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Metagame Mentor: The Final Pioneer Regional Championship of 2023

December 21, 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. In preceding weeks, I highlighted the 10 biggest Standard stories from 2023 and the top 10 most important cards added to Modern in 2023. Today, I'll cover Pioneer, combining an analysis of the U.S. Regional Championship with an overview of the most important Pioneer metagame developments from all of 2023.

Pioneer at the U.S. Regional Championship

Pioneer is the nonrotating format based on expansion sets and core sets fromReturn to Ravnicaforward, with the most notable cards on the ban list being the fetch lands. With over 10,000 cards to choose from, Pioneer features a variety of powerful strategies, and this diversity was on full display at the U.S. Regional Championship at Dreamhack Atlanta last weekend. Regional Championships, held three times per year in each geographical region, are major focal points for competitive play, and most invites are earned through Regional Championship Qualifiers. In total, over 3,900 players from across the globe competed in this cycle of Regional Championships, beating the previous record of 3,419 players from the previous cycle.

Congratulations to Daniel Weiser! After 17 rounds of competition with his Azorius Control deck, he became the new Regional Champion. In the finals, he defeated Mark Stanton, playing Izzet Phoenix. Both finalists earned an invitation to World Championship 30, held at MagicCon: Las Vegas on October 25–27, 2024. The Top 8 featured four different decks: Azorius Control, Izzet Phoenix, Amalia Combo, and Rakdos Midrange, all with two players each. The top 32 players who were not yet qualified for Pro Tour Murders at Karlov Manor earned an invitation to that Pro Tour, which will showcase Pioneer once again at MagicCon: Chicago on February 23–25, 2024.

Last weekend's U.S. Regional Championship had 1,307 enrolled competitors, possibly making it the largest invite-only Magic: the Gathering tournament of all time. To break down the decks, I algorithmically relabeled deck names and then determined the combined metagame share and match win rates (non-mirror, non-bye, non-draw) of every archetype. 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 15.9% ↑↑ 49.8%
2. Amalia Combo 11.8% ↑↑ 56.7% ✓✓
3. Izzet Phoenix 10.2% 51.1%
4. Azorius Control 8.4% 59.6% ✓✓
5. Boros Convoke 7.0% 46.3%
6. Rakdos Sacrifice 5.0% 49.1%
7. Lotus Field Combo 4.3% 46.8%
8. Gruul Vehicles 3.2% 49.5%
9. Abzan Greasefang 2.8% 39.5%
10. Grixis Phoenix 2.8% 43.6%
11. Azorius Lotus Field 2.6% 43.0%
12. Mono-White Humans 2.5% 43.5%
13. Enigmatic Fires 2.3% 58.8% ✓✓
14. Azorius Spirits 1.5% 46.6%
15. Quintorius Combo 1.3% ↓↓ 49.2%
16. Selesnya Angels 1.2% 50.8%
17. Mono-Green Devotion 1.0% ↓↓ 48.0%
18. Izzet Creativity 1.0% 42.4%
19. Boros Heroic 1.0% 52.3%
20. Rona Lukka Combo 0.9% 46.6%
21. Other 13.4% 44.6%

As indicated by the arrows in the table, the metagame had changed since the previous Pioneer Regional Championships and the subsequent Banned and Restricted Announcement. Quintorius Combo ticked down after a poor performance during the previous Regional Championship weekend, while the ban of Geological Appraiser and Karn, the Great Creator led to the disappearance of Geoform and the dwindling of Mono-Green Devotion. Rakdos Midrange ticked up as it adopted the unbanned Smuggler's Copter, and Amalia Combo soared in popularity after more and more players discovered the power of the new archetype.

As indicated by the check marks in the table, the best win rates were posted by Azorius Control, Enigmatic Fires, and Amalia Combo. These decks overperformed in a statistically significant way, and they were well-positioned for the metagame. With favorable matchup results against Rakdos Midrange—the most-played deck in the field—these three decks were great picks for the weekend. Meanwhile, Abzan Greasefang had a particularly poor performance as more and more players put Leyline of the Void back in their sideboards.

In the remainder of this article, I'll go over my picks for the top 10 Pioneer stories from 2023, in approximate chronological order. The first six entries in the list (#10, #9, #8, #7, #6, and #5) are largely based on historical developments from earlier in the year. The final four entries in the list (#4, #3, #2, and #1) are all based on Top 8 decklists from the U.S. Regional Championships.

