live coverage of these events!

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