10. The Victory of Izzet Creativity

We began the year with the return of the Pro Tour. Due to its prestige, large cash prizes, and international reach, the Pro Tour is the highest level of competitive Magic apart from the Magic World Championship, and Pro Tour Phyrexia was the first of the three Pro Tours held in 2023. After three days of competition in the Pioneer format, Reid Duke took the trophy with Izzet Creativity.

The Pro Tour wining deck, which teammates Reid Duke and Gabriel Nassif both took to the Top 8, played like a control strategy with a combo finish. Featuring a lot of cheap interactive spells, Izzet Creativity would keep the opponent at bay in the early game before eventually achieving victory with Indomitable Creativity on two tokens. This would put Worldspine Wurm and Xenagos, God of Revels onto the battlefield, making a 30/30 creature with trample and haste.

Reid Duke, Pro Tour Phyrexia Champion

Izzet Creativity experienced a rise and fall throughout the year. In January, the strategy was seen as a fringe archetype, with an inconsequential 1% of the metagame. After its success at Pro Tour Phyrexia, Izzet Creativity became a formidable Pioneer mainstay. For about half a year, it hovered around 5-8% of the metagame, as players tried different win conditions. In the first cycle of 2023 Pioneer Regional Championships, held in June and July, Izzet Creativity was the third-most-played deck overall, and players were split between Torrential Gearhulk, Worldspine Wurm, and Atraxa, Grand Unifier. Versions with Torrential Gearhulk, which aimed to cast Magma Opus from the graveyard, were most prominent, but all versions had their advocates.

In the second cycle of 2023 Pioneer Regional Championships, which ended last weekend, Izzet Creativity faltered. The deck had not gained any new tools from the last few sets, while Izzet Phoenix, which has a similar early-game strategy, lured blue-red players with sweet new cards. Throughout the nearly three-month cycle, Izzet Creativity dropped to 1-2% of the field, with no standout results to speak of. Meanwhile, Transmogrify decks rose up to find success; in particular, Kenta Masukado triumphed at the Regional Championship for Japan and Korea with Jund Transmogrify. Indomitable Creativity for larger values of X is not as appealing when Atraxa is the payoff, and Transmogrify is easier on the mana base.

While I don't know what the future of Indomitable Creativity and Transmogrify will hold in 2024, I am eagerly looking forward to the next Pioneer Pro Tour, which will happen in about two months from now. The return of the Pro Tour was one of my Magic highlights of the year, and it was great to see one of the most legendary, humble, and skilled competitors in the history of the game take down the first edition after the world reopened. I look forward to congratulating the next Pioneer Pro Tour champion in 2024.

9. The Revitalization of Rakdos Sacrifice

Rakdos Sacrifice was the breakout deck of the first cycle of Pioneer Regional Championships in 2023, showcasing the importance of deck familiarity in Pioneer.

Throughout the year, Rakdos decks have stayed on top of the metagame. Blackcleave Cliffs has steadily been the most-played new-to-Pioneer card from Phyrexia: All Will Be One, and the list of perennial Pioneer staples always starts with Fatal Push, Thoughtseize, and Fable of the Mirror-Breaker. While Rakdos Midrange has generally remained on top, Rakdos Sacrifice had one heck of a summer.

Mayhem Devil Cauldron Familiar Witch's Oven

Rakdos Sacrifice centers around Mayhem Devil, Cauldron Familiar, and Witch's Oven, which create a once-per-turn loop that drains your opponent, deals two damage, and allows you to block for free. The deck was one of the best-performing archetypes at Pro Tour Phyrexia, and the deck got streamlined in the summer of 2023. After adopting main deck Thoughtseize, it became the best-performing Pioneer archetype in the June–July cycle of Regional Championships, with many of its pilots finding success. For example, Matt Foreman finished second at the U.S. Regional Championship, Marcelo Rodrigues Cavalcante won in Brazil, and Martin Dominguez reigned in South America. Rakdos Sacrifice was the breakout deck of the cycle, with the highest win rate of all major archetypes.

The deck also showed the importance of choosing a Pioneer deck that matches your play style and expertise. Mayhem Devil math can get complicated, so Rakdos Sacrifice is not an easy deck to pick up and play well. In diverse formats like Pioneer, in-depth knowledge of your deck's interactions and matchup strategies is essential. Indeed, when the September–December cycle of Regional Championships got underway, Canada's Liam Kane and Denmark's Christoffer Larsen amazed with back-to-back Rakdos Sacrifice Top 8s, reinforcing the importance of experience. Several weeks later, Fu Yu won the Regional Championship in China, and he explained that he chose Rakdos Sacrifice because it suited his playstyle. All in all, this shows that sticking to your heart and learning your favorite deck inside out can carry you towards success in Pioneer.

Yet despite the success of these archetype experts, Rakdos Sacrifice faltered in subsequent weeks, dropping a bit in both metagame share and win rate. A major reason is that Izzet Phoenix had been on the rise since the release ofWilds of Eldraine, and Rakdos Sacrifice struggles in that matchup. To make matters worse, good matchups like Mono-White Humans have been dropping in popularity. Nevertheless, it was a great year for Rakdos Sacrifice, and long-time archetype masters will always be able to leverage their expertise, no matter the metagame.

8. The Development of Rona Combo

Several new Pioneer combo decks appeared in 2023, including Neoform Atraxa, Omnath to Light, Archfiend Alteration, and many more. But one of the most prominent ones was enabled by a brand new card from March of the Machine: Rona, Herald of Invasion.

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 can bounce and activate Tyvar, Jubilant Brawler or Lukka, Coppercoat Outcast arbitrarily often, find Fae of Wishes, and grab a win condition from your sideboard. This can happen as early as turn three.

In the first weekend of the June–July cycle of Regional Championships, several players earned a Pro Tour invite with Rona decks: Antonio Guzman and Gabriel Maxson with disruption-heavy Zirda, the Dawnwaker versions, Robert Graves with a fast mana Elves build, and Brian Boss with a Jeskai Ascendancy list. This variety indicated that the archetype had a lot of potential going forward, but it had not even found its final form yet.

Samuele Estratti, playing his own pet deck at the European Championship in Lille.

In the first weekend of the September–December cycle of Pioneer Regional Championships, Samuele Estratti unveiled a spicy 80-card brew, finishing first after the Swiss at the European Championship. His deck could not only generate infinite mana with Rona, Herald of Invasion but also put Atraxa, Grand Unifier onto the battlefield with Lukka, Coppercoat Outcast or tutor Valki, God of Lies with Bring to Light. At subsequent Regional Championship weekends in October and early November, the archetype soared to 2-4% of the metagame, with Christian Wijaya taking it to a Pro Tour-qualifying finish in South East Asia. Many deck builders dream that they and others can find success with their own brews, and Samuele Estratti showed that this is possible.

7. The New Hogaak?

After Phyrexia: All Will Be One introduced Gleeful Demolition and March of the Machine introduced Knight-Errant of Eos, an entirely new archetype was unleashed on Pioneer: Boros Convoke. Its ability to convoke on turn two was reminiscent of the old Hogaak decks in Modern, whose explosiveness and consistency ultimately resulted in the ban of Hogaak, Arisen Necropolis. While comparisons to Hogaak proved overblown, Boros Convoke did become viable a top-tier archetype in Pioneer.

Boros Convoke can overwhelm opponents with enormous battlefields as early as turn two. With Voldaren Epicure on turn one, followed by Gleeful Demolition and Thraben Inspector on turn two, you can immediately convoke Venerated Loxodon, allowing you to pass on turn two with 14 power on the battlefield, spread across six creatures.

In the first cycle of Pioneer Regional Championships, Boros Convoke claimed around 3-4% of the metagame, and Federico Vuono won the European Championship in June. The deck's best starts were as explosive as expected, but opponents brought enough sideboard cards to keep the strategy in check. In particular, sweepers like Temporary Lockdown exploited the deck's reliance on Gleeful Demolition.

William Araujo, the reigning Regional Champion in Brazil

During the second cycle of Pioneer Regional Championships, several new cards proved to be strong additions, and Boros Convoke rose to 4-7% of the metagame. Using Regal Bunnicorn and Imodane's Recruiter from Wilds of Eldraine, William Araujo won the Regional Championship in Brazil. Imodane's Recruiter is like a Reckless Bushwhacker that does not need to be surged, while Regal Bunnicorn can quickly grow into an enormous size. While Thalia, Guardian of Thraben remains the more prominent two-drop for the deck, the Rabbit Unicorn is far better in the mirror match.

Soon after, The Lost Caverns of Ixalan added Warden of the Inner Sky—an excellent one-drop that synergizes with Gleeful Demolition and Venerated Loxodon. Shouichi Hasegawa and Kotaru Chiku made the Top 8 at the Regional Championship for Japan and South Korea, both of them with Warden of the Inner Sky in their main deck. Especially with these new additions, Boros Convoke has cemented itself as a formidable strategy in Pioneer, making Knight-Errant of Eos the most important addition to the format from March of the Machine.

6. A Brief Detour with Geological Appraiser

The Lost Caverns of Ixalan introduced the discover mechanic, featured on cards such as Geological Appraiser, Trumpeting Carnosaur, and Quintorius Kand. It gave rise to brand-new strategies that don't play any other cards naturally costing four or less aside from cloning effects, which could produce lethal damage after resolving a single discover card.

Geological Appraiser

It prompted a quick ban. Between the prerelease on November 11 and the Banned and Restricted Announcement on December 4, Geological Appraiser was only legal in Pioneer for 24 days.

Now a thing of the past, the combo started by resolving Geological Appraiser. You were guaranteed to discover into either Glasspool Mimic, which copies Geological Appraiser, or Eldritch Evolution, which turns the four-drop into Trumpeting Carnosaur. In both cases, you'd get another discover trigger and keep the chain going. You'd keep discovering for a while until your board is wide enough, at which point you use Eldritch Evolution to get Doomskar Titan, give haste to all your creatures, and attack for the win. If you accidentally drew Doomskar Titan, then you could evolve Trumpeting Carnosaur into Ghalta, Stampede Tyrant and set up a lethal attack after all.

Guillermo Sulimovich, the reigning Regional Champion in South America

With the Treasures created by Creative Outburst and Magma Opus, the deck could consistently cast Geological Appraiser on turn three, winning the game on the spot. Ramping into Trumpeting Carnosaur or even Torrential Gearhulk also worked well as a backup plan. Although opponents were ready for the deck with cards like Roiling Vortex, Silence, Drannith Magistrate, or Strict Proctor, the new strategy still performed quite well at the late November Regional Championships, the first premier events after the release of The Lost Caverns of Ixalan. Geological Appraiser decks claimed a whopping 8.5% share of the metagame, with Guillermo Sulimovich taking down the South American Championship.

In the December 4 Banned and Restricted announcement, Geological Appraiser was banned: "Being able to win the game on the spot on turn three with Geological Appraiser after creating a single Treasure token puts a bit too much pressure on folks to be a good thing for the long-term health of the format."

Nevertheless, a discover strategy still remains in Pioneer. Quintoirus Combo uses Quintorius Kand's -3 ability to discover into Spark Double, which becomes a nonlegendary copy of Quintorius Kand, draining the opponent as you cast more and more Spark Double from exile. Quintorius Kandis a full turn slower than Geological Appraiser, making it easier to interact with, but it remains a powerful one-card combo.

5. The Ban of Karn, the Great Creator

Mono-Green Devotion was one of the pillars of Pioneer, claiming around 10% of the metagame at most Pioneer events in 2023. It won several major tournaments in the summer: Weng Heng Soh emerged victorious at the Regional Championship for South East Asia, and Alexander von Stange took the trophy at the Regional Championship for Japan and Korea. As it featured a sideboard fully dedicated towards Karn, the Great Creator, it was hugely impacted when Karn, the Great Creator was banned on December 4.

By digging for the right cards with Oath of Nissa and Storm the Festival, Mono-Green Devotion would often try to set up a board state involving Kiora, Behemoth Beckoner and Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx, which together can produce enormous amounts of green mana. Subsequently, Karn, the Great Creator could grab The Chain Veil, enabling more planeswalker activations, and the convoluted Pestilent Cauldron loops would follow soon after. Its back face, Restorative Burst returns both Karn and Kiora from the graveyard and exiles itself before you replay the planeswalkers, untap Nythos, grab Pestilent Cauldron, activate Karn and Kiora several more times thanks to The Chain Veil, and demonstrate a loop to a befuddled opponent. To make things even more complicated, you'd typically win the game with infinite The Stone Brain activations.

Karn, the Great Creator

The December 4 Banned and Restricted announcement pointed out that Karn facilitated "convoluted infinite combos that make the format less approachable". Furthermore, Karn's ability to naturally suppress artifacts "is likely keeping a spread of interesting cards from being played". Mono-Green Devotion, despite having a metagame share and win rate "within a reasonable range", was also seen as having a warping effect on the metagame: "With Karn, the Great Creator capable of finding threats and solutions to whatever the deck encounters, it can be quite difficult to go over the top of this strategy." For these reasons, Karn, the Great Creator was banned.

Although the explosive ramp core of mana Elves, Nykthos, Kiora, and Old-Growth Troll remains, Mono-Green Devotion lost a lot of its power and versatility. At last weekend's U.S. Regional Championship, despite the attempts of players like Evart Moughon and Matthew Comeau to rebuild with alternative planeswalkers like Vivien, Arkbow Ranger, the archetype as a whole dwindled to a paltry 1% of the metagame.

The ban of Karn had ripple effects on the metagame. For example, Rakdos Sacrifice and Gruul Vehicles benefited, as they often struggled against Mono-Green Devotion when their Witch's Oven and Esika's Chariot were locked down. By contrast, aggro decks like Boros Heroic or Azorius Spirits that excelled against Mono-Green Devotion were worse off. Meanwhile, with fewer Llanowar Elves or Elvish Mystic around, there was now less pressure to include cards like Forge Devil in sideboards. Likewise, without Old-Growth Troll and Cavalier of Thorns to exile, many black decks removed Extinction Event from their sideboards. And above all, many players were glad that they no longer had to track their opponent's mana pool and planeswalker activations during complicated loops.

4. The Persistence of Azorius Control

While other decks emerged and disappeared, Teferi, Hero of Dominaria never faltered. Azorius Control was one of the most-played Pioneer decks throughout the year, usually claiming 6-8% of the metagame, and it topped off the year with a victory last weekend.

With a solid suite of spot removal, countermagic, card draw, sweepers and planeswalkers, Azorius Control has remained the premier control deck in Pioneer throughout the entire year. As an interactive deck, it has game in every matchup, and the list can be tweaked to adapt to any metagame.

A main point of contention for Azorius Control players has been which companion to use. In my analysis of the summer cycle of 2023 Pioneer Regional Championships, I explained that versions without a companion or with Kaheera, the Orphanguard were by far the most popular, but versions with Yorion, the Sky Nomad had far better win rates. This insight remained true across the fall-winter cycle of 2023 Pioneer Regional Championships, and it couldn't be more evident with Daniel Weiser's victory at the U.S. Regional Championship. While companionless or Kaheera variants have been the most popular throughout 2023, Yorion variants were far more successful.

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For both 60-card and 80-card afficionados, Azorius Control was boosted by The Lost Caverns of Ixalan, which introduced Restless Anchorage as a mana-fixing utility land and Get Lost as an awesome removal upgrade. Compared to Fateful Absence, two Map tokens represent a smaller drawback than a single Clue token, especially when you can sweep their board or remove their creature in response to a Map activation. In addition, the ability to destroy enchantments like Leyline Binding grants more flexibility. Get Lost also may have supported Azorius Control to obtain a favorable matchup against the new Amalia Combo deck.

All in all, Get Lost has quickly become a Pioneer staple, not only in Azorius Control but also in various other white decks. It has become the most-played new card from The Lost Caverns of Ixalan, and it sits as the fifth most-played Pioneer card overall, just behind staples like Fatal Push, Thoughtseize, Fable of the Mirror-Breaker, and a new colorless vehicle that we'll see later.

3. The Rebirth of Izzet Phoenix

Due to a variety of factors, Izzet Phoenix fell out of favor in the spring and summer of 2023, dropping to a measly 1-2% of the metagame. Its popularity had declined because the metagame had gotten more hostile to graveyard strategies, because the nightmare matchup of Lotus Field combo had increased in popularity, and because Izzet Creativity had proven itself to be the superior blue-red deck. Even with blips in June like Robert Anderson's victory at the West Canada Regional Championship, the power of Treasure Cruise was about to be forgotten. But like a true phoenix from the ashes, after gaining Sleight of Hand and Picklock Prankster from Wilds of Eldraine, Izzet Phoenix made a triumphant return.

As Izzet Phoenix aims to recur Arclight Phoenix from the graveyard by chaining together three cheap spells in a single turn, the Wilds of Eldraine additions were excellent fits. Picklock Prankster simultaneously provides card selection, mills Arclight Phoenix, and fuels Treasure Cruise. Sleight of Hand unlocked 12 one-mana cantrips, making it easier to return Arclight Phoenix as early as turn three. These new cards, which replaced Chart a Course and Pieces of the Puzzle, resurrected Izzet Phoenix and have become the most-played Wilds of Eldraine cards across all of Pioneer.

Picklock Prankster Sleight of Hand

Using these cards, numerous players earned Pro Tour invites at their Regional Championships. Gabriel Soto finished 10th at the European Championship, sparking global interest in the new build. At Toronto's F2F Tour Championship in November, half of the Top 8 used Sleight of Hand and Picklock Prankster. This included eventual winner Ha Pham, who unveiled Grixis Phoenix, exploiting Bitter Triumph from The Lost Caverns of Ixalan. Last weekend at the U.S. Regional Championship, Mark Stanton, Robert King, Isaac Bullwinkle, and Oliver Coffey all had top finishes, with Mark Stanton advancing to the finals. If Rakdos Sacrifice was the breakout known deck from the first Pioneer RC cycle of 2023, then Izzet Phoenix was the breakout known deck of the second.

The rise of Izzet Phoenix is still having ripple effects on the Pioneer metagame. Bigger fliers are good against Izzet Phoenix, so Selesnya Angels made a comeback. (To be more precise, the Selesnya Angels build with Elvish Mystic and Llanowar Elves that Masahide Moriyama unveiled at Pro Tour Phyrexia, where he was the only player to clinch 9 wins across the 10 Pioneer Swiss rounds.) Azorius Spirits, which had excellent results in the June–July Regional Championships after Théo Jacques-Griffin's victory at Toronto's F2F Tour Championship, ticked down over the past months because it struggles against the damage-based removal spells and recurring blockers from Izzet Phoenix. More recently, the new Amalia Combo deck appears to have a favorable matchup against Izzet Phoenix as well.

2. The Emergence of Amalia Combo

Although Get Lost established itself as the most-played new card from The Lost Caverns of Ixalan, Amalia Benavides Aguirre is surely the most important new card in terms of overall metagame impact. When combined with Wildgrowth Walker and any life gain or explore ability, the white-black legend sets up a game-winning combo, and the strategy dominated this past weekend.

If you curve turn-two Amalia Benavides Aguirre into turn-three Wildgrowth Walker and start the chain, for example by exploring with Cenote Scout or gaining life with Lunarch Veteran, then Amalia explores, which triggers Wildgrowth Walker, which triggers Amalia, and so on. Eventually, Amalia reaches twenty power, all other creatures are destroyed, the loop ends, and she'll swing in for lethal.

Amalia Benavides Aguirre Wildgrowth Walker

A smooth Abzan build emerged to take advantage of the combo, with great results. Soon after the release of The Lost Caverns of Ixalan, Santiago Bigatti finished second at the South America Championship with Amalia Combo, cementing it as a prime contender in Pioneer. It quickly became clear that the deck is fast, consistent, and resilient. Indeed, all combo pieces can be found with Collected Company and Chord of Calling, while Return to the Ranks and Extraction Specialist provide protection against spot removal.

Last weekend at the U.S. Regional Championship, Amalia Combo surged to a whopping 11.8% of the Day 1 metagame, and it comprised 25% of the Top 32 slots at the end of the Swiss. Adam Brace, Robert Wagner Krankel, Ezra Lee, Devon Straub, Piper Powell, Brennan DeCandio, Brendan Cohen, and Grayson Nemets all earned a Pro Tour invite, giving them the opportunity to bring Amalia Combo to Pro Tour Murders at Karlov Manor on February 23–25, 2024 if they so please. Most of them had added Voice of Resurgence to their sideboard for added resiliency against interactive decks, and the creature proved useful when I saw it on camera.

Knight of Dusk's Shadow 435308

Based on the round-by-round results from the U.S. Regional Championship, Amalia combo struggles against Azorius Control, Boros Heroic, and Enigmatic Fires, but it is favored against red midrange decks like Izzet Phoenix and Gruul Vehicles, against non-interactive aggro decks like Boros Convoke and Mono-White Humans, and against slower combo decks like Lotus Field Combo and Abzan Greasefang. Nevertheless, the right card choices can give an edge. For example, I saw main deck Knight of Dusk's Shadow in Bring to Light decks and main deck Rampaging Ferocidon in The Huntsman's Redemption decks. As Amalia Combo is on the rise, these innovative answers to life gain combos should become well-positioned in the current metagame.

1. The Return of Smuggler's Copter

On December 2, 2019, six weeks after the Pioneer format was introduced, Smuggler's Copter was banned. Four years later, on December 4, 2023, it was unbanned, with the announcement stating: "Many new sets have entered the format, and the format has naturally grown in power over time. While unbanning is not something we do very often, we believe the format can absorb it successfully. Reintroducing it will create new deck-building puzzles (or revive old ones) and provide additional diversity."

Smuggler's Copter

At the U.S. Regional Championship, the first premier Pioneer event after the unban, 309 players (23.9% of the registered field) included at least one copy of Smuggler's Copter in their main deck or sideboard, making it the fourth-most-played card overall. The decks of this group of players were comprised of 156 Rakdos Midrange, 44 Rakdos Sacrifice, 41 Gruul Vehicles, 9 Azorius Spirits, 7 Abzan Greasefang, 6 Merfolk, 4 Mono-Black Aggro, 4 Bant Spirits, 3 Mono-Red Aggro, 3 Mono-White Humans, 3 Rakdos Madness, 3 Mardu Greasefang, 3 Boros Convoke, 2 Mono-Black Midrange, 2 Goblins, 2 Izzet Ensoul, 2 Amalia Combo, 2 Four-Color Greasefang, 2 Selesnya Angels, 1 Orzhov Greasefang, 1 Esper Greasefang, 1 Atarka Red, 1 Mono-Red Burn, 1 Mono-White Tokens, 1 Golgari Midrange, 1 Selesnya Company, 1 Jund Midrange, 1 Boros Midrange, 1 Gruul Dragons, and 1 Gruul Stompy. Collectively, they used 1033 copies of Smuggler's Copter (1027 main deck, 6 sideboard) and had a 48.4% non-draw match win rate. To me, these numbers indicate that the format successfully absorbed Smuggler's Copter.

The most prominent home for the vehicle was Rakdos Midrange. Indeed, the highest-finishing Smuggler's Copter deck was Paul Green's Rakdos Midrange deck from the Top 4 of the event.

Throughout 2023, Rakdos Midrange has been the most prominent deck in Pioneer. It was 15.1% of the field at Pro Tour Phyrexia, where Magic Hall of Famer Shota Yasooka took it to a Top 8 finish. Thanks to the top-notch individual card quality, it remained the most popular archetype across the June–July cycle of Regional Championships, claiming 19.0% of the field with numerous Top 8 finishes. It retained its number one spot during the September–December cycle of Regional Championships, typically at around 10–12% of the field. Using the archetype, Edgar Rangel won in Mexico City and Chen Bor Hong won in Taipei City.

At the U.S. Regional Championship last weekend, the archetype ticked up to 15.9% of the field, with approximately three-quarters of the Rakdos Midrange players adopting Smuggler's Copter. The vehicle replaced Reckoner Bankbuster in most builds, as it provides an evasive clock with immediate filtering that can be crewed by Fable of the Mirror-Breaker's 2/2. In a way, it gives all subsequent creatures haste and flying while allowing you to get rid of dead removal spells against control and ensuring you'll never flood out. The vast majority of Rakdos Midrange and Rakdos Sacrifice players who took Smuggler's Copter to the skies also added Inti, Seneschal of the Sun, and that card impressed me all weekend when I saw it on camera.

Inti, Seneschal of the Sun

With Inti, Seneschal of the Sun on the battlefield, any loot trigger from Smuggler's Copter effectively gives a free card. Every Blood token activation allows you to play the top card of your library as a bonus. The impact of any opposing Thoughtseize is negated. And Fable of the Mirror-Breaker allows you to dig through your deck even more quickly. With such card draw velocity, you will find one-ofs or two-ofs from your sideboard even more consistently, which is a big plus. Inti is worth the slots over Bonecrusher Giant, and its synergy with Smuggler's Copter is absurd.

Smuggler's Copter does not appear too powerful for the format, but it has been adopted in a wide variety of decks. Besides Rakdos Midrange and Rakdos Sacrifice, Gruul Vehicles has also proven to be a good home, as the vehicle is easily crewed by mana Elves and allows you to tap a stolen creature in response to the third chapter of The Akroan War. We'll have to see how the format evolves, but given that Smuggler's Copter is now the fourth-most-played card in Pioneer (just behind Fable of the Mirror-Breaker, Thoughtseize, and Fatal Push) its unban holds as one of the top Pioneer of the year.

Thank you for reading, and see you in 2024!

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